The Music of “Merchant”: An Interview with Composer Reber Clark

Reber Clark is a freelance composer, arranger, and performer currently working on the music composition for Theatre Banshee’s production of “The Merchant of Veniceopening March 24th in Burbank, California.

What was the first theatrical production you ever attended and what impact did it have on you?

The first time I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was when Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra came to town when I was in sixth grade. I was on a school field trip to hear them and I had no idea who they were or even if music was something I wanted to do. Then the orchestra started and I was blown away. I lost my heart to music right then and there – I remember it very clearly. It was not a gradual thing – it exploded into my life like love at first sight.

How did you first become involved with Theatre Banshee?

Through Mr. Sean Branney. About the same time I was discovering music I also was discovering science fiction writers. Among them were Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke among others, and later an obscure New Englander named Howard Phillips Lovecraft who was writing in the twenties and thirties. His stuff grabbed a hold of me and I’ve been hooked every since. I stumbled on something called the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society run by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman. We eventually met and I let them know that if they ever needed anything to please call. When their excellent composer Troy Sterling Nies had a previous commitment I got the call. I am thrilled to be doing this.

What is your background as a composer?

I’ve been writing music for concert band, wind ensemble and orchestra for thirty years. My stuff is published worldwide by C. Alan Publications, Columbia Pictures Publications, Warner Brothers Music, Southern Music Company and Wingert / Jones Music Company. I’ve done quite a bit of studio work, children’s theatre, a few small movies, variety show charts – whatever would pay. My teacher was James Perry but I am largely self-taught.

What drew you to this production of “Merchant”?

Sean Branney. I checked out The Banshee online when I heard of it and saw the awards given for “The Crucible” and other plays. I’ve recently seen Sean’s work on his movie “The Whisperer in Darkness” and had dinner with him when it was screened in Chicago. I liked him and knew it would be fun to work with him.

Is there a specific tone or mood you’re trying to capture?

I would love to convey Venice in an approachable way, but without stepping on the production’s toes. This play is – what? – a comedy? a tragedy? I identify with most parties, including Shylock, in this play. I see Shylock’s point of view and I think I understand why he’s so pissed off. There is a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law and the play of these two things generates musical possibilities that have been fun to explore.

Did you do any research on the music of the time period?

A bit. I didn’t want to over-emphasize the period instruments or period style too much. I’ve really enjoyed productions like Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and Al Pacino’s “The Merchant of Venice”, where the period strictures on music are relaxed a bit. Sean also requested an early twentieth-century approach which suits me just fine.

How is composing for theatre and film different?

It’s different from concert writing in that it’s in a supporting role and not the featured thing. Incidental music for Shakespeare is usually for scene changes and dances and any music that is actually scripted. There is not much underscoring of emotional scenes. In my limited experience the challenge with movies is to bring out the unseen elements in what’s happening on the screen. Big slam-bang chases and dramatic title music is a lot of fun – more like concert work – but getting across the disappointments, the horror, or quiet joys of the heart, without words, is what music can contribute if done well.

Is composing for Shakespeare different than for other plays?

I’m constantly amazed at how from ancient Greek theater to modern Broadway storytelling is largely the same. I suppose it’s because humans are the same and desire the same things. “Please tell me a story!”

Are there specific moments that you wanted to heighten in the music?

Sean and I identified three themes to play off early on. There is some music for the ghetto, some for Belmont (the home of Portia), and music for the city of Venice. Most of the cues come from these three themes. The brightness and lightness of Belmont, Shylock’s dilemma and darkness, Venice’s hustle and bustle and partying – those are the things I’d like to emphasize.

Who is your favorite character in this play, and why?

I really identify with Shylock but I enjoy Portia’s lightness and humor and Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship. I think I identify with Shylock because Justice can be such a bitch and I’ve been on both sides of Justice. I enjoy Portia because she is light and breezy and confident. She can hold her own with anyone. The friendship between Antonio and Bassanio I really like because it is a hard thing to come by and when it does I think holding on to that is one of the greatest things in life. In my own it has been a rare thing.

Do you have a creative mantra you live by?

Yes, I have many but they are usually in rough language. Let’s just go with: “Some days it’s magic, some days it’s not.”

What are your favorite songs or artists of all time?

My all-time favorite composer for the movies is Bernard Herrmann. He gets to the heart of the matter, holds me there, and pulls every ounce of whatever emotion he is aiming at right out of me almost every single time. He could do cosmic wonder and intimate feeling and the entire spectrum in between and on either side. An amazing composer.

Mr. Clark’s movie, “Lovecraft Paragraphs,” was screened to acclaim at the 2009 H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon. He continues to score for film and has several projects in active development.

Tickets for Theatre Banshee’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” can be reserved at http://theatrebanshee.org/rezform.html.

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