Posts Tagged ‘memory’

More often than not there are inevitably songs written for shows that seem fairly innocuous, even to the writers. I can’t speak for Sara, but for me, one of those songs in The Memory Show was a number that occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the show called “What’s Inside”, until today’s rehearsal.

Click here for a fairly academic (and perhaps pompous) description of music’s role in the show to preface all future posts (and please excuse my attempt at using set theory terminology).

What struck me today, enough to write this blog post, was how the Mother’s melodies function in relation to their accompaniment’s harmonic language.  Our esteemed, and quite brilliant, music director unknowingly re-acquainted me with this relationship when helping Catherine navigate the aforementioned relationship. In “What’s Inside” the Mother is desperately trying to explain her thoughts to her Daughter, but partly because of who she is and partly because of the Alzheimer’s, the phrases may, at first listen, seem like gibberish. For example, the lyric to the first A section:

A broken glass

A missing shoe

A piece of fish

A dab of glue

My life like a walnut

Cracked by you

What’s inside

Gibberish right? No. To the Mother (through Catherine, and of course Sara’s brilliant intention) everything relates to a very specific moment in the Mother’s life. The Daughter (and subsequently the audience) just isn’t in the right mode, or doesn’t have the “rosetta stone” to translate.

Musically, I chose to represent that in two ways (and I went back and noticed that the Mother’s music does this in all of her songs – probably a separate “part 2” blog entry).

The Melody (broken into two phrases):


What's Inside a


What's Inside b

Phrase A looks fairly simple. It’s basically a C Major triad…over and over…and over again. Phrase B is another story. It starts to look a bit scary (from a performer’s point of view), especially when just four bars before we were in very friendly waters. It may help to note that “like a walnut, cracked” is set to a variation on the beginning four notes of the shared, and very often used theme [0, 11, 7, 4], but in the moment who thinks of motif variation. (more on this theme in another blog post)

Ironically, Phrase A, when coupled with the accompaniment, is a tad more challenging.

Phrase A (with accompaniment):

What's Inside c

It’s not COMPLETELY unhelpful. There’s that bass movement I mentioned above that is EVERYWHERE in the Mother’s music. Mostly, the addition of the Eb against the Enat, Ab against the implied G and the D drone throughout complicates, muddies and signifies the lack of understanding the Daughter and audience are feeling against the simplicity and clarity with which the Mother believes she is speaking.

To EVERYONE’s amusement, in order to help get the melody completely ingrained in Catherine’s head, Vadim improvisatorially accompanied the melody with a jaunty exchange between I-IV-I-V (more on Vadim’s musical comedy in another post to come).

Funnily enough, Catherine, like it was a nursery rhyme, intuited the more challenging, and under which has a more rapidly changing harmonic motion, Phrase B. This is most likely due to the clean harmonic support in the accompaniment.

Phrase B (with accompaniment):

What's Inside d

What was also fun to notice, because I don’t think I initially planned this, is that, although in Phrase A I am very blatantly using the Mother’s harmonic motion, in Phrase B I switch to a reference to the Daughter’s harmonic motion (roots = [C -> Ab or 0 -> 8] and then [G -> D# (Eb) or -transposed- 0 -> 8] and then as it resolves back to Phrase A [A -> C or -transposed- 0 -> 8]) perhaps to signify the Mother’s desperate attempt to appeal to her Daughter.

It was also fun to notice that for the Daughter’s response and attempt to ground her Mother through what the Daughter views as an “episode” I used an “arpeggial” inversion of Phrase A in the bM (the common harmonic relationship they share).

What's Inside e

Anywho, for most, this post (and I suppose some of my future posts) will probably seem to be ramblings of a musically narcissistic nerd. But I promise I’m not writing this stuff to self-aggrandize at all. These posts are coming from a self-reflective place; I’m trying to reckon my own musical language for the show while it’s fresh from rehearsal; I’m trying to find balance and meaning in my music through what Arnold Schoenberg dichotomized as the inspired and constructed. I also believe there is a deficit of thought in this area as it pertains to musical theatre, so I hope this kind of discussion may be helpful to any other composers out there. I know it’ll be helpful for me for others to comment or share their own experiences. And please, other composers, writers or normal people, comment and call me out on the stuff you disagree with!

Thanks for reading! 🙂

The music for The Memory Show [TMS] is written to illuminate the scenario in which the Mother and Daughter find themselves.

The Mother begins the show with a very pointed ostinato accompaniment that is horizontally chromatic but ultimately diatonically tonal.  This chromaticism within a fairly malleable diatonic system only grows throughout the show: as if this show were a machine that slowly and consistently shook a plastic bottle (the Mother) filled with a carbonated drink (the disease) until finally, at the end, her music just explodes onto the stage in the form of a song (“Unlovable”) filled with fairly quick, relatively distantly related, harmonic shifts and a gradually growing accompaniment built on a combination of themes that have ostensibly been churning within her over the course of her entire life. However, at its core, all of the Mother’s music is based on the ordered set [0, 3, 0, -2]

Contrastingly, if the Mother’s music is the source of dysfunction within their relationship, the Daughter’s music represents the structural foundation, and potential good, of the relationship.  It is a touch more grounded and is the source for the four-chord progression that permeates the entire score in some form or another (the roots of which opcs [0, 8, 3, 5] or opcs [0, 3, 5, 8] are distantly related to the Mother’s set, both incorporating the use of the bM).  Though her accompaniment may seem to echo the “ostinato” at times, both her harmonies and melodies live in a more accessible and popular, almost “alternative rock”, aesthetic.  Naturally then, when they argue/sing together in “You Remember Him Wrong” the music is polytonal; as if forcing a graft of two distinct personalities on top of one another.

The two share a common theme that can be found throughout the show in vocal lines, orchestral lines (thank you Lynne!) and transitional/incidental music. ([0, 11, 7, 4, 9]).

The score is most certainly contemporary musical theatre. The songs serve to both advance the drama and zoom in on the complex emotions of the characters at the time in which they sing. However, unlike some musical theatre scores that consist of a series of songs or numbers that may or may not be related to one another synecdochically, TMS’s score should be thought of as one unified body that undergoes cyclical development over the course of the show’s 85 minutes. Though this draws on techniques found in works of a more operatic or “serious” nature and those of Stephen Sondheim, like the characters of TMS, the harmonic/melodic language of the music remains uniquely its own.

And just like that, it’s begun.

When THE MEMORY SHOW made its World Premiere at Barrington Stage Company in 2010, you would have been hard-pressed to convince me that I would be sitting in a rehearsal studio at a theater on 42nd Street with some of the most brilliant theatre artists I have ever known as we prepare for the show’s Off-Broadway debut.

And yet here we are.

I would like to get sentimental. After all, it’s a very personal show. It’s the same director and music director and actors, with all of whom Zach and I are breathlessly in love. It’s being produced by people who are loving and gentle with it, who are passionate and whose work I admire. I am grateful beyond belief. I am happy beyond repair.

But I’m not a sentimental person.  So all I can do is sit in the room, enjoy the moment, and breathe.

Catherine CoxRehearsal, Day 1

Catherine Cox
Rehearsal, Day 1