Behind the Scenes at Molotov’s “Normal”: Part 4: The Sounds of Horror: The Music of ‘Normal’ By Gregory Thomas Woolford Martin

Many audience members are not aware of how significant music can be in the experience of horror. Imagine, for instance, Jaws or Psycho without their iconic musical scores. This is particularly true for Molotov Theatre Group’s latest production, Normal, onstage at DC Arts Center though March 30th. 

I scored Normal, a play about the Dusseldorf Ripper—serial killer Peter Kurten who committed his crimes in Germany in the early 1900s—using the traditions of  horror films. The dark compositions are designed to serve the text by evoking fear. Contrarily, I also composed some of the score using musical traditions of silent film and a technique called Mickey Mousing.

Composer Gregory Thomas Woolford Martin.
Composer Gregory Thomas Woolford Martin.

There are moments in the action that are menacingly playful, which lend themselves to Mickey Mousing. In this musical technique, the composer designs musical motifs to enhance an actor’s cartoon-like emoting or dramatic movement. Think of a cartoon character running up stairs while a glissando on the piano is heard. I, however, offset this technique by using a very dark undertone in the musical score that follows the tradition of Bernard Hermann, who scored a number of films for Alfred Hitchcock, including Psycho.”

Having worked with Director Jay D. Brock a number of times, I was aware of his use of music and movement and was excited to compose a score with a number of compositions for choreographed scenes. The challenge was composing music to accompany varying elements, including horror, dance, and playful drama. The added challenge was also to compose music that could underscore a number of monologue scenes. Here, I employed solo violin, and during each monologue the solo violin music broke down and became more pointillistic.

To execute the score for Normal acoustic instruments were needed, and since the theater at the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC), where the play runs, will not fit a full string ensemble and large percussion section, the music is pre-recorded. To make these recordings, I composed the score on a computer using very high-end, acoustic, string, and percussion sample libraries. These libraries can be manipulated by a composer to create realistic ensemble performances.

The advantage of using pre-recorded music is that it is the same every night, and the actors can rehearse with the same music that will be used during the performance. The downfall of using pre-recorded music is that it will only sound as good as the equipment on which it is being played. The sound system at DCAC is small, which makes ensuring a good sound quality and decent volume an added challenge. On the upside, because the space is so small, it is easier to encase the audience with sound.

Elizabeth Darby, Alex Zavistovich, and Brian McDermott. Photo courtesy of Kristin Jackman.
Elizabeth Darby, Alex Zavistovich, and Brian McDermott. Photo courtesy of Kristin Jackman.

For the Normal  score I used serial technique, a compositional technique that was being used in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century. I thought it fitting to use the same technique that was used during the time and place in which Anthony Neilson’s play is set. This technique enabled me to compose every sound cue such that each cue relates to the others. In this way, I was able to employ within the score, several times, the haunting first-three notes of the children’s rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie,” which the character Frau Kurten, the killer’s wife, sings.


gregory-thomas-woolford-martinGregory Thomas Woolford Martin is a musicologist and composes under the name Gregg Martin. His compositions have been heard throughout the DC Metro area and in New York. His opera “Life in Death” was performed on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center.

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Normal plays through March 30, 2013, at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Adams Morgan, in Washington, DC. Every Thursday is Pay-What-You-Can. Tickets can be purchased online.

Review of Normal by John Stoltenberg.

Behind the Scenes at “Normal” Part 1: A Molotov Show without Blood? Behind the Grand Guignol Scenes of ‘Normal’ by Alex Zavistovich.

Behind the Scenes at “Normal” Part 2: Brian McDermott: ‘Bow Ties and Other Knotty Problems’ by Brian McDermott.

Behind the Scenes at “Normal” Part 3: Behind the Scenes at Molotov’s “Normal”: Part 3: Elizabeth Darby: ‘On Being in Love with a Monster.’



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