Subharmonies

Putting on my touring musician hat again after some time to play at Cluster in Winnipeg. I’ll be performing my quadraphonic Rückstreuung project, which made its debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto. Here’s an excerpt from that performance:

live excerpt of the quadraphonic project rüstreuung @ MOCA, Toronto in 2022

As you can see from the video, it’s really about architecture and space. The quadraphonic dissemination is explicitly chosen to allow for the tones to intersect and create rhythms and to allow the listener to discover tones that are located in specific places. Moving from one space to another reveals different sound interactions.

The project was created at Akademie der Künste during a residency at the Studio for Electroacoustic Music, where I was able to experiment on the venerable Subharchord, one of the few still functioning:

the subharchord @ Akademie der Künste SEM

Here’s where I ended up (thanks to Robert Lippok for taking the video):

Since I don’t have a Subharchord (boo) I’m using a Moog Subharmonicon, which uses the same principle of audio synthesis. The “sub” in both those names refers to the fact that instead of overtones from a fundamental pitch (which is what many synths do), these instruments divide the frequency to create subharmonies to the fundamental. Tuning these sub levels results in intersection of tones, and the use of a filter further allows one to shape the quality of the sound.

I’m really looking forward to going back to Winnipeg. I’m playing at a venue that I was at the opening of, the West End Cultural Centre – in fact, I think my mom performed at that opening. I’ve played there many times since, and it’s going to be nice to go home and explore that space with sound.

See you there?

UPDATE: I found this so I’m going to try and build it in Max/MSP. It’ll probably take me a year. ↓

quasi schematic from subharchord.com

Wind / the internet is amazing

Further to my last post, the next major research port of call is the venerable Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm, where I’m working on a new project that will depend partly on data and information about high altitude wind currents. You can read a bit about it at the EMS website.

So, you know. Snooping around the intertubes to look for some data, some inspiration. Et voila! I give you: the Global Wind Atlas.

The internet is amazing.

And so, on

This weekend we will open Romeo and Juliet for the 2024 Stratford Festival season, and so this series will end, to be replaced by other posts about current projects, ideas, sounds, and thoughts.

I’ve been so surprised/delighted/humbled by how many of you have mentioned following the blog during this project. I hope I’ve been able to give you some new perspectives about how I work in theatre. It’s not the only, and definitely not the definitive way, but just one way. As I often tell my students, there are 6 ways to do any one thing – the key is to find the way that makes sense to you, and that gives you the results you want. Hopefully some of these posts have given you some ideas in your practice.

I hope you’ll continue to come back here – I have many interesting projects in the pipeline, in particular a stint at Elektronmusicstudion in Stockholm. You can read more about that here.

Feel free to email me at deb < at > debsinha dot com – I’d love to hear from you.

Have a great summer.

d

Moving through

the view from The Balcony. Yes, that one

It’s been quiet on the blog of late, because things are moving apace. Our tech time in the theatre is moving fast, trying cues, balancing, making sure we have even coverage (or as even as we can – there are over 300 speakers in this hall but even so, not every seat has even sound).

We are now into our Previews, which are for the paying audience. Before that we had:

  • Onstage rehearsals
  • Onstage rehearsals with tech (lights and sound)
  • Tech rehearsal (a first draft of the light and sound elements)
  • Tech dress (a second draft but with costumes)
  • Quick change rehearsal (where the dressers and actors practice any wardrobe changes that have to be, um, quick) (this is usually just before the Tech Dress)
  • Dress 1 (we should be close now)
  • Dress 2 (often with invited guests and the company)
  • Previews 1-3, with 4 hour rehearsals following – designers are released after the rehearsal after the 3rd preview

We should note that the acting company continues with rehearsals in the rehearsal hall as well, to nail down acting notes and needs.

preview 1! I deliberately take seats away from where I usually sit to double check

Time somehow moves faster during these 3 previews. Very often I’m juggling multiple timetables here at the Festival, because I often work on 2 or more shows each season. This season I’m only on R and J (as it is affectionately called) so I thought there would be a little more space to breathe! However, that has gone the way of all illusions…

With the advent of an audience, the show takes on a life of its own. It becomes what it is, rather than what you think it is. There’s something about the conglomeration of a plethora of consciousnesses (uh if that’s a word) that can – not always, but can – completely turn things on their head, some shows more than others. In this case, it seems that the sound and music seem to be operating like they should, but there are a lot of new things I’ve found in sitting in a house with others. Often (like this time) it’s levels – things being too loud, or improperly balanced with all the sound absorbing meat sacks (aka people) in the house. I had some of that today, which I’ve been able to address during the night’s rehearsal.

Sometimes, though (thankfully not this time, and not often) seeing a show with others completely changes scenes, cues or maybe huge decisions that were made, and you have to go back to the drawing board. At this point, and at this festival, more often than not this doesn’t happen, because everyone knows how things shift and change and they make decisions that keep that in mind. But sometimes, you need to completely rework some of the ideas you thought you had.

The key there is to be able to move fast – to know your tools, to extrapolate, to have a strong picture in your mind how sound is moving through the space and through the story. Some of this you can do with practice, on your own, some of it takes root as you work in the room, some of it can only be guessed at, and you try on the next preview. It’s tricky. The key is to make sure that you’ve done your due diligence – that you know how to use your tools quickly and efficiently, that you can make decisions and sense the musicality and the sound through the space in a very deep way, that you can make an offer that makes sense, that you refrain from flailing, and be deliberate and care-full (but also fast).

It takes time to prepare, but there’s prep and there’s prep. To know how to move fast, to move well, and to move while listening – that’s the key.

Sound

At many of the larger theatres, as a sound designer and composer, I don’t actually program the sound machinery, necessarily. The Festival Theatre sound system is a behemoth of networked devices spread out over the entire building – computers, screens sharing and controlling other computers, amps, fiber optic cable….it’s a massive system and there is no way I would be able to get my head around it all to use it optimally.

My sound operator and programmer is William Griff (you can see him in the photo below), and he’s managing the technical end of the sound system and making my material sound good. I provide the material and the cues, and he makes sure it all goes out the system in the ways that I want (and suggests some ways I haven’t thought of, but invariably make it sound even better).

some of the many sound files that I made out of the audio I’ve composed; these are both “music” and “sound design” and often straddle both categories. Uh, there are many, many more than in this picture

Once we set up everything and get all the computers talking to each other, there’s a phase of making sure that the ways in which you’ve translated your work actually work, and speak in this new environment of multiple speakers and multiple computers. We spend a time just ensuring that the architecture works – that the sound is being transmitted and that you learn a way of working together, a shorthand and an audio picture that makes sense for the room and the story. Experimenting with placing that sound here and then the other part of the cue there, and learning how you and the technician think and work so that you can communicate efficiently.

As part of the shift I was speaking about in the previous post, there’s a second stage to it as well. You end up working through the technical architecture phase back into the idea and artistry phase again. A kind of beginner’s mind that reveals a lot that you didn’t hear before in your quest for making the thing you imagine.

The thing I actually like about not programming (and not everyone likes this) is that it frees me to listen and move into a listening mindset. A lot of our programming yesterday was me standing in various places in the hall, letting cues run, calling out some thoughts and ideas to Will to translate into programming and settings.

Will, translating

To free myself to think about sound and story, to imagine the bodies onstage moving through space (the actors are not present for programming, it’s a slow and tedious process and their time is better spent elsewhere). To pay attention to the ways the sound unfolds in the room, the qualities of the storytelling it offers.

To be sure, the architecture and the programming and the technical nerding out is fun, and useful, and does serve the story as well. But ultimately you need to step out from behind the desk and sit in a seat, and listen.

It’s the best.

The Shift

my station at the Festival theatre during tech and onstage rehearsals

There comes a time in the process of rehearsal for the sound designer and composer where the shift from the discoveries in the rehearsal hall have to move into the space. Pre-production and rehearsal hall is about looking for story elements and frames, and perhaps getting a rough draft of logistics, but in the hall (aka the theatre) is where we operationalize these discoveries (and make new ones besides).

I’ve mentioned before (perhaps not here) that the work of the designer (any designer) is to figure out what the world is – what are the parameters of the world in which the characters are telling the story? What are its limits and constraints? What are its possibilities? What are its surprises? These are things that I can explore and discover in theory through observing rehearsals and discussing the story with the creative team.

At some point, though, the discoveries that you make in the rehearsal hall have to be translated into the theatre. The first step of this process is a kind of fundamental re-imagination of how one’s audio speaks to the software available.

The industry standard playback software is Qlab, which is quite different from many sound players like iTunes or whatnot (you can see the interface in the top right monitor in the picture above). What Qlab allows you to do is treat your audio as a series of gestures, similar to a programming language (although instead of coding, you’re telling Qlab what to do with your audio (/MIDI/OSC/camera/lights/etc – Qlab can control all these things, although usually theatres use it for audio and projections, at least for now).

This isn’t a post about Qlab – there are great places to learn about it, not least at the figure53 website – but more about how I make the shift from discovery to execution mode.

a screenshot of Qlab

When you build audio, the timeline is linear – you start at time 0 and as the playhead advances, the sound plays:

  • The sound of rain fades in
  • A car drives in from the left, and stops in the centre
  • The engine stops, and the door opens and closes
  • Footsteps move from beside the car towards you
  • A door opens and shuts
  • The sound of rain fades out

In Qlab, you have to think of each of these things as an action, and program your Qlab session accordingly

  • Cue 1: The sound of rain fades in
    • a seamless loop of rain plays when the cue is triggered, but the volume is infinitely quiet
      • the audio loops forever or a predetermined # of times
    • the audio of the rain fades in to a predetermined level
  • Cue 2: A car drives in from the left, and stops in the centre
    • the audio of the car starts quietly and is created so it sounds as if it is moving from far left to near offstage (e.g. offstage left). When it reaches its final position, the engine stops
    • This audio plays once
    • (the sound of the rain continues through this)
  • Cue 3: the door opens and closes
    • This audio is made in another DAW and imported into Qlab
    • (the sound of the rain continues)
  • Footsteps move from beside the car towards you
    • This is not a cue – this is the actor entering from offstage, on the same side where the car stopped
  • A door opens and shuts
    • This is not a cue – this is the actor opening and closing a door on the set
  • Cue 4: The sound of rain fades out
    • A cue to fade the audio in cue 1 is triggered

The key is to consider the audio unfolding as a stack of gestures, like Scratch or a computer program. Every thing that happens, sound-wise, is a cue: a sound starting, a sound moving from one side to another, a sound fading in volume, a sound stopping.

Which means in the movement from the recording software to Qlab, you have to re-imagine how your audio is working in relation to the actor action onstage.

I could go on and on about this whole process (in fact I teach semester-long courses on this) but essentially, the shift I’m speaking of means that I have to move from thinking linearly to sequentially. It’s a fun shift, and full of a lot of new discoveries too, which I’ll speak about in another post.

because of course by now

First Onstage

After quite a lively drive into Stratford (thanks, snow + wind), we finally hit the stage. For those of you that don’t know, the first onstage is the first time the actors get to go on their set, to feel how the space is, and (in this case) the way the room works with (or against) their performance. It’s a great day to calibrate expectations – even for those of our company who have played in this room before, the interplay between the text, the company and the room is different every time. Not to say that one has to start from zero – one can always bring one’s experience to bear in finding a starting point – but there is always a lot to learn, no matter how often or how rarely one plays in a room.

For me, this is especially true – as I’ve mentioned before in this series, despite my many years in Stratford I’ve not worked in the Festival theatre. Hearing the actors on stage and wandering around the hall while they work is very enlightening, and I start to build a kind of mental/imagined algorithm of sound I can refer to to frame the decisions I will make when programming the sound design.

Uh, I don’t think I can explain it any better than that – hearing the room and the actors in it somehow makes a blueprint? That then helps me place my sound in the space? Without hearing it? I think?

Can’t show you the full undressed stage, but this is where we (stage management, directing, lights and sound teams) are hanging while we observe

One thing that may be of interest to the sound nerds if no one else: the sound in the balcony is extraordinarily clear!

My main wonder is how I can support the energy of the very centralized playing space in such a wide hall. But the sound system is really transparent and there is a lot of coverage – more on this in another post – so it’s seeming to me that if I’m circumspect and discreet when I need to be (and big big big when I get the moment) I should be able to really extend the energy of the playing space into the house and into the hearts of the audience.

I’m excited!

because we all know who runs this burg

21st Century

As I mentioned before, many of the cast are doing multiple shows, so their days are chock-a-block with rehearsals, classes, coaching and shows. Which means that we (the Romeo and Juliet company) don’t work 8 hours a day every day, and not always with everyone, especially as the season gets underway. We’ll have Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary rehearsals, where we will have varying numbers of cast members, and the stage manager and director have to plan their days accordingly to figure out how to best use the time the schedule allows us.

For me, as sound designer and composer, that means that it’s not always useful for me to sit in the rehearsal hall. And anyway, there’s recording to arrange, meetings with sound techs and production in the Festival Theatre, and then of course other duties that I need to attend to in life and work as a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

We learned during the worst days of the Covid pandemic that we can use our digital and virtual tools to our advantage, and that has continued. This week while I’m in Toronto, I’m working out some rough music for the choreographer to use while she works with the cast to set the dance for the party scene in Act 1, where Juliet and Romeo get their first glance of each other.

I have 2 live drummers that I asked for to be onstage, and they will be in and out of the scenes in various ways. During the party, they’re the band, and a firey band they are! In keeping with our director’s vision, we are period-adjacent, so we’re not going too far out of the time where the play is written (although we are not being precious about it). The choreographer is using a style of dance called a Gaillard as inspiration, and we are using that rhythm to inspire the music for the band.

I’ve studied a lot of classical Arabic music and a rhythm that I love is the Yuruk Sema’i, a 6/8 that fits well with the Gaillard structure and tempos. The drummers will use this rhythm to accompany the dance. One of the drummers, Graham Hargrove is an accomplished hand percussionist and he plays the riqq (Arabic tambourine) beautifully, and our other musician Jasmine Jones-Ball will hold down the foundations.

But back to the 21st century – since I’m not in the hall this week until Friday, the choreographer and I have been working virtually. For a while now, I’ve been using Soundcloud to share private downloadable music with my collaborators, and usually keep a copy of all the music in Dropbox. Because I’m not there to play along with the choreographer, we’re trying out a bunch of different tempos. It’s a little clunky but for now it works, and luckily everyone understands the restrictions of the repertory workflow.

Some proposals for the choreographer

As she refines the dance, we’ll stay in communication so that I can construct a rough skeleton to work from when I communicate with the musicians. In the meantime, since I’m the musical director and one of the musicians for the recording (I’m a member of the Toronto Musician’s Association, the affiliated musician’s unions that works with the Stratford Festival), I can accompany the choreography in the hall when next I’m in (and we have enough company members to run the dance).

21st century, y’all.

Week 1

they’re back. they’re always back

Our time is tight – even though we open on June 1, virtually everyone in the cast is doing multiple shows, so the schedule looks like a jigsaw puzzle (hats off to the incredible SM team for keeping things on track and making sure us creatives keep an eye on our playground). The theatre (and by this I mean the stage and seats) is also having to deal with multiple shows, so our tech time is very precious and tight, as time needs to be found for various technical rehearsals and shows of the other productions in the space as well as ours.

That being said, Sam (White, our director) has been working with the goal of making sure we have a rough sketch of the first act by the end of Week One. And we’ve done it! Through this week, and watching this work, I’ve been able to get a sense of the logistics of how to deploy the sound through this very fast-moving play. Even getting a sense of the overall forward energy of the ensemble and Sam’s direction tells me a lot about how I need to prioritize the music and the sound design (which are not always the same thing).

My notes for the Prologue (which features an angelic Juliet, singing the “two households” text to music I’ve set) and Act 1 Sc 1 (including ideas for the onstage drummers accompanying the fight)
The drums I’m using to sketch out the music before the musicians join us

Next week: finessing and Act 2.

Design Presentations

Today was a day where the designers present the work they’ve done (to date) to the cast and company. It’s a really fun day where you get a glimpse into the world that the designers and director have built thus far, the playing space where the performance will occur. I say “fun” but if you’re a designer it can be terrifying (you should see my heart rate tracker for yesterday).

gathering

Usually it’s the set and costume designers that present, but lately over the years there is also space made for lighting, sound, music and projections as well. It’s sometimes difficult to materially present the work being done in those departments, but we often are able and invited to talk about our ideas and how we are hoping to support the story.

Set and Costume designer Sue LePage presenting the set with assistant set designer Freddy Van Camp

I led the company through some group percussion orchestrations, as the live music element of the show will involve 2 percussionists and singing. There are a lot of musicians in the cast so I’ll be roping them into the ol’ music party as well. I’ll get into that more in a future post.

And! After nearly a decade here I finally made it into a company picture:

We start working through the play now, and finding specific solutions to storytelling, staging, and design. I love watching the actors do this work – it reveals so much to me and helps me make new discoveries – artistically and logisitcally.

Onwards!

and of course, you have to run the gauntlet at the end of the day….#angrygoose