“The Kite Runner’s” Composer Jonathan Girling “UnBlocks” Opera, Symphony & Theater Music

Have you seen that hilarious Progressive Insurance television commercial trying to prevent us from becoming our parents? Well, I am going to use a term that my mom used to always use, “Variety is the spice of life!” That is technically the theme of “Un-Block The Music.” As a new wave, punk rock girl of the 1980s, imagine the thrill when I discovered that The Kite Runner’s Composer Jonathan Girling worked on Derek Jarman’s last film Blue with Simon Fischer Turner and MSG (otherwise known as Miranda Sex Garden) at Brian Eno’s house. Brian, you may know, is the producer for Talking Heads and Ultravox. With each amazing artist I meet, the premise of my blog grows stronger. Don’t put yourself in a box! “Un-Block” all music!

Jonathan is a classical composer by training. Classical training with an edge. He has written for the English National Opera, Symphonies, but also for percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. “in addition to traditional classical music, I also love minimalist music from composers such as Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and ARvo Part,” Jonathan said. In “Un-Block The Music’s” opinion he is bridging musical gaps, and hopefully doing the same for cultural gaps by bringing to life the beauty and oppression of the Middle East. Witness his work on The Kite Runner. (Witness it quickly. The last performance on Broadway for this show is Sunday, October 30. You can get tickets now at: https://thekiterunnerbroadway.com/)

In a way, Jonathan’s career chose him rather than the other way around. “When I went to University, the London Sinfonietta were residents. The music became a brave new world for me. I was fascinated and I would go to Queen Elizabeth’s Hall to hear famous conductors like Simon Rattle. I learned from there.”  Then, a big break came for Jonathan when three-time Tony Winner and Oscar Winner Mark Rylance and his wife actor, composer and playwright Claire van Kampen gave him an internship at The Shakespeare Globe Theater.

Claire served as Founding Director of Theatre Music and as musical consultant and resident composer until 2015. “I learned from Claire by shadowing her. The first piece I worked on was the first all-female version of Much Ado About Nothing.” Jonathan remembers this fondly not only for what he learned, but for the funny fact that he was the shortest person in the production. “Tall women!” he laughed. Anyway, both Mark and Claire were “incredibly encouraging. I went on to the Royal Shakespeare company afterwards and that is where I got my first professional commission. “

Classical commissions came afterwards, and after working outside the theater community for a while, Jonathan said he had to find a way back in! So, he did what so many others have told “Un-Block The Music,” he wrote to “loads of theaters saying ‘Here I am! Here is what I do!’ Giles Croft (then, the Artistic Director of The Nottingham Playhouse) just phoned me up and said I sounded interesting and he wanted to meet up.” Ultimately Jonathan was hired to write the music for a show he was directing called Families of Lockerbie. It was the first of many collaborations with Giles which ultimately led to their work together on The Kite Runner.

The Kite Runner follows the life of Amir, a boy from Kabul who flees with his father to America when he turns 18. Amir leaves behind a guilty past with his childhood best friend Hassan. As the guilt follows him throughout his life, he has the chance to redeem himself when he reaches adulthood and must return to now Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. 

Certainly, an interesting plot for a changing Broadway.  “Un-Block The Music” asked Jonathan about today’s climate around theater not only in the U.S. but abroad. “The landscape of theater has fundamentally changed.” Think about the fact that The Music Man, Hamilton and The Lion King are top performing shows with KPOP, Life of Pie and Some Like It Hot coming soon! “There has been a strong movement about safe spaces and rights across the board with an active push towards diversity in the last couple of years. A lot of the projects I have worked on have been to do with that…even though I am a middle-aged white guy, “he laughed. “I believe in this.”

Group picture is Jonathan with the cast of The Kite Runner

Life experience is what Jonathan said draws him to projects. “One of my first relationships was with someone who had a different ethnicity from me. The abuse that we got was unbelievable, and I think experiences like that help mold the path for your life. You either just move along or try to take an active interest in doing something about it; helping to change for the better.”

In 2013, after working on Families of Lockerbie, Jonathan and Giles wrote Charley Peace, a play with lots of music. Giles then approached him about The Kite Runner. “I always loved the story, and I asked him a lot of questions he didn’t quite know how to answer at first, but he called me back a couple of weeks later saying, ‘I would really like you to work on this project.’”

Kite flying is very popular in Kabul as the mountainous terrain creates a lot of wind. “We used some beautiful images that are very simple. It’s really stripped down. We thought, ‘how do we bring the audience in on this?’” The two decided to include other music and other sounds that would engage the audience; things such as German wind generating instruments that incorporate the sounds of the wind. Sound bowls, and traditional instruments like the tabla. With the music, we tried to introduce a variety of different colors,” Jonathan said. “I always try to bring the audience on stage, metaphorically speaking.”

As someone who loves music, “Un-Block The Music” particularly loved seeing the different, unfamiliar instruments on stage. The actors do everything and play everything! They are almost like a Greek Chorus, Jonathan said. “There are loads of musicals and operas that I love, but the issue I have is hiding the band or orchestra in a pit or behind the stage. It could be live or not. You don’t always know.” Jonathan brought up A Strange Loop. He said Musical Director Rona Siddiqui is incredible, but she plays in a box behind the stage. You never see her. I wanted to create a vision of music for A Kite Runner.” (Check out Rona’s story at: https://unblockthemusic.blog/2022/10/21/women-wonders-rona-siddiqui-strange-loop-to-54-below-most-people-are-outside-the-box/)

After seeing the show, I want more of Jonathan’s music! As A Kite Runner closes its Broadway chapter on Sunday, what’s next for him? A show called Bitter Flower to be performed at Georgetown University. Professor of Racial Justice Anita Gonzalez is directing that. It’s about Suffragette Ida B. Wells. I look forward to talking with Jonathan about that!

If this story interests you, check out my piece about tabla player Salar Nader at https://unblockthemusic.blog/2022/10/01/kite-runners-tabla-player-salar-nader-offers-a-glimpse-on-world-music-above-all-humanity

Also, way back before the pandemic I wrote about Ultravox. Check it out at https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/01/29/ultravoxs-midge-ure-on-his-tour-his-retrospective-remaining-impact-of-do-they-know-its-christmas/.

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