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Making the Music Come to Life

Chicago composers and sound designers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman have been a powerful force on the Chicago theater scene for the last several seasons, winning awards and critical praise and pleasing audiences around the city. Now they've created a new score for Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange production of Winesburg, Ohio. For this Backstage interview, artistic associate Curt Columbus recently talked to them between gigs for this Backstage interview. Curt Columbus: Why don't you both talk about the beginning of your collaboration, how you started working together. Andre Pluess: We were students together at the University of Chicago, where we began writing incidental music for some summer Shakespeare projects, the first one of which was Twelfth Night. And then we began writing incidental music for various university theater productions. Ben Sussman: Then we started playing for the University's improv comedy troupe, which required us to always be coming up with original music. Finally, we did a musical for our senior project, an adaptation of Dante's Inferno. CC: Was it ever your goal to be composers? How does anybody decide that they are going to be a composer, not just for the theater, but a composer period? AP: Ben and I both started with music when we were very, very young, first as a process of training and learning, later studying music theory and the technical elements involved in playing music. At a certain point, right about the time we met each other, we began to think, "Oh we're playing music but now let's think about creating our own work, given this sort of technical background that we have." That's a huge leap forward. It's like saying, "I read a lot, I'm going to sit down and write." BS: We've both always been creative in that regard independently, but hadn't thought a lot about really pursuing it. I had done a little arranging here and there for A Cappella groups that I was in and Andre had written songs in high school with his friends. But when we met, we had this realization that we were on the same page in a way that we had never quite been with anyone else before. And it got us very excited about making writing music more of a serious pursuit, more than just a hobby. AP: Right. But Curt, we've always thought of it as a hobby. Let's be honest. BS: But it became a more fun hobby when we met each other and started working together. AP: When we get a paycheck every time, we're like, "Are you paying us for that?" CC: I think Ben's wife still thinks of it as his hobby. AP: My parents certainly do. I still can't believe it. I always say, "I haven't had a job in a long time, like two years! Oh, wait a minute, I do have a job." It's just this weird thing where people pay me to help them put the music together. CC: So let's say you're confronted with a text like Winesburg, Ohio. How do you begin? AP: We always begin by listening to the text; what is the implicit, natural rhythm of the language in the story itself? That basic rhythm dictates a lot of things: the style and form of the instrumental colors that we hear in our head, and consequently the arrangements of those instruments. There is always an undertone or energy to a text that immediately keys us in to where we go to explore. Language is rhythm, it's a sequence of tones and pulses and phrases, just as in music. It's been a really long time since we've been in the situation of writing choral music, that we haven't had text given to us as a starting point. In other words, we haven't written our own lyrics since 1995. We do adapt the text we're given, but we usually try to adhere to it, even though it's sometimes problematic or seemingly unmusical. If we stay faithful to the text, it can lead us in a direction we normally would not have gone when we began. BS: We've learned a lot in that regard. I think we have developed a skill for taking arbitrary text and figuring out how it could work with music. I think if you had asked us this question six or seven years ago, we would have been more confused. It's a specialized skill that we have had to develop. Now in its 26th Season, Steppenwolf Theatre Company is a Chicago–based international performing arts institution committed to ensemble collaboration and artistic risk through work with its permanent ensemble, guest artists, partner institutions and the community. Founded in 1976 as an ensemble of nine actors, Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of thirty–three artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting, filmmaking, and textual adaptation. Steppenwolf Theatre Company 1650 N. Halsted Street Chicago, IL 60614 Box office: 312–335–1650 *