Categories
music

Looking scruffy in a video

And used the word ‘chunk’ as a real-life composer. Not a great quality video, and I’m certainly a scruff, but nice to keep these things somewhere.

The piece we are talking about can be found elsewhere on this site.

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Video of the Week

Music at the RSC

Two short but excellent videos from the Royal Shakespeare company about the composition and preparation for music for the stage. Enjoy.

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Techniques

Diegesis

What is diegesis?

Diegesis is a term used in film music to discribe the way in which the elements of film relate to the narrative the film is telling. In film music, it is  simple way of describing the function of music: if it occurs within the world of the characters (i.e. someone could hear it) it is diegetic, if it occurs in the world of the audience (but the characters cannot hear/see it) it is non-diegetic.

How can you use it?

It’s not a technique as such, rather a lens though which you can look at your music. Although the script will usually give hints as to the most obvious diegetic cues, you can shift this factor to make your work more interesting: rather than a standard piece of underscore, you could make it play from a gramophone or radio during the scene; or you could use on-stage musician (such as a string quartet in a restaurant) to accompany and set the tone of a scene.

Blurring the line

Of course, the most exciting use of this technique involves the blurring of the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. This is particularly easy to accomplish in films (such as Philip Glass playing the background of the Truman Show, or the entrace of the brass band in My Fair Lady) but it can also take place in the theatre. West Side Story has a famous scene in which a jukebox is turned on and plays a recording of the music to an earlier scene, this then segues into “live” underscoring played by the pit orchestra. However, we still believe that the music is ‘coming’ from  the jukebox (a consequence of Schitzophonia) albiet with a richer and more visceral style. This effect, the transition from one frame of reference to another, enhances the performance and gives the scene much more impact. Ironically, blurring or transitioning across the real/non-real line can make the performance seem more real by assisting or refreshing the willing suspension of disbelief.

Conclusion

Although not a technique as such, diegesis is an important factor in the construction of theatrical artifice. It can be used to change the perspective on a scene and to freshen an otherwise stale or unorginal cue, or to draw attention to or distract from a musical or theatrical element. Next time you are struggling with a music cue, think about whether you can change its position in the narrative frame to make it more interesting. At the very least this will give you some creative inspiration, at most an entire new way of presenting your score and sounds.

 

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Discussion

Who does what?

So, what does everybody do? When you read a programme you can see all sorts of music related jobs, many of which sound like the same thing. I’ve provided a brief outline of the most common roles below. Of course, many of these will be done by the same person in a smaller production, and you can even find one person doing the whole lot (although they don’t usually put that in the programme as it would take up too much space)

Music Director

In a musical or music-heavy genre of theatre the music director is the person who makes artistic decision and controls the artistic side of the musical output. They will often conduct (or band-lead) and generally acts as the main point of contact for all musicians during the performance. This person shapes the overall contours of the music and is responsible both for achieving the desired sound and maintaining standards in performance.

Music Supervisor

This is similar to the music director, but has a slightly more administrative role. These are often used with compilation and pre-recorded scores, as their main job is to select appropriate music, suitable composers, and decide (often in collaboration) where cues should occur within the score. This is still a creative role within the music department, even if there is less of a focus on live musicians.

Music Manager

A mostly managerial and logistical role, the music manager performs the important function of coordinating all musicians, equipment, scores, rights and composers/songwriters. They can also be the fixer (the person who recruits and engages musicians) or the orchestra manager (the band equivalent of the stage manager who works with the orchestra during a run of performances).

Composer

Composing involves the planning and writing of the music for the performance, but does not include the performance or recording of the music. The composer will often be present at rehearsal or recording to ensure that the music works, but is not necessarily a performer.

Designer

Sound designers decide how sound will be used in the production, and the role can vary from the construction of soundscapes and effects to the planning of live sound rigs and acoustic design.

Répétiteur/Accompanist

Once the music is in rehearsals the performers (particularly on-stage actors and singers) are supported by a repetiteur, an accompanist, or other members of the music staff. Their main job is to familiarise and coach the performers with the music for the production, to ensure that they are prepared for the introduction of the band or orchestra.

Performer

These are the people who perform the music on the night. They may be instrumentalists or singers or electronic musicians, and may even be members of the above areas also. These are the people who interpret the planned musical input (the score, the sounds, the songs) and replicate and present it each performance for the audience. They may also perform in a recording session so that  the recording can be used for rehearsal or the performance itself (although this is frownedupon by musicians unions and performers).

Sound Design for Visual Media and Film Product...
A Sound Design Studio (Photo credit: vancouverfilmschool)

I hope this sheds some light on the various roles and positions within the music department for a production. If you have corrections or suggestions leave them in the comments.

Categories
Sunday Silliness

Sunday Silliness: Vuvuzela

People seem to have forgotten how big the vuvuzela was for the few short weeks in June 2010. I particularly loved this veideo because of:

  • The novel use of instruments in a musical setting.
  • The completely deadpan delivery.
  • The calibre of the musicians involved.

Enjoy!

Categories
Sunday Silliness

Music would be better without audiences…

The New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, and also the orchestra with historically the most restive audience members, has announced the planned installation of a new “Listener Speedy Exit Ramp” which will enable to patrons to leave their seats either during or after a performance in less than 2.5 seconds.

via John Adams: Hell Mouth: NY Philharmonic to install new speedy exit ramp for patrons.

Categories
Historical Focus

Korean Musical Theatre

This blog is mostly about western music and western theatre, but I think it provides an interesting viewpoint to look at the theatrical and musical traditions of another culture. This weeks history focus revolves around an article by ethnomusicologist Andrew Killick. He examines the various genres of traditional Korean Theatre with music, and provides an interesting perspective on a performance genre which many of us are not familiar with.

The Changguek play titled "Leaving Ship" performed by the National Changguk Compoany Of Korea (wikimedia commons)

Discussion

Andrew Killick, in Road Test for a New Model: Korean Musical Narrative and Theater in Comparative Context, explores the different metaphors that can be applied to his musical subject. Killick argues that any method of approaching a non-western musics such as this one is only useful “in proportion in its applicability to different cases, its ability to identify recurring patterns”. His exploration of the ethnomusicological method balances geographic, historic, and cultural context with a detailed description of the music tropes and techniques found in traditional Korean musical theatre.

His chosen subject is relevant to the subjects of this blog due to the fact that, despite existing outside the western tradition, music “forms only a part of each genre, alongside verbal and visual elements”. Killick asks whether a musicological model “should be applied only to the strictly ‘musical’ components”, or whether each other component should be examined separately using a literary (or dramatic) analogue for the musical theory. He concludes that examining each of these elements in isolation “would seem counterproductive as well as cumbersome, since the ethnographic model seeks to understand musical experience in all its complex interconnections and not in isolation.” Despite the professed desire to integrate the study of the various component disciplines of a musical theatre, Killick explores each facet separately, discussing it in commendable detail but not linking each element together with the strength he calls for in his introduction. He discusses the traditional narrative components (such as vice and virtue) and the performance environment (both historical and physical), but does not seem to link these to the musical output of the performers. This output is described in detail, analysing techniques in true positivistic style: “rhythmic cycles (changdan) … based on compound meters with triple subdivision of the main beats” coupled with “performance techniques that include a broad palette of vocal timbres” based on “versions of the anhemitonic pentatonic scale”. He then goes on to talk about the impact of geographical and cultural space in the development of the genre. What is lacking is an explanation of how these detailed and specific musical idiosyncrasies developed in relation to this history and environment. Without these relationships we are left with a complete but incoherent understanding of the key elements of this genre. Although he introduces his article by arguing that the non-musical factors must be incorporated into an understanding of these genres, he avoids discussing the impact of the various factors upon each other, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the musical environment and the musical product.

Concluding Remarks

Killick argues that any analysis, viewing, or interpretation of a musical score to a theatrical genre should not be divorced from the other elements that make up the theatrical whole. This is applicable to our whole subject area: rather than obsessing over the minutia of the music for a play, we should instead explore the links between the sound or music and every other element of the performance being studied. Any mechanism can impact the score, from the script, the direction, the costumes or the staging, and so we should try to examine the music in the contexts of these interactions.

Killick, Andrew. “Road Test for a New Model: Korean Musical Narrative and Theater in Comparative Context.” Ethnomusicology 47, no. 2 (January 2003): 180. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3113917.
Categories
How-To

Finding and Using (Mostly Free) Sound Effects

Finding and using the right sound effect is difficult when starting out. While sound effects libraries aim to make finding the exact right type of running-water effect a simple task, the money needed to buy and license these effects can be prohibitive.

Getting a field recording. From the Vancouver Film School (Flickr)

Finding Sounds

Record Your Own

By far the best method of getting sound effects is to record your own. You get the most control about the exact sound you get, and you own the intellectual property of the recording. It is surprisingly easy nowadays to get a usable sound effect recording: I have recorded items on my iPhone voice recording app (other smartphones are available) and then edited them in Audacity to make an effect. You can also use a handheld field-recorder or even a full-blown foley studio or field-recording kit, but the principle is the same. You get a microphone and hold it near the source of the particular noise, and then ask the actor/passerby/machine/animal to make that noise for you. Of course, you don’t have easy access to all effects. What if your play is set in the First World War, or the African Jungle? You probably don’t have access to heavy artillery and a tame lion. This is when we start hunting online.

Find Online

The wonderful thing about the internet is that someone, somewhere, has found a series of heavy cannon, a biplane, and a tame lion, and recorded them. I don’t know why, but they have, and often a simple google search will turn up exactly what you need. The problem comes from how much they are asking for the recording. For a historically accurate biplane recorded in surround sound, they’ll probably ask a gefty whack. For some modern small plane recorded in mono at a low bitrate mp3 they’ll give it away, but it might not be worth it. In these situations I find the best solution is to compile your own. Cant find a battle sound? Pull together effects of guns, mortar, horses, footsteps, voices, wind, rain, machine and engine noises into one complex soundscape. You can even combine these sounds with your own recordings (get an actor to bark military instructions, record the cast marching on gravel etc). In this way you can get the perfect sound effect for your production with as much or as little detail as you need.

Keep them Legal

Make sure when you pull together sound effects that you keep track of what sound you are using, where it came from, and the license under which it is issued. Many sound effect sites use creative commons licenses, which is great, but you need to make sure that you are able to use it for what you need. If your production is charging for tickets you need to make sure it is suitable for commercial use, and if you want to mix it into a landscape of sound effects you need to make sure that they allow modification of their original source. Most creative-commons licenses ask for attribution, and it is up to you to decide how you attribute the sources of your sounds. Remember, this person braved a lion to get you that sound, at least acknowledge that!Some sources of sounds (free and legal)

Using Sounds

Transforming

Once you have collected the sounds you wish to use for your effect, you will probably need to do some basic transformations to make them usable. This usually involves trimming off the excess sound before and after, increasing the volume (normalizing) of the sound, and perhaps basic noise removal. This should give you a clip that is only the sound you want, nice and clearly, all ready for you to drag into your mix.

You may also want to do some more advanced transformations, including (but not limited to) pitch/speed/time stretch, retrograding (flipping it backwards), or perhaps any echo or reverberation effect. All of these are best done in the DAW (digital audio workstation) of your choice, and you’ll have to look up how-to’s for these elsewhere.

Layering together

So, you have all your sounds cleaned up and ready to go. Some of these can just be plugged straight into your show-cue system and built into the show (phone rings, doorbells etc), but others will need layering into a more extended soundscape. Here you can fire up your artistic ears and select the right sounds for the situation. If you drop these all onto separate channels of your DAW you have the greatest amount of control over every nuance of the sound, and can set individual levels, panning and effects for each sound, and even automate these to change during the clip itself.

Creating an aural space (panning, distance)

While there are no hard and fast rules on how you build your effects it could be wise to use the framework that R. Murray Schafer, a canadian electronic musician, wrote about when he coined the term Soundscape:

Keynote sounds
The basic foundation for a soundscape. The keynote sounds may not always be heard consciously, but they “outline the character of the people living there”. They are created by nature (geography and climate): wind, water, forests, plains, birds, insects, animals. In many urban areas, traffic has become the keynote sound.
Sound signals
These are foreground sounds, which are listened to consciously; examples would be warning devices, bells, whistles, horns, sirens, etc.
Soundmark
This is derived from the term landmark. A soundmark is a sound which is unique to an area.

In practical terms a theatrical score will primarily make use of a texture of keynote sounds with a couple of establishing soundmarks, and only use sound signals when indicated in the script.

You will also want to create an aural space through the illusion of space and distance. This is basically accomplished using panning (moving the sound left or right in a stereo mix or placing it within a surround sound layout) and reverberation or delay combined with judicious volume setting to create a sense of distance from the listener. Again, use your judgement and the cues given by the script.

In summary, you will collect and process sounds from a multitude of sources and use them to create a tapestry that provides a physical and emotional setting that envelops the audience and the production. How you do it is up to you, but many tools work in similar ways. A good soundscape is like an electronic composition, perfectly placed sounds interact with each other to develop the narrative and contexts of the play. A bad one is like a shuffle mix of a CD of sound effects, and adds nothing to the drama. Mess around with your resources and see what you can come up with, but make sure your end product is a work of art: subtle and perfectly placed. If you do it right, no-one will notice. Then you have won!
Categories
Techniques

Underscoring

Underscoring (the process of accompanying speech or action with sound or music) as a science as much as it is an art. It requires a careful understanding of the action onstage and a sensitive tailoring of the music to interweave exactly with the narrative of word and action. Nowadays we are far more familiar with this technique as a filmic convention, but underscoring theatrical scenes involves a set of skills not needed for the predetermined world of the edited film.

Traviata
Although you never see underscore, it is a talent worth having. Photo by rosengrant (flickr)

Perhaps we should start with a short definition:

Underscoring

Underscoring refers to music which plays underneath dialogue and action, without ‘locking in’ with it or standing on its own. Generally quiet and unobtrusive, it supports the onstage action emotionally and atmospherically. It is not usually heard by the characters onstage.

It is similar to the technique of Melodrama, a form of writing that interlocks musical ideas with complex dialogue or action, but can be seen as a smaller component of melodrama: underscoring does not usually peek it’s head above the ramparts of the dialogue, instead providing a firm emotional foundation.

Techniques

Perhaps the most important factor for the creation of underscoring is volume. Unlike in film music, where you absolute control of volume in recording, live music can easily overwhelm speech if badly written.

Perhaps the best thing to bear in mind is to keep the music as distraction-free as possible. This means not writing jaunty and catchy tunes or distinctively rhythmical accompaniment patterns.

The other area of techniques, aside from compositional, lies in the orchestration. If the spoken word is un-amplified you have to be careful not to overwhelm it with brass or percussion instruments. Some instruments (strings are traditional) are able to play at very quiet dynamics without strongly accented articulation, and so are able to maintain a low sound level over long periods of time. Other instruments such as flutes and some tuned percussion can also sustain quiet passages, but many other reed and brass instruments are difficult or tiring to maintain a consistent quiet pitch. Experimentation and intuition are the key.

Audio technology is often used in a theatrical context because it presents complete control and reliability. A case in point is volume control: unlike acoustic instruments, it is possible to reduce the volume of any recorded sound without significantly altering the timbre. In practical terms this provides composers with increased musical resources for underscoring, as any instruments which would previously dominate a spoken voice (such as a brass fanfare beneath a stirring speech) can be reduced in volume without losing the emotive qualities of the music.

However, using technological shortcuts can often result in a lessening of the impact that well-written underscoring can have. The embodied presence of live musicians interacting and locking in with the emotional arc of the narrative can create a more powerful performance than a accompanying recording. If done well this can be an enormously powerful technique for many different styles of theatre, but is perhaps more difficult in a live and acoustic setting. The challenges are worth it though!

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Discussion

On Audiences

The main difference between theatre music and music for film or games or festivals isn’t the technology or the venue, it’s the fact that theatre is performed for a live and responsive audience. It may not seem like this would affect sound and music, but coping with audience reaction is a vital part of balancing and cuing music and sound. For example, if a show encourages laughter (say, by being funny) or applause (say, by being a blatant star vehicle), sound or music cues can be, and probably need to be, louder to ride over the higher level of ambient sound. Perhaps more important is the ability of almost every element of the theatre to time itself to anything. If the audience decides to give a standing ovation at the end of the song, the band can pause between sections, or the lights can give them a cue to sit back down again. As well as those positive occasions, the audience can do idiotic or distracting things that a prerecorded sequence cannot cope with. Take for example this anecdote from the Guardian Theatre Blog: (Great play – shame about the audience | Stage | guardian.co.uk)

“Then, at the most heart-stopping, breath-holding moment in the play – when one character opens a letter written to her by her recently deceased boyfriend – an audience member in front of me abruptly stood up and loudly declared, twice, to his companion that he was off to get a coffee, before banging his way out of the theatre. For a second everyone – both actors and audience – seemed stunned. To the actors’ enormous credit, they both managed to hold on to the pause and continue, more or less as if nothing had happened.”

If this was the kind of play which was timed precisely to a audio or video track the entire production would be unsynchronised until someone could rescue it. People (rather than machines) are able to improvise in these situations, creating theatrical magic out of humdrum hiccoughs.

The nature of the audience also dictates the nature of the music or sound that you use. Certain audiences appreciate complex difficult music, while other audiences call for simpler, more catchy, or less obtrusive sound. In reality a production will call for mix of complicated “serious” music and lighthearted or straightforward ambience depending on the mood of the narrative. In these circumstances music can have a cathartic role: after a particularly gruelling scene in, say, Hamlet, in which ghosts, poison and murder have appeared, the audience is in danger of being over-stretched emotionally. The entrance of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern is usually accompanied by something quirky or funny, giving the audience a chance to relax and enjoy the narrative. Otherwise, they get exhausted from three hours of blood, feelings and soliloquies. A well balanced score for any complex play will usually contain a full mix of tragic, supernatural and escapist compositions.

To finish, I’ll leave you with a remark by Norman O’Neill. He let’s slip that even a century ago audiences were not conducive to good theatre, and were prepared to listen to the serious only if it was balanced with irreverence. And also that audiences can be the worst thing about working in the theatre or concert platform (more on that later this week…)

“I think the only place where it is possible to play music of a more serious nature is at the beginning of the programme, before the people of the stalls and dress circle arrive. I have often remarked that the pit and gallery will listen quietly to a movement of a symphony just after they enter the theatre. This is usually about half an hour before the commencement of the play, and the stalls in front of them are still empty and the house quiet. Later in the evening they have the distracting head-dresses and evening gowns between them and the orchestra, which it is then almost impossible to hear at all from the pit on account of the talking stalls.”