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Meet the Composer! Mark Ferris

We interviewed the creative team so you can get to know them better. Meet Mark Ferris, who composed all the music in 'Disturbance'.

Let's start by having you tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve lived in Australia the past 7 years but spent 18 years in Tokyo before that. And I grew up in Zimbabwe and then studied in South Africa. 

What’s your role in ‘Disturbance’?

I am co-producing ‘Disturbance’ and also wrote the music. 

How did you get into producing shows?

I started investing in West End and Broadway shows around ten years ago. I loved being part of the process and wanted to get more involved so tried producing. 

Any producing highlights you can share?

I especially like producing new work. It feels like you are ‘blazing a trail’ in the arts. Winning a Tony Award in 2018 for the Broadway revival of ‘Once on this Island’ was definitely a highlight!

Why are you producing ‘Disturbance’ in Tokyo?

Main reason is to access the considerable skills of Rachel Walzer who I’ve known for many years and she graciously agreed to adapt the book for the stage. She is also directing. 

And you wrote the music. What’s your background as a composer? 

I learned piano and sang as a kid but was always interested in writing music. Always tinkering with ideas ... which is why my piano skills didn’t improve much! Composing is something I’ve always done and probably always will. It can lead to interesting collaborations as with ‘Disturbance’.

What kind of music do you compose?

A whole range of styles including musical theatre, ‘popular’ songs, choral music, jazz and so on. The project (and lyrics) usually dictate the style of music. Actually, I seldom think in terms of musical ‘styles’ as I’m not sure the traditional classifications are very useful today. 

Any other notable projects you’ve been involved with as a composer?  

Some years ago, Gordon Goodwin and the Big Phat Band recorded two of my songs at Capital Records in Los Angeles and I got to witness those super-talented musicians at work! And co-writing and recording with reggae performer Maxi Priest was amazing. I was humbled by the energy he put into the recording.  

If you weren’t involved in producing and composing, what job would you like?

Umm...  I would have to be building something. A business, an organisation or a project in the early stages. I like getting things off the ground with other energised people. 

What do you do to ‘get away from it all’? Hobbies? Distractions? Guilty pleasures?!

I seldom think of getting away from things. Usually I’m trying to get deeper into things. That happens if I choose the right projects upfront. 

How did you first get involved with ‘Disturbance’? 

A friend in Australia referred me to Ivy’s book as source material for a future product. To be honest, I wasn’t very excited when it was first explained to me. But I bought the book and immediately found it riveting. Powerful imagery and clever treatment of highly sensitive subjects. I experimented with setting the poetry to music and enjoyed the process immensely. Later I contacted Ivy to find she was open to an adaptation of her book. And then I reacquainted with Rachel who was willing to adapt the work for stage and direct. At that point, the project became a reality. 

What challenges does composing music for ‘Disturbance’ present? 

There are many challenges but also opportunities. For example, poetry is seldom written with music in mind. In ‘Disturbance’, there is a lot of free verse and irregular meter, some poems are long, some short and the pace and tone varies greatly. These are all challenges.

The composer also has to think about the singers and how they’ll sound as well as the audience who are looking for a certain experience. 

‘Disturbance’ presents the perspectives of many different characters which is an opportunity to use different musical styles to bring out their personalities. 

Please talk us through the process of writing a song from a poem. 

 Well... there is no formula...  but I think first of the ‘mood’ to be evoked in a listener. Is it sad, playful, angry, energising etc? Then I look for musical clues in the words. All phrases and sentences have some music packed within them. And sometimes it can easily be unlocked. Not always. Then there is a process of refining and sculpting which means getting rid of the surplus. Usually ‘less is more’. 

Ideas might also be shaped by the singer or someone who interprets the poem differently. Sometimes, poems will need modification to succeed as songs and that’s what an adaptation is all about; transforming one art form so it can succeed in a different form. 

Some would say the subject matter of ‘Disturbance’ is ‘dark’. Are you comfortable with that description? How would you describe it?

I prefer the word ‘brave’. It is certainly confronting because it investigates a tragic event and related social issues. 

Is there any specific reaction you’d like to evoke in your audience? 

I’d like the audience to think in a fresh way, then arrive at their own conclusions. Art should not be prescriptive. Hopefully, we can stimulate healthy conversations in which people listen, process information, avoid making judgements, embrace complexity and reconsider their own positions. This kind of dialogue seems to be uncommon at present.

What role does the arts have in bringing about social change?

An increasingly important role because it’s a forum where risk-taking is allowed. Conventions can be challenged and bold statements can be made. But ultimately communities bring about social change, not art or artists.

What are some of your favourite theatrical productions? And musical theatre productions?

So many! I saw Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ recently and was impressed by its continued relevance after many years. The Lloyd-Webber / Rice musicals are among my favourites. And I loved 'The Band's Visit' which is a welcome antidote to the giant Disney productions. 

What other projects are you working on now?

I like to have a lot on and am enjoying travelling to Japan and US for business and pleasure. But the main priority is a successful world premiere of ‘Disturbance’!

What would you say to people considering a career in music?

Don’t think so much about ‘careers’. Do things that are fun. Take risks. Be willing to fail a few times. Be open to change. Meet a lot of people ... especially those you can learn from. Be energetic. Don’t wait for things to happen. 

Do this for three years and if you’re still doing music, you’ll know it was a smart direction to follow! 

What are your aspirations for ‘Disturbance’ in the longer term?

From the very beginning, I felt ‘Disturbance’ could be performed in many locations over many years. I expect it will evolve over time and I'm in early discussions with other performance venues. I also believe it could find a place in other media, perhaps film. 

Thanks for your time today. And good luck for the premiere! 

Many thanks. 

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