Duncan Sheik

An Interview with Duncan Sheik

By Rachel Alderman, Artistic Associate

Composer Duncan Sheik (right) with Director Tony Speciale (left) and playwright/actor James Lecesne (center).  Photo: David Gordon
Composer Duncan Sheik (right) with The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey Director Tony Speciale (left) and playwright/actor James Lecesne (center).  Photo: David Gordon

I connected with Duncan Sheik by phone in February to chat briefly about his work as the composer for James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. What follows are the highlights of our friendly artist conversation.

How did you first connect with James?

We had been friends for a really long time. Part of, what I like to call, the Buddhist Mafia in New York City. Through our Buddhist practice, we had become really great friends and collaborated on a few projects here and there.

What was your way in to composing the music for Absolute Brightness?

To be bluntly honest: Cold instrumental tracks culled from my previous collection called Legerdemain. They had a mood that fit the story that James was telling really well. It was an opportunity to use the music in a really different way. When you strip away the vocals from the tracks they take on a very different feeling and they become amorphous. I was attempting to not get in the way…

“Attempting to not get in the way?”

The story is a mystery that you are attempting to solve. You want the music to elevate that air of “whoa, what’s going on” and at the same time, there is this beautiful/melancholy/sadness about what has happened –which I don’t want to give away [laughs] – and you kind of want to intimate that there are deeper emotional stakes.

Your first project composing music for a play was in 2002 for Shakespeare in the Park’s Twelfth Night. How did you transition from recording artist to theatre artist?

I had already begun working on Spring Awakening [8 Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Score and Best Musical], so people knew that I was transitioning into doing work for theater and Brian Kulick, who was directing Twelfth Night, was a big fan of my album Phantom Moon. He asked if I could do some things for his show that were in that style.

What satisfies you about working in theater?

[The] ability to make music, and then there are incredible set designers, light designers, narrative, choreography [etc.]…all these other elements that combine together to make a powerful experience on the stage. As a recording/touring artist, I was never at the place where I could afford to tour with the extra trucks full of stuff. It is great to experience the music with all the trappings. Also, being able to be in the audience to experience the music as oppose to being the one performing the music is great fun. [laughing] Does that sound lazy? 

You seem to work on many projects simultaneously. What’s up next?

Heading over to London later this month to do a new version of Whisper House, which we did at the Old Globe [in San Diego] back in 2010. Then working on the adaptation of Secret Lives of Bees with Lynn Nottage, directed by Sam Gold. Plus a bunch more projects in the works with Steven Sater.