Mic Pool in conversation with George Rodosthenous
What does theatre sound add to a production?
The word ADD is not helpful here. All design aspects should be an intrinsic part of the whole; nothing should appear to be an addition. If something is perceived as such it is probably superfluous and can be readily discarded.
In times past, audiences would speak of going to hear a play and audiences are more often than not seated in auditoriums. Sound design therefore can lay some claim to being historically the senior theatre design discipline. If we say that the primary sound is the actor’s unamplified voice, then everything heard beyond that is in the realm of and sound design and/or composition.
If a visual design is concerned with the space around performers, which can initially be described as empty or dark, then the aural space around the performers starts with silence. But what is the nature of that silence. In modern theatres, it simply doesn’t exist. There is the extraneous noise of the electrical and mechanical equipment, the noise from the studio theatre next door, passing sirens and aircraft outside, the sound of 1000 peoples’ respiratory systems, in various states of health. So perhaps the first job is replacing this non-silence with an alternative non-silence more fitting to the play to be performed.
Of course as soon as we do this we have made decisions and selections, and so have embarked on a design process. That process will continue with more layers of sound, some continuous, some sharp interruptions counterpoints and punctuations. And so we develop a unique and complete sound world for the play to inhabit and weave an aural landscape around the space the actors voices or movements occupy.
How do you start your creative work?
Theatre sound design is a discipline; it is not a fine art. It is creativity in the service of a higher goal, the most perfect realisation of a production we can achieve, within the resources we have available.
In the 21st century we now have a range of resources and techniques that allow us to conceive of and produce almost any aural stimulus imaginable and reproduce this night after night to share with an audience. This is what I call ‘the curse of infinite possibility’
To deal with this I use a simple conceit; that there exists only one correct solution for this particular production of this particular play at this particular time. So the sound design consists of a narrowing down of the infinite possibilities to the one correct choice for every moment of this production’s duration.
The first step is to thoroughly understand the text. In the initial stages I don’t think much about historical period, or narrowly defined physical locations, as these will often be entirely changed by the director. The important thing to discover through study and related research is the central themes the play deals with, it’s characters and how they relate to each other.
I will then begin to assemble a palette and explore a range of techniques, that allow ideas for my sound world that have been inspired by the text, (or description of the physical activity or other brief, if the work is not text based), to be realised in a form that can be shared with an audience.
In what way is your work different/complementary to the work of a theatre composer?
The best way of answering this is probably to examine what the terms music and sound might mean in this context. If I play you the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we would agree that is music. A recording of a cockcrow we would probably agree is sound. If I played you Music Promenade by Luc Ferrari, a classic 1960s piece of musique concrete, without telling you what it was, we would have to examine it in more depth to decide how to classify it. Clearly the dominant component sounds of this work are field recordings of the natural world, but they have been organised and shaped by Luc Ferrari for presentation to an audience, and are therefore compositions. Luc Ferrari self identified as a composer, and is regarded as such by the academic music community.
Karlheinz Stockhausen expresses this succinctly:
“Whenever we hear sounds, we are changed, we are no longer the same … and this is especially the case when we hear organised sounds, sounds organised by another human being: music.”
So if we take a broad definition of music to include all organised sound, and those that organise it as composers there is no real difference.
In practical terms in theatrical work, there is probably a distinction that can be made, and this will often determine how an individual self identifies their offer to the theatrical producer.
A composer outside a commissioning process will have a great deal of freedom in defining the form and output of their practice and deadlines associated with it. The theatre composer under contract to a production, may be expected to create music in almost any style to extremely tight deadlines, and if they are going to describe themselves as a theatre composer, must have the skills and knowledge to deliver finished music to the highest standards in any genre and form within these parameters.
The sound designer, although some of the work might be compositional in the broadest sense, will in addition be expected to have a degree of engineering ability to design and implement solutions to a whole range of complex theatrical requirements and must have those skills in abundance.
Although there are a few people who define themselves as composer/sound designers who genuinely have the depth in both skill sets, the rise of this hybrid role has mainly been driven by economic imperatives, and my opinion is that in most cases a collaboration between a composer and a sound designer can provide the best result for a production.
There are also potentially two main key differences in a sound designer or composer led process. With established sound designers and composers these differences should rarely be to the detriment of a production, but it is worth pointing them out.
They are both principally to do with over-composition.
In the first case we can look to the example of feature films. The musical content of these is often a combination of a commissioned score and of pre-existing period music from commercial recordings. Examine for instance the scores of The King’s Speech or Inherent Vice. Both have a mix of original score and pre existing material which form a satisfying hybrid score. Sometimes there is a temptation for a theatre composer to attempt to provide original cues for scenes that should really be underscored or pointed by deliberate use of contemporaneous musical material. This material binds an audience by recalling a common experience of a key musical work from a period. Providing a pale pastiche of the style of this work, inadequately realised through synthetic means of production, is a poor substitute for the real thing, but many theatre composers will still attempt this.
The other area of over-composition that is frequently to the detriment of a production can be stated as too much music or more simply “please stop it now”!!
John Cage put it best:
“When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings or about his ideas, of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on sixth avenue for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking, I have the feeling that a sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower. And it gets longer and shorter. I’m completely satisfied with that, I don’t need sound to talk to me.”
An audience doesn’t need to be constantly talked to by the music. Sometimes the dialogue of the performers is best served by being under-scored by something with a more aleatoric relationship. A purer sound either natural or man made, but more towards the spectrum of John Cage’s meaningless yet pleasurable silence.
How do you work with a director?
The great thing about theatre is that it is often a far more collaborative medium than film or television. The creative team are broadly present, to a greater or lesser extent ,through the main pre-production, rehearsal period, production weeks and previews in the theatre and will work collaboratively throughout. As a designer’s career progresses they will most likely form working relationships with directors and other creatives that will speed up this process of collaboration.
But regardless of whether I have worked with a director many times or never even met them, my goal is the same; To exceed their expectations and produce work that they could not have achieved without my individual contribution to the production.
It is important to stress that theatre is not a democracy and, however collaborative the working method, the directors decision is the final word. Listening, understanding, making your points in an authoritative manner but shaping your process to the direction in which the production is being led by the director are vital skills for the designer.
It’s also important not to over promise, and to deliver everything you say you are going to achieve in a timely manner.
The most important thing is not to waste a director’s time. This means being prepared for all creative meetings, having a good understanding of the text, a broad range of research to bring to the table and bold and interesting ideas.
In the initial stages of discussion details, such as exact period and location, can be pinned down that will lead to further research, to provide precision to the broad responses to the text or scenarios that were imagined by the designer.
An important area of negotiation is the pattern of work that will allow the sound designer to integrate their work with the director’s rehearsal room process. For some directors on certain shows this may just come down to agreeing a blanket attendance to work alongside all rehearsals in the room. For other projects a few days a week to work certain key sequences and provide a broad indication of the overall sound design may suffice.
Constant high quality communication and the effective sharing of ideas in tangible form through demo recordings and work in the rehearsal room will ensure a fruitful collaboration through the rehearsal process, that will only require refinement once the production reaches the theatre space.
How does theatre sound enhance the overall design concept of a production?
Again, I begin from Stockhausen’s belief that “Whenever we heard sounds, we are changed, we are no longer the same….” I love sound in the theatre because I believe it is stronger than any other of the creative disciplines in enhancing the audience’s experience of a production. And more importantly, it is often the least consciously perceptible element for an audience that is preconditioned to be more visually aware. That makes it infinitely powerful as a tool to propel and empower a production.
What are the characteristics of a good sound design?
Providing fluidity to the dramatic action, trailing ideas from preceding scenes, introducing new material relevant to what will follow, creating a cohesive logical and fully formed world of sound, will result in the sound design being a powerful emotional engine, in shaping the audiences perception of the work. Subtle and imperceptible when required and right up in your face when justified and earned.
What is the best training for a sound designer?
The answer to this will very much depend on the individual in training. The important thing is to produce a rounded designer with a unique voice who can contribute in an authoritative and individual way to the success of a production.
When I trained there was little notion of formal training. It merely presented the opportunity to practise the discipline on a huge range of productions frequently, without much supervision or mentoring. For myself and others who had a vague idea of how theatre worked, and some idea of how our ideas might contribute to productions, this was more than sufficient. For anyone that required more formal tuition or help, it was a disastrous and expensive waste of time and money.
Now the pendulum has swung towards academic validation of all training, there is a danger that this might stifle and alienate those with a more intuitional and vocational talent for the art and craft of sound design.
But essentially the opportunity to practice the art is essential. All designers bring their own unique mix of interests and competencies to the party. And these need to be developed through the opportunity to do as much work in real theatre spaces as possible.
But most important is developing a set of techniques and resources that give the aspiring designer a clearly identifiable voice and demarcated skill set, that enables them to develop a distinguished career.
For potential, musical theatre sound designers, there is no substitute for ascending through the ranks from the most junior positions, through to heading the sound department on major west end musicals and tours and then progressing to design work. Formal training may be less important in this area than effective apprenticeship.
For any pre-recorded material, does one need to have recording experience and recording/editing equipment/software?
Yes, and these tools and the skills necessary to master them are at the heart of the radical changes that have occurred in theatre sound design in the past twenty years. When theatre sound design began to establish itself as a modern design discipline we were still in the pre digital age. Magnetic tape was the standard medium. Equipment was large, mainly non-portable and very expensive. Studio time was costly, and utilising them was difficult, either because they were unaffordable, or because access to them was controlled by gatekeepers at those theatres that had recording facilities. This made sound design a far more difficult aspiration than other theatre design disciplines. A set designer needed not much more than a cutting mat, a scalpel, balsa wood, cardboard, paint and glue, and they had the tools to produce the models that others would build full size and paint. A lighting designer needed a drawing board and a couple of stencils. The resources a sound designer needed access to in order to do their work were very much more demanding, and this limited entry considerably.
When the home studio revolution happened in the 1980s and Japanese manufacturers began to create products that would allow people to build recording facilities at home, it became possible for the freelance sound designer or composer to work entirely independently of established facilities. The cost was still high, and at this stage I used to constantly advocate that theatres built recording facilities, so that sound design work could be allocated on merit rather than economic ability to afford studio facilities. The norm became, for a while, to offer sound design and composition work to those people who were able to furnish fully finished master audio at no additional cost to the theatre.
With the advent of cheap powerful computers and audio software things became far more open and democratic, and as equipment that previously would have been large and expensive became virtualised into software; studio facilities that would have filled two large rooms and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, would now fit in a backpack and be available to anyone for a few hundred pounds.
A similar arc has been followed with the equipment necessary to actually perform these recordings in the theatre for an audience. When theatre sound freed itself from being limited to the number of replay machines available, in determining how many independently cued events could happen in a sequence, mainly through the use of samplers and software to control them, the design of control systems, involving the configuration of software, hardware samplers, SCSI drives, and MIDI devices etc. was still technically complex and difficult to implement reliably. With modern, computer based, playback systems, the rudiments of which can be learnt in a couple of hours, the aspiring sound designer has exactly the same tools available as some of the most complex sound designs in the West End and Broadway.
We now live in an age where there are no real economic or technical barriers to acquiring the means of producing complex sound designs and realising them in a theatre space. Sound designers can constantly experiment with these tools, as they are available on their personal computing devices at all times. I hope we are close to a true meritocracy in theatre sound design.
You won a Tony award for your sound design for The 39 Steps. How did you approach that play?
When we started work on the 39 steps we had no idea of the huge international success it would become. The play has a very simple premise, four actors attempt to perform the entirety of Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps with nothing more than a few chairs, a couple of stepladders and 4 trunks. It was clear that a lot of the story would be told through the sound and there would be a requirement for many pieces of music. We basically set the rule that all the music had to either be from Hitchcock’s films or had to sound like it could have been.
I assembled a large palette of music and sound effects for the rehearsal room loaded into samplers so that I had access to any sound or piece of music instantly and developed the sound design alongside the cast’s rehearsals.
What I learned very quickly was if the sound was going to add to the comedy, execution had to be as tight as the best comic actor’s timing and delivery. We also had to make sure that nothing sounded cartoonish. I didn’t want anyone to say, “That’s such an outrageous effect. It would never be in a Hitchcock film.” I think all of the content could have been, but it’s just the way the music and effects are combined and exaggerated and executed that makes them comic. It’s walking that tightrope between creating stuff that’s ridiculous and cartoonish, which you don’t want to do, and creating things that are genuinely funny out of material that doesn’t sound out of place in the play. Then having developed the design it then had to be programmed in such a way that it could be reproduced with the accuracy and precision required night after night.
In Cat on Hot Tin Roof you portrayed a claustrophobic world from the past. Talk to us about that process.
The plays of Tenessee Williams (alongside the works of Miller) are among the most demanding and rewarding dramatic works a sound designer can tackle. Many take place in environments rich in natural sound, in this case, mangrove swamps with frogs, cicadas, insects birds etc. The way these sounds are layered and their entry and fade points can do so much to create the required oppressive heat, and isolation. Williams also includes complex sound sequences in his writing, In this play we have the off stage party, the concert, the croquet match, Brick’s TV and radiogram, the massive storm, the field hand’s singing, the fireworks etc. It’s an epic palette that can be marshalled in all sorts of ways to support the drama.
The director, Sarah Esdaille, was also keen to have an original Jazz score to bind all these elements together and had asked me to recommend some American Jazz composers she might approach. I thought this approach was likely to be problematic, not least because once such a score was composed it would have to be recorded and the constant revision that would be necessary to ensure the musical content was fully integrated into our production could be time consuming and resource intensive. I proposed an alternative idea; to assemble a group of British Jazz musicians skilled in improvisation, led by the trumpeter Simon Beddoe, who would attend rehearsals and improvise material in direct response to seeing the actors work in rehearsal. We were very fortunate in Simon securing the services of Matthew Bourne – Piano, Dave Kane – Double Bass Joost Hendrix – Drums and Richard Ormrod – Woodwind/Saxes, and a choir led by Leroy Johnson.
These responses were then be refined in recording studio sessions to form the material for a score, which, because we had complete control over the recording method, could create stem parts that could be adapted and refined, as the timings of scenes and transitions developed.
This was inspired by Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s film The Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) where Miles’ band improvised directly to the screening of key scenes of the film in the recording studio.
The combination of this score, and all the other elements of the sound design resulted in one of my most completely integrated sound designs as I had control over virtually every element.
It’s also an interesting example of how the collaborative nature of theatre works and how fluid the role of a sound designer needs to be. Taking a leading role in creating a feasible structure for the creation of the music, ceding that control to the musician’s in the rehearsal room, so they were free to create and improvise within the parameters that had been loosely set, being subtly influential in the recording studio to ensure that the way the material was recorded gave maximum flexibility in reordering and re timing the material to fit the play as it developed and finally taking complete control of all the sound and musical elements to deliver to the director (and producers) in the theatre space what I had originally promised.
Part of sound design these days is discretely enhancing the actor’s voice via amplification. How does this process work?
This could form an entire article in itself, but there is one over riding scientific principal involved, The ‘Haas’ or precedence effect. This basically states that sound will appear to a listener to be coming from the position from which sound arrived first. So if I have an actor 10 metres away from a listener and have a microphone on that actor routed to a loudspeaker 2m away from the listener, the listener will perceive the source of the sound to be from the loudspeaker and not the actor. If I delay the sound from the microphone electronically so that the sound from the loudspeaker is 30 milliseconds behind the actor, the sound from the actor will arrive at the listener’s ear before the sound from the loudspeaker, and the listener will perceive the source of the sound to be the actor and not the loudspeaker. There are many refinements to this technique but essentially it means that loudspeakers can be place as needed to cover all the areas of seating in an auditorium, regardless of how acoustically difficult they are, and each of these loudspeakers can be time delayed so that the actors voice is always the first thing that is heard, and the loudspeakers effectively disappear.
Does it deny the actor to use his full projection or does it encourage intimacy?
If done well the amplification can be completely transparent. It cannot however, solve the problems of the large performance space, or indeed many spaces that aren’t that large. An actor is still going to have to deliver a performance, vocally and physically which appears natural to someone a metre away, and is audible and physically visible and present to another audience member who might be 30 metres away. Even though the actor may be amplified, in order for the Haas effect to work as described above, we rely on the unamplified actors voice reaching the ears of the distant listener before the signal from the loudspeakers so they still need to project sufficiently for that to happen.
Cinema audio technology has enabled us to have full surround – is this applied to the theatre auditorium?
Surround sound in the theatre is superior to surround sound in the cinema and predates it by decades in terms of electronic reproduction, and centuries in terms of mechanical devices. Surround sound for film has to be produced to recognised technical standards and formats which precisely dictate the number of channels and types of equipment used, so a films playback can be standardised across all cinemas it is released to.
Because loudspeaker systems are custom designed for each theatre production there is much greater flexibility in the design of systems. They can go louder, deeper and have more channels than cinema systems. They can also be of far higher quality, as the audio feeding each channel of the playback system can be discrete, and not subject to the compromises of encoding to standard cinema formats.
How does the shape and size of each theatre space affect your work?
Essentially a designer wants to provide the full aural impact of their design to every seat in the house.
This is an interesting area to contrast with the work of the lighting department.
The output of the principal instruments of lighting design (i.e. luminaires) are directed at the stage. Some staging forms e.g. in the round or thrust, will require more lights to ensure illumination of subjects is achieved for all audience viewing angles, and there will be some variation in stage sizes, but not nearly as much as variations in the size and style of auditoriums.
The output of the principal instruments of sound design (i.e. loudspeakers) are directed at the audience and what isn’t always appreciated is that they have very real limits in terms of their dispersion meaning each loudspeaker system can only cover a limited defined area effectively. When we add in complications such as surround loudspeakers, which have to be duplicated for each seating level, and under-balcony delays and fill loudspeakers, to cover areas with compromised acoustics, we can see that in a touring situation the difference between 200 seats on a flat floor and 2500 seats spread over 4 seating levels is immense, requiring vastly different scales of loudspeaker systems for each configuration.