The Flowerbed (2000)

Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre
Duration: 90’
electronic score, commissioned by the 2000 Dublin Theatre Festival
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan
Designer: Rodney Grant
First performed at the Project Theatre, Dublin, September 2000.
Original Cast: Bernadette Iglich, Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, Simon Rice, Mick Dolan, Jarko Lehmus and Alex Leonhartsberger.

The Flowerbed is Feeney’s first score composed for Michael Keegan-Dolan’s company, the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre; his previous collaborations with the choreographer had all been for Ballet Central. It is a full-length piece with no interval, based on the very human story of Romeo and Juliet, a contemporary re-telling of the tale that involves neighbours from hell and doomed love across the feuding houses. In Rodney Grant’s remarkable set comprising houses and a real grass lawn (that of course required watering!), Keegan-Dolan’s virtuoso dancers provide a tense and arresting work that is both rich in social comment and yet touched with pathos.

The choreographer and composer worked very closely together to ensure that the music could manufacture and maintain the tension, (and the release of tension!) which could successfully underlay the narrative. To that end, Keegan-Dolan compiled a listening minidisc of a very wide range of music and musical styles that might be appropriate. The eclectic nature of musical styles even made it through to the final version, the characters of both Mrs. Donnegan and Mrs. Vaughan are drawn with sourced music from the world of Opera and the world of soft porn.

If The Flowerbed has a leitmotif, a signature theme, then it is the laconic marimba rhythm that is first introduced for Mr. Donnegan’s solo (memorably performed by Mick Dolan). This rhythm (long-short, long-short), a kind of inverted heartbeat, recurs throughout the score, increasing in both intensity and in speed, and acts as a kind of time-line for the narrative, as well as comment for what is happening onstage.

Key to all of this was the purchase of a new sampler, the Yamaha A3000, off his friend and colleague, John Sweeney, which gave the composer much more scope as well as memory when it came to sampling. Not only did it permit and facilitate the post-modern techniques of fragmentation and de-construction that the Callas and the supermarket music were subjected to, but it also meant that there was far greater opportunity to include external elements, such as tennis balls and cello cries, treating them so that they could be deeply integrated into the score. This involved recording the dancers on the acoustically alive stairwell to the Beckett studio in Trinity college, Dublin. Jarko Lehmus’ roars of rage, and Rachel Lopez de la Nieta’s infectious laugh became embedded into the musical texture. One intense fight scene is aggravated by a relentless lawnmower sound.

The Yamaha A3000 also in many ways created the character of the sound in the music for The Flowerbed. Quite a few sections of the score are accumulating abstract rhythm sequences built up of often really quite benign sampled sounds, but by the time they had their EQ and their pitch edited, and an alienating distortion or reverb is added, these sounds have become much more substantial and menacing. A simple rattle sound off the GM synth percussion palette is given this treatment, creating a sound which helps ratchet up the tension as the plot intensifies.

In performance, the show was run off two minidiscs, which gave an in-built flexibility to the piece, giving greater freedom to the dancers. So for the most part each scene was created a little too long, allowing for the seam, so as to speak; the music for the new scene would start at the right point and the previous would be faded out as quickly as the scene demanded. This method would later be perfected in Act 2 of Giselle where the overlapping of scenes is a significant part of the music.

In 2006 The Flowerbed was reworked for a season at the Barbican Pit in London. This required quite major reworking not only of the choreography, but also of the score too. Simon Rice’s virtuoso performance in Dublin of both Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan was not kept for the Barbican, the role being split into two separate roles for two separate performers (Neil Paris and Vladislav Soltys).

Musically there were quite a few changes, mostly in the length of scenes and a tightening up of the fight sections; much of the end of the piece was considerably revised, partly because the Pit was a smaller theatre. At the Barbican, the piece was preluded by one of the violent 7/8 piano sequences that occurs later in the work, a bold aural gesture to create (already!) a sense of portent. The biggest change was for the two duets between the young tentative lovers. For the original production an extended duet grows out of quiet repeated notes on the flute into a larger more expansive movement, with a genuine tragic feel. At the Barbican in what had become a starker, more streamlined production, this pathos stuck out as quite different from the rest of the piece. Instead both duets are performed to a circular piano phrase that continually repeats itself in a strictly minimalist manner; no less intimate or effective, it helps to articulate the hopelessness and the empty nihilism of the conclusion.

Of course, 2006 technology had far out-stripped our 2000 sound design, as the minidisc system has been clearly and successfully superseded by software that runs the show off audio files. Sound designer, Gareth Fry, completely revised the design, and it was necessary to turn all the previous work into audio files. This was not straightforward as it was necessary to go back beyond the show mixes of 2000 to the original sounds from the Yamaha A3000 and the JV1080. However the enormous improvement and fleetness of foot that it rendered the production can be seen in the telephone sequence towards the end. The score follows the enraged telephone calls between the two women with a dialogue of violent electronic yabbering. In Dublin we had to time it so that it would fit; for the Barbican, Gareth could do it visually, with audio files assigned to a midi keyboard, which in sync with the lighting could never have happened before.