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Creating The Sound of Illyria: An Interview With Composer, Jonathon Dawson

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

By Celine Dirkes

Jonathon Dawson has been writing music since he first picked up a guitar, about ten years ago. But ReThink Theatrical’s upcoming production of Twelfth Night—Shakespeare’s uproarious Ship-wrecking, gender-bending, and class-confusing comedy—will be his first time composing for other musicians. I was lucky enough to sit down with Jonathon to discuss the challenges, influences, and creative process that went into creating an original score for a five-hundred year old play.

I asked Jonathon how this process differed from composing for himself, asking him to pit the experience against his process for composing his debut album, Earthsong, released last year. He said, “…What was really challenging was writing without knowing what instruments there were going to be.” Besides not knowing the exact composition of his Illyrian band, Jonathon also had no way of knowing each individual’s experience and skills, saying “I guess the biggest challenge was writing for other people to play, because I’ve only ever written for me and I know all of my own limits and I don’t want to put that pressure on others.”

The make-up and ability of the band is only one of the many factors that keep Jonathon on his toes, since the director, Stephanie Bond, may request adjustments in order to support the storytelling. Comparing this experience to music directing a score composed by someone else, he joked, “I think if I hadn’t written the music I’d have a lot less things to think about.”

But Jonathon has thought a great deal about the composition of this score, and worked with Director Stephanie to create a genuine aesthetic for the fictional land of Illyria. “She [Stephanie] didn’t want the music to sound like old, period Shakespeare type music—which I’m a fan of, but it just wasn’t going to fit with this show,” Jon said. Instead of bingeing lute serenades and madrigals, he found himself taking in Greek wedding music and Romanian folk songs: Highly-energetic pieces with a musical toolbox different from the tunes he normally listens to.

One classical influence on Illyria’s sound was Béla Bartók who, as both a composer and ethno-musicologist, preserved Romanian folk music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Jon, “He was writing around when they started making recording devices—He would go into folk communities and record their music and then notate it.”

Musical influences digested, Jonathon began his composition process by composing six songs for Feste—The Lady Olivia’s fool in the play, and in many ways the show’s musical engine—creating three drafts for each. From there, he isolated one-minute ditties that help transition between scenes while maintaining the same musical themes throughout the show. Last, but not least, he created an opening, intermission, and finale.

ReThink Theatrical’s Twelfth Night promises to be a musical romp filled with smart composition and exciting tunes, but Jonathon hopes the biggest take-away for the audience will be a sense of understanding. When I asked if there was anything he wanted the audience to know about himself, the music, or the show, he wrapped it up with a sense of humor: “The music is fun, the show is fun, I am fun. There’s no secrets!...I hope when people listen to it they’ll say ‘I get this!’ There’s no tricks here.”

Can't wait to see the show and listen to the original score? Ticket reservations are live now!

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