Monday, June 3, 2013

Diagesis Lifts the Lamp

I got interested in sound design because I wanted to create sounds.  Complex sounds.  Realistic sounds.  Soundscapes of imaginary environments and small stories in sound.  This was a time of a mild renaissance in radio theater; the radio Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, the Star Wars radio play, and of course new airplay for the old standards; The Shadow, The Whistler, Flash Gordon, and so on.

Those are still the kinds of sounds that are the most fun to make.  Effects that describe an imaginary object or scene in detail, like the "street sounds in Amsterdam" cues from Anne Frank or the "two boats collide during cargo transhipment" from Mister Roberts.  But those are also the effects that feature less and less in my work.

When I was doing mostly plays, I composed original music.  And I worked hard to achieve realism in the effects, worrying about placement and acoustic cues.  As one for-instance, if there was a radio or record player or intercom on stage, I'd put a speaker in it or as close to it as possible.  For period telephones we went even a step further; instead of playing a recorded sound, we'd generate a Bell-spec ring voltage and send that to an actual phone, on stage!

I of course hunted up lots of effects, and did quite a bit of recording of my own.  For a friend's design of Mice and Men I dragged the cast out on to the lawn and staged an recorded an impromptu game of horseshoes (using stage weights and a bit of pipe!)

But then came musicals.

Musicals of course have much less space for the sound designer to create elaborate underscores and transition music.  They also force effects cues to take notice of the musical environment.  I am often asking the music director for the key of the music before I create and use an effects cue that has a defined pitch.

As I've mentioned before, musicals also force most effects to be shorter and bolder.  You don't have the sonic space, or the time on stage, for a car to be heard in the distance on a gravel driveway, pull up, brake, engine off, doors open, etc. (the kind of story I'd tell in a straight play).  Instead you have two seconds, in the middle of a bunch of music, for the effect to say, "CAR'S HERE."

Subtlety is wasted.  Complexity must be eschewed.   And although you may still tell little stories in sound, or present environments, they have to be simplified.  A  lot.  Instead of six layers of rain, wind, water on windows and water in gutters, there is one or two.  Instead of hearing someone pick up a phone, get a dial tone, dial, and a ring or two, you reduce to one rotate of the dial and then go to the voice.  It is Expressionism in sound.

The next step away from realism -- and diagesis -- comes with the company I do most of my work with now.   This is a company that doesn't hide the reality of actors on stage.  They don't try -- usually -- for flawless magic and high-tech effects.  Instead they use dance and gesture and fabric and simpler tools to tell the story.  And by doing so, they retain focus on the actors and the experience of watching a live play.

Not to say I'm not still, sometimes, designing realistic cues.  For "The Sound of Music" all the cues were diagetic; they were the sounds that were heard by the characters in the play.  But for most shows, I have to describe the cues I create as Presentational.

Our Willie Wonka was strongly 70's.  I chose to use sound effects the way they would be used in period television drama and music albums.  Most of the effects were distinctly electronic in nature.  The "realistic" effects -- aka sampled sounds instead of synthesizer sounds -- were in short snippets, dry and compressed, in the way short audio samples were used in recordings of the period.

For Alice I am taking it a step further.  The framing story of that rather peculiar Disney script has ALLISON texting and Facebooking and Tweeting -- and losing her sense of self in all the media drama and high-pressure salesmanship of the online world.  This carries through, in that it is easy to think of all the experiences of Wonderland as being a dreamlike mish-mash of her online experiences.

Heck, for that matter, Alice's travails to find the right combination of Shrinking Potion and Enlargening Cookie that will get her through a tiny door with a large key on a tall shelf has always felt way, way too much like the kind of action in those horrible platform games.

So I chose to think of the sounds as the sound effects for a video game.  So even though some of them are linked to events or even sound producers on stage, they are artificial; loud, played without any attempt at placement in space, compressed and unrealistic.  When the WHITE RABBIT jumps in the hole, there is a loud "Boing!" sound like Qbert or something.  When ALICE bites into a cookie, there is  the kind of short (and oft-repeated) eating sound you'd get in an old-school RPG when your character picked up a handy apple for a couple of quick health points.

And, yes, I am extending the pallet far earlier than the up-to-the-minute iPad universe of the framing story.  I am using in two places, for instance, the distinctive sound played out of ROM when an early MacIntosh fails to boot (the Centris "bing bobbly bump" and the 6100 series "tires screech and crash" sounds).

The earliest part of the show is the most diagetic, in that ALLISON is actually on phone and computer. I assigned various Keyclick, New Message, Joining Chat, and other sounds to my little Korg Nanokey, and am improvising those along to the action.

You would think that the sounds of texting on an iPad would be easy to find.  Not so much; I don't own one.  It took a fair bit of searching, mostly through forums where tech geeks were hacking a Newton or similar to have a similar GUI experience, before I found the samples I wanted.  Because, of course, this had to be right; half the cast, most of the production staff, and at least half the audience owns and uses Apple devices and for the design to work I needed these sounds to be instantly recognizable from their experience.  Even if the experience presented on stage is abstracted somewhat.

(Yes, the simpler solution technically would be to borrow the iPad from another production member, and hook up to the headphone jack; the loss from going analog is completely acceptable for this application.  Except tech was incredibly hectic and stressful, all the production staff were running about madly -- and using the gear they had brought almost constantly -- and even though I was stuck at the sound board for hours at a time I could still spare a moment here and there for a web search.  So pulling the sounds from online sources was actually the most efficient solution, oddly enough!)

This seems to be a continuing arc.  The next big design up is The Wiz.  For that, I really want to work closely with the band.  I want some big showcase effects, but I also feel strongly that for musicals, especially musicals where the stage effects are treated non-realistically (as in, fabric and acting for Willie Wonka's Chocolat River and Pink Candy Boat, and child actors for the Nut-Sorting Squirrels), the sound effects should be a part of the music.

Which is to say, either performed by the pit, or executed in synchronization with the pit.  Or musical in nature (and, again, coordinated with the pit).

What I haven't worked out is how to do this.

The way production and tech falls out at my current design venue, the Music Director is under a lot of stress already.  They have to somehow adjust to the hundreds of changes that keep flying past, with often as not frequent requests for entirely new music (often to fill an unexpected scene change, but also to follow an extended dance break that got added at some point in development).  By the time I get in there ready to fold in effects, the pit is over-tasked and pretty thoroughly confused, and wants nothing more than to somehow manage to edit down their thousands of scribbled notes into something they can actually play.

The flip side of this -- as I discovered in Willie Wonka -- is that after we've opened and the band gets comfortable with the material they are dealing with, they start expanding into the formerly bare sonic spaces.  Often as not over-writing the material I spent tens of hours creating.

And I don't complain, because, as I said, it sounds better when it is from the pit.

But it makes the entire process even more frustrating for the Sound Designer.

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