Keeping Score – Iain Grandage on composing When Time Stops

Elise May Photo:  Dylan Evans
Elise May
Photo: Dylan Evans

Time waits for no man. Not even a man as accomplished as Iain Grandage. Juggling a full and varied schedule, raising a family and churning out critically acclaimed musical arrangements is all in a day’s work for this multi-award winning composer. Iain managed to take time out to chat with Aussie Theatre’s Bethany Simons about life and work, including his latest collaboration with Expressions Dance Company When Time Stops.

It took a few attempts, but when I finally caught Iain Grandage on the phone he was about to board a plane to Sydney to play with The Black Arm Band. The following day he was to do a recording for the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Hush Foundation, then it was back to Melbourne for the 2014 Victorian Opera season launch (featuring his first ever opera) before finally heading up to Brisbane to put finishing touches on When Time Stops for Expressions Dance Company.

Choreographed by Natalie Weir with original music by Iain Grandage (performed live by Camerata of St John’s Orchestra) When Time Stops is framed around one woman’s memories of her life at the time of her death.

Grandage says, “It’s an exploration of moments of extremity. There are a lot of moments to do with people passing, but also moments of ecstasy and great love: recalling her first kiss; some of the loves of her life; arguments. The human drama within it is quite present.”

The process for creating When Time Stops involved a series of workshops that Grandage ensured were as inclusive as possible.

“A project is better if every person has ownership over it. We’ve had three workshops, some with dancers alone and me improvising in the room. I would always ask whether what I was playing helped or how it could be made better.”

Though Grandage has written a lot of pieces for orchestra having twelve musicians playing live – as opposed to using pre-records and playback – has been a real luxury. “I’ve never had that opportunity, and for good reason – they’re rare opportunities, because they’re expensive!”

In the initial workshops, Grandage would improvise on piano and cello while the ensemble of eight dancers responded through movement. All material was recorded on video, which Grandage then referenced when it was time to put his slightly more serious composer’s hat on.

“I tried to respect the energy and shape of those improvisations. Whilst musically the central pieces are really similar to what I did, the improvisations just needed a bit more compositional rigour to justify the musicians memorising it. They [Camerata of St John’s Orchestra] play live on stage with dancers dancing in amongst them. It requires a lot of commitment, plus courage to stand there while people are flying past your instrument worth fifty thousand dollars!”

Darryl Brandwood Photo:  Dylan Evans
Darryl Brandwood
Photo: Dylan Evans

After completing his cello degree at the University of Western Australia Grandage played casually with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. At this time he was in a composer’s ensemble, but confesses he never took it seriously until he started working with Black Swan Theatre Company in 1995. “I wanted to act in Louis Nowra’s Cosi. I had to play a Wagner-loving, piano-accordion playing, masturbating psychopath to which my friends said, ‘You’re not acting at all – that’s you!'”

This experience was the start of Grandage’s ‘residency’ with Black Swan.

“That was my compositional learning ground. I had to write music in certain styles for various productions over the next five years. By 2000, other offers were coming in and I started to write orchestral music. Knowing these things from the inside is a huge help – you can write stuff that you know will be fun to play.”

More valuable to Grandage than any award or accolade was becoming the proud father of his beautiful little girl eighteen months ago. How has this impacted on him both personally and professionally?

“It has changed my life utterly for the better. It takes all of that pressure off in terms of worrying. Firstly, you don’t have time, and secondly, you just trust your instincts a bit better. I have become more efficient and content in my professional life since she’s come along. It’s allowed me to say ‘no’ with much more assurance. I still say ‘yes’ to too many things, but at least I know that I want to do it!”

Iain gushed saying When Time Stops has been one of those ‘worth it’ projects. “I can’t speak highly enough of both sides of the creative team. We’ve been having a brilliant time. I don’t always get a good mood about what something might be, but I’ve never seen anything like this show!”

A fun little side note to this interview is that I’ve known Iain for a number of years now. We met when I was working at the Australian National Academy of Music and he was in the building for Wunderschon – ANAM’s award winning collaboration with cabaret diva, Meow Meow. Since then we’ve always had a chat when we bump into each other. It’s my own fault, I suppose, that I introduced myself over the phone only as, “Bethany Simons from Aussie Theatre”. Iain was in a noisy airport at the time and I was keen to come across as professional after having somehow missed the original interview time arranged by his publicist (imagine how I felt when I heard that ‘Mr. Busy’ himself had been sitting around waiting for me to call!) As I recorded the interview it became evident that Iain had no clue that it was me on the other end of the line. He was being kind and formal – the model interviewee. I decided not to interrupt. Until the end…

When I did clarify which Bethany he was talking to, the bouts of laughter that followed made me glad it was a phone record. Iain has an infectious laugh – wild and throaty. Playing the interview back was hilarious. “Oh, god! That’s hideous! [Laughter] You must be thinking, ‘Who IS this guy’? [Laughter] Oh no! I put on ‘formal press voice’!”

After this dramatic change in interview energy, Iain asked how I was, and we chatted in more detail about his daughter and projects before wishing each other well. It’s rare to come across someone so incredibly talented and in demand and find that they are also genuinely down to earth, humble and generous. Though he really has no time to spare, he always manages to stop the clock for a laugh.

Ah, Iain Grandage: an all-round grand guy!

When Time Stops
10 – 14 September
QPAC, Brisbane

Click here for more info and tickets


One thought on “Keeping Score – Iain Grandage on composing When Time Stops

  • Undoubtedly one of the most talented and nicest guys in the biz.


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