Ebeneezer Scrooge and composer Harrison Birtwistle may not be the most
obvious of artistic bedfellows. Without the latter, however, one
suspects Nikola Kodjabashia would not have been able to make the
Citizens Theatre's seasonal production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas
Carol as adapted by Neil Bartlett sound like it does when it opens this
It was Birtwistle, after all, who effectively taught Kodjabashia his
musical chops when the Macedonian composer studied under the former
musical director of the National Theatre in London before giving him
his first theatre gig on Sir Peter Hall's production of The Bacchai.
Since then, Kodjabashia has worked all over the world, and has forged a
particularly fruitful working relationship with the Citz's artistic
director, Doninic Hill, who will oversee A Christmas Carol. This
follows on from Hill's acclaimed productions of Crime and Punishment,
which saw Chris Hannan adapt Dostoyevsky's epic novel for the stage, as
well as the pair's recent collaboration on an equally lauded Hamlet.
Kodjabashia's music was integral to both shows. Where Crime and
Punishment looked to east European chorales, Hamlet seemed to channel
the ghosts in the machines of the BBC Radiophonic workshop. Crucially,
both productions saw their ensemble casts sing and play an array of
instruments that looked as though they'd been rescued from a skip. The
subsequent soundscapes became each show's dramatic pulse.
”Everything is about the storytelling,” Kodjabashia says. “Sometimes
you start from a musical place and then you try to make it become a
scene, and sometimes you start with a scene and try and make it work
musically. I've been writing music for theatre for over twenty years,
and it is important to understand how the medium works, because it is
about the literature, but sometimes it is more about the space and the
movement. Theatre is a time-based thing as well, and performing the
music live adds to it enormously. I use my comfort zone of the time as
my canvas, so that's the game I'm trying to play. We often go from
something very concrete, and then add a few brushes of abstraction
there, but the focus has to remain absolutely on the story.”
For A Christmas Carol, Kodjabashia was surprised at how familiar he was
with the traditional carols that form the play's musical backbone.
“When I moved to the UK seventeen years ago,” he says, “I certainly
didn't know about them then, but when they sent me the score for the
play, I was like, I know that. Some of them are just amazing tunes, and
you just need to treat them with respect, but I'm trying to simplify
them, not just for the sake of it, but to make them part of the story.
Sometimes they are harmonised, sometimes they are complimented with
instruments, and sometimes they are variations of the originals, but
again, that depends on how they serve the story.|”
One of them, Kodjabashia says, sounds like a piece of choral funeral
music. Another is a dance-based Mediterranean piece. Such a variety of
styles, however, “are glimpses. I'm talking about spices rather than
big pieces of meat.”
From a musical family – his father is a composer and expert on
Byzantine music, his mother a music teacher - Kodjabashia studied music
in Bucharest before moving to the UK seventeen years ago. Kodjabashia
was already a fan of Birtwistle's before studying under him at King's
“Harry was a hero of mine already,” Kodjabashia says, “so I was very
lucky. He said he couldn't teach me how to compose, but he could show
me the tools he uses to make his work, and I could do as I pleased with
Kodjabashia first worked with Hill on The Three Musketeers and the
Princess of Spain, Chris Hannan's ribald reimagining of Alexandre
Dumas' seventeenth century swordsmen, which was first seen at the
Traverse Theatre in a co-production with the Coventry-based Belgrade
Theatre. It was here the pair first began to develop a style which has
resulted in some of the most thrilling moments seen and heard on
Scotland's stages in recent times.
“There are two very important things you need to know about how Dominic
and I work,” Kodjabashia points out. “We both very strongly believe
that theatre today is about the experience. You want to show how the
storytelling is made. That's why we are very open in our staging. You
want to see the organs inside the body. We create the mysteries by
revealing what they are, and that's very exciting for me. One of the
tricks that we use is that we are constantly low-tech. So all the
hi-tech software that is available, and perhaps used too much, we say
no to. We would like everything to be created as much as possible by
Beyond his theatre work, Kodjabashia has recorded four albums, three of
which have been released on ReR records, the label run by former Henry
Cow drummer Chris Cutler. Much of this work is inspired by the writings
of Heiner Muller, James Joyce and William Gibson.
“The words aren't there,” Kodjabashia explains, “but I try to take some
of the shapes and elements of them and try and convert them into music.
Of course, an audience can say that it has nothing to do with the
writings, and of course it doesn't, but I think it is important to give
them a chance to see where my journey started from, and it can mean
whatever they want it to. It's good to give yourself a structure,
because only then can you be free. The best free jazz, for instance, is
the most organised.”
While Kodjabashia has been acclaimed in the contemporary music world,
there is a sense too that his work's inherent playfulness doesn't quite
fit in with it.
“The contemporary music establishment can be very serious,” he says,
“and is a mystery to me, but I like to have fun. I'm recycling all the
time, not just my work, but my entire cultural baggage, and that's what
we all are. So if Crime and Punishment was neo-Russian avant-gardism or
whatever, and Hamlet was about exploring European modernism of the
1950s and 1960s, then A Christmas Carol is probably something like a
Dada opera with carols, gags and pantomime.”
Again, openness is everything.
“I don't like mystification,” Kodjabashia says, “but here in the
theatre, we create God every night.”
A Christmas Carol, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, November 29-January 3
Nikola Kodjabashia At A Glance
Nikola Kodjabashia was born in 1970 in Macedonia, where he studied
music before continuing his studies in Bucharest and at King's College,
London, under Harrison Birtwistle.
Kodjabashia's first job in theatre was as musical director of Sir Peter
Hall's production of The Bacchai at the National Theatre in London.
Since then, Kodjabashia has composed scores for Penelope X (Macedonian
National Opera), Kafka’s Monkey (Young Vic), Scorched (Old Vic);
Wedding Day of the Cro Magnons (Soho Theatre/Dialogue Productions);
Helter Skelter/Land of the Dead, Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of
the Qu’ran (Bush Theatre/Dialogue Productions) and the Olivier
award-winning Jonathan Kent’s production of Hecuba (Donmar Warehouse).
With Dominic Hill, Kodjabashia has scored The Three Musketeers and the
Princess of Spain at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and the Belgrade
Theatre, Coventry, and Crime and Punishment and Hamlet at the Citizens
Outside of the theatre, Kodjabashia's compositions include Die
Hamletmachine (1997), Sinphonia (1998), Hymn (1998), Yellow Sostenuto
(1999) and Explosion of a Memory (2000), as well as Ludus Gothicus
(2001), Gaudi's Bed (2001), Neuromancer (2001), Bildbeschreibung
(2001), Single Will (2002) and The Birds (2002).
Commissions include scores for Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, BBC
Singers, Macedonian National Opera and Ballet, Macedonian Philharmonic
For TV and film, Kodjabashia has composed for the award- winning film,
Defining Fay (2012), Dear Ana (2011), BBC Four TV documentary series
Racism, a History (2010), and BBC Arena documentaries, Saints, Dance
with Me and Green Pages.
Kodjabashia has released three albums on ReR records; Reveries of the
Solitary Walker (2004), The Most of Now (2008), Explosion of a Memory
(2010), and one, Penelope X (2011), recorded with Foltin featuring Goce
Stevkovski, on Filter Records.
The Herald, November 25th 2014