Ask songwriter Antony Hegarty what it was like to collaborate with Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic on The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, and he'll gently suggest that "collaborate" isn't quite the right word.
"Actually, I would kind of characterize this piece as a collision of aesthetics," he says, during a break in rehearsals in Toronto for the autobiographical epic's Luminato run. "I mean, I was the musical director. I wrote the songs and I wrote the text for all the songs. So in that regard, I really didn't compromise anything."
Not that compromise is the sort of thing anyone would expect of him. Hegarty – who is often billed simply by his first name – has followed his own path artistically since assembling the chamber pop band Antony and the Johnsons in 1998. Lush and achingly melodic, his music rarely follows the currents of mainstream pop, and yet has managed an impressive degree of commercial success, particularly in his native Britain where the group's second album, I Am a Bird Now, won the Mercury Prize in 2005.
With The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, his contribution was very different from the role typically assumed by a songwriter in musical theatre. Instead of composing musical numbers meant to move the story along, he says, "I wrote songs in response to thinking about Marina's life and work. I had an idea about representing a certain kind of emotional narrative about Marina's life, or about my projection of Marina's life."
Fitting those songs into the show was largely Wilson's role. Rather than suggest what he do in the songs, "he left me to my own devices," Hegarty says. "A very pure collaborator, actually. He works with what's in front of him, so he invites his collaborators to put material on the table, and then he choreographs it, and arranges it. You know, places it in his sphere."
Hegarty performs some of the songs, Abramovic and co-star Willem Dafoe do one song each, and the German singer and actor Christopher Nell does another four. "The soundtrack is really much bigger than just my contribution," Hegarty says.
Because Abramovic grew up Serbian in the former Yugoslavia, the singer Svetlana Spajic and her quartet were invited to perform several traditional Serbian songs. "And I invited William Basinski, who's one of my best friends and also a very renowned ambient composer, to contribute a lot of the sonic fabric that we use to draw the show together," says Hegarty.
Still, even if Hegarty didn't compose every note, his influence is inescapable, if only because so many of his friends and musical collaborators are involved. For the work's Toronto performance, the players in the orchestra pit will include multi-instrumentalist Doug Wieselman, who is also a member of Antony and the Johnsons; pianist Gael Rakotondrabe from alt-folk trio CocoRosie (with whom Hegarty has recorded); singer and guitarist Oren Bloedow, from the group Elysian Fields; and the electronic duo Matmos (who have also recorded with Hegarty).
Indeed, there is a certain small-world aspect to the whole affair. Hegarty, who says he's a long-time fan of Abramovic's work, met her "through mutual friends" about seven years ago. "And we were friends for years before she started to rope me into the project."
But their relationship also rolls in the other direction. Abramovic appears alongside Dafoe in the quietly disturbing music video for the 2012 Antony and the Johnsons single Cut the World. Clearly, theirs is an ongoing creative relationship.
"Well, when you're working with really such brilliant people – people such as Willem and Bob and Marina, just being in proximity to that kind of bright light is always exciting," says Hegarty. "To be close to other artists' creative processing, to understand how they work, is like an education. And I've learned a lot from being a part of this."
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic will run from June 14-17 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St. E., in Toronto. www.luminatofestival.com