intelligent (((sound))) design?

earlier today a fellow sound designer and i were discussing the fact that we have never seen any decent literature dedicated to the aesthetics of sound design for theatre. we both arrived at the conclusion that to actually speak on the subject of what constitutes a good sound design would only really measure our immediate feelings, losing a sense of the bigger picture on the subject.

nevertheless, we both realized that it was incumbent upon us to lend some clarity for those who might searching.

in order to be as productive as possible in this discussion, i will try to keep all of my clauses brief. some of these assertions may open up to further exploration later, but these are basic principles. i invite any and all scrutiny.

here goes nothing


the goal of all productions is to be meaningful.

no one rule can describe the creative role sound design has in theatre.
the rules describe themselves from production to production.

a large sound effects library is worth the world.
clear expression of your imagination is worth the universe.

all of the technical know-how and pristine equipment on earth won't give you a good idea.
adaptation and improvisation with crappy equipment can unlock many interesting designs.

speaker placement, levels and equalization are the instrument of your design.
concepts and ideas are the music.

you think by making connections between ideas in your head.
a design is thoughtful when it connects ideas in the play.

some designs require a deep understanding of physics.
some designs require a departure from reality.

sometimes a sound designer is really a space designer.
sometimes a sound design is really a character.

when designing, imagine the production overflowing with sound.
when you are in tech, strip it down to its barest essentials.

when a sound design is too prominent, everyone thinks it is perfect.
when a sound design is correct, everyone thinks the show is perfect.


when devising the sound for a show, the primary text is not script: it's the production.
make no absolute decisions until you have seen a run, then consult the script for guidance.

scenic and costume designers always furnish renderings.
sound designers get to make mixtapes.

endeavor always to be respectful to your stage manager and/or board operator.
their work ultimately decides whether or not your design is expressed.

sometimes your director will not know what they are talking about.
this doesn't mean that you can't know what they are talking about.

sometimes your director will like anything you do.
when granted this freedom, be your own fiercest critic.

when a director disagrees with you, don't defend your idea until you know what they are looking for.
you may find that you both share the same idea.

since you are the designer, you can solve any problem in the design.
often this means that you are blind to the design's problems.

making mistakes is not a source of suffering or shame.
fixing mistakes is a source of joy and satisfaction.

there are tricks that sound can perform, and there are ideas that sound can serve.
tricks should only be in service to ideas.

since all design ideas must flow from a central concept, all sounds must belong to a single landscape of ideas.
if there is no central concept, there can be no design.


the concept is the birthplace of the sonic landscape.
the landscape is the birthplace of ideas.

meaning is relational.
all meaning comes from the marriage of ideas.

your first idea will always come from your sense of taste.
as such, you should always seek to broaden your horizons.

your sense of taste is meaningless.
the sonic landscape is where meaning lives.

every aspect of every choice you make can be meaningful.
ask yourself if the design is functional.

sometimes the simplest ideas are the most hidden.
sometimes the oldest ideas are the most original.

listen to random, atonal sounds.
all sounds are by nature musical.

some of the finest designs are too subtle to be noticed.


all theatre should be this coordinated

a work of art which, through one filter, could be seen as the marriage of free will and destiny...


time transfixed

theatre is a practice taking place in space and time. this is not an abstract notion to be taken lightly. spacetime is a recognizable part of the fabric of our experience. other artists explore the event of our consciousness moving through time in their media as well.

take for example, rene magritte. in his "man with a journal" he compresses our notion of time into a two-dimensional image which can be viewed as a whole in one moment. upon close inspection, we engage with the piece within a span of time (now i look at the man in panel one, now i compare the clouds between panels two and four, etc.). space time is the fundamental object of this piece. the man, transient, is an agent through which spacetime is explored. do we have any idea what the order of these panels are intended to be? my visual training leads me to believe that the upper right hand panel is the earliest point in time, but whose to say, really? first he's there, then he's not. or perhaps he wasn't there until he was there forever. i'm willing to wager that magritte would argue that he is not a man at all, merely an image of a man.

later, magritte takes this one step further with time transfixed. is it absurd to see a train coming through a fireplace? what if the fireplace is there in one moment of time and the train is based in another? when both occupy the same space at disparate times, perhaps this is the image one would encounter? magritte indeed compresses the subjects to give us a greater sense of what his image of is. he includes a clock on the mantle (as well as a candle stick that may or may not be disappearing in time) to point us in the direction of his title.

take a moment to notice time. notice right now.

time gives and takes just as any other part of the universe. often a perceiver of time is led to think of its passing, and thus, their own. thus, many many many creative works of the imagination have been dedicated to pushing forth our understanding of what it means to die when time itself is navigable.

one such compelling work is the subject of the first opera. the story of orpheus and euridice takes us through an explanation of death and time as factors which can be perceived but not manipulated. euridice is nearly returned to life, and orpheus' head sings for all eternity. what is essential to this lasting myth is that it allows the imagination to consider time's very substance by turning it into a narrative. the remove that storytelling places us from temporal experience allows the exploration of time (and thus, mortality) to become a subject in it of itself.

opera is a prime local for such exploration, because the audience partakes in a carefully orchestrated event, which occupies a place in space time. some would ask if each performance isn't a distinct composition in it of itself. your senses are immersed in a place for a duration. your consciousness takes note of the start and the end. from the beginning until the performance's demise you may laugh, cry, sleep, eat, drink. what's more, you share this experience with an enormous gallery of people. sounds like life to me.

theatre is wrapped in narrative these days. "naturalist" works, musicals, most plays manipulate time for the purpose of storytelling. the french renaissance playwrights (and the greeks for that matter) had to adhere to strict compressions of time, fitting their narrative in the span of one day. this was the so-called "unity of time".

here comes the point. it's going to happen right after this sentence.

what if time is the event itself? we keep exploring the experience of love and passion, jealousy and betrayal, the demand for satisfaction and suffering. why is it so simple for us to take for granted the experience of time? the abovementioned experiences, while all very real, warranting of discussion and worth staging in the seeing place, are all human experiences.

if theatre is an investigation of the human condition, should it not explore that which is universal and inherent among all peoples?

my god
, if you have their attention in the room for 90+ minutes, why not ask them what the experience of 90+ minutes is?

l'homme au journal

time transfixed

long beach opera's orpheus and euridice

and finally, of course, the wooster group.


wooster on youtube


reminds one of this:

which calls to mind this:

which is at the core of my argument. we are living in a dream.

also known as

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