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The Folger Spotlight

The Lofty Melodica of War: Sound and Music in 'King John'

Lindsay JonesEarlier, we brought you a selection of songs inspired by King JohnToday, we look more closely at the music of Folger Theatre’s production with sound designer and composer Lindsay Jones.

For those that don’t know, could you describe what sound design for a theatrical production encompasses and what your process is? 

Basically, a sound designer is responsible for everything that you hear in the theater. That may include sound effects and soundscapes, it may involve miking the actors or musicians, it may include music that is previously recorded, or in my case, music that I write for the show. My process generally is that I read the script, I meet with the director and find out what they’re interested in saying with the show, watch a run-through of the actors so that I can see their performances and how I can complement them with music and sound, and then begin creating the material for us to work with in technical rehearsals. King John is a little different, as we discovered a lot in rehearsals, and the script evolved as we learned these things, so the sound design had to change, too! It’s been a tremendous challenge but also an incredible amount of fun.

The company in rehearsal for King John, 2018.

Is there a specific production you have seen that you thought had exceptional sound and/or music? Or have there been productions you have seen that were particular influential?
I’m a huge fan of many sound designers and composers that are out there working today, and I find influences everywhere I look. I will say that I recently saw The Encounter on Broadway, and was completely blown away by the incredible world that sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin managed to achieve for that show. I found it to be incredibly inspirational in terms of what’s possible for theater sound design, and how urgently it expresses that sound design is a story-telling tool in the artistic process, and not just a mindless technical skill.

How does King John compare to other Shakespeare plays you have worked on?

Interestingly enough, I’ve now done all but five plays of Shakespeare’s canon, and two of them are ones that I’ll be working on this season at the Folger: King John and Love’s Labor’s Lost! King John is an unusual play in that, to me, it’s really about the politics of being a king, and if you don’t play those politics right, you’ll soon find yourself on your way out. What I love about Shakespeare’s plays is how theatrical they are: there’s always lots of drama and emotion, but there’s also frequently war, magic, the supernatural and other fantastical elements. It’s deeply imaginative stuff, and it pushes me as a composer and designer to really go beyond what seems possible to explore all kinds of new territory to match that theatricality. I love the challenges that Shakespeare brings, and it’s why he’s one of my favorite playwrights.

How is music being incorporated in this production?

While you could say that King John is not a “musical” play, in the sense that Shakespeare did not specifically write songs for the show, it’s actually very dependent on music. A lot of the show details the pomp and circumstance of being a king, and music plays a HUGE part in that ceremony. King John uses music in the traditional sense to signal the importance of the people we see, but also in very nontraditional ways to underscore and highlight the emotional life and turmoil that these characters have.

King John (Brian Dykstra) and Hubert (Elan Zafir), King John, 2018. Photo by Teresa Wood.

What should audiences listen for in King John?

King John has a very specific musical palette that was very deliberately chosen. Director Aaron Posner told me that he wanted a sound that was absolutely NOT royal. In fact, he wanted it to feel somewhat cheap and crappy as if it couldn’t possibly be associated with our traditional ideas of a king. So I went in search of an instrument that feels cheap and crappy, but could still be representative of the many trumpets, organs, and overall musical pageantry that the play calls for. I wound up using a combination of an accordion and a melodica, which is a wind-blown instrument that uses a keyboard to select notes. To give the score some gravitas, I chose trombones to be the lower bass notes of the music, and also marching bass drums and snares to convey the military qualities. So, everything that you hear in the show is made only with those instruments: accordion, melodica, trombone and drums. That’s it. Even the more electronic sounding material in the show is just manipulations of those four instruments.

If you could sum up King John in a single song or piece of music, what would it be?

I kinda that I summed it up in the theme of the show! It’s called King John and you can hear it here along with the rest of the score. I hope you all enjoy it!


Folger Theatre King JohnThanks to Lindsay for his insights into King John! Stay tuned for more peeks at Folger Theatre’s production, which runs through December 2. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.

King John
Folger Theatre
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Aaron Posner; scenic design by Andrew Cohen; costume design by Sarah Cubbage; lighting design by Max Doolittle; sound design and original music by Lindsay Jones; production photography by Teresa Wood.