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Musical Director, Opening Ceremony

 

With the Galway 2020 Opening Ceremony just around the corner, acclaimed composer and musician David Munro is in the midst of a mammoth challenge. As musical director, he’s in charge of composing, teaching and motivating hundreds of people (some professionals, some complete beginners) to take part in the biggest show of his career.

 

We meet David on a rainy day in the Claddagh. Despite the weather and a hefty dose of the flu, the enthusiasm for his job is palpable. Below, he tells us about the huge scale and heart of the show that will see hundreds of performers take over South Park on 8 February 2020.

As the musical director for the Opening Ceremony, what does your job entail?

A musical director, in a musical or in an opera, are normally in charge of the quality control of the output from the stage. Their role is to motivate people. There are musical directors that like to shout a lot and there are musical directors that like to persuade. Either way, the job is to take people from wherever they are and make them perform in a certain way. However, this isn’t an opera or a theatre piece, this is much broader than that.

 

How has this project been a different beast from anything you’ve known?

When I was approached, I had my musical director head on, thinking that’s what this was going to be. Of course, it didn’t take me long to realise that wasn’t quite the case. I found out that they wanted live bands to play in a variety of different levels and ways, and that I was also composing. There’s no melody involved; it’s just percussion, so the field was narrowing down. We’re going to have singers and chanters as well. And where does it happen? Outside, in February, in the evening. All of these things begin to strip away at the normal set of circumstances or environment that I would operate in. I would be in a recording studio, in a theatre, or in a rehearsal room. This is fantastic, it’s so different from any of those things.

 

How do those variables change the whole apparatus of the show?

I don’t have any of the luxuries of consistency in the space and what I’m pitching. We’re working with members of the public who have put themselves up to be part of the cast, some of whom have great experience, others who have just decided to come off the street and do this. In terms of being a musical director, you become a life coach as well – a mentor and encourager to the cast. Fortunately, I enjoy that process. You see very little of that in the professional world because people tend to come in ready to go. Here, we’re seeing people just piling in and helping each other, working alongside each other, all for the common goal of putting a show together.

I get the sense from talking to you that there’s a lot of joy in your rehearsals.

The people who have volunteered to become part of the cast, they’re treated like professionals. The vocabulary – everything I say to them is exactly the same as I would say to a professional cast… but you have to be aware that people need just a little bit of encouragement sometimes. They’re not used to putting themselves out there or being a larger-than-life figure. People are taking baby steps in something they’ve never done before, so persuasion is by far the best way. To let them know that they are brave enough to step forward and do something new.

 

What are some of the challenges that the performers are up against?

The world is full of virtual reality and this is totally real; there’s nothing virtual about it. You pick up a drum and you start to hit it. You know you’re doing a real thing while you’re marching with other participants that you met over the course of the rehearsal. All of that flies in the face of modern technology. It’s real people and that’s fantastic. I love seeing that vitality come back into people’s lives.

“Here, we’re seeing people just piling in and helping each other, working alongside each other, all for the common goal of putting a show together.”

Can you give us an idea of the scale of the Opening Ceremony?

We’re dealing with hundreds of people in the cast. This is probably the biggest show of which I’ve had the pleasure of being a musical director. The event will last for about two hours. The band will play on stage and welcome the crowd during the first hour.

 

Can you expand on that; what are some of the considerations in organising an outdoor show?

Obviously, the weather is a big factor and it’s an area where we have the least control. There’s a lot of technology involved, although the show will feel quite organic. There will be a medieval feel with lots of flames and fireworks. There are no big screens – it’s not a stage-focused show. The event is going to be more of an oral experience. The sound will be spread all around South Park and the headland and we’ll encourage people to go wherever they can hear clearly, which should be everywhere, but not crammed up against a stage. It’s more of a radio play, rather than a front-facing show.

 

The content of the show has been kept fairly secret. Can you offer us a little peek behind the scenes?

There’s an element of surprise that we want to save for the show. I will say, that the team who are mounting it [Wonder Works], have acquitted themselves with opening and closing ceremonies for Olympic games all over the world and mass cast events. They do that for a living and they’re very very good at it. I’ve met some amazing, creative people and all I can say is: this… is… not… small. As an audience member, you will have a thrilling night, an experience unlike going to the theatre. The event will take place in and around the audience as well. It will be quite stimulating because you won’t know where the next surprise is going to come from.

What are some of the feelings you’re trying to channel through the show?

The week leading up to the event on 8 February, starting from 1 February, is the beginning of the second phase of the Celtic calendar. It is Imbolc, which is the beginning of a new life. The cows are pregnant with calves for Spring and it’s got all that hope attached to it. That’s one of the things that comes up quite a lot. I’m feeding, subliminally, a heartbeat into quite a lot of the stuff we’re doing. Even if it’s a cold and wintery night, we are the warm blood that’s going to flow into the audience and encourage them to look forward to a new life.

 

Wow. How do you create that energy in a performer?

Just that knowledge is important to leave with them. They’re the hope, the person that’s going to take a family who have just come to see what’s going on and make them think differently about the next few months. It’s a very psychological thing but if people have that in their head, they behave differently and perform differently.

 

How do you build people up to become a performer?

A movement director comes in and she works with them in earnest. That’s when you take people who are not used to performing with their bodies in a space, imposing themselves on other people. The input of the music was important but inspiring other people comes through movement. This is not a parade, this is much more intimate than a parade. You will be the focus of attention while you’re playing but they’re not looking at your virtuosic drumming – that’s not the point of the performance. The point is to learn to have an ego, but an ego without arrogance.

Can you tell us about the nitty-gritty of learning the music, for the beginners in particular?

There would be no point in making the rhythm parts so difficult that people couldn’t take to them. Simplicity is key. I’ve been amazed at the skill of people, beginners that took maybe five or six passes at the same rhythm and just locked into it. We have lots of help, plenty of professional drummers on hand, but [the drummers] were looking at me saying, “They’ve got it!”

 

What is the groundwork you had to make for this show to come together?

We had a kick-off event at the beginning of December 2019. Aside from Galway City, there are six satellite towns taking part – Clifden, Spiddal, Tuam, Ballinasloe, Athenry, and Portumna. Every weekend, we go to to the city and all these towns, and we do a two-hour rehearsal in each place. That’s not a lot of face time with the performers but social media is a fantastic thing. We have a Facebook page for the cast. Drum chiefs prepare materials and tutorials on stuff that they have learned the week before. Everybody is essentially getting the same thing but there are going to be local differences within the towns.

 

Going a little bit into your own life – how did music first cast its spell on you?

I never even thought about it like that. I had a piano at home – I just knew how to find the tunes on the piano. I never really had to work at it and that sounds awful. There are pianists and musicians that are way more skilled than I am and I look up to them; but in terms of what I do, it’s come quite easily. I do other things because that’s the challenge. When you come to a program like this, when you’re suddenly faced with a 150 people in the room – I just have to come up with ideas on the hoof.

It touches on everything I’ve ever done – being a community participant, being a composer, being a musical director, being a producer, being a strategist, making schedules and budgets. You don’t get to do it often in one project.

“When was the last time you’ve had to kneel on a gym hall floor and do something silly with your arms? There’s something vital about being a child again in all of that.”

As a composer, at what point do you feel like you’ve hit some magic?

I love film music and soundtracks. In film and TV scoring, you’re hinting rather than pointing. I find that that’s my way into any music. The moment I thoroughly understand what’s going on, I connect with a musical output of some kind. I have to have a reason for writing something; when I lock into that reason and the story behind the piece, musical ideas will come from that. I don’t know what it is, you just think, “That’s right,” and then you change one note and think, “That’s wrong.” A composer friend of mine says that compositions are always there, you just have to be quiet enough to find the next note.

 

You’re originally from Glasgow but live in Dublin. How are both places home for you?

I tend to get a feel for places rather than reading the guides. I feel the same way in Dublin as I do in Glasgow. There are very different things that go on in the culture in Ireland compared to Scotland but on a macro level. In both countries, the weather is crap and people spend a lot of time inside, by a warm fire, drinking. What do you do then? You start telling stories! That story-telling culture really appeals to me. There’s no truth anymore: the politicians, the church, all of that’s a mess now. It’s very difficult for people to trust anything. So when you have a culture where people actually care about people and not what they’ve acquired or how powerful they are, that does it for me. I find that, in Ireland, people will talk to you and they’ll say “How are ya?” and it’s not just a salutation. Same in Glasgow. Long may that last.

 

How do you think Galway will change after 2020?

I can’t speak for Galway but I can speak for our cast. I’m seeing people, who previously didn’t have a skill, grow and develop an opinion of what they’ve just done. It’s important to be able to go, “What do you think, was that good?” It’s not a trick question, I want them to be able to evaluate themselves and say, “Yeah, I was actually right in the middle of the beat.” If they can do that, if they can self-correct, then that’s growth. I don’t know what the legacy will be, maybe these drum groups will keep growing in some of the smaller towns. Why not? One of the most common comments we get is that people haven’t had this much fun since primary school. When was the last time you’ve had to kneel on a gym hall floor and do something silly with your arms? There’s something vital about being a child again in all of that.


Hundreds of creatives have been involved in the making of the Galway 2020 programme. In our Meet the Makers series, we meet the people who are making it  happen.

Photos and interviews by Julia Monard.

Videography by Lakshika Serasinhe.