Archive for Soundtrack

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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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 (Part One)

Posted in Creativity, Performance, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , on March 6, 2012 by deliriumdog

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.

–> DD’s Facebook Page

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.

Impeccable Timing

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.

–> More Music by Delirium Dog

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.

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