In conversation with Oğuz Kaplangi, Composer of The Duchess [of Malfi]

The Duchess [of Malfi] is a bloody tale of love, corruption and revenge. It follows the Duchess as she tries to live her own life, according to her own desires, and is violently punished by the men around her for it.

Composer Oğuz Kaplangi has created an original score of love songs, laments and lullabies for the play. Performed live by a talented cast, the music adds to some of the most emotional scenes for a truly dramatic and sensory experience. Here we speak to Oğuz to find out more about his approach and learn how the music in the play helps tell the Duchess' story.

(This conversation contains plot spoilers!)

Fletcher Mathers and Kirsty Stuart in The Duchess [of Malfi]
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

What sort of conversations did you have with the director Zinnie Harris about how she wanted the music and sound to help create the world of this play? And what were your own thoughts and ideas about that?

When we first met, Zinnie told me that she wanted to create a cold war setting, where espionage was all around. So, in our conversations about the music we mostly focused on the vibe and feeling of that period of history.

There are four tracks with lyrics which I had to compose before the rehearsals as the vocals would be sung by the actors. Zinnie and I discussed the style of these tracks and the way they would be performed. For example, the Duchess is a strong female character and we wanted to show this in her opening song right at the start of the play.

The two halves of the play have different moods. The music in the first half is mostly positive with cheer and joy around the Duchess. The tension of the play is quite stressful in the second half so with the help of the drones (continuous synth pads underscoring the action), I aimed to underline that tension with music.

The play opens with a solo performance by the Duchess
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

Were there any specific influences on you as you created the music?

I knew the Duchess would open the play singing a song alone under a spotlight. The first image that came to my mind was the look of female solo singers of the era with a confident stage presence. So, I composed the opening track in a similar world: performed by the Duchess and accompanied by our Musician with a retro, crunchy electric guitar sound.

I also thought about the 60s vocal bands for the track 'Love I Said' and composed that song to be performed by four women on stage in a vintage style (the backing harmonies play an important role as it is accompanied only by guitar). I wanted to compose the lullaby 'Hush Now' as a very simple track with a catchy melody and I listened to many Scottish and Italian lullabies before writing it. And, for the song after the execution I was influenced by various laments from different cultures.

The music and sound effects balance each other
Image by Tim Morozzo

What was the relationship in this show between the composed music and the sound design made by MJ McCarthy?  Did you and MJ work together on certain aspects, and if so, how did you do this?

This was the first time MJ and I worked together and it was a good experience. We are both composers and sound designers, and also guitar players. This helped us to share and apply ideas not only for our own tasks but for each other's as well. I  like to write different music ideas for a scene and then during rehearsals I decide which one fits and sounds best. At that point, MJ,as the sound designer, would mix the tracks to ensure the right sound. MJ helped us achieve the vintage feel we wanted by using filter EQs and other software on the tracks I'd composed. He also balanced the tracks with the sound effects to make sure everything worked together and didn't obstruct any of the dialogue. This meant that the music and audio effects are delivered to the audience in a very effective way.

Eleanor Kane plays the Musician
Image by Tim Morozzo

The electric guitar features a lot in the play. Why that instrument?!

Guitar was originally in the script. Electric guitar is a strong instrument and it's a sound that can be easily processed to achieve the vintage feel I was looking for. But, I didn't only use electric guitar - at several instrumental underscores I used acoustic guitar as well. 

After seeing the show, a teacher asked us directly,‘ we were so beguiled by the beautiful music in the show.  Is the song in Act two an original or existing piece?’  Can you tell us?

I composed all the music in the play. That song is called 'End your Groan' and I created it especially for this play. The lyrics are from the original script which was written by John Webster in 1612 and is a wonderful poem. 

You can listen to the track here:

How did you go about setting Zinnie’s lyrics to music and what purpose do you feel these more set piece songs (sung by female characters) serve?

Zinnie and I met a couple of times before the rehearsals. I started writing the melodies with some scratch lyrics written by Zinnie. Once the songs had started to take shape and the melody was agreed, Zinnie finished writing the lyrics and these were then tweaked slightly during the rehearsal process. 

Though each song has a different role, one of the main purposes was to give the play that 60s feel. These songs also offer an unexpected way of  hearing the characters' feelings during the flow of the play.

The women come together to sing a lament after the execution scene
Image by Tim Morozzo

The chanting, clapping, movement section which the women perform after the executions has been described by Zinnie as ‘defiant’.  How did you go about creating this music and what effect did you want it to have on the audience?

For me, that scene full of dead women on stage is like a battlefield after a war. There is sorrow, sadness and disappointment followed by anger and defiance. From the first moment I read the script, I thought of writing a lament for that scene. It had to be very simple with an ethereal melody line and as with traditional laments, it would be only vocals. When the Musician brings the dead bodies' souls alive one by one they start lamenting together with the Musician. At this point, we start to feel their defiance, it's as if the women are saying "you can kill us, but you can't change us". There is an increasing anger in their singing as well. On the first bars, they clap their hands and stamp their feet to show this reaction. 

For more behind the scenes insights have a read of our Q&A with Lighting Designer Ben Ormerod.

Plus, you can find out more about how design was used to emphasise key moments in the play in our Q&As with both Zinnie Harris (writer and director) and Tom Piper (designer). 

The Duchess [of Malfi] is a co-production with The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.

This powerful story of family, forbidden love and fierce gender politics runs at Tramway until 21st September. Tickets can be booked online or by calling our Box Office team on 0141 429 0022.