I’m spending this week at The Scarehouse to focus on music, sound, video, and immersive environments. Sure, in this networked world, I could pretty much just phone it all in from my home in Baltimore, but there is a lot to be gained from being away from home and its many distractions to focus in on just one thing. Even though I’ve arranged my work week so I can be home a full three days every week, there are still many shiny things competing for my attention. Housework. Errands. PS3. Skyrim (yes, I just started playing it a couple weeks ago). Drinks with friends. I have no idea how those of you with kids in the mix get anything done at all!
In all that, I may at most get a few hours a week for the sort of “deep dive” that I require to create something of quality. Also, while my wife provides a great sounding board for ideas, it’s good to get feedback from others and give her ears a break. What I desperately needed was a significant chunk of time removed from my usual orbit to immerse myself in sound and the flow of creative process.
This all may seem obvious, but how often do we really do it? Take a week off just for our art!? Can’t we squeeze it in between all the other things? Sure, but we do that because we have to, not because it’s optimal. Far from it.
This is roughly the third time I’ve done this and it’s always resulted in something worthwhile. I may not have ended up with single complete product, but I usually end up with a lot of little ideas that I can pick up later during less inspired moments and work to the finish. When I did this in 2010, I ended up with half the ideas and a lot of video footage for the FEVER BRAIN BATTERY album. This time, I’m chopping up and remixing recordings from the 1920’s, marrying them with new beats and sounds, and seeing what happens. It loosely relates to new (and currently secret) projects happening at The Scarehouse, so some of the output will end up there. As I’m working, I occasionally take off my headphones, crank up the monitors, and see how people react. Instant feedback! I’ve also been walking around the haunt, eyeing up the new spaces and getting a sense of what might play well in there. The ScareHouse set designers are pretty brilliant, so I’m not wanting for inspiration.
Okay, so you may not have access to a large haunted attraction–and even if you did, it might not be your ideal site for an artist residency. But try this: close your eyes and picture what, for you, would be the ideal mobile creative work environment. Decide what your most essential tools are for making your art, and picture them in this space. Maybe your tools are so large that you need a special studio, in which case your options are pretty well narrowed down for you. But maybe you have a friend or relative in another state with a really cool basement or back porch. And maybe they work all day and don’t mind giving you the run of the place. Or maybe they’re around just enough to check in and give you feedback. That doesn’t sound ideal? Scrap that plan and start over. Maybe you need to put aside the time and money to go to an actual workshop/retreat with an instructor and other students to inspire you. But I believe that it’s possible to create an atmosphere from whatever is at hand and whomever you know. (If you’re a creative person who does not know any creative friends, you definitely need to find some new friends!) Once you’re done visualizing your ideal temporary work space, surrounded by the right people (or no people at all) think about where and how to make that happen.
It’s not going to happen on its own. While I’m sure they’re happy to have me at ScareHouse, I invited myself for the week. They no longer think it strange that I may want to show up, occupy a large table with my stuff and pace around listening, tweaking, taking photos, shooting video, staring out the window, and asking all sorts of random questions. Whatever it is you need to do to create–you want that to be totally normal behavior during your retreat.
It’s also important to have some goals. And it’s just as important that you are able to abandon those goals if better, more urgent ones, come along. I have a long list of goals, some of which cannot be finished in a week. As long as I’ve made progress on any of them, and maybe even achieved one of them, then I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something. Usually it’s the new, surprising opportunities that come along during the retreat that you end up being glad for.
Do not expect everything to work out beautifully during your first DIY residency. In 2010, the space I chose for my impromptu “studio” turned out be less than optimal. I also brought way too much stuff, which bogged me down and made me feel sad that I was not using it all. Even still, I was able to readjust and lots of good things came out of that week. When I came home, I had a new perspective on how to improve my home studio as well. The work I started that week definitely would not have existed if I had not thrown myself into that new environment.
Even if the work you create ends up getting scrapped, it’s not so much about the product. It’s about getting the opportunity to focus on something you love doing and fanning the creative embers. That is never a bad thing.
One last tip: be careful about reentry. Returning to the day-to-day grind after being so unfettered can be downright painful. Be nice to yourself and others, and understand that whatever you’re doing is necessary so that you can eventually return to your creative space.
I’m curious: have any of you done this? Let me know in comments or elsewhere on the social webs (see below) how you have made time and space to make your art.
Oh hi. I haven’t posted here in a while, but I won’t dwell upon it or riddle this page with apologies. I’ve been plentybusyelsewhere on the internets. I definitely need to learn that blogging is not the same as writing, say, an essay for a literary journal. I just need to pick a topic and go without over-thinking it.
So here goes.
I’d like to sing the praises of Coursera. It’s a completely free portal through which you can sign up and take college-level courses, tests and all. You get a certificate upon completion, but no college credit. These days, I’d rather just have the knowledge anyway.
A friend of mine talked me into taking a course on Sound Design and I initially resisted. My resistance was manifold. I felt like I was “too cool for school” at this point and have been engaged in completely self-directed learning for many years. Then there was the embarrassment of saying I was taking a course in something that I’ve already achieved some level of expertise and success in. Would I be bored?
And then there’s the fact that I hate tests. I’ve never enjoyed testing, but now that I’ve been away from them for a while, they seem increasingly antiquated. I’m talking about traditional tests (which are still 99% of them), which are all text and have you answer multiple choice or true/false questions. They are as much about linguistic trickery and mental regurgitation as they are about testing knowledge of a subject. If you’re good at language games, you’d be good at testing no matter what the subject, even if your functional knowledge is essentially zero. If you have perfect memory, you also should also do well. But shouldn’t tests in any subject do more than test memory and linguistic ability?
I’m not calling for radical, unimagined change. Certainly, in this day and age, someone can design test questions that combine sound and visuals (and maybe even some interactivity) to probe one’s true knowledge of a subject like Sound Design. Sure, it would take more effort to create than a written test, but it would also approximate an accurate assessment of knowledge. Do I sound bitter? Being dyslexic, I often do look back at the many years I was subjected to the Testing Industrial Complex and think about how much wasted time that was.
Okay, end rant. Where was I? Coursera. The course I took does not fix any of my issues about testing. It uses a very traditional test format. But the other aspects of the course were fabulous. I found it enriching despite the fact that I already knew a good deal of the material because it was organized so well. Steve Everett, the professor, walked us through the major aspects of sound and drew connections directly to modern music technology we can use right now. I did learn some new tidbits along the way, and I find it never hurts to go back over the basics. Having the fundamentals explained to you in a different way than you initially learned them can help you make new connections and a deeper understanding. It can also get you excited about a subject all over again. On those counts, the course was a total success for me. Especially when it comes to synthesizers–I’m using them with a new confidence and zeal. Thanks, Professor Everett!
Another thing I’m reminded about college-level courses is that they do, in fact, require work. If I was taking this course with little background (as I will with most other courses) I’m sure it would have not seemed at all simple or easy to learn all the concepts. I will have have to set aside some quality time if I expect to get the most out of the Game Theory course I’m eyeing up.
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 wasthe 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 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 alreadybeenwrittenmanytimes 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.