Middlebury composer puts the scare into score for Jekyll & Hyde play

MIDDLEBURY — Peter Hamlin has long had an ear for experimentation. In kindergarten he learned to put together simple electroniccircuits, and in fifth grade he used a tape recorder to record all kinds of noises and then mix them together.
The primary result of messing around with the recorder, Hamlin said, was a series of semi-appropriate radio plays filled with the sense of humor that fifth-grade boys are wont to have. Long-term it served as a foundation for the type of work the composer of conventional and electronic music is now engaged in.
“You did (that kind of humor) because you were in fifth grade but that’s actually the kind of work you do with electronic sound — you take sounds and you manipulate them in different ways,” he said. “In some ways, I think I had sort of an unconscious introduction to it.”
Hamlin is applying this passion for musical experimentation in writing the score for the Middlebury Actors Workshop’s upcoming play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The play, based on the famous novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, will be staged Oct. 23-31 at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.
Hamlin, 63, built on his early experiences with sound. In high school he experimented in a rock band with footswitches made popular at the time by musicians like Jimi Hendrix. Hamlin studied music at Middlebury College, graduating in 1973, and worked as a radio host and producer for classical music shows in San Diego and Cedar Falls, Iowa, before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees and teaching at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
Throughout all of these ventures — before returning to Middlebury College as a professor in 2004 — he was writing music.
“What inspires me is what I’m writing for at the moment,” he said. “I’m half in choir and various kinds of instrumental music for band and orchestra, but I also have an interest in electronic music, so I’ve been doing a lot along those lines as well.”
Hamlin teaches and writes varieties of music one might ordinarily expect from a college music department — chamber music, choral music, band and orchestra. But he has also stretched in more experimental directions. Consider one piece he wrote for Middlebury music department colleague Su Lian Tan called “Grand Theft Flauto” — music for solo flute and video game controller. In it, Tan performs live music on the flute, and those sounds are processed by the game controller in real time to create the electronic score.
Now in his 11th year on the Music faculty at Middlebury, Hamlin has turned his attention to writing the score for “Jekyll and Hyde,” an experience that he says has provided a new outlet for musical experimentation.
“Jekyll and Hyde” is Stevenson’s classic tale of the duality of human nature, in which the well-liked and respected Dr. Henry Jekyll is transformed into the hideous, depraved and violent Mr. Hyde. This production features multiple actors playing Hyde, which is where Hamlin draws much of the inspiration for his work.
“It really gets into what are all of the creatures that are inside a person,” Hamlin said. “In terms of the music, I’m trying to convey apparent normalcy of Dr. Jekyll and then the various kinds of psychological states that are associated with various parts of Mr. Hyde’s character.”
This kind of musical collaboration is a departure from Hamlin’s previous ventures. In other projects, such as concert pieces, Hamlin’s music was placed in the foreground of the audience’s attention. In Jekyll and Hyde, it plays a subtle, but equally vital role in the entire story, adding crucial tension as the play progresses.
“I don’t want them coming out of the play at the end and saying that the music was fantastic,” he said. “I want them to say that the drama and the moods were so effective. And then I want them to remember the sounds.”
Working with a library of digitized instruments and samples at his home studio in Middlebury, Hamlin is able to create the entire score for the play without a single instrument in front of him. While listeners will recognize strings, harps and other acoustic instruments, the score is written using Ableton Live, a composition software that he also uses teaching his students.
“It’s very much like writing other scores of music but in this case, the music is being actualized through a digital writing software,” he said. “In many ways, it’s spanning my two worlds.”
Hamlin has worked closely with the play’s director, Melissa Lourie. The two have been collaborating on the score since June.
“He’s a really fun guy to work with,” Lourie said. “His musical taste and range made him a great choice for the part.”
While writing the score, the two went through the play scene by scene, analyzing the mood and the characters. Hamlin would create several possibilities for each scene.
The music, Lourie said, plays a key role in creating a world not entirely real. There will be everything from low, ominous thrumming sounds to recognizable string parts that the director describes as “twisted, modernized or distilled.”
“Even though it’s not a musical, there are lots of scenes that move at a fast pace and with lots of energy,” she said. “The music helps swoop into a setting and keep the energy of the performance moving forward where the scene otherwise might seem static.”
As Hamlin wraps up the score, he is meeting and working with the cast in the final weeks of production, a style of rehearsal that is another departure from his previous experiences. When working with an orchestra, he could deliver a script and the orchestra would be prepared after several rehearsals.
Even though the score for the play will be close to finished when he brings it to the theater, he’ll still have to make changes.
“It’s much more interacted and complicated,” he said. “I can’t just deliver the score, I have to be there and make those changes even as late as the last week. I might be misjudging how fast an actor is talking and the music goes too long or too slowly, or I might feel that something has too much activity and is distracting from the text.”
The editing will be easier than in the early days of analog musical recording, when Hamlin would listen through reels of tape and then physically snip out an excerpt with a pair of scissors. Hamlin said,in those days, the “Undo” button meant digging through the plastic garbage bag for the section of tape he had had previously cut out and then taping it back in.
But when the curtain rises on opening night of “Jekyll and Hyde,” he said, the result of his work will speak for itself.
“I want people to feel a little uncomfortable,” he said. “I want them looking behind them.”

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