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Music Composers Unite!

After completing my mentorship last year, I started looking into ways to broaden the spectrum of the kinds of projects I was a part of. I began networking with people working in the video games industry, and also put some energy into seeing if I could become involved in doing sound/music for theater. The scene in Toronto is excellent, with a lot of bigger theaters like Tarragon and Soulpepper putting out excellent and challenging material every year. In January, I got hired to do sound design by an indie production company called Staged and Confused, for their new re-framing of Judith Thompson's "The Crackwalker". It's a very dark, challenging, and exciting play, and has a lot of juicy stuff from which to get inspiration.



We're in the middle of 'tech week' now, doing 'wet cue-to-cue'. A whole new world of jargon. Not as bad as the gaming meetings I've gone to, where some guy cracks a joke in PHP and everyone splits a gut for 5 minutes while I stare into my drink. In gaming, I can't even begin to get a handle on it, but at least I stumped them with an angry diatribe about 23.97 fps as an output format, and the drift problems it creates.

At any rate, I have absolutely fallen in love with the process of composing and designing sound for theater. No longer are you isolated from all the other production facets - you even get to sit in on rehearsals, watching everyone develop their work, and bring in your to which they respond. It's a wonderful collaboration - I love getting feedback from the actors on cues and sound, and seeing them work to what I've created. You can sit down and chat with the director, AND the production, set, costume, lighting designers and really get involved in the process. Working from a script over many weeks, I know the story and the characters like my music. I know all the motivations and the arc of the story, at any in-point. It has helped me get a brilliant handle on the music and sound, and any challenges are solved with confidence because you know what should happen. Watching everything come together in tech is a wonderful surprise, and you feel a true sense of pride in your work, and in the work of your team as a collaborative effort. There is camaraderie.

The process is kind of weird, too, if you are used to film. You don't get locked picture. Scenes are fluid and elastic. The production changes and evolves, especially when new elements get added - props, set, costumes, lighting, etc. Right now, in cue-to-cue, I sit in the dark by the booth with my stopwatch going, making sure my cues fit and hit their mark, and calling out changes to the sound technician. Which means I have to know exactly how many decibels that cue has to come down, and at what second the cross-fade needs to happen into the next cue. I keep having to open my cell phone for light to see my notes! When the actor 'gets' the music and it works, what a thrill. They move and do their lines in flow with your creation, and something new is born. They find a mark and hit it, helping the cue and making you sound better. Their acting is lifted, and they find new inspiration in the music. Despite there being no 'lock', I've been surprised by how exacting actors can be when they've nailed their performances. They rarely go over/under by more than 2 seconds on any scene/monologue.

Writing cues for theater is also a good exercise, because you are forced to write away from the scene. Often, I find myself composing to picture, and it can fool you into thinking that your music is better than it actually is (this was a revelation that was pointed out to me by my mentor, Donald Quan). Like music does for film, the picture can elevate the sound. You get to watch the actors and the scenes, but then you work from memory to write the music.

Well, that was a lot of rambling - thanks for reading! I have just found this process amazing, and wanted to share that with you all. It's a great thing to expand beyond writing for picture, and I highly recommend theater as it will expand your skills immensely, and is a hugely rewarding experience.

Cheers!!

Adrian

PS: Check out this cool mini-documentary they produced on the set/costume and sound design for the show. It includes some music prelims I gave them. I kind of ramble on... I thought I was so coherent when they shot it, and now I look back and I think "What the hell are you going on about??" :)

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Comment by Adrian Ellis on October 6, 2008 at 12:57pm
Thanks, Steve, and I hope RIII went well!!

I agree with the underscoring bit. Something that surprised me was the first rehearsal with music; it was rough, just getting the actors familiar with the sound design. It started to mess them up! The extra element was, as you said, somewhat distracting. Of course, I'm sure it's normal and they got used to it, and started working with it, which was fun. But that's something that never happens in film - that your music affects what you see!

A~
Comment by Steve Gallant on September 25, 2008 at 5:08am
Hey, Adrian.

Totally agree with your assessment... and welcome to the theatre world.

Most of my experience has been in amateur theatre, having been able to do at least one significant project per year for the last six or seven years.

I'm presently working on a production of Shakespeare's "Richard III". Very dramatic/thematic material to work with it. They are doing their dress rehearsal tonight, and the show opens tomorrow.

I attended a cue-to-cue two nights ago, where we agreed that two cues had to be lengthened (with other smaller changes), to help the cast do scene changes, or whatever. So I scrambled the changes up yesterday morning and posted them on my website for the director and sound engineer to download.

I've learned a lot, especially from the bad experiences. Underscoring speeches, for example. It's an extremely sensitive process, especially for the actor (who is trying to concentrate on his lines!).

I wish you many more projects!

Steve Gallant

www.SteveGallant.com
Comment by Adrian Ellis on September 16, 2008 at 9:45am
Thanks for reading, soundwrx!
Comment by Adrian Ellis on September 12, 2008 at 1:47pm
OK - so as addendum to my love letter to theater... one drawback includes being witness to the DRAMA... two actors got into a massive row after the run-through last night... yowsa!! Of course, the play being so heavy I kinda got lost in thinking I was still watching them 'act'.

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