Math Roberts discusses his new song cycle ‘What Comes After’

This new piece opens at the BT Studio in 8th Week

poster for song cyle

How did ‘What Comes After’ come about, is it a new piece or have you had it in the pipeline for a while?

The idea came from many different places, but the most prominent spark I can think of was when I went to see ‘How to Use a Washing Machine’ in the BT last Trinity term. It struck me then that Oxford gave such great opportunities to put on new writing and gave me the push that I needed to go ahead and actually write what had been stewing in my head for quite a while. The first couple of songs were written over the following summer and then it all took off from there!

Do you have any favourite scenes?

That’s a difficult question, as all of the scenes are essentially songs. I guess I did prefer some songs to others originally, but it all changed when we started rehearsing. Grace and Henry really bring out the nuances that even I didn’t realise were in these songs and make my views shift! I’m assuming by the end of the run all of the songs will have been my favourite at some point. Saying that, I do like the duets that they have together, as they really highlight the dynamic of the whole show.

What’s the some of the joys and challenges of the production?

One challenge I didn’t see coming was having to look at everything objectively (culling songs, changing lyrics etc) and how difficult that would be. Another challenge, that became a joy in the end, was letting people trust me and my music. Josh, the musical director, hadn’t heard all of the songs when he got on board, and so to know that he trusted me to write the rest was something that really propelled the writing process forward!

Tell me a bit about how your ideas translate into the visual scene on stage?

The cycle of songs will be presented as a quasi concert production, so when writing the songs I was always thinking about how they would be performed. One song is a sort of twisted waltz, and so I’m looking forward to breaking it to Henry that he’ll be dancing by himself..! One of the best things about developing new writing is that a lot of the ideas come from working on it together. Movement and blocking all merge into the content of the songs; the music is almost narratively written with passages accentuating certain actions and scenes so I hope to convey this!

‘What Comes After’ is described on the BT website as being about ‘two actors contemplating the many puzzling aspects of death’. Tell me a bit more about ‘these puzzling aspects’ and how they pervade the production?

The idea of death has always intrigued me because it’s something that applies to everyone. No one can monopolise it but equally no one has the right to tell others what they should be feeling, or, more importantly, what they should consider ‘death’ itself to be. We see many characters in the show, each having their own experience of death. Some are more significant, such as grief or acceptance. Others are more superficial; the end of a year or the end of a relationship. I hope, out of all the stories, that there’ll be something for everyone to engage with!

Are the words your own or written separately? How do you view the relationship between music and lyrics, or are they essentially separate entities?

Because the show is told entirely through song I felt that both music and lyrics needed to be written together. A song would usually start by mapping out the idea of the narrative and the arc of the characters. The rest of the process changed from song to song; sometimes a lyric hook would come first, sometimes a musical motif or groove would trigger a domino effect, and sometimes I would spend two or three days pondering over what the characters wanted to ‘actually say’! By writing both at the same time motifs would completely flip some of the lyrics on their heads when repeated in a different context, and musical nods to other songs link everything up in a way that proves that they’re not separate narratives at all!

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