I recently returned from Cincinnati, where I created the design and music for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s world-premiere production of Safe House. Safe House is a play about a family of free black people in 1843 Kentucky. Two years prior to the events of the play, they were caught helping runaway slaves headed north to head to Liberia. Their punishment period ended, the family is set to ‘go straight’ with one of the brothers opening up a shoemaking business, but the arrival of a runaway slave threatens to upend the family’s plans.


Timothy Douglas, a longtime collaborator, directed the piece (a number of former colleagues and friends were on the design team and in the cast). In our early talks, we knew that we wanted to find a way to keep the music connected to the world of the play, but the idea of using Alan Lomax-style ethnomusicological performances felt too on-the-nose. Tony Cisek’s set was fragmented, like a memory, and it featured a huge upstage two- and three-dimensional representation of a forest that could, depending on Michael Gilliam’s lights, signify the Kentucky forest or the Liberian jungle. Something modern and fragmented was called for.


In a series of early demos that I worked on over the summer, I came to the idea of using the banjo as the central instrument of the score. It has an iconic sound that ties the listener deeply to the wider geographic area, but I could play it in a very modern way, using gestures and ostinati in a way that is more textural than harmonically complex. I created two demos for Timothy to listen to, one that was more bluegrassy and one that was more textural. Timothy preferred the textural piece. So did I.


Later in the summer, I travelled to Romania for 3 1/2 weeks for work. I brought the banjo (the agents for Germany’s TSA were fascinated by it), and when we had half-day rehearsals in Cluj, I worked on the music.




The structure of the music is consistent across the score. Each track of banjo is routed to one of three effects chains: one that is fairly natural, one with a bit of distortion and reverberation, or one with a fair amount of delay and reverb. The natural sounding tracks were primary in the mix, the reverby tracks were for accents and support, and the delayed tracks were for pedal tones (created with an eBow and an expression pedal). Here are the three different tracks, split out into their respective effects chains.


Fairly natural: [haiku url=”http://soundandstage.net/sound/mp3/vo_safehouse_clean_2f.mp3″ title=”xx”]

Distortion and reverberation: [haiku url=”http://soundandstage.net/sound/mp3/vo_safehouse_amp_2f.mp3″ title=”xx”]

Lots of delay: [haiku url=”http://soundandstage.net/sound/mp3/vo_safehouse_tonal_2f.mp3″ title=”xx”]


You can here how quiet the banjo performance is. I played with my fingertips, often barely brushing the strings. Thank goodness the windows in my Romanian apartment were thick enough to drown out (most of) the city sounds.


Once the score was recorded, I set about spatializing it. Each effects chain was routed into three different area submasters, each one destined for a separate area of the theatre: a very wet reverb send went to an upstage pair of loudspeakers, a relatively untreated send went to the proscenium and center cluster, and a wet and diffuse send went to speakers in the back of the house. So, after all of this processing, each piece of music had nine separate stems: three prints each of the clean, the distorted, and the delayed effects chains.


Here are three prints of the same track, processed for the three zones of the theatre:


Upstage: [haiku url=”http://soundandstage.net/sound/mp3/vo_safehouse_clean_1u.mp3″ title=”xx”]

Proscenium: [haiku url=”http://soundandstage.net/sound/mp3/vo_safehouse_clean_2f.mp3″ title=”xx”]

Rear: [haiku url=”http://soundandstage.net/sound/mp3/vo_safehouse_clean_3r.mp3″ title=”xx”]


In the theatre, I used the playback software to route and mix the music. Beneath the music, I also added a layer or two of environmental sounds. Some of those sounds were field recordings of the Northern Kentucky area, and some were field recordings from Liberia and its neighbors. My choice between Kentucky and Africa for the ambience was driven by the psychology of the characters at the beginning and end of the music pieces. The spatialization of the music was very successful, giving the score a sense of enveloping without drawing attention to the various loudspeaker positions (I tend to hate rear positions, as most of them are placed very poorly), and sourcing the music to the proscenium and the environmental sounds upstage helped define both the diegetic and nondiegetic worlds of the play.


I’m really very pleased with the work that we all did on Safe House, and I’m glad to have been invited back to the Playhouse to create the piece. If you’re in Cincinnati, go check it out!  And if you’re not in Cincinnati, you can hear the finished version of the piece I broke out above HERE.

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