Archive for the Creativity Category

The ScareHouse Basement Podcast Episode

Posted in Creativity, Scarehouse with tags , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by deliriumdog

One of my best excuses for not producing much musical content this year is my involvement in the creation of The ScareHouse’s new Basement attraction.

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It should be no secret to those of you who’ve read either of my blogs (here and Tumblr) the past couple years that I have developed a strong fascination with immersive theater. When Scott Simmons (Creative Director, ScareHouse) told me that they were thinking about making a more personal, immersive haunt experience this year I told him I was all-in. Opportunities to work on a project like this during the birth stages one are not common.

The ScareHouse management did not want to sap the main haunt of its talented design team, so I had the chance to jump in and participate in the creation side beyond my usual role as sound guy. After attending and analyzing many immersive shows over the past couple years, the time had come to put some of my learnings into practice. I found myself driving, flying, and phoning into Pittsburgh most weekends over the Summer and writing long, list-filled emails to the point where I’m sure Team Scarehouse would cringe every time they saw my name in their inbox. We would continuously challenge and test each other’s ideas and the result, I think, was pretty far from what any of us envisioned at the start. The Basement turned out to be a hit, but none of us knew exactly how people would respond to it until we opened the doors in late September.

Hosting this podcast episode gave me a chance to document the process that led up to opening day as well as capture some of the magical chemistry of the cast one night before the doors opened. I’m happy with how it came together with one caveat: I never had the chance to interview Scott Sudzina who managed the haunt. He played a major role in making it happen. My bad for not finding time to interview him for the show.

I’m looking forward to seeing what we come up with next year. Until then, this puts a nice capper on the first chapter of Basement history.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, you know where to find me here and on the the socialwebs.
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Follow Glenn Ricci / Delirium Dog on Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

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Roll Your Own Artist Residency

Posted in Creativity, Life Hacks, Music Making, Scarehouse, Sound Design with tags , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by deliriumdog

I’m spending this week at The Scarehouse to focus on music, sound, video, and immersive environments. Sure, in this networked world, I could pretty much just phone it all in from my home in Baltimore, but there is a lot to be gained from being away from home and its many distractions to focus in on just one thing. Even though I’ve arranged my work week so I can be home a full three days every week, there are still many shiny things competing for my attention. Housework. Errands. PS3. Skyrim (yes, I just started playing it a couple weeks ago). Drinks with friends. I have no idea how those of you with kids in the mix get anything done at all!


Photo: My little setup this week at ScareHouse.

In all that, I may at most get a few hours a week for the sort of “deep dive” that I require to create something of quality. Also, while my wife provides a great sounding board for ideas, it’s good to get feedback from others and give her ears a break. What I desperately needed was a significant chunk of time removed from my usual orbit to immerse myself in sound and the flow of creative process.

This all may seem obvious, but how often do we really do it? Take a week off just for our art!? Can’t we squeeze it in between all the other things? Sure, but we do that because we have to, not because it’s optimal. Far from it. 

This is roughly the third time I’ve done this and it’s always resulted in something worthwhile. I may not have ended up with single complete product, but I usually end up with a lot of little ideas that I can pick up later during less inspired moments and work to the finish. When I did this in 2010, I ended up with half the ideas and a lot of video footage for the FEVER BRAIN BATTERY album. This time, I’m chopping up and remixing recordings from the 1920’s, marrying them with new beats and sounds, and seeing what happens. It loosely relates to new (and currently secret) projects happening at The Scarehouse, so some of the output will end up there. As I’m working, I occasionally take off my headphones, crank up the monitors, and see how people react. Instant feedback! I’ve also been walking around the haunt, eyeing up the new spaces and getting a sense of what might play well in there. The ScareHouse set designers are pretty brilliant, so I’m not wanting for inspiration.

Okay, so you may not have access to a large haunted attraction–and even if you did, it might not be your ideal site for an artist residency. But try this: close your eyes and picture what, for you, would be the ideal mobile creative work environment. Decide what your most essential tools are for making your art, and picture them in this space. Maybe your tools are so large that you need a special studio, in which case your options are pretty well narrowed down for you. But maybe you have a friend or relative in another state with a really cool basement or back porch. And maybe they work all day and don’t mind giving you the run of the place. Or maybe they’re around just enough to check in and give you feedback. That doesn’t sound ideal? Scrap that plan and start over. Maybe you need to put aside the time and money to go to an actual workshop/retreat with an instructor and other students to inspire you. But I believe that it’s possible to create an atmosphere from whatever is at hand and whomever you know. (If you’re a creative person who does not know any creative friends, you definitely need to find some new friends!) Once you’re done visualizing your ideal temporary work space, surrounded by the right people (or no people at all) think about where and how to make that happen.

It’s not going to happen on its own. While I’m sure they’re happy to have me at ScareHouse, I invited myself for the week. They no longer think it strange that I may want to show up, occupy a large table with my stuff and pace around listening, tweaking, taking photos, shooting video, staring out the window, and asking all sorts of random questions. Whatever it is you need to do to create–you want that to be totally normal behavior during your retreat.

It’s also important to have some goals. And it’s just as important that you are able to abandon those goals if better, more urgent ones, come along. I have a long list of goals, some of which cannot be finished in a week. As long as I’ve made progress on any of them, and maybe even achieved one of them, then I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something. Usually it’s the new, surprising opportunities that come along during the retreat that you end up being glad for.

Do not expect everything to work out beautifully during your first DIY residency. In 2010, the space I chose for my impromptu “studio” turned out be less than optimal. I also brought way too much stuff, which bogged me down and made me feel sad that I was not using it all. Even still, I was able to readjust and lots of good things came out of that week. When I came home, I had a new perspective on how to improve my home studio as well. The work I started that week definitely would not have existed if I had not thrown myself into that new environment.

Even if the work you create ends up getting scrapped, it’s not so much about the product. It’s about getting the opportunity to focus on something you love doing and fanning the creative embers. That is never a bad thing.

One last tip: be careful about reentry. Returning to the day-to-day grind after being so unfettered can be downright painful. Be nice to yourself and others, and understand that whatever you’re doing is necessary so that you can eventually return to your creative space.  

I’m curious: have any of you done this? Let me know in comments or elsewhere on the social webs (see below) how you have made time and space to make your art.

Follow Glenn Ricci / Delirium Dog on Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Then She Fell – My Experience

Posted in Creativity, Performance with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2012 by deliriumdog

It’s been over a month since I’ve experienced Then She Fell (and posted an interview with director Zach Morris), yet many of its moments are still etched vividly in my mind. This is impressive considering how much has
transpired since spending those two hours enthralled inside the show’s original location at an abandoned hospital in Brooklyn. With the show moving and continuing on a new location at South Street Seaport (latest on that here), I’ve been freshly motivated to finally write up my experience with the show.

Because Then She Fell (TSF) is limited to 15 audience members only, many of you probably have not yet seen it, even after a sold-out run of six weeks. Given that, I’ll keep the spoilers light here. However, I will be giving up some details and thematic elements, so if you wish to go into the experience completely spoiler-free, you may want to bookmark this for later. I also know that many of you found this because I have written a good deal about Sleep No More, but I would first like to confront TSF on its own terms and save the comparisons for another post over in Tumblr. If you crave more details, Carey Purcell also posted a nice writeup of her experience.

TSF constructs a personal journey through the life and works of Lewis Carroll. It intentionally blurs the lines between his life and work, imagination and experience, and results in something more profound than either. It is evident that the show’s creators took some deep dives into their source material and surfaced with insightful nuggets from Carroll’s world. (It may help to have a cursory knowledge of Carroll and the characters in Through The Looking-Glass to enjoy TSF, but advanced research is not strictly required to enjoy the show.) Most characters I encountered occupied an intriguing space between fiction and their non-fictional analogs.

It’s fitting that the show begins with a tiny lecture on the word “liminality,” preparing you for the the ways the performance will be toying with your perception. You are taken between the concrete, the uncanny, and points in between with little warning. I saw the red queen transform into Alice’s mother and then back again, I saw the Mad Hatter go from quizzically philosophical to factually informative to seriously goofy.  I was both a voyeur and receiver of the gaze. I was in turns a passive observer and a challenged game player. Passing many times through a hospital ward had me questioning the sanity of my visions.

The resulting experience was not purely that of a surreal dream so much as a journey through Carroll’s waking thoughts, some whimsical, some obsessive, some tormented, others merely clever. At times, the characters would perform passages from Carroll’s work, at other times they would pontificate upon it, and other times still they would bring to life the drama and emotion of a person known to Carroll. The author’s life is a rich topic for this sort of play because there is so much about Carroll that has been mistaken, obscured, and mythologized that entering his world ultimately leads to a discussion about what is even knowable. Carrol’s relationship with Alice Liddell, especially, has only grown more mysterious with time. What is history, fiction, hearsay, fantasy, truth in this context? TSF’s creators are reveling in the spaces inbetween and manage to keep us in a state of vacillation for a full two hours.

Your journey involves being led between the 20-some-odd rooms and passageways which do not sprawl so much as fit together like tight puzzle pieces. Not everyone sees the same set of scenes (I would guess it would take two or three visits to see them all) and nobody sees them in the same order. Some scenes are viewed with two, three, or four other guests and everyone is guaranteed to experience at least a few scenes alone with a performer. My wife and I started the show together with three others and were split up and reunited several times. She had two private interactions with Carroll himself, while I only saw him at a distance. I, on the other hand, had some private moments with both Alice characters (yes, there were two Alices) that my wife did not experience. One special moment for me was hearing an existential monologue from a character hidden from view who then revealed herself to be the stunning Hatter character. I was probably the only person that night who first met her in that dramatic way. The timing was so perfect that I cannot imagine the show otherwise, and yet it is unlikely to occur for me that way again. This makes me very curious to experience the show a second time.

Movement and dance provided the backbone to the action, but the work also engaged the rest of the senses. Dialogue (sometimes with me); food and drink; sound and music; sets ranging from simple to richly detailed; group dynamics and one-on-one performances; optical illusions; and a high degree of physical interaction all played a role. Strangely missing was any specific use of smell like burning incense–a sure way to burrow deep into our brains and yank our minds back to the show when, weeks later, we catch whiff of the scent again. The only reason for this that I could discern is that it may have conflicted with the aromas of the food and drink.

The show was most engaging at the moments when I was required to perform simple tasks. Hold this, carry that, open this, drink that, wear this, place these flower petals into this small box contraption and turn the crank, etc. And, of course, when given food and drink (both savory and sweet) it was difficult to not be pulled into the moment. I recall a savory tart, an herbal cocktail, a chocolate truffle, a wine-based concoction, and, of course, hot tea several times over.

While I did not view the show as being a game as such, a good deal of gameification must have been employed in the making of it. Planning out the many tracks so that each person has a full, balanced, and continuous experience must have been a true challenge. From my view, everything flowed smoothly and seamlessly. There were a couple moments of downtime here and there but the sets and visible action made even those moments worthwhile.

I would describe the set design as both sparing and lavish. Each room had just enough detail to convey a sense of place and a mood without appearing cluttered. There was the occasional drawer or cabinet to explore. Each guest was given a ring of keys and told to keep them throughout their journey. Sometimes they proved useful to reveal details of the set, sometimes they were an amusing red herring.

When the performers would dance and fling themselves around such small rooms, I sometimes felt an element of danger–both from the possibility of being hit by a stray elbow and from the sense that I was intruding into someone’s private space. When alone in a small room with a performer, I felt a rare sense of focus and presence. Intimacy was conjured by keeping things small, close, real.

The overall tone was more upbeat than I expected. Maybe it was the set of expectations I brought to it, combined with the fact that I came from the ScareHouse dress rehearsals just a few days earlier. The ScareHouse is about as dark and disturbing as things get, so my internal darkness tolerance mechanism was calibrated for something much worse. However, my wife, who has a much lower threshold for creepiness, enjoyed herself without much stress. There was as much charm, whimsy, and humor as there was darkness.

This was also true of the music, which was a folksy mix of accordion, guitar, banjo, harmonica, clarinet, violin, bass, and voice. The recording was produced to be very direct, rather than thickened with layers of ambience and reverb, which added to the close and intimate feel of the show. One haunting passage with synth and delayed percussion stands out as if someone is tapping at a door down a long hallway. The action throughout the show was unified and synced to the same soundtrack, so each passage provides the backdrop to a number of simultaneous scenes. One very nice touch was a song with lyrics which, I’m told, were sung live by one of the performers. As I heard them sung, I saw the words being written down by another performer into a
private journal.

All in all, the mood was way less terrifying than any experience set in an abandoned hospital deserves to be. I get the sense that Third Rail’s DNA does not include a dark spiral of terror. As a group, they strike me as upbeat, cheery, supportive folks who end up keeping things on the lighter side even as they dive into darker material. Carroll’s tale of desire and obsession could easily have lead into some very dark places, but as Third Rail allows themselves to be obsessed with their work, they end up channelling their energies to positive ends. During your journey through TSF, your are shown an appreciation for artistic and personal obsession that is not betrayed by angst or cynicism. You may be haunted, but not horrified. At the end of the day, that may be the show’s greatest gift.

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Interview with Zach Morris, Director of Then She Fell

Posted in Creativity, Performance, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2012 by deliriumdog

I first caught wind of Third Rail Productions when my ScareHouse friends told me tales of a Steampunk Haunted House in NYC. When I looked them up this year, I discovered that they were developing an even more ambitious piece of experiential theater titled Then She Fell. Based on the life and works of Lewis Carroll, Then She Fell steeps no more than 15 audience members in an intimate setting in which all senses are engaged. Audience members view scenes alone or in small groups and are often encouraged to interact with the performers and their surroundings, even consuming cocktails and confections along the way.

Those of you following my fascination with Sleep No More (and recent writeup of STRATA) will understand why I would be interested in understanding how Then She Fell came about. It seems to me a natural evolution to go from a haunted house to a longer, immersive theatrical experience but this is the first I have heard of it actually happening.

Director and world-building visionary, Zach Morris, paused during a very busy opening week to answer a few questions about this enticing new work.

Glenn: As I understand it, Then She Fell is an outgrowth, in part, from your earlier work on the Steampunk Haunted House. What aspects of the haunt applied directly to Then She Fell? What aspects were completely new, different, and/or challenging?

Zach: Third Rail started the Steampunk Haunted House for two reasons: 1) to continue to reimagine ways that contemporary art and performance could be reframed in alternate , perhaps more accessible contexts and 2) because we have long been obsessed with the idea of ‘world-making’ – creating dense, saturated performance and installation environments that allow our audience to really get lost within a piece. At its heart, Then She Fell is an extension of both of those impulses. It is a next step in our company’s dedication to making performance works in non-traditional contexts and is an opportunity to create a longer, denser, deeper and more multifaceted world for our audiences.

In particular, we are excited about creating an incredibly intimate experience for our audience. One that is multi-sensory, affords more opportunity for exploration, and lasts long enough for the audience to really get immersed in the world.

Glenn: In addition to Lewis Carroll, what material did you draw on for inspiration?

Zach: Really, this piece is borne almost entirely out of our explorations of Lewis Carroll’s writings and, in particular his life and relationship with Alice Liddell- the “real” Alice. The classic Alice texts along with the mysterious and complicated biographies of Carroll and Alice gave us ample fodder to create an intricate, interconnected narrative/thematic web that the audience gets to discover over the course of their explorations.

Glenn: What will you use in the way of sound and music for the piece? Any new compositions? What role did music and sound play in your development of the work? Did the music predate the choreography or vice-versa?

Zach: Sean Hagerty (working with collaborating musicians Isaiah Singer and Brian Olin) have created an amazing, original score for the work. One aspect that’s particularly exciting about the soundscape is that every environment has its own carefully designed mix of audio elements to give every scene, every room its own unique mood. The music was largely composed in response to the themes we were working with and movement material we were creating, though we did have a couple “jam sessions” early on where the musicians were improvising based off of the movement material we were doing, and likewise the performers responded to the sound. As we’ve developed the work, the movement and the music have become increasingly intertwined: choreography adapting to what is happening musically, and vice versa.

Glenn: I know a number of Sleep No More fans who will be attending the show. The folks at Punchdrunk actively avoid comparisons of SNM to a haunted house. Are you still embracing your haunted house pedigree? Are there still elements of horror?

Zach: Then She Fell is, in many ways, a culmination of the explorations we’ve been doing with immersive performance and environmental installation over the last five years. We have always wanted to create a work where our audiences could really explore the immersive worlds we create, giving a deeper experience then the short duration experience that is necessitated by a haunted house format. While Then She Fell is not a haunted house, it is an expanded, deepened, more complex, more lavish iteration of the immersive theatrical experiences that our audiences have come to love in the Haunted Houses of years past.

Glenn: Did Sleep No More’s success inspire or embolden you in any way, or would your current evolution have happened regardless?

Zach: I feel that there has been a surge in immersive performance that’s been bubbling here in NYC for many years– but I’ve really felt it in the last 5 years. I think there are a number of reasons for this, but can only really speak about why Third Rail started working in this form.

Our focus has always been on reimagining ways to present contemporary art and performance…and on listening to the pulse of our rapidly changing culture to determine what the most resonant frames/contexts might be. In our increasingly mediated, digitized world I think that people have started craving real, ‘tactile’ experiences. We spend so much of our lives staring at screens (ostensibly, prosceniums) that when we go to the theater, we sometimes find ourselves craving something different. Third Rail’s interest in creating immersive or exploratory experiences arose from this desire.

I see a parallel movement from a lot of other artists who, like us, have been working in site-specific performance and/or the creation of installation environments. I think that the success of recent immersive/ambulatory projects has everything to do with the fact that audiences have started seeking out non-traditional performance experiences. I see the success of Third Rail’s immersive projects as well as events like Too Shy to Stare, Hotel Savoy, Sleep No More, the Tenant, Accomplice Theater’s various projects (just to name a few!) as an indication of this turning tide.

Glenn: Experiencing such a lavish-looking show with only 14 other audience members seems like a rare treat. Were you ever tempted to “scale up” the show so more people could see it and you could sell more tickets? How did you settle on 15? Do you believe the small-audience model could be sustainable over a longer period of time by ticket sales alone?

Zach: The personal, intimate experience that each audience member gets is at the heart of Then She Fell. It has taken us almost two years to create this work, and most of that was spent figuring out how to create a work where every audience member’s experience was meticulously designed. We hope that it is, as you say a “rare treat” to have this type of experience…and believe that the small-audience model will be something that can be sustained over time.

Glenn: Congrats on the sold out, extended run. Any chance it will be extended further, or re-created again somewhere else?

Zach: The response has been utterly overwhelming and we ARE currently working on finding ways to add more shows so stay tuned! All information about added performances can be found at thenshefell.com

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Thanks, Zach. I’ll be attending the show on October 12th and will post a write-up of my experience. In the meantime, some low-spoiler first impressions are available from Dan Dickinson and Kathryn Yu. Both attended a preview as a perk for supporting Third Rail’s Kickstarter campaign for the show.

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Follow Glenn Ricci / Delirium Dog on Twitter and Facebook.

So How’s That News Break Working Out For Me?

Posted in Creativity, Digital Culture, Life Hacks on June 6, 2012 by deliriumdog

In January of 2011, I wrote that I was going to greatly reduce the time I spend reading about news and (especially) politics and divert that time into my serial obsessions. The idea was that news (especially politics) was generally a downer and had very little to offer me other than sadness and anger. There was nothing I could act upon, other than to be more sad and angry. If I instead spent that time learning something new about music or video or social media or any number of other topics allowed me to put that knowledge to work right away. In that earlier post, I detailed (bullet points and all) the changes I made to steer myself in a more productive direction.

How am I doing with that now?

It was working out great for several months. I would start the day with an article or two about music marketing or learn something new about the software I use for audio or video, and then settle into the day knowing I had already done some small thing to move my work forward. During any break time I had, I would dive into the large list of bookmarks I’ve gathered about multimedia production and pick up some new tidbits. I did the same at all times that I would have reached for a news fix. It helped me in a lot of ways. I didn’t feel stuck–I felt empowered. I knew that whatever I learned that day may not change my whole world, but that  after a month or so I could look back and see actual progress. And I did.

At some point I sort of fell off the wagon. While I did a great job of keeping politics off this blog and the other social medias, I did think about it a lot. The events of  the presidential primary became so darned entertaining that I got sucked right back in. It was not nearly the same level of saturation as in the past, and I did make progress with my music, but it was still too much. I know it was too much because I have so little to show for it now.

Perhaps I’m doomed to learn that same lesson over and over. BUT things are better now. Really. When the election settled into a “wake me up when it’s time to vote” phase, I saw an opening to shift back to a news-light lifestyle.

I’m also re-learning that I do not need to follow the minutia of the news in order to stay informed. In fact, I barely need to follow it at all. I find that the important news finds me no matter what. I do work in DC, after all. The people around me are very informed. Friends ask “have you heard?” and we have something to talk about. I can check in to the two weekly news programs that I enjoy and hear information that is actually new to me rather than a recap of what I already know. And of course, spending any time on the internet, news is always bubbling up through the social medias.

So now I pause every time my muscle memory goes to tap out “washingtonpost.com” into my browser and try steer by brain towards better nourishment. It feels a little like I’ve had my head above water for the first time in a while. It’s like I’ve moved around some tubes and wires that had fallen into disuse and fashioned them into a positive feedback loop. It feels good.

There is one thing the news consumption habit was good for: it was a habit that involved reading and ingesting new ideas on a regular basis. That is one habit I’m going to keep.

Sleep No More Soundtrack (Cont.): THE ANSWER

Posted in Creativity, Music, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , on May 23, 2012 by deliriumdog

Ok, this new discovery pretty heavily colors my previous analysis about Punchdrunk’s approach to the soundtrack to Sleep No More.

My earlier posts were all based on the assumption that Punchdrunk began their development process as any other play or film production would: first with story, action, visuals, and pretty much everything else and then lastly the sound. Sure, there are some smart producers who know that sound is actually the most important element (only slightly exaggerating here) and who bake it into the whole process, but those folks are rare in my experience.

This is not the case with Punchdrunk. At a recent talk at Storycode  in New York, Pete Higgin, one of the shows originators said that the ideas in Sleep No More originated with the soundtrack!

Here is what Higgin said, in the Q&A portion of their talk, which was mostly about their experiment with a digitally enhanced version of the show:

The sound is a very very important level within our shows. The history of Sleep No More as a project–it actually came from sound, it came from old classic film noir soundtracks that actually was a birth for a lot of ideas originally. As a company, we’re very much led–I’m kind of an ex-DJ and Steve [Dobbie] who does our sound design is an ex-DJ and an amazing sound designer. I think we all have a huge appreciation for music as company.

Got that? Not only was the soundtrack integral to the development process from the start, it was the start. Well, that certainly clears up a few things!

At least I now feel justified for spilling so much digital ink on the matter. And I still stand by what I’ve written, but all my speculation about what Punchdrunk was thinking is summed up pretty clearly in Higgin’s remarks.

Now excuse me while I go write updates on my three other posts…

A video of the talk can be found here. The Punchdrunk segment starts at 01:03:00 and the sound comment is at 02:14:55

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Follow DD on Twitter and Facebook.

Digging Deeper Into the Sound of Sleep No More

Posted in Creativity, Music, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2012 by deliriumdog

I’ve received some interesting responses to my first two posts about the Sounds of Sleep No More. The SNM community are a thoughtful, reasonable bunch and have inspired me to dig a little deeper. (Special thanks to Kathryn Yu, who updated her set list of SNM tunes and helped me place a couple tracks, which gave me a chance to spend some quality time with the music while writing
this.)  With the prospect of writing an entry for a journal article on the subject, this gives me a chance to thrash around some ideas. Fair warning to those who get angry when reading analysis and interpretations of artwork that they have enjoyed.  Rest assured that your own experience is perfect and personal and this should in no way steal or diminish that. Oh, and I’m sure there will be spoilers of varying magnitudes. Okay? Good.

Dueling Frames

Just as no two viewings of SNM are the same, allowing for an individual to place a subjective “frame” around the experience, there are other frames we can apply to the use of sound in the production.

My earlier posting was framed by my perspective as a sound designer and composer who has used both original and “found” sources to create soundtracks for haunted attractions. I observed that Sleep No More uses entirely pre-existing music and sound for it’s soundtrack. (I also described how the sources are manipulated in many ways, and the overall effect is brilliant, but nonetheless derived from existing sources.) This surprised me because the overall production impressed me as so completely unique and ground-breaking that I expected the sound to be as well.

[Update: I have since posted a response of sorts from the producers themselves in which they explain how the music itself inspired them.]

In my obsession over how the soundtrack comes from borrowed origins, I passed over other criteria that also provide useful frames for what you hear when exploring SNM.

In emphasizing SNM’s uniqueness, I missed the fact that the rest of the production also borrows a lot, so maybe a soundtrack that borrows is not so odd. @ematthewcobb of Scorched The Snake tweets: “Personally I think borrowed music is necessary. Whole show is citation and appropriation, soundtrack included.” And quoth @AllezAllez of Allez, Allie : “Do you think…maybe since it is like a dream with borrowed characters, the music must be borrowed as well?”

Then there is the play’s dream-like quality derived from a sense that you are roughly seventy years in the past, but not sure exactly which year or decade at any given moment. @ematthewcobb pointed out that the production “needs hints at familiarity, even if audience doesn’t know where they’ve heard cues before.” @AllezAllez “It does give it a sense of place, distorted memories of songs we may have heard, with a time period & noir vibe.”

Comparisons To Other Works

To give this some perspective, let’s take a look at the use of appropriation, dream-like qualities, and time slippage in other works. Unfortunately, there are no other experiential performances like SNM that I have seen that merit any comparison (other than haunted attractions you are unlikely to have seen), so I’ll have to stick with movies and games. The video game Bioshock and the works of David Lynch such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive enter the same territory as SNM in several ways.  They were genre-busting unique experiences when they were released and convey dream states and a vague sense of time referencing past decades.

To briefly summarize the era projected in SNM’s soundtrack, the popular song selections in SNM cluster most strongly in the 40’s with some gems from later decades as well. The movie soundtracks used date from the mid-50’s to early 60’s. One recent electronic tune is a prominent exception, as is the use of the Mulholland Drive soundtrack, both for scenes that contain visions ripped from time: the witches’ prophecy and MacBeth’s altered state as he sees Banquo post-death. (See my first post on the subject for more detail.)

Bioshock: Something Old, Something New

Bioshock may be the most appropriate comparison to SNM because it is an immersive and partially non-linear experience. The Bioshock producers created a retro-futuristic steampunk aesthetic that borrows directly from the same era as SNM. In their case, the producers made a distinction between the popular music taken from the “real world” and the original score written specifically for the game. Popular songs from the 30’s-50’s are heard throughout the game world, whether directly from a visible source like a radio or playing through a PA system somewhere and reverberating through the area. Similar to SNM, the soundtrack comes in at times of heightened drama and cues key moments in the action.

In Bioshock, then, the popular songs from the past are used as diegetic sound while the original soundtrack is entirely non-diegetic. In SNM, I would say that the music is almost all non-diegetic, or at best ambiguous. Unless you imagine there is always a radio nearby, you tend to not see sound emitting from a specific object. In the graveyard you can hear crickets and some thunder in the forest, but that’s about it for in-world sound. One musical exception is during the ballroom scene when you can more easily imagine a band just “offstage” playing the music because everyone is obviously dancing together in a ballroom.

Even the two scenes in SNM that feature characters lip-syncing, the source of the music is notably absent–the performers are conspicuously alone on stage near musicianless instruments. This adds to the haunting quality of their performances. Are we hearing the music in their heads? Is the music piped in from the ghost world? No easy answer is available. In the mezzanine overlooking the ballroom, a piano and record player also remain inanimate as the music plays.  If SNM were simply following the rules of a musical, in which the source of musical accompaniment need not be justified, the inanimate instruments near the performers are making that leap difficult. In most other cases, it is unclear at best whether the characters can hear the music.

One might interpret the music in SNM as emanating from the head of the dreamer who’s dream you are wandering through. (That would at least explain some of the time slippage: perhaps the dreamer lives in the 60’s era of the soundtrack recalling an earlier time. Not too far-fetched considering in deep integration of Hitchock’s Rebecca, which is wholly a flashback is a flashback.) In this case it could be argued that the music is either or both diegetic and non-diegetic. Rather than quibble over those terms, the very possibility that SNM is completely a dream differentiates SNM from Bioshock in a significant way. Bioshock‘s world may appear surreal and dream-like, but it also achieves a level of functional realism that can be logically explained in science fiction terms. SNM plays by no such rules and confounds any simple narrative interpretation.

Considering this, Bioshock‘s distinct and tidy separation between the period music and original soundtrack is true to the effect it is trying to achieve. It is a first-person-shooter, after all, and certain bedrock consistencies need to be in play for the game to work.  SNM’s less tidy distinction between period music and soundtrack serves a different end–to further disorient and dislocate from a tangible reality. This leads us to the work of David Lynch who also creates works with little apparent need to define where the dream begins and ends.

Lynch’s Dreams

I’m not certain if Punchdrunk/Emursive are referencing Bioshock at all with SNM, but they are definitely referencing David Lynch. The most direct evidence is the use of a blending of tracks from the Molholland Drive soundtrack during the creepy banquet scene when the actors literally perform out of time (in slow motion) and dreamlike visions take over the action. Most of Lynch’s films go in an out of dreamspace (or dreamspace-to-dreamspace) with complete fluidity. Like SNM, you may ask yourself if it was only part dream or completely so. No David Lynch wannabe filmmaker has evoked that distinctive Lynch-like feeling in me more than I get from being in SNM.

Lynch’s films often appear to take place in what I would describe as a “present-day 1950’s.” That is, we are at once to think that events are taking place in the present day and yet the sets and costume and music are stylized to that earlier period after WWII and before the escalation of Vietnam. (You know: those “sweet, innocent” years both fetishized and skewered by Mad Men.) Blue Velvet was titled after the 1963 Bobby Vinton tune, which makes an appearance in the soundtrack next to Roy Orbisons “In Dreams” (hello!) and other vintage pop songs. At the same time, the movie featured Lynch’s first of many collaborations with composer Angelo Baldamenti who incorporated orchestral, jazz, synth, and pop stylings of his own creation into the soundtrack.

As the story goes, Lynch played the music of Dmitri Shostakovich on the streets of the Blue Velvet movie set to summon his desired atmosphere during filming. He then pointed Baldamenti toward Shostakovich’s works as starting point for his soundtrack. Baldamenti’s take wedded so nicely with what Lynch was going for that the two men collaborated several times since. Like Shotakovich himself, Baldamenti created a hybrid sound that borrowed from a selection styles. The result is an unsettling dislocation from time and space. It’s fitting that the movie begins with a shot of a severed ear and ends with the camera pulling out of the ear of the movie’s protagonist. Just as Lynch’s inspiration, Louis Bunuel, was literally and figuratively slashing eyeballs, Lynch seeks to do the same with our auditory senses.

A prolonged comparison between Lynch’s works and SNM would be fun (at least for one of us) but let me just reach for one more example. In Mulholland Drive there is a scene in which the two female leads attend a show at “Club Silencio.” There, the announcer on stage tells us “There is no band. And yet we hear a band…It is all an illusion.” A woman comes on stage and appears to sing a cappella Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, then faints and is carried off as the music continues. (If you’ve seen SNM, I’ll leave you to pick out all parallels between that scene an a number of SNM moments.) Lynch–a director who personally labors over the details of his soundtracks much more than most–is overtly toying with the formal aspects of the soundtrack I’ve discussed so far. Where is the sound coming from? Who is controlling it? Why is the music familiar yet foreign? Why are we hearing thunder inside a theater? I wonder: could it all be dream?

Reasons For Borrowing

If you grant Lynch and Baldamenti’s success at creating original soundtracks that weave original music and sound with pre-existing works, then it is possible that Punchdrunk could have attempted the same to achieve similar ends. There are, however, many reasons artistic and practical not to take that route.

SNM does borrow more directly from previous works than any of the above examples. It is ostensibly (and substantially) Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hitchcocks’s Rebecca is also quoted extensively. However, the characters engage in a great deal of action not detailed in the play or movie, so that alone would not justify a purely quoted soundtrack.

It is not as if Punchdrunk is a stranger to original music. The author of the Sleep No More Crossover Fan Fiction Blog pointed out that “Original music was composed for the Punchdrunk show The Duchess of Malfi and performed live by an orchestra that moved around the building.” One reviewer recalled having difficulty keeping up with the orchestra’s conductor, but when she did she was pleased: “Their music stands had little crosses on them, conveying the sense of being in a graveyard, but the music could not have been more alive: the brass was ominously vivid and, together, the players preached a dark sermon.”

Sounds wonderful, but certainly there were logistical issues with taking such an ambitious step. The first being that in order to have an orchestra play every night, you have to hire a large group of musicians. The second involves visions of aimless guests smashing into musicians holding delicate instruments. Having a house band play jazz standards in the bar (our little way station between the hotel and the outside world) on the safe confines of the stage adds a nice touch of live music without those hassles.

Then there’s the fact that SNMNYC is spread out over seven large floors. Some reviews suggested that Punchdrunk had spread themselves too thin with Malfi over three floors of the production. Not so with this newer production. In the NYC venue, Punchdrunk needed an approach that would allow them to cover a huge amount of space. Many more hours of sound is needed than exists in a typical movie soundtrack. Curating a soundtrack of that size is a daunting task and making one from scratch may have been simply impossible unless you had a year or more of development time.

And of course original does not always = “good.” In fact, there is no correlation at all. Going with tracks that you already know are individually great gives you better odds that the end result will also be worth listening to. If you believe as I do that the big-band era was a rare time when the most popular music was also the most artistically satisfying, then you would be hesitant to try to best the original tunes. And to what end? As our Crossover Fan Fict Blogger observed: “Despite [the original soundtrack], Sleep No More completely eats Duchess of Malfi’s lunch.” He did not say that the Malfi soundtrack was lacking somehow, but he does appreciate SNM’s overall effect better.

One more artistic concern that may have that come into consideration is the careful modulation of tone and creepiness SNM maintains. The show never comes close to haunted house territory by going for big scares. Or even medium scares. It’s a long, slow, lightly simmering kind of creepy. The familiar music often adds to the pleasant side of the experience rather than trying to constantly unsettle you. I said earlier that SNM invokes in me the feeling of a Lynch movie like nothing else has, but it does not terrify me the way Lynch often does. If it did, I could not remain in that world for three hours without running out in a state of total panic. Who knows extra detail it would take to tip me over the edge, but a little more of a Lynchian soundtrack might do it.

Framed By Red Curtains

Which brings me back to the personal experience–the “frame” you put around your time in SNM. Neither a movie nor a video game, no matter how immersive, compares directly to the real-world physical experience of SNM. I have made an attempt to discuss it using the terms of film analysis, but of course it is not a film. It is not happening in the safe confines of a screen sitting out in front of you. It plays by an additional set of rules that involve physical constraints, timing, angles of view, smells, the choices you make, etc..  Still, none of this frees it from the meaning-making that viewers will inevitably bring. Like any work of art, there are a finite number of meanings that can be defended and communicated to a larger group. Adding the extra layers of personal experience, memory, and variability involved single viewing, and that makes the job a good deal more difficult than a work that is fixed in time. Fortunately, SNM has enough structure built into that I believe it stands up to this level of scrutiny quite well.

Even movies can have a layer of personal experience specific to a particular viewing. The first time I saw Mulholland Drive, I was sitting alone in a large theater with red seats, red curtains, and red drapes on the walls. On man entered and sat many rows ahead of me, disappearing from sight. Another entered and sat several seats behind me. I felt like I was in a David Lynch movie! During one of the closing scenes (in which a painfully happy old couple chases the main character down a hallway) I remember thinking that if the scene was going to continue for a few seconds longer I would have to leave the theater rather than go insane. That is one movie-going experience I will never be able to duplicate.

There is no doubt that Punchdrunk could have created a soundtrack that pushed more buttons and was more unsettling and disturbing. I think most of us are glad that they did not. One of the great achievements of SNM is how its producers manage to strike the right balance between unsettling and alluring. A good deal more people are drawn in than are sent away screaming. By staying on the more familiar side of things, the soundtrack surely plays a strong role in that.

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