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