I’ve been working hard my first season at the Stratford Festival on threedifferentshows. I’ve met many incredible people – actors, technicians, directors, administrators, support staff, the list goes on.
I’ve often thought earlier on when I was playing more music that I was grateful for the friendships I had, because I mostly played music with my friends. I wasn’t put in the same position as, say, a jazz musician who might play with a different quartet every night, or a jobbing musician – I largely played music with the people I loved.
As I spend more and more time in the world of theatre, I find that these new connections and friendships remain a large part of my creative life. They nurture me and give me energy to deal with the myriad pressures and logistical surprises that come from working in the larger (and very large!) venues that I am finding myself in sometimes. I stay grateful and open hearted, and I’ve been rewarded with a rich community of new friendships, that filter into the work I’ve been doing telling stories.
I like this way of working – enjoying people’s company, depending on their skill, collaborating and telling stories on many levels. It makes my work richer, and I’m glad that I move this way through the world.
A city is enveloped in haze – magnetic and electrical fields; pollution; particulates; light; sound; smell; language; transportation; water vapour; incense; the smoke from cooking fires; information; cabling; subsonic tremors; ambition; desire.
This haze is arranged in layers. Aeronautical regions and flight paths – 1 layer. Cell phone towers and signal repeaters – another. Power lines, roads, sewers, subways and those grids buried deeper. History. These make up only a vanishingly tiny few of those layers that surround and support the being of the city. They rattle and jolt the populace and affect them in countless other ways. The city actualizes itself.
The systems designed to make sense of the city by its inhabitants are in effect created by the city itself. It requires these infrastructures to strengthen its impact on the earth, its own selfhood. In that regard those that build to make sense of the city are in fact merely executing its will rather than their own. Our building of the city, our struggles to come to grips with it and its function – we become cells in a body, DNA executing programmed codes to strengthen the host and keep it alive, healthy and growing. It is not its inhabitants that use these systems, it is the city itself, sending us on a million small errands to keep itself vibrant and alive.
There are new options available to the city as new developments in technology, architecture, construction and engineering arise. Growth in three dimensions is more possible and issues surrounding high level dwelling are addressed in order to give the city more of a place on the earth, or rather to allow it to concentrate its resources and offset the energy drain of self maintenance.
For make no mistake, fatigue is a real possibility. The Arab Spring, the Gezi Park protests, PEGIDA – the fatigue of this city plays a part in these events, and has indeed always had a hand in the events that stand out in human history. Urban planning, urban health and social justice, politics, science, engineering, immigration, food safety, sustainability and green energy, economics – the city’s involvement in the arc of new thinking and developments in these fields is clear.
I am sitting in the theatre (as I often am these days), watching actors and directors and other creative people tear apart words to find meaning and intent and moments that resonate. Would that we live our whole lives like that from moment to moment. But then would we need art?
I like to tell stories. I’ve begun to see a pattern in the many projects I undertake – a desire to tell stories. These are not always the stories that have a beginning, a middle and end – sometimes they are the stories that I carry in my body and hands.
I recently played a concert that was the kind of presentation that is more conventional than the ones I often find myself in – a large hall, filled with people and with a band on stage. I realized that even here there is a story I am telling when playing a piece of music as part of an ensemble. It is the story of the years of practice, of (sometimes) frustration and (often) joy, and the slow dawning of the realization that I cannot be all things, I can only be myself.
I used to feel bad that I was “untrained” and feel that technique was lacking. That may be true, but in the many many years that I have been working at my craft and art, a kind of understanding has arisen, an understanding that I, myself, have a voice and a story to tell as part of the accumulated experience of my heart, mind and body. And that story is one that is worth sharing, because it is unique – mine and only mine.
So the theatre work that I do, the many artists that I collaborate with, the sound art and radiophonic works I create – they are all part of this unique story of me. And while this post is in danger of sounding self aggrandizing and egoistic, this is only because I cannot put into words properly what this story means in the larger world around me. It has meaning, and it is only one small cell in the giant organism of sound and being.
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.
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’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.
i’m working at tarragon theatre these days, sound designing a double bill of amazing plays by hanna mocovitch with john gzowski. as always in the theatre, i am struck by how the interplay of text and sound can go so right, and also so wrong.
we had a lot of ideas ready to go when we started, and then of course discarded most of them. this is a good sign — it makes me think we are doing something right, supporting the words instead of restricting them. the text of these plays is so natural, so perfect. every “uh” and pause, every change of thought is scripted (and the actors are doing a terrific job of executing them, by the way). there isn’t one superfluous utterance – every ellipsis in the script has a purpose. it is quite sublime.
apparently this post has wandered away from sound. but i betcha i’m going to think about this the next time i make an audio piece.