The iconoclast Adrian Lee came to the attention of the discerning with his mystical gamelan soundtrack to Robert Lepage's A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed at the National Theatre in 1992. Lee's culturally-plural musical vision has since accompanied stagings of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Kipling's Jungle Book and stories by the Brothers Grimm, these last two directed by Tim Supple for London's Young Vic Theatre. Supple and Lee are now finishing rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Comedy of Errors, which premieres tonight in Stratford-on- Avon.
On a steamy day at the RSC rehearsal rooms in Clapham, Adrian Lee dodges the thespians for a moment and talks about his music and his musical aims for Comedy of Errors.He studied at York University and the Royal College of Music, and takes an eclectic approach to composition. What is the appeal of non-Western music for him? "The nature of the sound, the expressive quality, as well as the basic harmonic quality of instruments like the gamelan, those ringing overtones that you wouldn't necessarily hear in Western instruments." Echoing L Subramaniam, Lee feels that, in non-Western music, "people aren't too concerned with 'making a nice tone' but with expressing emotion and feeling and not worrying too much about the means used to express it".
In the West, musical performance, theatre and dance have become quite separate art forms whereas in non-Western theatre they co-exist in a way that is central to Lee's approach. "When working with Indian dancers, for example, we all start by learning the bols, the phonetic drum syllables that go with the dance steps that form the common language between traditions."
In searching for "things with lots of space, expressive but in a contained kind of way," he has been inspired by such disparate sources as the Birth of the Cool-era Miles Davis, Erik Satie and, acknowledging the Turkish setting of Shakespeare's play, traditional Turkish folk-song. For this production, Lee has chosen an improvised and semi-improvised approach to composition. He might suggest certain strategies to his musicians - listen to speech accent points, ignore the pitch content - and the music develops in tandem with the live action. Why improvisation? "The music has to fit with the physicality of the scene, which keeps changing as rehearsals develop - this approach allows a constant refinement of ideas."
So far as director Tim Supple is concerned, music is an essential part of theatre, and he involves Lee and the other musicians at the beginning of the rehearsal process. Perceiving the involvement of music and musicians in performance as "going right to the heart of theatrical production", Supple instructs his actors to regard music as an equal partner - in his hands, music functions not merely as a punctuating or defining device, but as a fundamental part of the process, which can actually drive the physical action.
Supple hears the culturally diverse nature of Lee's orchestrations as evoking "the ancient spiritual forces of theatre. Those sounds - the saw, the mandola, the extraordinary noise-making things the musicians bring in - have a very direct appeal to the senses and make for a very naked and intimate relationship between the performers and the audience."
On this occasion, Lee is joined by the multi-instrumentalist Sylvia Hallett and the percussionist Simon Allen. Each boasts fully paid-up off-beat credentials: Sylvia Hallett, described as "purveyor of spirited violin abuse" by one critic, is also featured in this production on musical saw, a talent discovered while gardening. Turkish and Arabic percussion is handled by Simon Allen, recently returned from musical sculpture-making in Egypt with the spookily-named Gamel Abdel Nasser (no reincarnation), whose oeuvre is the creation of interactive musical sculptures and machinery. Allen includes some of his own creations in this performance, notably the rumble-box, genetically descended from a sock drawer with attached steel knife-blades and chair springs.
Following the Indonesian dictum of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity Through Diversity, although the Indonesians don't seem to adhere to it so strictly themselves), Lee's future projects are various, including Ted Hughes's translation of Lorca's Blood Wedding, the Anglo-Egyptian musical collaboration Maqaam, who perform in the forthcoming Arabic Music Festival in Cairo, and Gong Elektrong, a gamelan group who, in a true meeting of the sacred and the profane, combined Indonesian gamelan with Western sound technology. Noses will be put out of joint among the UK gamelan fraternity but, Lee feels, "striking a balance between respect for traditional values on one hand and innovation on the other provides the lifeblood that enables traditions to continue." In the vernacular - bang a gong.
n 'The Comedy of Errors' opens tonight at the Other Place. Booking: 01789 295623