Luke Martin ’14 has played guitar since he was 10, but writing a musical score for a theater production was not part of his curriculum vitae until last fall. Now he can add “award-winning composer” to his résumé.
This spring the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region I gave him a “best original music” merit award for a score he wrote for the Theater and Dance Department production of The Long Christmas Ride Home, this fall’s full-length play. The award came as a surprise since the respondent for the theater festival nominated Martin after watching a performance on campus. “You don’t get one because you ask for it,” said Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Todd Coulter.
Martin, an English and music double major recruited by Coulter, said the project took “all my time for, like, a month.” He was recommended by Associate Professor of Music Steven Nuss, who coached him through the composition process, and Martin enrolled in the two-credit course that produced the play.
Coming in addition to his other classes and playing on the varsity men’s tennis team, the composing assignment resulted in some late hours. “There was a long dance scene. I had no idea what to write for it,” Martin said. Inspiration struck at 3 a.m., he wrote music until 5 a.m., and handed it off to Coulter at noon. In the end he said of the project, “I loved it. ... It was a great semester.”
He composed the music using Sibelius, the leading composition and notation software, on his PC and created ensemble-like arrangements of synthesized instrumental parts.
Coulter said he was impressed with Martin’s professionalism in adapting his initial drafts to fit the needs of the production. The eight-minute dance composition had to be compressed to about four minutes. Overall, they cut Martin’s original compositions, about 40 minutes, about in half. Martin made the cuts with “no moaning or groaning, but he stood his ground too,” Coulter said. “He was really, really good.”
Martin’s academic interests in music and literature made the assignment “absolutely perfect,” he said, and Coulter concurred. Martin integrated what he wanted as a musician with the demands of the script to produce what Coulter needed as a director. “He brought up things in the text that I hadn’t noticed,” Coulter said.
Nuss was helpful as Martin incorporated Japanese scales to reflect a Japanese aesthetic in the drama.
On his own Martin came up with a theme for each of the three children in the family, a subtle but sophisticated way of using leitmotifs to support the individual identities, sustain their threads through the narrative, and almost subconsciously engage the audience, Coulter said.
The musical coup de grace
came at the end of the play, which is a literal cliff-hanger. The final chord was not a major (happy resolution) or a minor (ominous) chord. Instead Martin ended with an open fifth, which echoed the lack of resolution in the dramatic narrative, allowing theatergoers to mentally fill in a hopeful or somber ending.
Hear a selection from Martin's score for The Long Christmas Ride Home.