Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Poppins_01: Concept

This is probably not the best show for it.

But I have been meaning to document a sound design from the very top, through the process of development, and this is the next show I'm on contract for. This makes the first post in that series.

Some shows speak clearly; right away, from the first moment, you know what you want to do with them. Poppins, alas, is not one of those shows.

My first flush of a concept was to do something clever with the background sounds. I've gotten really tired (after doing Oliver!, Little Princess, and I can't think of how many other shows) of generic period London background sounds. And I've been thinking in terms of found sounds again, particularly since reading about the creation of the music for Tomb Raider 2013.

So it occurred to me to create these soundscapes from smaller scraps than usual. Rather than a horse and carriage from my usual libraries, make a more impressionistic horse with just a pair of hooves -- played into my keyboard and constructed from sounds that did not originate from an actual horse.

That way, I could change the character of the soundscape; contrast the dreary London Mr. Banks has been cowed to expect out of life, with with fantastical and colorful London of "Jolly Holiday." The same "clip clop" could change from a leaden, muffled rock-on-rock sound to a lighter almost bell-like hit in the same rhythms.

But I don't know if this will work after all.

Like a lot of shows, I've attended production meetings and listened to what the other designers are thinking of (sets and costumes usually bring images to show off as well). I've read the script at least once. I've been listening to a Broadway production recording, getting familiar with the music. But last week we finally had the first read-through with the full cast.

This is when the whole cast is introduced, and they and the design team all sit around a rehearsal room with scripts in hand and a piano, and we stumble our way through the entire production. So we hear all the dialog, and some attempt at the music.

And something struck me in this meeting that then, the next time I listened to the Broadway recording, was extremely clear. This is a show about silences.

There are many moments where there is just a thin melodic line suspended in air over the rooftops. And I need that open-ness. This is a place where as a sound designer I have multiple hats, but it all comes down eventually to me sitting at that board in front of an audience trying to pretend like I am at a dubbing stage for a motion picture; folding in dialog, stage noise, live orchestra, and sound effects into one complete picture.

What I am hearing in the score is that this complete picture requires empty space. Background sound effects are going to clash.

In other places, it moves FAST. The orchestration is busy, the singing is busy (lots of multi-part harmony and curse-of-Meredith Wilson stuff). There's not a lot of sonic space anywhere for passing carriages or the bells of St. Paul's or birds (fed or not.)

It may be that the open texture I desire is possible with the non-realistic sounds I was thinking of earlier. But I still don't have a grasp of how realistic and grounded the other departments are going. It can clash if the sound effects are non-realistic and the scenery is ultra-realistic! Or, sometimes, it can work. But that's a sense, a gestalt, that doesn't come until late in the production process.

I started "Wonka" with found sounds, and after listening to dress rehearsals with the full orchestra, did some hasty surgery to move as much as I could towards synth-based sounds instead. Those fit the total picture better -- but that picture from how the orchestra played when the actors were on mic, how the choreography looked on the painted set; that picture simply wasn't clear enough back when I was creating the original sounds.

In another week there is a full designer's run, for Poppins, followed by a sitzprobe. The former is when the cast stumbles through the entire show with full blocking (and without scripts in their hands). The latter is when the orchestra meets the cast for the first time. Usually, there will have been at least one (but often not more than one!) meeting between the orchestra members to rehearse in isolation. At the Sitz, they see if they can coordinate with the actual singers. A lot of Sitz ends up being the orchestra working out internally how they are going to make the pick-ups work. But it is also the first time I as designer get any real sense of how the orchestra is approaching the score.

I think orchestras don't think in this larger sense. For them -- to be more precise, for the Music Director -- there is a wad of music on the page that has to be gotten through, in a way that will support what the singers are doing and that doesn't sound too grotesque. Their effort is spent devising how to handle the harmonies and inner voices and little motifs that the composer called for, without (usually) anywhere near the assets the composer was hoping they'd have.

There isn't effort left over. But even if there was, most music directors don't think in the same terms as a mixer, or even as an arranger. They are all about "The score needs a horn, we can't afford a horn, the oboe can play that line so here's the oboe." What that choice is going to sound like in the physical space is not their affair. (And that's when they aren't actively sabotaging the mix by turning up their personal amplifiers so they can hear each other and get through the music as written...sacrificing en route the audience's ability to hear the music properly!)

In short, I have no way of telling whether I'm going to have these thin, delicate textures, or wether it is going to be a heavy, thick texture of over-amped piano and aggressive drummer and a synth trying and failing to pretend it is a string section.

Or something different and wonderful, like the punk rock band we had doing Pirates of Penzance.

Also in effects, there are effects that accompany various practical effects; falling plates, magical cakes, flying, whatever. I have tremendous trouble creating these before I have been able to see the effect itself. In Shrek, I am very happy with a few of the sounds, like the bird and the deer -- and those I saw the prop before I finished the sound. I was less happy with the dragon. The dragon sounds, to my ear, never matched the style and size and color and choreography of the final props -- props that didn't get delivered until opening weekend.

With three weeks to go, I'm not worried yet. But it is past time I made a rough cue list for those spot effects anyhow.

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