I suspect it’s music, not blood, that runs through Justin Hiscox’s veins. One of the most original, gifted and passionate souls in our community, Hiscox uses sound and music like clay, molding it to whatever project he’s working on. He is as knowledgeable about the Velvet Underground as he is about Charles Ives, Handel or Tom Waits, Lyall Lovett or Nick Drake. His tastes are so expansive, that just being in his presence is a total musical education. And true to form, he fully embraces the genre of musical theatre, in its light and darker flavours.
Graduating from piano to trombone and tuba in his youth, he went on to study avant-garde composition. When Rob Fortin and Susan Newman approached him to play fanfare at intermission for 4th Line Theatre’s Fair Play, he admits “I had no idea there was a place 10 minutes from my home” where he could begin a career as its Musical Director, and where he has continued to direct, compose and perform for 15 years.
Meanwhile, he has also become the go-to guy for musical direction in Peterborough’s flourishing theatre and performance community. He’s been seen improvising an atonal accordion on the street with Beau Dixon on drums and his brother Mark Hiscox on pennywhistle for Sound+Vision x Sidewalk Movies; backing up Wyatt Lamoureux and Lyndele Gauci in a number from the Threepenny Opera for Max’s Cabaret; as Musical Director for Anne Shirley Theatre Company’s production of Spring Awakening; at the Millbrook Cavan United Church accompanying the choir; teaching at Lake Field Music or Peterborough New Horizons Bands; opening for Ron Sexsmith at Toronto’s Rivoli with a conch shell choir.
Hiscox is composer for 4th Line Theatre’s 2014 première of Wounded Soldiers, written by Robert Winslow and Ian McLachlan. The hard-hitting, well-researched play tackles the horrific treatment of WWI soldiers returning from the front with post traumatic stress. When I arrived on the rehearsal set of Wounded Soldiers, Hiscox was up on the barn balcony goofing and chuckling on the vocorder, cracking up the cast and himself with the sound of his voice altered to sound like an underwater monster, a high-pitched girl, an alien. It’s not just melody that he gets, but the universe of sound in all its guises. He’s not afraid of unpopular music. He pushed up his glasses on his nose as he explained his love of “the sound of a band that’s falling apart”, or “surrounding a beautiful melody with oddness.”
“Music and sound sculpture do indeed play a HUGE part in this play – literally the 22nd character in the 21-person play,” he tells me.
I first heard The Mud Song a few years ago at a reading of Wounded Soldiers and it sent chills through me then as it does now. I felt like I was listening to a nascent musical destined for Broadway. It’s a Kurt Weill-esque, melodic, mournful, Vachel Lindsay dirge of a song that I can’t, and don’t want to, get out of my head:
Mud, mud, murderous mud
It’s the very best stuff for soaking up blood
with the squelch of our boots and the artillery thud
Mud, mud, mud, murderous mud ¹
Through seasoned direction by Winslow and 4th Line’s signature clever, economical staging and choreography, the fields surrounding the Winslow farm are transformed to WWI trenches and the barn to a London insane asylum. I can’t imagine anyone experiencing war first hand without developing PTSD and I can’t imagine tackling “the most pointless of all the pointless wars in human history” theatrically without a counterpoint as strong as this score. The poetic and often comical lyrics by Winslow and McLachlan originally called for period WWI music with a brass marching band. But Hiscox was working with Beau Dixon and Saskia Tomkins, neither of whom were brass performers. So he began to wonder what would happen if he introduced a blatantly electronic sound right from the beginning.
His instincts were dead on, and the resulting sound scape is the musical equivalent of a George Grosz painting. Like the prepared piano, scrap metal and hub caps that he used in 4th Line’s 2013 production of The Real McCoy, the contrast of “a beautiful tune played on a trashcan,” a sonic blend of “cranky, crunchy and melodic” is what pleases Hiscox.
In the outdoor setting music and sound compensate for the lack of lighting effects. At the end of the performance there is a hush in the theatre as people leave their seats, the hush of an audience still in the thrall of a moving experience. Hiscox’s score is by turns menacing, poignant, droll, rousing, effervescent, cacophonic, and best of all, in keeping with the play, it doesn’t flinch from darkness. It could take this play to other stages as easily as it animates the bucolic fields of the Winslow farm.
Cover photo by Celia Hunter for The Millbrook Times used with permission.
¹Lyrics by Robert Winslow and Ian McLachlan