SONIC BOOM

If you want to hear new Aus­tralian mu­sic on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, just go to the theatre, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IN a light-filled re­hearsal stu­dio perched above a bustling cob­ble­stoned thor­ough­fare in Syd­ney’s his­toric Rocks district, com­poser Alan John is hunched over a script with artis­tic di­rec­tor and vet­eran ac­tor John Bell. It’s lunch­break in re­hearsals for Bell Shake­speare’s pro­duc­tion of Much Ado About Noth­ing and the room is empty ex­cept for the two fig­ures qui­etly plot­ting out the arc and finer de­tails of the work.

Muf­fled sounds from the out­side world fil­ter through a row of street-fac­ing win­dows that, thank­fully, John says, were dou­bleglazed a few years ago to pro­vide the ac­tors respite from the dis­tract­ing clam­our of traf­fic, pedes­tri­ans head­ing to the pop­u­lar street mar­kets and the hourly bel­lows from the town crier on the street cor­ner just out­side. The crier is en­sconced in his usual spot this morn­ing, but ‘‘ you can’t re­ally hear him, can you?’’ asks John, head cocked in lis­ten­ing pose. For some­one with a such a finely cal­i­brated mu­si­cal ear, this re­hearsal­friendly tran­quil­lity is a bless­ing.

Sound — its cre­ation, ma­nip­u­la­tion, lay­er­ing and craft­ing — is John’s do­main. The mu­si­cian, one of Aus­tralia’s most ac­com­plished in the field of theatre com­po­si­tion and sound de­sign (in­clud­ing the re­cent Di­ary of a Mad­man for Belvoir), has been work­ing closely with Bell for weeks on this pro­duc­tion. This morn­ing, they’re still fine­tun­ing the mu­si­cal score, which fea­tures a mix­ture of recorded mu­sic John com­posed, as well as live per­for­mances rang­ing from an a cap­pella fu­neral ode (based on the poly­phonic tra­di­tions of Cor­sica, John says with a mu­sic lover’s rel­ish) to the ac­tors play­ing gui­tars, ac­cor­dions, per­cus­sion and piano.

While this is not an overly com­plex show, mu­si­cally, ‘‘ there’s a lot to be said for that’’, John says, and Bell nods. The script orig­i­nally fea­tured all man­ner of farm­yard sounds — cow­bells, barking dogs — but Bell ended up dis­card­ing them all be­cause ‘‘ you can over­crowd it. The ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of sound can some­times [make] the au­di­ence think that you’re try­ing to be at the movies.’’

Sound and mu­sic in theatre — be it com­plex orig­i­nal scores or sim­ple sound ef­fects and un­der­scor­ing — have come a long way in Aus­tralian theatre, even since the in­ter­na­tional ‘‘ New Theatre’’ move­ment of the 1960s and 70s in which many lo­cal theatre groups, heav­ily in­flu­enced by the likes of Richard Schech­ner’s Per­for­mance Group and Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre, em­braced live mu­sic, rock ’ n’ roll bands and orig­i­nally com­posed sound­tracks.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, how­ever,

com­plex scores or sound de­signs that en­hanced, or even un­locked, parts of the dra­matic ac­tion were not as preva­lent as they are now, al­though fig­ures such as Jim Shar­man in the 70s, and later the likes of Bar­rie Kosky, Rod­ney Fisher and Neil Arm­field, were cer­tainly ad­vo­cates of in­no­va­tive theatre sound. The­atri­cal sound de­sign was very much in its in­fancy, with most stage ef­fects done by the stage man­ager or ‘‘ any­one with ac­cess to a tape recorder’’, lead­ing sound de­signer and com­poser Paul Char­lier says.

Up un­til about 1990 — ac­cord­ing to Arm­field at least — direc­tors would gen­er­ally har­vest tracks from their own record ‘‘ You’d just stick them on, copy­right wasn’t an is­sue at col­lec­tions. in­tel­lec­tual that time.’’

Fast for­ward to to­day and Aus­tralian direc­tors rang­ing from Andrew Up­ton to Ge­ordie Brook­man and Michael Kan­tor all tes­tify to sound and mu­sic’s greatly in­creased cre­ative role in theatre-mak­ing, with ev­ery­thing from com­plex, mul­ti­lay­ered sound de­sign (think mul­ti­ple speak­ers, use of the recorded voice, lip-synch­ing, ra­dio mik­ing), to live per­for­mance and orig­i­nal com­mis­sioned scores en­trenched on stage.

Sound

de­sign­ers,

so-called

‘‘ sonic guns for hire’’, have joined com­posers as in­te­gral mem­bers of cre­ative teams; Aus­tralia, in­ter­est­ingly, is punch­ing above its weight in this once ne­glected field (the Tony Awards in­tro­duced it as a cre­ative cat­e­gory only in 2007) with lead­ing names in­clud­ing Char­lier, Ste­fan Gre­gory, Max Lyand­vert and the Tony-nom­i­nated Rus­sell Gold­smith.

Mu­sic and sound, in­creas­ingly, are be­ing in­ti­mately in­te­grated into the world of the play. Take a look at a host of cur­rent or up­com­ing shows on the stage calendar, from Up­ton’s ver­sion of The White Guard at Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany, with mu­sic by John, to Si­mon Stone’s ver­sion of Ber­tolt Brecht’s Baal, with mu­sic by Gre­gory, and Kan­tor’s pro­duc­tion of A Golem Story, with mu­sic by Mark Jones, or pretty much any­thing di­rected by Benedict An­drews.

Sam Strong, artis­tic di­rec­tor at Syd­ney’s Grif­fin Theatre, says the tra­di­tional use of sound to cover tran­si­tions and un­der­score di­a­logue is giv­ing way to a more so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach. ‘‘ In re­cent work I’ve di­rected there have been two trends: first, to use al­most wall-to-wall sound, some form of sound de­sign through­out most, if not all, of a work; and, sec­ond, to not be afraid to score a theatre pro­duc­tion in the way that one might score a film,’’ Strong says.

So what has led to mu­sic and sound’s present promi­nence and what does it bring to theatre-mak­ing? Arm­field says that quite sim­ply, ‘‘ a beau­ti­ful piece of sound de­sign can transform a work of theatre’’. He first wit­nessed its po­tent dra­matic force when he staged Louis Nowra’s In­side the Is­land for Nim­rod in 1980, fea­tur­ing de­signer Neil Simp­son’s ‘‘ elec­tri­fy­ing’’ sound of a roar­ing bush­fire con­sum­ing the theatre: ‘‘ We played that in­cred­i­bly loudly and peo­ple were run­ning from the theatre, ter­ri­fied.’’

Char­lier’s deeply evoca­tive wave sounds for the open­ing of Arm­field’s Ham­let in 1994 is an­other land­mark ex­am­ple, per­fectly set­ting up the des­o­late in­te­rior land­scape of its pro­tag­o­nist, as is Iain Grandage’s cello and piano mu­sic for Cloud­street: ‘‘ The piano be­came the house . . . he cre­ated ex­tra­or­di­nary emo­tional and cre­ative land­scapes around the very sim­ple set,’’ says Arm­field.

As an ab­stract lan­guage, mu­sic has the power to con­vey mes­sages in a way word or ac­tion can­not, Belvoir’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Ralph My­ers says: ‘‘ It has a di­rect ef­fect on us, un­medi­ated by lan­guage or thought, [which makes it] an enor­mously pow­er­ful tool in theatre.’’

Vir­tu­oso recorder-player Genevieve Lacey, who wrote the orig­i­nal score for Scott Rankin’s Na­matjira at Belvoir last year, says it can also ‘‘ cre­ate a not very ob­vi­ous but po­ten­tially hugely pow­er­ful ar­chi­tec­ture around the story: you can be rad­i­cal with it but also gen­tle, but more sub­ver­sive or less ob­vi­ous than text.’’

Mu­sic and sound also can be used in ev­ery­thing from sym­bol­is­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tory states, for ex­am­ple, in Jethro Wood­ward’s mu­sic for Arena Theatre and Malt­house Theatre’s Moth, which fea­tures a char­ac­ter with men­tal ill­ness, to func­tion­ing as a

Com­poser Alan John, who is work­ing with theatre vet­eran John Bell, right

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