Caribbean Beat Magazine

Dominique Le Gendre — Shakespeare and me

Dominique Le Gendre trained for eight years as a classical guitarist, fully intending to perform, but her nerves would not let her face an audience. As a result, she turned her many skills towards composing, which is where Bruce Paddington finds her...composing the music for all of Shakespeare's 38 plays

  • In the recording studio. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
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  • Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Dominique (left) playing Portuguese guitar with flautist Kirsten Spratt and actors during the recording of As You Like It. Photograph by Sheila Burnett
  • Young Dominique practising with a friend at the tube station. Photograph courtesy Danielle DeGendre

The English have been busy making a new recording other most famous playwright, William Shakespeare – all 38 of his plays. Distributed on CD and audiocassette by Penguin Audio Books, this will be the definitive Shakespeare collection, replacing the previous version which was made over 30 years ago featuring the late Sir Laurence Olivier.

Some of the most distinguished actors in British film and theatre have been involved in the project. Joseph Fiennes, who starred in Elizabeth and played the young Shakespeare in Shakespeare In Love, plays Romeo in the new Romeo and Juliet; the 96- year-old Shakespearean veteran Sir John Gielgud played Gower in Pericles, one of the last roles he undertook before his death this year.

And the composer for the series, the musician who has created all the incidental music for the plays, is a young Trinidadian: Dominique Le Gendre.

Dominique is part of a new wave of talented, well-educated Caribbean people now working in the arts in London and making a name for themselves in film, television, drama and music. Some – film director/producer Frances-Anne Solomon, actor/director/writer Martina Laird – are even from the same school as Dominique, Bishop Anstey High School in Port of Spain.

Dominique lives in Brixton, the south-east London suburb that is home to many people with Caribbean backgrounds. She drives her sturdy old black Mercedes to a recording studio in Clapham Common, where she has been working on the music for the Shakespeare plays.

“I have been recording since October 1996. Basically I have a budget to work with, to pay live musicians. I usually spend up to two days recording, to produce between 20 and 40 minutes of music which will be used in the play. All the music is entr’ acte music: for the opening of the play, the end of the play, plus the extra music that often occurs, like trumpet calls, drum rolls, battle scenes, incidental music to accompany a speech, or to give atmosphere between acts and scenes. When it comes to actually writing the music for a play, it can take anything from seven days to two weeks to write, orchestrate and copy all the parts by hand for the musicians. It’s a substantial job.”

Director/producer Clive Brill has been using Dominique’s music to give the series shape and form. A former radio producer with the BBC, he met Dominique ten years ago, when she was writing the music for some radio plays being produced by fellow Trinidadian Frances-Anne Solomon. They worked together on a number of productions, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1991. It was Brill who wanted her to be the composer for his new Shakespeare series.

Before starting work on one of the plays, Dominique and Brill go over it in detail and decide where music is needed, what sort of music is called for, and what kind of instrumentation. There are still trumpets when Henry V takes the field, but Dominique is under no obligation to recreate the Elizabethan sounds of Shakespeare’s time.

Dominique is involved in all aspects of the recording, including the final mix, sound effects and editing. Whenever possible, she uses Caribbean musicians and singers. Several Trinidadian operatic singers- Simone Sauphanor, Roberto Salvatori, Ronald Samm, Nigel Wong – have worked with her on the vocal pieces, while she plays the guitar and other instruments herself. For The Tempest she used the accomplished Trinidadian percussionist and drummer Robert Bailey on steelpan, an inspired choice of instrument considering the tropical island location of the play.

Dominique did some acting at school, and worked as a production assistant on one of the Caribbean’s first television drama series, Banyan’s Who The Cap Fits. But she specialized in music, and went to the Sorbonne in Paris to study classical guitar and musicology. She had originally planned to study composition at the Paris Conservatory, but there was a lengthy preparation involved, so she trained instead for eight years as a classical guitarist, also studying harmony, piano and composition.

Then in 1984 and 1985 she started writing music for friends who were making student films at the prestigious Paris Film School. She found the transition from performer to composer something of a relief. “I have a terrible case of [performer’s] nerves. I honestly couldn’t face an audience … even my hands were starting to get paralysed, just from all the tensions of the muscles. It was a problem that had also occurred to my teacher, and he advised me just to chill out a bit and go and live and do something else for a while.”

Dominique knew she had the potential to be a concert guitarist, but she took her teacher’s advice. She moved back and forth between Paris and New York, then moved to London and for five years was involved with Theatre in Education, writing music and sometimes performing. She took a one-year diploma course in sound engineering and recording techniques (which helped her immensely with the Shakespeare project, where she spent much of her time in the studio).

Gradually, Dominique made her name as a composer for film, television and radio. She wrote the music for a documentary about the 1990 Muslim revolt in Trinidad, Kaiso for July 27th, by a fellow Trinidadian, Karen Martinez. She worked on films for Channel Four Television, and on Sonali Fernando’s tribute to the poet Audre Laude, Body of a Poet. She composed music for the acclaimed director Mike Hodges’ television series The Healer, and in 1997 wrote and arranged the music for her first feature film, Sixth Happiness, which was produced by her Trinidadian school friend Frances-Anne Solomon; they had already worked together on Frances-Anne’s documentary about the Guyanese poet Grace Nicholls, I is a Long Memoried Woman, and on a number of other plays for the BBC.

Dominique’s music is not overtly Caribbean, but the region’s influence is always there. “It’s a way of approaching music. I don’t know how to put my finger on it. It’s a way of hearing the music, it’s a way of feeling a certain rhythm within the music that I know comes from Hosay or from the calypso folk tradition. And it’s not just the English-speaking Caribbean. I was also brought up with Martiniquan music from my mother; and a large influence on the music that I write comes from the classical or Spanish guitar repertoire that I played for over 20 years, which in essence is very Latin American.”

Other influences have come from far beyond the Caribbean, including the Czech composer Leos Janacek and Hungary’s Bela Bartok, who made extensive use of folk material. For the Capulet ball in Romeo andJuliet, Dominique uses a string quartet to create a gypsy feel, while in the famous balcony scene she adds a guitar to evoke a Castilian mood. In other plays you might hear echoes of Stravinsky or the Brazilian composer VillaLobos. ln A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Bottom and his gang play for the king’s birthday, we become part of an old-time calypso brass band jam session.

Although she still considers herself a Trinidadian, and wants to retain a close relationship with her homeland, Dominique has accepted the fact that she will spend her life working as a composer in Europe. She has already been awarded a grant by the London Arts Board to start work on an opera with an Iranian writer, Mehrdad Seyf. The story is based on the “discovery” of the New World, the encounter of different cultures, and asks why it was necessary for one culture to dominate, instead of co-existing. The project will take about a year. She is also training as a conductor with the Cuban-born composer/conductor, Odaline de la Martinez.

Frances-Anne Solomon says of her compatriot: “I think she is a genius. Well, I don’t know about that word, but she is so talented. She’s the best of all the composers I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve worked with a lot. Definitely the most talented; original music, extraordinary sound, a real distinctive quality to her music. But I think she gets passed over a lot because she’s a woman, because she’s not white.”

Dominique’s mixed race and her distinctive Trinidadian accent does confuse people. “It always shocks them when they see my face. The usual reaction is, why are you speaking like that? And I don’t look English, so they normally think I am South American or Arabic, or maybe Spanish or Italian or something. The last thing they expect is Trinidad. So when they hear this accent coming out, the closest thing they could associate with a fair skin and a strange accent is Welsh. And I say, I’m not Welsh, I’m from Trinidad.”