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Last week, the Los Angeles Ovation Awards were held in downtown LA. I was nominated for two individual awards for Outstanding Sound Design for a Large Theatre for my work on Guards at the Taj and Barcelona, both with The Geffen Playhouse. I didn’t win the individual award, but Guards at the Taj did win for Outstanding Production for a Large Theatre. Congratulations to everyone at the Geffen, especially Randy and Gil! And to the entire creative team (Gio, our director, Ramiz and Raffi, our actors, Tom, Lap, and Denitsa, the visual designers, and Maggie, our stage manager)!
After a few months of struggling with some access to this blog which included some hosting matters), I’m finally able to give an update about some of the work that I’ve been doing. Here are some notes about some recent projects:
— In October, I designed and scored the west coast premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Gards at the Taj’ at The Geffen Playhouse. The music was electronic and had some Indian elements (mostly through instrumentation), but it retained a modern language that worked with Joseph’s words to give the production a modern feel. You can check out some of my music for it here.
— In February, I returned to The Geffen to design Bess Wohl’s ‘Barcelona,’ a two-hander that takes place in the Spanish city over the course of one night.
— In March, I designed and scored the world premiere of ‘Going to a Place Where You Already Are’ at South Coast Repertory. Bekah Brunstetter’s play about two death and heaven was a challenge for me, but I’m very happy with the result
— In April, I produced a workshop of two new plays by Tira Palmquist, Smoke Front and Fire Road, which were presented telematically, in real-time, over the Internet
— In May, I co-produced a six-channel sound-art installation, which featured a concert series and a symposium on multichannel sound. The Center For Interesting Noises also premiered my composition ‘Infinitette.’
— Most recently, I designed Barrington Stage Company’s production of ‘Kimberly Akimbo,’ which marks ten years since I first worked with them and with director Rob Ruggiero.
My plans this summer include taking a bit of a break, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be busy! I’m designing the world premiere of Tira Palmquist’s ‘And Then They Fell’ in LA, so I’ll have my hands busy!
Last autumn, I opened Clovni Extraterestri (Clown Aliens) at the National Theatre of Romania, in Cluj. CE is my first full-on musical; I wrote the music and created the sound design. Eli Simon wrote the book and directed. I’ve just finished mixing some board recordings, so I’m finally able to share some of the content here.
EC is a sequel of sorts to Razboil Clovnilor (War of the Clowns), a piece that Simon and I developed for the National Theatre a few years ago. RC ends with a family of clowns blowing up their home planet; CE starts with that family of clowns escaping to Earth. When they land on Earth, they have to make a life for themselves. Some clowns want to hold on to their clown identity, but others are quick to integrate into human culture. They get jobs, they adopt human traditions, they try to retain their own clown-ness. Some clowns are more human than others, but all of the clowns try to find a balance between human-ness and clown-ness. Through it all, the littlest clown, Baby Clown, misses their Mother Clown, who didn’t make the trip (presumably lost in space?).
The music is a balance of folk and funk, and was primarily performed by Ada Milea, one of Romania’s national musical treasures. Milea is a gifted singer and guitarist, and she performed in the character of a homeless bum who has wandered into the theatre. All other music (everything that’s not acoustic guitar) was tracked or performed by me. The rest of the cast also sang, but Milea was the prime voice we heard.
Eli and I first started working on the beginning ideas of this piece over five years ago in a piece called Clownzilla: Illegal Aliens that we did in Orange County, CA. That piece was also about clowns entering a new land, and even then, we wanted to focus on the social issues (immigration, xenophobia, cultural identity, assimilation) that immigrants face. When we started working on the musical, those ideas stayed at the forefront of our thoughts, though the specifics of the metaphor shifted from Mexican immigrants to the Roma (gypsy) people.
I wrote the music over the past year, and had the score in good shape by the time we got to Romania in late August. We immediately jumped into rehearsal, Eli working with the clowns on the mainstage while I worked with Ada downstairs in the studio theatre. After almost a week of rehearsing separately, we put the music and the clowning together and started to craft the show. Generally, we’d rehearse in two four-hour chunks, but the second half of the day often ended early, as we all got tired and distracted. Plus, since Eli and I were crafting the show, we often needed time after rehearsal to hash out ideas, edit songs, mix/master music, and lay down tracks.
After 3.5 weeks of residency in Cluj (during which the summer heat broke into cool brisk days), we opened the show to an audience full of adults and kids. Ada would wander through the lobby, begging money from adults and distributing it to kids. She started the show by offering to tell a story to the audience. As she sat down and strummed her guitar, the clowns appeared on stage, as if from her memory. Ada served as the narrator, speaking in Romanian and singing in English, telling the story of this group of illegal immigrants, ejected from their home planet and trying to build a new life.
I’ve added some of the songs from the show to my portfolio page. Go check them out, and if you’re interested in producing Clovni Extraterestri, drop me a line! We’d love to see it have a life outside of Romania.
Also, I’ll be speaking on the creation of this piece at the annual USITT conference and convention in March. Come check out my talk on 20 March at 5.30pm.
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.