A story can be read many ways – it is strongest when it is open, allowing many streams of interpretation at once. To discover and present these streams to the viewer through sound is my job.
In creating sound for drama, and in particular on the stage, we have 2 concurrent sets of demands – those addressing logistics of the performance space and those addressing storytelling. These 2 sets must work together, so that sound highlights aural characteristics that are integral to the setting while at the same time participating in the development of the arc of the play – the emotional journey of the characters and the id of the story. Sound becomes one of the collaborators in the performance of the text, be it on stage, through a speaker, or on a screen.
Radiophonic art is also a kind of theatre, a theatre for the listener wherever they might be. My lessons from the stories I’ve accompanied often make themselves felt in these poetic spaces. The rhythm of the text. Where and what becomes emphasized. These are decisions I get to make when shaping these works, and the theatre artists (and musicians and dancers and choreographers and filmmakers) I have collaborated with over the years participate through the moments I sculpt as a composer.
Stories are strongest when they are open and distilled. They contain secrets that are revealed through unexpected channels – a look, a word, the sound of a footstep or the echo of a hallway, the fall of light across a floor. I look for and discover these secrets, and they guide my hand and ear in the making of the music. They whisper to me, and I whisper back. Together we offer our small contribution to the many pieces of the story that comes to your eye and ear, and moves you.
I’ve been blessed to collaborate with a lot of great artists in my time.
The partnerships that seemed to me to be the most joyous, productive and challenging were the ones in which I was able to be humble and listen with a soft heart. They often seemed to be the ones where I felt I was punching above my weight – working with people whose work I admired and was inspired by. Sometimes these collaborations came about because of someone else bringing a group together, but sometimes they happened because I asked. And while these collaborators may not have had a very deep or solid idea of what I might bring to the project or my “skills” or “ability”, they were experienced and open enough to let me in.
Whenever I embark on a solo piece or am in a situation where I feel I am on my own somehow creatively, I draw on these experiences to help me discover which way I should go. It isn’t a recipe, really – it’s more like a kind of hum that moves me onwards in the creation of the project. I can feel when it is working and when it isn’t.
I guess now it is trite to say that we are a sum of our experiences, but I get a chance to feel that everyday in the work that I do.
Feeling pretty lucky, is what I call it.
It’s a good time to be a sound designer.
Impulse responses are recordings of an impulse made in a reverberant (which is really any) space. The sound engineer/designer uses these responses in convolution reverb software to simulate the sound of the space for the recordings or source material that he or she wishes to present. Using these impulse responses can result in, say, placing footsteps inside a particular grain silo, church or other strange environment. For example, Balance Mastering recorded a series of impulse responses inside Berlin’s Teufelsberg, a cold war listening station for the US and its allies to monitor East German radio transmissions (there’s an excellent tour of Teufelsberg hosted by the always irreverent, slightly aggravating but always interesting Vice magazine here). As is often the case, I found these responses through a post on the excellent blog Create Digital Music.
Of course, one can use impulse responses and convolution reverb in lots of different ways. I’m an autodidact, so I don’t quite understand all the physics behind how it all works, but you can warp these software tools to create strange and otherworldly effects on audio material, sounds that are organic to begin with but end up being almost beyond imagination.
While I enjoy the nuts and bolts work of making sure that door slam or footsteps take place in precisely the right acoustic environment – in fact, I love it and am slightly obsessive about finding the right reverb, I have to say – I am excited by the potential of using tools in unorthodox ways to come up with something I haven’t even thought of (even as I write this my imagination is piqued, and I am taking notes of ideas for some upcoming plays I’ll be designing this year with director Alan Dilworth).
These constructions of imaginary spaces are very powerful storytelling tools, and I love finding them. “Finding” here is the correct word – for me, it is a matter of taking the first step on the path, going down the rabbit hole of working in my studio, unearthing and vaguely remembering some ideas or effects chains I wanted to try out, until….there it is. The sound that will spark, energize and focus the project.
I never know when it might show up, but I welcome it when it does.
I am in the theatre for a show opening next week, doing sound levels. For those of you that don’t know, the process of getting everything going in the theatre for a play involves each design department (sound, set, video, lights) having some dedicated time in the theatre to do their thing*. In my case, it involves making sure the speakers are hung in the correct locations (based on a speaker plot I submit beforehand), having the PA tuned and rung out, the microphones (if there are any) checked and the sound cues set to a level that will work for the actors (usually this gets tweaked as we work through “tech week” and previews before the show opens in earnest).
The sound tech is in the amp room downstairs and there is no one in the building. And yet the sound is ever present – the ventilation systems, electrical dinguses, and who knows what else. It is always disappointing to me to re-discover that silence does not lie outside ourselves. But then I tune into my environment and enjoy the sounds that are present – besides these systems there is traffic outside, a streetcar going past, 2 friends talking that I hear as a murmur.
There are compromises in this world, ones we negotiate and internalize everyday, without even knowing it. The best thing I guess is to just embrace them, work with them, allow them to be part of the dance of your experience. I’ll be practicing this today.
*This is before the actors come onstage. Prior to this, they usually rehearse in another room with a minimal sound system, the important props and tape on the floor to show where the set will be.
I’m spending a lot of time in the theatre this year, with many great collaborators, doing plays, performance art/dance pieces, and contemporary dance performance myself (luckily, I will not be dancing but playing percussion). It’s going to be a lively schedule and even more is in the pipeline.
As i work on the various pieces, often all at once (as is the fate of the full time artist trying to make a living) I find myself having to split my mind into many pieces – or rather, access that piece of my creative mind that is tuned to the project I currently have booted up and running on my computer.
With the many years experience I have accumulated, this is not as difficult as it used to be, but only because of one thing – when I take something on, I spend a lot of time trying to understand it, to put my finger and ear on the central tenet of what the thing is supposed to be. In this I am helped by my many collaborators but principally the directors and choreographers, but I find that that understanding I seek before starting to construct the sound can come from anywhere – a movement, a word, a picture, or perhaps the set. The important thing is to remain open and welcoming to that one piece or moment that will guide me.
Let’s all do that. Happy new year.