When sound and vision meet
The craft of weaving sound on stage has had a remarkable resurgence in Irish theatre, but far from being a series of static pre-recordings, the dark and brooding works presented have demanded an artistry of the highest calibre, writes LAURENCE MACKIN
MUSICALS SEEM to be the flavour of the month in Irish theatre, with Improbable Frequency recently finishing a new run in the Gaiety, and Alice in Funderland bringing its club-culture riot to the Abbey.
But even without the cast bursting into song, Irish theatre on the whole has become much more sophisticated in how it approaches sound effects and music, from heavily-treated effects and pre-recordings, such as in Pan Pan’s All That Fall (which won Best Designer: Sound at this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards), to a live performance that sits cheek by jowl with the actor’s lines, such as in Rough Magic’s Peer Gynt.
Then there are productions, such as Touch Me, that put the musician centre-stage. This was dance company Coiscéim’s state of the nation address, which toured in February this year. On a sparse, rubble-strewn stage of broken-down white goods and pieces of crumbling property, David Bolger’s dance troupe weaved a complex depiction of the here and now around Ken Edge’s music. Saxophonist Edge played live while moving through the action, responding and reacting to some recorded music and to the dances that unfolded around him. At points, he had to hold the tune while clambering over stage props and acting as a lean-to for dancers, and this duality meant preparing in two separate stages.
“The music composition I spent quite a few months working on, and a few weeks before the show went up I switched over to being a performer because otherwise I would be too worried about the production values, or my own playing in the lead up to the show.
“It would be quite radically different to a gig,” he says. “I wouldn’t be playing out into the audience, I’d be playing into the space, into the set, because the music was generally more a reaction to the space. I thought, what kind of music would I play in an empty space like this?”
The challenge in this show, says Edge, was to work in tandem with the other elements without stepping on their toes. “Music is so powerful it can overpower the narrative, and tell an audience what to think in no uncertain terms, so I spent a lot of time trying to avoid that. You know, this is deeply melancholic or this is very exciting. You have to avoid over emoting the thing and let it speak for itself.”
Tarab took a different approach, together with percussionist Robbie Harris, for their score for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in a lavish Rough Magic production that featured in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. “I’m not sure everyone [in the audience] got it,” says Tarab’s Francesco Turrisi. “Lynne [Parker, the director] wanted us to be part of the play, not in the background. People said it was overtaking the spoken word, but that’s what she wanted.”
Peer Gynt is an incredibly dense and complex script, and in Rough Magic’s approach, the cast riffed off the band’s rhythms, the musicality of the script dodging and feinting the syncopation of the musicians, like two sparring boxers testing each others reflexes. “We were so involved from the start,” says Turrisi. “There was six weeks of rehearsals. A lot of it was very synchronised, which took a long time to elaborate.”
The band were deeply impressed by how adept the actors were to responding to the music. “The actors chosen were very musical actors, quite a lot of them can play and know about the music. If something goes wrong or a line is missing, the actors knew how to fall back.”
If this wasn’t enough of an undertaking, the group lost a member a few nights into the show’s run. “Emer [Mayock] left after four or five days in the show. She was nine months’ pregnant and there were a series of health issues so she decided to go back to Mayo, where she lives.” Getting a replacement was impossible, as they had little more than a few moments to curtain up.
“It was quite adventurous, it happened just before the show, so we had 10 minutes figuring out what we were going to do. We were almost shocked how well it worked and we decided to continue the whole thing without a dep [a replacement].”
One of the oddest things for Turrisi was that the band was only occasionally visible during the performance. “Not being able to see the audience was tricky. Some nights you think, Jesus they are going wild or they are really bored, and everything influences everything. If the crowd was very responsive the actors were acting in a completely different way and were giving us back something different so we were playing in a completely different way.”
Working in a different way is something Jimmy Eadie can relate to. The musician, engineer and producer was brought in by director Gavin Quinn to come up with a sound design for All That Fall, a Samuel Beckett radio play produced by Pan Pan theatre company.
Unsurprisingly for Beckett, it’s a dark and complex work, that Beckett envisaged as “a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging of feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something”. Pan Pan’s version took place in the Project in Dublin, with the audience seated on rocking chairs scattered throughout the space. An elegant and intense lighting rig moved from pitch darkness and cool blues to roaring yellow sunbursts, while the play’s pre-recorded text and sound effects flooded the room. It was an explosive and ambitious combination.
“This was a first, a big learning curve,” says Jimmy Eadie with a long exhalation. “I’m a big fan of Beckett’s work and its arch humour so when Gavin came up with the idea I thought this was going to be great from day one. We had heard previous productions. I thought they were quite anaemic sounding, quite thin. They didn’t get out what the dialogue needed.”
The recording process was intensive and laborious. “We did test recordings and went into great detail. We scrapped the first day’s takes,” says Eadie. “I take my hat off to the actors, it was the middle of the summer, the dialogue is intense, some of the phrases took 12 to 16 takes until we got the tone that was needed. That took a week to record and then the real work started. We started editing.”
The show isn’t purely voice and Beckett envisaged the play using natural sounds that had been recorded or performed in unnatural ways. “One of the big things was the dragging feet,” says Eadie. “We wanted to get it artificial and repetitive. We spent a good day going through 100 footsteps in the studio; we went up the mountain and walked with different shoes and an aeroplane ruined a take; it was a mixture of reality with the rural and the artificial.
“Once we got to the theatre, we realised we had sped everything up, so first off we started to focus on the silence between each phrase. I’ve never been so obsessed with silence; what you don’t hear is what is most important. The cadences were constructed from the ground up. [The idea was to] steer away from the usual cues and things and let the audience feel it, just to that point where you are feeling uncomfortable with the silence; it was playing with that balance with each actor, micro-managing the volume of each delivery down to a degree that was obsessive.
“All the other [Beckett] work I’ve heard on record ignored what I thought should be the musicality of it. I do think there is metre to the whole piece. There is a pendulum-like ebb and flow to it.”
Being a pre-recorded show, once the curtain went up, you would expect the sound to be set in stone. But that would be too straightforward. “We changed it every night right down to the second-last night,” says Eadie. “I was there with the laptop five minutes before opening night with everyone breathing over my shoulder on the night.
“Each night I was in the room taking notes and then we went back and redid an edit and slowly, incrementally got the balance.”
One of the things that was striking about this production was just how loud and aggressive it got. “A few people complained it was too loud. Some people hated it,” Eadie says matter-of-factly. “We had a lot of conversations about that, whether it was a cheap shot, but when I saw the lighting design, it made 100 per cent sense. We brought you into this lovely velvet environment and suddenly we snapped you out of that, maybe like coming to on an operating table. It’s over, get out. That balance was quite hard to achieve. It should be loud, it should be abrasive, it should be uncomfortable. Some of the direction in the script says ‘a raging tempest storm’.”
As sound directions go, this is as good a place to start as any.