Alumnus Continues to Compose for UNCW

Among its fall slate of plays, UNCW's Theatre Department is performing Arthur Miller's The Crucible. The production brings a timeless parable to a Wilmington audience, but it comes with a new twist unusual in a university theatre production - an original score. WHQR's Megan Williams has a look at the music, and the surprising career of its creator.

November 16, 2005, Wilmington, NC – Between scenes during a dress rehearsal in Kenan auditorium, the Crucible's cast and crew scurry to change sets. Covering their hushed whispers and bumps, solemn music on the loudspeakers foreshadows grim events to come. James Burke composed this music. He graduated from the university's music department twenty years ago, and has found a new role at the school, composing for the theatre.

"The scores have become more involved over the years," Burke says, "and I've tried to integrate it more within the structure of the play, and draw more from the meanings behind the plays."

In writing music for the crucible, Burke collaborated with the show's director, Professor Terry Theodore.

Theodore tells the story of their work on the show: "And so he composed the music for me. And he sent me a demo disc if you will. I listened to it and said, 'No, this isn't quite right, this just doesn't have what I'm after.' So, I know it's hard to tell a composer what you're feeling, but I tried to express it to him. And sure enough, the second time he nailed it, and I said, 'This is it, you got it, let's go for it!'"

What Burke went with was an old German hymn, written by Martin Luther. That hymnal theme starts in the overture and swells up again and again during scene changes and intermission, shaping the audience's sense of the play, according to professor Theodore. Sometimes, it even bleeds into the action itself...

(psalm sung softly underneath)
Abigail: ...She is telling lies about me. She is a cold, sniveling woman and you bend to her! Let her turn you like a -
John Proctor: Do you look for whippin'?
Abigail: I look for the John Proctor that put knowledge into my heart...

The script is passionate, but Burke's approach to the score, is more analytical. In his day job, he's a PhD student at UNC-Greensboro. His eventual doctorate? Applied Geography. But Burke says he sees a lot of similarities between science and composition. But, "some people might disagree with me on that," he acknowledges, "particularly those who state it's a more spiritual, emotional, need to sit out on the beach and drink a glass of wine and wait for the muses. And, no. No, some people might do that, I don't do that. It's a problem, it needs to be solved, and there are very well established ways of solving it."

That dedication to mechanics, over the romance, infuses not only his style of composition, but also its execution. As for who performed this music?

"Believe it or not, nobody. Technology, in terms of orchestra simulation is becoming very advanced, so you can control all sorts of nuances."

Burke calls the computer 'a composer's fantasy,' although that view doesn't tend to please musicians.

"What it translates out to in composition is, you can compose a lot more music quicker, and the music is a lot more satisfying. You don't have to go out and have people play it, every piece that you compose."

Burke may not miss the musicians, but he enjoys the extra audience theatre composition brings him. Works which might have only found life in a one-time recital now get a full weekend run.

Megan Williams, WHQR News