Sunday, January 2, 2011

Music For the Stage

As a sort of addendum and expansion of the previous articles on sound design for the stage, I'm going to talk a little about music for plays.

Music is often used to enhance the theatrical experience. It is easiest to insert in the interstices; in scene changes, and before the action begins. In some plays interior music will be specifically called for in the script; this is usually "source" music; music that is perceived by the characters of the play and exists in their world (the more technical term for this is "diegetic.")

There is an unholy attraction to the idea of actual underscore; of music that plays under the dialog and through the scene, enhancing and concentrating the emotional content. The problem with this attractive idea is that theater is not film. In film, the action is complete and frozen in tempo, allowing music and sound effects to be cut carefully to blend with it. In theater, the action is spontaneous, with ever-changing nuances of timing and emphasis.

Also, the movies use electronically captured and amplified sound. Theater makes do largely with the un-amplified human voice. The realities of theatrical diction in a large, open space means the audience has to strain harder to make out dialog against the background noise. Adding music (or background sound effects) into the mix is therefor more dangerous in theater.

As a sound designer wishing to add some music to the design for a play, you have two basic options; live performance, or pre-recorded material.

Live performance is of course the most interesting and flexible, but also the most expensive. Musicians don't come cheap. Figure on fifty bucks a service (one performance or rehearsal) per musician. Which means, outside the musical, the most common form of live musician is a couple of Early Instrument players strolling about a Shakespearean production. You aren't going to find a full string section and brass band sitting down just to play a few lushly orchestrated scene changes!

For pre-recorded music, existing recordings are the major approach. Sometimes called a "drop-needle" design (after the old radio days when music and sound effects were on vinyl) this involves locating existing commercial recordings, clearing the rights of usage, and playing them back.

Drop-needle is most economical at capturing a very specific period or style; well-known songs or singers particularly strike a rich resonance with the experience and memories of the audience. It would be hard, for instance, to design Craig Lucas' Reckless without closing with Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas." In some plays the music is specifically indicated by the playwright. In other cases, though, you are reaching for the specificity of beach music or 20's jazz or Irish folk music.

Where drop-needle fails is in the same places that makes it so attractive; its specificity and density. Commercial music is meant to be listened to. It attracts the ear to itself. It is exceptionally difficult to use it under dialog or action and not distract from the real business of the play. And it is what it is; over and over, I've been presented with a recording that would be perfect, if only it was a little shorter, a little longer, didn't have that one vocal, etc.

And it isn't that cheap. You do have to obtain rights, or ASCAP has the right to cease-and-desist you. You don't want them closing your show.

Related to this is Production Music. These are easier to integrate in that they rarely go through the range of emotional and textural changes of commercial songs, but instead stick with a particular feel for several minutes. They also are easier to negotiate rights on; the big libraries are set up for easy purchase of royalty-free use. But, of course, they then lack the easy familiarity of a piece of popular music.

Truth be told, most designs will integrate a combination of sources. For my design of A Man for All Seasons I used commercial recordings, original composed material, and in the latter I incorporated a small amount of performance by real (but pre-recorded) musicians.

This segues us to the third route; original composition. The great advantage original composition has is that it can be tailored exactly to that specific production. In addition, when you are composing your own material, you can use thinner orchestrations and more open musical textures that allow dialog to speak through it. Whereas a commercial piece might have a busy guitar, bass, drums, some sax, you can write a piece that is just guitar and soft 'cello and never makes any sudden moves to attract the ear to itself and away from the dialog of the play.

If you compose the majority of the musical material, you also gain the ability to develop themes, textural development, and so forth. Again from my AMan for All Seasons, I wrote motifs for several of the characters, and created a continuum of musical texture; a simple lute for Sir Thomas's "humble abode," thicker textures of reeds and strings for the court, and nothing but the nobility of brass for the Kingly fanfares. Thus the location of the action, within the unit set, was amplified by the musical textures themselves.

This is much more difficult to do if you are picking pieces of music. But I did a little of that for Play it Again, Sam -- no surprise, but "As Time Goes By" was worked into several key moments of the play, each time sourced from a different recording; complex, noodly piano versions, thinner, simpler versions, and over the curtain call finally the vocals (Dooley Wilson, of course; the original Casablanca track).

There is a problem with integrating commercial music with your own compositions, of course. And that is, even if you are quite good, and have live musicians to record for you, there is still likely to be a notable shift of texture between the commercial stuff and the original stuff. Largely, you can hide this by using your own work where it is most useful; inside scenes, and under dialog. Then the fuller and more active commercial stuff between scenes, outside the action.

A little note here before moving on; even though the rights you purchase often do not give you this permission, you will find yourself having to trim, chop, compress, loop, extend, overdub, and otherwise alter the commercial material. I've even had the experience of having to loop a section of Maria Callas singing at La Scala because the actress couldn't quite finish the monologue before the aria was over!

(It is for tasks like this that a multi-track MIDI/audio sequencer is a spumoni-send. Besides being able to make precise edits, it is amazing how much you can hide a gap or smooth out a texture by overdubbing a few notes played out of a MIDI orchestral library or software synthesizer.)

Which brings us via yet another segue (how appropriate!) to the mechanics of making your own music. My tools at this moment are my indispensable laptop filled with VST instruments and libraries, and a MIDI keyboard. I have two portable keyboards for composing at the theater, and a larger controller keyboard and drum controller for use at home.

VST. It's one of several plug-in formats. It allows third-party software samplers, synthesizers, and digital signal processors to show up within a host software; normally a MIDI/audio sequencer. The libraries I use currently are Garritan Personal Orchestra, Garritan Jazz and Big Band, Sonic Synth, and a collection I've built myself around the shareware soft sampler Vsamp. At some point I'll be adding Kontakt to my collection, which will open up my access to libraries considerably.

(But in all honestly, I've done so little paying musical work lately it's hard to justify purchasing new software at this time. My last few musical tasks were quite small; like creating the sound of an orchestra tuning up for a production of Seussical!)

The reason for the laptop is, again, that I can take the actual sequencer tracks and libraries to the theater and listen to the music through the actual playback. I can adjust not just equalization, but I can remix the tune completely; dropping out elements, re-orchestrating, changing tempos, whatever.

I am starting to make more use of live overdubs. In a recent sketch made for my own amusement I overdubbed an improvised line on shawm, recorded live in my apartment. Once it is recorded, of course, it exists on the hard disc. And with digital audio tools, it can be time-stretched, pitch-corrected, spliced and duplicated, or whatever as you make changes to the song.

I know there are theatrical composers out there working mostly loop-based; with existing musical material in the form of drum riffs and brass motifs and so forth, which they then re-combine. This has no attraction for me and I can not speak intelligently on how it is done.

Other composers come from a performance background and tend to improvise or jam with live instruments, either overdubbing themselves or with a group. Again, this is not in my skill set, although I feel much closer to this sort of composing and I think I understand the basics of it.

My experience is largely, however, with composers who work alone and in MIDI, perhaps adding some carefully planned-out live elements, but in general working part by part, playing or hand-entering the music note by note into a sequencer then using rack-mount or software sampler/synths to play back the MIDI sequences.

I learned composing on rack-mount. Each synthesizer could handle up to eight different parts at once, each fed into a mixer, some outboard rack-mounted effects (a reverb box, for instance) and EQ trims, but then the final mix went directly to two-track recording. The only way to make changes was to reset all the boxes and physical mixer settings and play the sequence again from the computer.

Software synthesis has freed me from the racks. Although one trade-off is that it takes longer to audition instruments to find the precise sound I'm after, and the polyphony is actually less (instead of one dedicated chip per rack-mount synthesizer, my laptop's single CPU has to do it all), the ability to take the rack on the road is enough to make it worthwhile.

Also, even if I'm staying at home, VST architecture means that every single instrument playing can have multiple effects "boxes" applied to it, and their settings can be changed over the course of the song. This makes tailoring the specific guitar sound wanted, or whatever, much more possible.

There is not enough room left on this essay to go into detail about composition itself. For that, I'll have to come back to this later.

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