Nicholas Bone’s son was about eleven when the seeds of an idea for what would become Lost in Music began to take hold. This got the director of Magnetic North theatre company thinking, about what music meant, both to him, and to his son’s generation.
“I was thinking about maybe doing a show for a younger audience,” says Bone. “My son had asked when I was going to do a show that he can come and see, and I started to think about what might interest him. At the same time, I was seeing his engagement with music start to change, where he started to make his own choices about what music he liked.
“That took me right back to being eleven, and starting to do exactly that, and realising you could make your own choices and that you didn’t have to like everything, and didn’t have to like what other people liked, but you could start to form your own taste in music. For a lot of people that becomes a really formative thing.
“The music you start to listen to at that point and all the things that come with it – who your friends are, how you dress, how you speak – becomes such an important part of how you develop as a person. I could see it starting with him. That’s such an important period of your life, and music is so often a central part of all that. To do something that was about teenagers and how they relate to music, but using music within it, seemed a really obvious way to try and look at all the things raised by all this.”
The end result of Bone’s ruminations is currently laid out in the theatre space of North Edinburgh Arts, the community venue tucked away behind Muirhouse Library. Here, on two stage areas beneath a giant model moon, four musicians are rehearsing Lost in Music, a new piece for Bone’s Magnetic North company, which uses the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to illustrate the pure primal power of music in a show designed for young people.
On one side of the room, Jill O’Sullivan wields, not a lyre, as Orpheus did to charm the rulers of the underworld into bringing his dead wife Eurydice back to life, but an electric guitar. This accompanies her sung narration of the story, bolstered by drummer Alex Neilson who plays his kit beside her. Opposite them, Emily Phillips and Claire Willoughby accompany O’Sullivan and Neilson on vocal harmonies before breaking into a skronky instrumental interlude on clarinet and saxophone.
O’Sullivan first came to prominence as the frontwoman of Sparrow and the Workshop, who released three albums of what could loosely be defined as alt country rock. More recently, she has been one half of bdy_prts, the electronic duo led with co-vocalist Jenny Reeve, who also fronts Strike the Colours.
Neilson has been a ubiquitous figure with assorted band-based projects over the years, from Scatter, through to Directing Hand and nouveau-psych-folk troupe Trembling Bells, who released six albums over a ten-year period. Neilson has also played with the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy, and writes for The Wire, the long-standing monthly digest of sonic adventurousness.
Phillips is a classically trained singer, who has also worked with the physical theatre-based Company of Wolves. She is also a member of music theatre collective, Hanbury and Groves, who last year devised a children’s show for English Touring Opera. Like Phillips, Willoughby is a performer/musician, who plays saxophone with The Nevis Ensemble, and has worked with theatre companies including Stellar Quines and Catherine Wheels.
Seated beside Bone watching the band go through their paces is Kim Moore, who has co-written Lost in Music, and is effectively musical director of the show. Moore first came to prominence as one third of chamber pop trio Zoey van Goey, and, inbetween theatre and dance commissions, currently writes and records pastorally inclined electronica as WOLF.
Moore first worked with Bone in 2012 on Linda McLean’s play, Sex and God, and initially hooked up with Magnetic North following an open call for composers. It was a similar process with the ensemble of Lost in Music, which will be joined by young people from Craigroyston Community High School for the Edinburgh dates of the show, and from Glasgow Kelvin College for the Glasgow ones.
“Over the last two years, Kim and I have been interviewing teenagers about music,” says Bone, “and then in the final development period it’s been focussing very much on young musicians in particular, and talking to them about their relationship with music.
“It’s fascinating, because musicians have this amazing shorthand. They have this ability that’s different to actors. I don’t quite know what it is, but they have an understanding, and I suppose it’s because there’s a formality to music, so they create a structure that people can work with and play around with, and I think it’s really fascinating when you see great musicians doing that.”
Music has always played an important part in Magnetic North’s way of doing things from fairly early on in the company’s two-decade existence. This has included the likes of The Dream Train, a collaboration with the late playwright, jazz pianist and out and out polymath, Tom McGrath. Magnetic North also produced visual artist David Shrigley’s ‘opera of sorts’, Pass the Spoon, featuring a score by David Fennessy.
More recently, Bone has collaborated with composers Matthew Collings and multi-media artist Jules Rawlinson on digital opera, A Requiem for Edward Snowden. Bone and Magnetic North are also developing a piece with Hanna Tuulikki, whose vocal compositions form part of her artistic practice following periods heading up bands Nalle and Two Wings.
If the Sister Sledge referencing Lost in Music is arguably part of a bigger wave of theatre and music becoming more joined at the hip, the show’s fresh look at the Orpheus myth is the latest in a long line of latter-day interpretations of the story, from Jean Cocteau to Nick Cave.
“The Orpheus story has been set to music so many times,” says Bone, “and I suppose it’s the ultimate story of the power of music. This man thinks he can use music to bring his lover back to life again, and almost succeeds. That’s become the core of the piece that threads all these different elements together. There are live songs, there are these recorded voices, and then there’s this story being told.”
Is it a story that Bone’s now fourteen-year-old son could appreciate? Bone isn’t sure.
“People kept saying that’s age group is a really hard audience,” he says, “and I’ve no idea if this will be of any interest or not. I guess we’ll find out when we start performing it.”
Lost in Music, North Edinburgh Arts, March 1-2; Platform, Glasgow, March 6-7.
The Herald, February 26th 2019