Archive for Sleep No More

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

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.

Sleep No More Episode of The ScareHouse Podcast

Posted in Performance, Scarehouse with tags , , on July 24, 2012 by deliriumdog

Here is the companion post to the episode of The ScareHouse Podcast in which I interviewed Careena Melia and a panel of Sleep No More “experts.” Click the link to listen, then click around this post for more info.

Please heed the WARNING I make during the introduction about spoilers and the value of first seeing the show knowing NOTHING about it!

The panel members (Kathryn, Allison, and Evan) were among the first people I noticed blogging about Sleep No More last year when I first became interested in the show. After connecting with and following them online for a few months, they all struck me as just the sort of witty, intelligent types you’d want to listen to in a podcast. And I was right! I’m happy to be able to share our discussion with you all.

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Careena Melia (above) was incredibly gracious about granting the interview. It took a few volleys between the Punchdrunk media outreach arm and I, and some persistence on my end to schedule it, but I think that’s a good thing. Glad they were doing something to make sure I was serious and not just some hapless dude with a microphone. As far as I know, nobody has done an audio interview at any length with a performer in the show, so I’m very proud to be able to bring this to you.

I recorded all of this in the first week of July 2012, when I visited the show three nights in a row. My conversation with Careena happened a couple hours before the July 3rd performance. The interview with the panel was recorded two days later, which was nice because we could all listen and respond to Careena’s interview.

Your handy guide to the podcast:

See Careena Melia‘s personal site for more background and photos. She’s also on: Facebook | Twitter

Evan Matthew Cobb’s blog, “Scortched the Snake,” is a great aggregator of all things Sleep No More. For newbies and experienced viewers alike, it’s worth a daily visit. Also on: Facebook | Twitter

Allison Meier has covered Sleep No More in “Allez, Allie!” her wonderful blog about art and travel in NYC and abroad. She’s also on Twitter.

Kathryn Yu is a photographer who frequently tweets and tumblrs about Sleep No More, food, cocktails, and other things hip and novel.

Unless it directly relates to sound, I have been posting my Sleep No More experiences on my Tumblr blog of the same name.

Most Sleep No More blogs (and there are many) have gravitated to Tumblr, so a search for “Sleep No More” there will turn up many other sources, voices, and stories all singing the show’s praises.

If you’re looking for a more official introduction, here is the New York Times review that drew a lot of us in.

Studio 360 spoke to the show’s director Felix Barrett early in the show’s run. Worth a listen.

Then of course, there is the show’s official web site. And naturally: Facebook | Twitter

Music heard in this podcast: Vortex and Delirium Philharmonic by Delirium Dog.

If you see the show, drop me a line somewhere (see below) and let me know what you think!
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Follow Delirium Dog on Twitter and Facebook.
 

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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The Sounds of Sleep No More: Revisited

Posted in Creativity, Music, Performance, Soundscapes with tags , , , , on May 8, 2012 by deliriumdog

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

Anyway…

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.

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The Golden Amulets of Agnes: A Sleep No More Point System

Posted in Games with tags , , on March 8, 2012 by deliriumdog

I already posted my in-depth analysis of the sound and music of Sleep No More. Now something just for fun.

Capping a post where he declared Sleep No More to be “Game of the Year for 2011,” Dan Dickinson started a point system for various events one might experience during their stay at the McKittrick. I decided to add to it and, with his permission, post an expanded edition here. Please feel free to add your own via the comments and I can amend this post as we go.

First, a HUGE caveat.

I’m NOT doing this because I think the goal of Sleep No More is to amass points.

As I said at the very end of my earlier post, the whole point of SNM is to pay attention and stay focused on your immediate experience. As soon as you pause to think about how many points you’ve racked up, you should be disqualified from the game. Ok, that’s harsh, but you get the idea.

I suggest you enjoy the experience, then use this list as a fun way of recapping in the days and weeks afterwards when the inevitable withdrawal sets in. I don’t want to get onerous on the rules, so we’ll just keep this on the honor system. Some experiences may accrue several awards at once, so tally accordingly.

Got it! Good. Ok, on to the….

SNM Points / Achievements / Trophies / Pats on the Back / Golden Amulets of Agnes

Shut it! (-20)
Get caught speaking or with your mask off.

Out Of The Moment (-5)
Thinking about this point system during your stay.

I Want Candy (5)
Eat a piece of candy in the candy store.

A Toast (5)
Catch the banquet scene (not the finale).

Dirt On Your Shoes (5)
Explore the graveyard.

None Shall Pass (5)
Be blocked or ushered by a steward in a black mask.

Broken Wings (5)
Find the bird’s wing in Malcolm’s detective agency.

Wild Beast (5)
Find your way through the hedge maze.

Out, Out, Damned Spot! (5)
Hear Mrs. Macbeth ramble after she goes insane.

Love you / Hate you (5)
See any dance scene between characters that appears simultaneously amorous and violent.

In The Buff (5)
Spot an actor in any state of undress.

Court The Green Fairy (5)
Have a sip of absinthe from the bar.

–RELATED: Absinthe Cola — Lyrically an alternative SNM theme song?–

Where’d Everyone Go? (10)
Be the first person in your group out of the elevator.

Now Is The Time (10)
Catch the rave scene.

Sweet Respite (10)
Duck out into the Manderlay during the show and listen to the band.

Choco? (10)
Get fake blood on you.

Killer (10)
Catch a murder scene.

Let’s Keep Dancing (10)
Catch a performance of “Is That All There Is?” by a cast member.

Out Of Place (10)
Find a prop that clearly doesn’t come from the early 20th century.

Enchanted (10)
Have any of the witches (or Hecate) touch you.

Glenn Miller Fan (10)
Watch the bellhop dance as he cleans up the lobby.

Ouch! (10)
A cast member accidentally runs into you.

Totally Alone (10)
Walk through a whole floor without encountering a single cast or audience member.

Not Afraid (10)
Walk through the 5th floor tree maze alone.

Got Your Back (20)
Catching a feinting Lady McDuff.

Good stuff (20)
Receive a shot of liquor from the speakeasy bartender.

For your ears only (20)
Have an actor whisper in your ear something only you can hear.

Spill it! (20)
Be among the few locked into a room to see the interrogation scene.

Personal Escort (20)
After the final scene, one of the characters takes you by the hand and leads you back to the bar.

Practically Perfect (20)
Find a famous nanny in the guest registry.

Dust to Dust (20)
Hold a character’s umbrella in the graveyard.

Crack In The Wall (20)
Find the hidden AV room in the ballroom area.

May I Have This Dance? (20)
Dance with any cast member.

Hail The New Thane (20)
Watch Duncan get murdered.

Passage (20)
Go through the secret passage on the fourth floor.

Just You And Me (30)
Have a one-on-one with a cast member, with no other audience members around.

Should You Choose To Accept It (30)
Receive a mission from Hecate.

The Lady In The Red Dress (30)
Receive a note from a cast member for Hecate, and deliver it to her.

Masks Off (50)
Have a cast member take your mask off during a one-on-one.

This Will Protect You (50)
Receive a necklace from a cast member.

This Is Your Floor (100)
Find a way onto the sixth floor.

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