Dramaturg Philippa Kelly chats with composer Byron Au Yong, composer for The War of the Roses. Get tickets to the final performances here!
Philippa Kelly: Can you tell us a little about your background—something different from resume info? Early life?
Byron Au Yong: My elementary school was inside a forest. Classmates and I made shelters from gigantic fallen tree boughs. The best part of the year was singing after a storm surrounded by the trees and structures we built. I read recently that when trees feel comfortable, they will comfort you. I know that when trees feel powerful, they impart power. Last June, I was back in the Pacific Northwest walking in an old-growth forest. I asked the trees if they knew of other forests being clear cut, then burned. They said that their roots could feel the pain. They added that as we protect them, they protect us. My music connects with nature. It’s thrilling to work at Cal Shakes, where even the distant cows contribute their mooing to the performance.
PK: In terms of composing, who inspires you and which scores do you love?
BAY: I’m attracted to music which is dangerous. When J.S. Bach died, he was less famous than his sons. A critic called his work “contrapuntal caterwauling.” Nowadays, this accusation would be a compliment. Collaborating with theater artists also gives me energy, as dramatic solutions have a way of reaching the heart.
PK: I love that thought! Can you share some insight as to how you compose?
How do things come to you?
BAY: The music for The War of the Roses is grounded in Viking aesthetics. Shakespeare was influenced by Old Norse culture. Check out Amleth, the precursor to Hamlet. Moreover, Queen Margaret’s agency is similar to how Viking women held power, from managing their husbands to fighting in battles. Two contemporary musicians I adore include Norwegian metal folk composer/musician Einar Selvik and Faroese singer-songwriter Eivør Pálsdóttir. I was also influenced by 13th century French polyphony, known as the Ars Nova, and the neo-folk metal band Heilung from Denmark, Germany, and Norway. For this production, I got to work with actor/composer/musician Josh Pollack. Josh creates an astounding array of sounds using the electric guitar with effects pedals. These sounds range from low rumbles to whirring orbits to Viking metal riffs. Every project requires a tailored working process. Outside sources inform musical ideas and sketches. Rehearsals provide crucial time to determine which sonic moments become part of the show.
For example, Aysan Celik has a vocal solo in the show that we call “Queen Margaret’s Battle Song.” I initially set 27 lines of text. It felt clunky and was way too long, so I simplified the song to allow Aysan’s powerful voice to resonate.
PK: What led you to Cal Shakes and us to you?
BAY: Director Eric Ting asked,”Hey, you wanna compose music for The War of the Roses?” I responded, “The War of the What?” Not knowing what something is, is always a good sign. Learning with this wonderful team at Cal Shakes shows what theater can do best: bring people together to create moments of beauty and pain that move us towards a deeper understanding of who we are and how we can affect change.
PK: I feel similarly—that in making art we wrestle with ourselves and with our capacity to understand the world in new and surprising ways. My husband (composer Paul Dresher) feels that if he weren’t a composer he would be one or more of three things: an attorney, a vegetable-grower, or a carpenter/handy-person. If you weren’t a composer, what would you be?
BAY: I would be a tree…western red cedar or mountain hemlock…definitely not a rose bush.