The conversation…

This week’s Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast features an interview with Nick Keenan (sound designer for Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”) and Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli (sound designers for the Goodman’s “Rock and Roll”).

I haven’t seen Nick’s “Piano Lesson” design (though I intend to) but I thought the design for “Rock and Roll” was pretty fantastic.

The three designers do a great job of taking us through some of the design choices behind their shows, and as Nick says, it’s a good piece of the aesthetics conversation we’ve all been talking about.

And since I’ve been saying that at some point I should join this discussion, I’m going to jump in on some topics they covered..

The Palette
The mention of “the palette” was cool. I’d like to hear more from them about it. It’s an important facet of the way I tend to work—the musical palette especially. Drawing the palette into sharp focus (or not) gives me a very clear idea of what I’m driving towards. Frequently it’s my “way in” to the show. To wit:

Boy Gets Girl: A stalker gradually eradicates a young woman’s identity. The palette for this show was two musical pieces, one of which gradually insinuated itself into the other until all traces of the original music were gone.

re: Alice: this show almost had a non-palette. In Wonderland anything can happen, so the music runs the gamut from orchestral electronica to ambient acoustic guitar to screaming Minor Threat-esque punk rock.

Macbeth: the director wanted to use Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major (the “Ghost”) but have a hard industrial edge to the music. The main music palette, then, was “Ghost” as it would appear on a Nine Inch Nails album (for lack of hipper shorthand). Every piece was based on some theme or phrase from the Beethoven piece, which tied the show together while (hopefully) not becoming redundant. Limiting the instrumentation to processed piano, low horns and drum machine helped as well. This also gave me an opportunity to find a place to break out of the palette: when the MacDuff family is slaughtered, Macbeth has moved beyond killing politicians and soldiers—men whose lives inherently carry some danger—and now we’re seeing a child butchered onstage. The heavy drums were still there, but a distorted electric guitar and a processed female wail replace the melodic instruments, and Beethoven is nowhere to be found.

The Cinematic Approach
Nick, Josh and Ray make an interesting point about the influence of film on theatrical sound design and how it pushes designers, especially their generation (and I think these guys are 5-10 years younger than me) to produce more lush, full designs. I’m very influenced by cinematic sound as well (being part of the Summer Blockbuster generation myself) and I think for me it goes in phases. I remember doing very immersive sound designs where I wanted every location to have its own signature, its own background sound, and I’d create ambient beds that would run under entire scenes. I’d do that for a few shows and then back off of it and go completely in the other direction, aiming for a more stark approach. Part of that (of course) had to do with the shows and directors I worked with. But I also know that I go through phases of wanting to try different approaches, and recently that’s involved how lush or spare I get with designs.

More on this soon!

About toxicbag

Toxic Bag Productions, Inc. provides sound effects and music for independent films, animated shorts, theatrical productions, dance performances, podcasts and video games. They work out of their studio on the north side of Chicago.

Posted on May 26, 2009, in Theatah and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Super-interesting question about developing a sonic palette, Joe. I think, once again, that I’ve kind of intuited and mimicked my way to this point, so hell, here’s how I put one o’ dem sonic palettes together.

    1) Practiced Synesthesia. A LOT of thought and theory have been laid out about the creation of a painter’s palette, and there’s some similarities that can be drawn. I’ve learned a lot about sound by focusing on its controllable properties (volume, direction, pitch, timbre (harmonics), envelope) and then watching how other design fields manipulate the controllable aspects of their media. A painter starts with one or two very saturated colors and creates gradients off of those colors that become less saturated, or lighter, or darker. Other colors are then used in support of those dominant colors or light values. If the color spectrum roughly correlates to the audio spectrum (high frequencies through low frequencies), a full palette of design will use similar sounds that traverse all these high and low frequencies. Practically, for me that means really limiting the initial ‘saturated’ colors that you throw into the palette – let’s say we stick with just one, Postal Service’s Against All Odds as a musical “color” – and then applying filters – Low Pass, Hi Pass, directionality, and various reverbs or tonal layers to have the same song have at various times rumble, tinniness, a dance-club feel, a nostalgic ghostly echo, an annoying next-door neighbor boominess, etc. Maybe a scene needs traffic sounds, but ideally the choice of *which* traffic sound gets inspired by or manipulated to support that central idea.

    2.) Heart trumps Mind. One of the reasons why I’ve approached the sonic palette from an intuitive rather than an intellectual perspective is that sound operates like liquid emotional explosive in theater and film. This is one of the reasons that originally sound design / music selection was always in the director’s purview – the sound designer can easily and drastically shift the emotional context of the scene by hitting shuffle on the old ipod. So if anything, developing the palette for me is not just a matter of “how can I mimic / reinforce the structure of the play in music” as Wagner does – though that’s certainly a valid approach – it’s a more SITI- or actorly-based experimental approach of trying a specific sound in a scene, judging the emotional reactions of the actors, myself, the director, the design team, and testing my assumptions about how that piece of music actually works vs. how I thought it was going to work. This can lead to some really surprising choices. At a certain point, that experimentation gives way to articulating the choice, and then splaying out a palette from that point a la Wagner – picking the most dramatically important moment along the arc of a play, choosing a sonic strategy for that moment and the arc, and using that knowledge to create a gradient or variance of sounds from that central idea. I think this can apply to ambience, transition-level music, actor-generated sounds, and silence.

    3.) Violence of Articulation. To conclude: I’ve found that I can get a wider range of clear emotional contexts if I rigorously limit my palette, and conversely the less I limit my palette, the less effective and affecting the design becomes. It’s as if each mind and heart watching the play is a differently-shaped echo chamber… each song or cue I play resonates differently in each person who sees the work. If you play a lot of different ideas into those echo chambers, the whole room taken together tends to end up with a gray or brown response. If you stick with a single idea that you repeat and return to, all those echo chambers retain the sense of that one, central idea, and become part of that idea. Specificity gets internalized, and unless the sound designer operates with care, they can shut down the audience’s emotional response or create dissonance in the space between our choices.

    I think I’ve been playing a lot of Auditorium.

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