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Making Merchant Music
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The Beacon Herald 2001 Festival Edition              Transcribed by Tracie Pascoe

Photo by Scott Wishart

Performing with the Stratford Festival Company in the 1981 production of HMS Pinafore brought Loreena McKennitt to town in 1981.  The following year she acted in The Tempest and in Julius Caesar and in 1984 composed and performed live music for Two Gentlemen of Verona.  This season, after achieving international success as a singer/songwriter, Ms McKennitt returns as composer for The Merchant of Venice.  

In an interview at her office in Stratford, where she operates her own Quinlan Road music production and distribution company, Ms McKennitt pointed out that the play's 1600s setting fits nicely into the time period she has drawn upon for some of her own work.   As well , she had already incorporated Middle Eastern influences into her own music.  "Interestingly enough, that's the territory I have been flirting with in my own music with the Celts"



 Already on familiar turf because of her previous composing work for the Festival and for the National Film Board of Canada, her approach was first to gather information from the time and place in which the play is set.  That meant reading books and trying to gain appropriate imagery.  Other important aspects of developing the score, said Ms McKennitt, were the musicality of Shakespeare's speech and the psychological and emotional information in the play which the music is intended to complement.

To assist her development of the score, Ms. McKennitt attended rehearsals for the play as much as possible.  When she felt she had a rough idea she would burn her musical sketch to a CD and then bring it back to rehearsal and play it for director Richard Monette "to see if I was barking up the right  tree."  If the composition seemed to have the right feel, she would go back and refine her sketches with a view to duration in the play and augment them with more instruments and arrangements.

"The way I've approached this is similar to the way I've approached my recordings.  I seldom write out anything," said the recording artist whose work includes six full-length studio albums which have had phenomenal sales world-wide.  "We didn't go through the whole formal process of writing out the music and having rehearsal accompaniment to get a rendering of it.  We went fairly directly to what the music sounds like."

Ms. McKennitt acknowledged that most other composers would probably do things differently, but said she preferred to work with her musicians as she has in the past, allowing them to extrapolate.  Although pre-recorded, the music for The Merchant of Venice is played by Ms. McKennitt and members of her regular recording group:  Hugh Marsh on fiddle;  Donald Quan on viola;  Brian Hughes on guitar, mandolin and oud - a North American instrument and precursor to the lute which was popular in Venice in the 1600s;  Caroline Lavelle on cello;  Rick Lazar on percussion and George Koller on bass.  Ms. McKennitt plays harp, keyboards and a Persian stringed instrument called a kanoun.

In its specific applications, noted the composer, the music attempts to complement the action and mood of each different circumstance on stage.

For example, there's a pragmatic element in the music for scene changes which has been developed from the various themes arising during the play.   And those main themes include a love theme representing  Lorenzo and Jessica's relationship, a theme to represent the everyday comings and goings of Venice - an atmosphere with which Ms. McKennitt is personally familiar - and a carnival theme which includes dark passages to support for instance, scenes of revelry during which the households of Jews are taunted.

Then there's a Shylock theme.  "I see the exercise of what I'm called upon to do as a composer as a sort of translation process," said Ms. McKennitt.  "And whether it's film or theatre, the music is there primarily to serve and support the dramatic and emotional function of the play.  It's not there to steal focus."

One of the highlights for Ms. McKennitt in composing for Merchant has been sitting in on rehearsals and witnessing the analysis of Shakespeare's work.  "I've been really thrilled to be asked to do this.  It's been a very, very enjoyable process."  Although she first read the play before Christmas to begin to get a feel for what she had to do musically, Ms. McKennitt said it was only when she began sitting in on rehearsals in February that she started getting a greater understanding and appreciation of it.

A Stratford-area resident for the past 20 years, Ms. McKennitt does not hesitate to involve herself in social and political issues in the community. 

Most recently she has put up the considerable funds to purchase a former elementary school property which many local citizens regard as a significant part of the city's history.  Citizens were then invited to propose suitable uses for the property.

Ms. McKennitt has been twice honoured with a Juno Award for her music and has received a Billboard International Achievement Award.