The Epic Music of An Iliad

If you’ve read Homer’s Iliad, you probably have a pretty good idea what a feat it is for a single actor to bring the poetic epic to life. But Kyle Hatley, who plays the Poet in the Fielding Stage production of An Iliad, isn’t the only one on stage with a big job; Raymond Castrey, the Music Director and sole musician, is there alongside him, performing his original score for a show that definitely has the highest instrument-to-musician ratio of any I’ve ever seen.

I asked Ray a few questions about his work on An Iliad; an excerpt from our conversation appears in the playbill for the show, but it was such a shame to leave out any of Ray’s insights that I just had to share the full version here.

Geva: What is the role of the music in An Iliad?

Raymond Castrey: I would say generally, from spending most of my musical career in theatre and dance, that whenever I do music for a theatre production, my goal is always to serve the script and whatever the director’s vision is of the script: what story are we telling? Some of the obvious things for music would be setting a location or a time period, or some sort of emotional or psychological setting. In this particular play, one of the things that [director] Jerry Genochio came up with was – I think it was somewhere in the first scene of the play – that the Poet keeps calling on the muses to help tell the story, to not make him tell the story by himself. And although muses traditionally have female personas, and no one looking at me would ever call me a muse, I guess that’s sort of the role that I’ve ended up playing. So my take on this is that the Poet’s fate is to have been present at every conflict that humankind has visited on one another, and to wander for eternity telling these stories. So it takes him a few minutes to figure out, OK, this is the story of Achilles and Hector in the Iliad. My job is to support the Poet in telling this story and to help advance the story. There are moments in the play where the Poet says, I don’t know if I can keep doing this, and somehow I’m there providing some support for the Poet to continue.

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The Musician (Raymond Castrey) encourages the Poet (Kyle Hatley) to go on with the story. (Photo by Ron Heerkens, Jr.)

The script often describes what the Poet is doing at different points in the story, but it doesn’t have any instructions about music. How did you decide what to play and when?

Jerry and I had worked together a number of years ago, back in the ‘90s. When Jerry decided to direct this play, he got ahold of me and said, I want you to come and do the music for it. He particularly had in mind some of the instruments and some of the sounds that he wanted to hear. So for example, there are scenes where Achilles is sitting in his tent and he’s angry, and lost and lonely and the Trojans are slaughtering the Greeks, and that kind of thing. And the music there tries to help support some of his feelings of loneliness or abandonment. There are several scenes of battle that I’m trying to, not necessarily create battle sounds, but provide some sort of energy and motivation that contributes to that feeling of desperation, fear, conflict. I think there’s some pretty universal kinds of things there, like dissonance in music oftentimes creates conflict, the dissonance between the notes and that you want that dissonance resolved. Going back to what the uses of music in the play are, that was how some of the decisions were made about what the music should sound like where. I guess there are some things that I do that are almost sound effects, but other times I’m trying, in the music, to fill in some part of the emotional or psychological landscape that the words don’t necessarily convey, like some other aspect of what the character is saying other than what it is that they’re saying.

What are the instruments that you play in the show?

One of the instruments I play the most is an ukulele. I had read somewhere, doing background research, that they think Homer, when he wandered and told these stories, that he would have accompanied himself on a three-stringed lute of some kind. As it turns out, I have an ukulele and I’ve been messing around with them for several years, although I am by no means an expert player. So I’m trying to use the ukulele in certainly non-traditional ways, relative to Hawaiian music tradition, and come up with some scales, melodies and rhythms. One of the things that Jerry and Kyle and I had talked about was, where does this play take place and that we did not want a specific time or place, that it was somehow both timeless and could happen anywhere. So I’m trying to use the ukulele to do some of that. I’m also using a dulcimer, specifically a mountain dulcimer, and I’ve got it rigged up and tuned differently than the people who play American folk music on it would play, and playing different kinds of melodies. In addition to that, I’ve got a large wooden box that in Cuban or South American or flamenco music would be called a cajón, which I think just means “box” in Spanish. So I’m using that as a percussion instrument, I sit on it and play on the side of it. I have a collection of largely metal objects, including a stainless-steel mixing bowl and some big stainless-steel restaurant pots, and some tin cans and a brake drum from a car, and a couple of artillery shells that I’m using. I’m primarily using those for some of the battle sequences, to provide some sort of percussion impetus. And in addition to that, I have an instrument that I’ve called a tubaflop, and all it is is a bunch of PVC pipe, and I play the open ends of the pipe with a flip-flop. I guess I had seen somebody doing something like that way back in the ‘80s, at a street fair in Boulder, CO. And of course, Blue Man Group uses instruments similar to that. I can’t think of the fellow’s name from Brazil who has a group called Beat the Donkey, and he plays something like that. So this is several long lengths of 4-inch plumbing pipe that I’m playing on the ends of. People who have seen Blue Man Group would recognize the sound. The production we did in Kansas City, the instrument was sort of disguised inside of a barrel and then the pipes ran down under the stage, and I think it has yet to be determined exactly how the instrument will be implemented into the set in Rochester, but I’m assuming the same kind of thing, that rather than being obviously these great big pieces of plumbing and drain pipe, that it may be a little bit more ambiguous exactly how that sound is being made. One of the other instruments that I play is one [Geva Props Master] Mark Bissonnette is working on now. In essence it’s just a very large xylophone, called an amadinda, that is based on a Ugandan xylophone. That would be one of the more unusual instruments – almost everybody would look at it and say I’m playing some kind of a xylophone. And exactly how that will be integrated into the set, I don’t know at this point.

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Ray (left) sitting on the cajon behind the tubaflop. (Photo by Ron Heerkens, Jr.)

How much are the differences in the set or the theatre at Geva likely to change the work that you’ve done for the show?

The set at Geva may have some effect on the placement of the instruments. In terms of recreating the music, one of the things I’ve been working on particularly the last several weeks is trying to refine the music that I played in Kansas City, to sharpen the focus in some instances and make the music a little simpler, and do some things that I think will help support the dialogue more. For me, it’s one of the great things about doing live theatre and having multiple chances to visit the production – I don’t feel like I’ve ever done anything perfectly, so having the chance to do something over, I always end up doing what I consider to be improvements of the music. I’ve been listening back to an audio recording that I have from the production in Kansas City, and thinking, is that music really working there, and is there a way that I can make it work better with what Kyle is doing. Much of the music will be very similar, some of it the same, some of it revised a little bit.

What is your background in music and theatre? Is it usual for you to take on the tasks of creating, arranging, performing and revising the music as you did for An Iliad?

Largely, I have worked in an academic setting – I worked at what was Southwest Missouri State University and is now Missouri State University for 29 years, doing music for the theatre and dance program. Because of never having any kind of money, and also oftentimes because of timelines, the idea of composing music, writing it out and hiring musicians to play, there was not time or money to do those kinds of things. So I largely have ended up creating music and doing something that I could do. Oftentimes, I would employ students that didn’t have any particular musical training to assist me. I have written some more conventional sort of music pieces, but largely what I have done is solo work, with me playing whatever instruments. When people have said, “what instruments do you play,” I’ve said, well, anything I can reach to hit, or strum, or whatever. Because of my work with theatre and dance, my academic training is as a percussionist, and that covers one of the larger spectrums of sounds in the musical world. It still covers a pretty small scope of what’s possible. So I’ve played keyboards of various kinds, dulcimer, ukulele. I played in Studs Terkel’s Working, and there’s a penny whistle solo in it. So here’s the Music Director, handing me a penny whistle saying, Ray, you’re playing the solo on that, so you better start practicing the penny whistle. So I’ve done a bunch of things like that, and I guess it plays into my interest in, what does this object sound like? Is there some way that I can employ this as a musical sound? By this point, I’ve collected quite a basement full of different kinds of sounds that I use for different things.

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