Archive for the Soundscapes Category
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I’ve had another visit (#4 for me) to the McKittrick since my first commentary about the sound design to Sleep No More. My initial thesis was that while the soundtrack melded beautifully with the other elements of the show, it was among the least ground breaking aspects of the production. I noted that much, if not all, of the music is taken from pre-exisitng recordings, which is a common practice for plays. The reason this is surprising is because SNM is no common play production. Boundaries are stretched, envelopes are pushed, and genres are bent every which way when it comes to the action, presentation, and set design…but not so much for the soundtrack.
[Note: I have since posted a response of sorts from the producers themselves in which they explain how the music itself inspired them.]
To be clear: this is not a value judgement. I think the soundtrack is aesthetically beautiful, lovingly constructed, melds wonderfully with the visuals, and represents a great amount of hard work on behalf of Stephen Dobbie and anyone who helped with the installation. If you read my first post, you will see a good deal of praise for what they’ve done.
So did that thesis hold up as I listened through once again? Basically yes, but I heard some things that complicate my original take. Overall, I was impressed about how well the soundtrack holds up to repeat listening. More on that in a bit.
That Whole REMIXED Thing
First, a response to reports I’ve read about the April 1st REMIXED show. When I first read the invitation to the show, I was hearing in my head all kinds of ways one could mash up the existing soundtrack with elements of modern electronica. (Trip hop rendition of “Is That All There Is,” anyone?) Sounds like my little fantasy, perhaps, but it was inspired by the fact that the SNM New Year’s party DJ reportedly did something similar to that. (Lest anyone thinks I’m angling for Punchdrunk/Emersive to hire me for their next Remix–which I won’t discourage–I wonder why they didn’t just find that guy to do the remix.) Initially, I was desperately jealous of everyone who scored tickets for that event. I figured Punchdrunk and Emursive would prove me wrong by crafting a totally mind-blowing new soundtrack.
But no. For REMIXED they reached no further than pop songs from the 80’s. Some guests were impressed by their selections, others were nonplussed or disappointed. (I become mostly depressed by 80’s music, so I was no longer jealous after reading this news.) At best, seeing a dance set to Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” would have produced in me a kind of sugar high that would have me crashing shortly after the giant drum fill kicks in. I’ve always been jealous of friends who snap into fits of pure nostalgic ecstasy every time they hear Mr. Mister or Chaka Khan or [insert favorite 80’s one-hit wonder here], but I just don’t have that in me. Surely it’s my loss.
Hey, while we’re digressing: remember 1985 when Phil Collins was pretty much the coolest guy in the wide world of music? Difficult to do now, isn’t it?
RELATED: Delirium Philharmonic
ReMixing electronica with the Philadelphia Philharmonic
In my previous article, I pictured the show’s producers being fans of certain film soundtracks and songs and, rather than working with a composer to create something new, using those very same recordings in their new original work. Call it an homage, call it appropriation, call it whatever you want, but with REMIXED that still appears to be their primary mode of soundtrack design. Of course, if they were to take the time to do something truly new and brilliant, one would hope it would be used for more than one night. It was an April Fools joke, after all, so I’m probably overstating my case.
Our Regularly Scheduled Soundtrack
Okay, back to the original soundtrack that they’ve used nightly for over a year. My respect for all aspects of the soundtrack increased during the 4th listen. Here are a few additional details I noticed:
My best guess is that few, if any, of the soundtrack elements were used verbatim. I noticed more manipulation, especially in some of the old crooner tunes, like an added “preverb” effect (a kind of reverse echo) added to the vocal range to evoke a ghostly quality. Some additional vinyl scratchiness may have been added to some tracks. Some tracks have more than one sound layered upon another. A friend who attended with me claims to have heard a piece from the Halloween movie soundtrack that was manipulated to fill more time than the length of the original track. In all these respects, each musical piece is treated like a sampling of sound to be woven into a larger ambient soundscape rather than a solitary composition.
The result of all these pieces stitched together–running in parallel in multiple spaces at the same time–is a huge 4-D woven quilt of sound. A collage. A pastiche that, taken as a whole, can be seen as a new orginal work.
Each track flows so seamlessly into the next that I suspect the whole soundtrack was carefully mixed and mastered so that all the songs play well together. (That is, each track was tweaked so the overall volume, loudness, and EQ was consistent.) Nothing distracted me, jumped out at me in a bad way, or took me away from the experience in any manner. This is a great feat in and of itself.
I cannot place where the soundtrack to the banquet scene comes from, and it sounds like an original amalgam of different sounds. I remember one moment when the track was droning down in the lower registers and a high-pitched violin slide cut through the din. A man in front of me looked around to figure out where that sound came from. It leaped out of the mix so much he thought it came from another source. I love it when that happens.
While I was keeping an occasional eye out for speaker installations, I was never distracted by their placement. However, some were clearly visible. I approve of that visual compromise because the sound is always clear and immediate. The system sounds great.
There was some bleed between sounds every now and then, but I consider that a feature not a bug. I avoided the witches’ rave this time (curious what was happening at the same time) and could hear the pulsing kick drum in other rooms and other floors. I was more likely to notice footsteps from the floor above–a natural sound that added a lot to my awareness of multiple planes of action.
I continued to notice the characters reacting to subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) in the music. It’s clear that the performers have heard the pieces enough to be able to react and anticipate each dramatic flourish and use them to their advantage. I was reminded of this phenomenon when the hostess in the bar, who surely had heard many times the music that’s piped in before the band plays, sang a line in the music just moments before the vocalist in the recording sang the same.
This soundtrack is in the performers’ blood now. They probably dream it at night and inadvertently hum it during the day. Of course they would be responding to it in their performance in all kinds of ways. It’s impossible to discern from my standpoint what may have been the originally drafted choreography and what has developed over time in response to the music. All of the action feels both structured and organic at the same time so I do not even try to figure it out and just enjoy what I’m seeing.
Taking these additional observations into account, I’m still trying to decide if it even matters that no new music was created explicitly for Sleep No More. My bias is so much in the direction of incorporating original music into any new work that I can’t completely let it go. To me, being original and groundbreaking means that the music should be made mostly from scratch. However, the soundtrack as it is truly works and is difficult to criticize on it’s own terms. I have only read praise for it and I doubt many visitors to the McKittrick will give it a second thought. I imagine most people feel and intuit exactly what the producers intended. It’s hard to fault them for that.
I’ve been meaning to write something about Sleep No More, the experiential play/haunted house/adventure game/so much more. It’s Macbeth by way of Hitchcock and Lynch. It’s 100,000 square feet of gorgeously designed sets that you are free to explore, masked and silent, with other audience members who are also instructed to remain masked and silent. You encounter characters in the story (who you recognize because they’re not wearing masks) and choose whether or not to follow. There is very little speaking, so most communication between characters is done with action and dance. Really cool dance, mind you. I admit I do not have an innate appreciation for dance, but the tight choreography, often in small spaces among the audience members, really won me over. The soundtrack comes from popular music of the 30’s to 50’s (Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and the like), Hitchcock movie soundtracks, and a healthy dose of eerie droning and distant, foreboding thunder.
That’s the basic gist. Still, if you haven’t yet visited The McKittrick Hotel, you don’t get it. Sorry. I can keep throwing more words at you, but I know it won’t help. What could I write that hasn’t already been written many times and still fails to capture it? Yet I must say something because it’s an experience that will never leave me. It’s transformed me in a way only the best works of art can.
Oh wait! Not much has been written about the sound! So here goes…
While highly effective, the music (and I’m guessing all or most sound) in SNM was taken from existing recordings. There was no original music composed just for the show. Because the show is so impeccably executed overall, I can discard the notion that they simply could not find a composer to work with and instead went dumpster diving for old LPs. They clearly wished to evoke a certain prohibition-era feeling and nothing does that like playing scratchy recordings from that era, give or take a couple decades.
The only sound-related person in the credits is sound designer (and graphics designer) Stephen Dobbie. His credits include two earlier Punchdrunk productions. He started with the company as a graphics designer, so I can only guess that he developed a latent talent for sound design while on the job. This is not a crazy notion as a producer is more likely to choose someone they know is on their creative wavelength and generally good to work with over someone with a pile of credits. Dobbie obviously has the taste and chops for the work and a sense of the Punchdrunk’s vision, having shared the same air with them for a few years prior.
(If anyone involved wishes to set me straight about the above imagined scenario, please do so!)
Drones, Big Bands, Film Soundtracks, Techno…
I love how the soundtrack often envelopes you in a deep drone like violins played through an ancient system of air ducts. This eventually becomes background noise, your mind able to filter out all but the instinctive feeling of dread. Then the crispy crackle of a needle on a pre vinyl platter pokes through and a familiar big band crooner from the 30’s roots you into into the era. Or so you think. We’re in dream logic here, and after all, whose dreams are free of historical anachronisms?
The soundtrack pieces from Rebecca and Vertigo often come in during major interactions between characters. It’s as if all the other sounds are what is happening off-stage or in between major scenes and the movie music follows around the key moments of the story.
Then there’s one modern tune that stands way the hell out. It cranks at around 170 beats per minute (BPM as we say in the business), rocking a variation of the amen break over a single, gripping synth-bass line. It screams “Rave!” as the lights go nuts and creates a frenetic space that leaps through another window in time entirely. It’s a key scene in which the witches reveal their second vision to MacBeth and stands out nakedly (wink to those who saw it) in contrast to the whole rest of the show.
Dobbie may not be a composer, but he clearly understands dynamics and contrast.
Since I did not dedicate a great deal of my brain analyzing the sound system during my stay, I cannot say how many separate sound sources there were total or even on a given floor. There were times when large areas of multiple rooms would be playing the same track, and then a separate track would kick in in a separate room or area. All I know is that coordinating it all must have been a real bear, as was running all the wiring. The sound sources did not appear to get more local than the room level. I did not hear objects emitting their own sound, or any aural tricks being played. It was quite loud at times, but not ear-splitting loud. Because the crowd was not competing with their own vocalizations, extra-huge volume was not required.
Now that I’ve had my 3rd visit to the McKittrick, I have a deeper appreciation for the show overall and noticed much more detail about how the sound underscores the action. Most guests will notice the large flourishes. They draw your attention as if to say “Hey, you in the mask, over here! A scene is about to happen.” My first time through, I incorrectly concluded that the actors use these obvious swells of music to cue them into major scene changes. I now know that’s totally wrong. (How bush league for me to even think it!?) Whether it’s music or pure ambient sound, the cast is constantly in sync with every beat.
Indeed, the whole show is timed succinctly, but I didn’t realize to what extent until I saw one character take a drink, put down the glass, and then heard the deep bass rumble of a far-off thunder clap. It punctuated and heightened the drama of the moment. Even if the audience did not consciously notice it, I’m sure they felt it. There was no proper music playing at the time, just a fairly loud drone built from strings, other atmospherics, and rumbly weather. Other sounds loud and soft continued to follow the actors’ marks and I came to realize that while the two actors in this scene were not dancing, they were executing a type of ballet along to an ambient soundtrack.
Other scenes have actual dancing to actual music and there again, once you notice, you can’t help but be impressed with how music and action play to each other. The choreography has (and here, lacking dance vocabulary, I’ll stick with film) a Jackie Chan-like precision to it. Often times it is stage fighting as much as dance. A good bit more fluid and musical than most fighting you see on screen, but definitely violent. As with an action flick, the score punches up moments in the action. Unlike an action flick, they had to match the choreography to the score rather than the other way around.
A Matter of Focus
This all speaks to Punchdrunk’s pedigree as a theater company. As much as SNM borrows some DNA strands from film and haunted attractions, their approach is pure theater. That is the approach of taking an existing text (in this case, MacBeth and bits of Rebecca) and adapting it–creating sets and adding live action to that underlying work. In this case, you could say Punchdrunk is adapting the hell out of the underlying work, and making an entirely new work (and artform) in the process, but it’s an adaptation nonetheless. Using existing compositions is very much in keeping with that theatrical tradition. I can imagine the directors listening to the soundtracks of Rebecca and Vertigo years ago and dreaming about how they could one day be incorporated into one of their plays.
Having said all that, I still find it interesting that the wellspring of creativity and innovation that is evident in the set design, choreography, and overall approach to SNM does not spill over into their approach to sound. You may say “hey, Glenn, don’t be a downer, the sound really worked for me!” and yes it does clearly work. But imagine how different an experience it would be if the sound were as original, strange and off-kilter as the rest of the production elements. While so much of SNM manages to destabilize you, the familiarity of the sound actually has a stabilizing influence.
With the ScareHouse, I’ve always felt strongly about making as much original sound as possible. Yes, there are times when I needed to use canned material and didn’t have time to record 1000 flies. And there is even a Victrola player in a corner of Forsaken that plays about 45 mins of classic tunes similar to those found in SNM. But when it comes to the big set pieces, like a theme song for a major character or the music played by a large, broken pipe organ, it’s all made from scratch. I like to think that this added layer of detail makes for a richer experience and helps to further throw our visitors off-balance.
I’m not saying this to be smug (ok, maybe just a little), but to highlight different angles of approach and areas of focus a production company can have. Consider again how Punchdrunk blows wide open many aspects of a traditional production of MacBeth: It’s mostly silent, features dance, set in a separate era, incorporates plot strands from a 1940’s film, lets the audience inhabit the set, is incorporated over 100,000 square feet…the list goes on. Any one of those elements alone would sound terribly ambitious and unique. I would not say the same about the sound.
Does that make it a failure? Not at all. An opportunity missed? Maybe. Hard to say. What I do know is that while Sleep No More pushes so many boundaries in ways I’m still trying to fathom, the sound design remains one area with the boundaries firmly in place.
[Note: I have since posted a response of sorts from the producers themselves in which they explain how the music itself inspired them.]
If this song did not exist prior to production, Punchdrunk would have had to invent it
Even though they limited their creative expression to the selection of existing musical works, the choice of what I would call the show’s theme song was a master stroke. Each evening plays out in three one-hour cycles, which loosely end/begin with two characters in separate locations singing the existential pop song “Is That All There is?” (If you read the lyrics, it’s about as unlikely on paper to be a popular song as SNM is a popular play.) On one floor, a male witch is lip syncing a straight-up replay of the Peggy Lee version while one floor up, a female witch (Hecate) is syncing to an ultra-creepy, a heavily pre-verbed male vocal–possibly Tony Bennet‘s rendition. Her face shifting to a haunting grimace as the first lines of the song surge from out of nowhere, one could believe Hecate was channeling Tony Bennet’s spirit from the afterlife, if not for the fact that he’s still alive. It’s a highly doctored piece of audio (may even be mostly original) and is easily the creepiest moment in the soundtrack. This is a hint towards what could be done if all of the audio were just as original.
[UPDATE 5/21/12/: The movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also referenced in the SNM soundtrack, features the song “Que Sera Sera” in two scenes. “Is That All There Is?” could easily be the B-side to that more upbeat take on life.]
“Is That All There Is?” The answer is embedded deep within the experience that is Sleep No More. As the musical question lingers, the show loops over again and you can watch the same events or others and have a completely different experience. You never step in the same river twice. The sequence of events continues to reveal new layers of complexity and your appreciation deepens. After enough time in the world of Sleep No More, you realize the reason you are there. It’s the same reason you are here on earth: to pay attention. Pay attention to what is happening right now because your experience will not be the same again. Even if we were to loop your life over and over, you would see it differently. You never can even step in the same river once. Just pay attention right now and you will reap the rewards. If that’s all there is, I’d say that’s enough.
(To skip right to the free download, click downward arrow to the right of the waveform for “Paratechnoid”.)
This track is one of my favorites. Like the previous download, Wandering Souls, it has been with me for a while (since 1999, I believe) and is usually in the mix of songs played at the entrance to The Scarehouse. I know that parts of it will come back as a Delirium Dog song (with beats and other elements), but I think it stands well on it’s own. Listening to it now, it sounds like something from a movie soundtrack, which is probably what I was going for.
Also like Wandering Souls, it was composed in Metasynth.
Note: you can download this track and copy it freely for your own enjoyment, but I’m retaining on to all rights for any other use.