Sound Design is a Creative Discipline: An Interview with Pete Malkin

Pete Malkin is a sound designer whose most recent productions include the huge hit Harry Potter: and the Cursed Child and Complicite’s award-winning The Encounter, in which audience members are immersed into an innovative soundscape, watching the stage-action whilst wearing headphones. leoemercer talks to him about being a sound designer today.

What does being a sound designer involve?

I’m freelance, so one week I might be in rehearsals for a show, then the next week I might go into technical rehearsals. In the last show [Harry Potter: and the Cursed Child], we were in tech for around 4 weeks, but normally it’s closer to just one.

I tend to be drawn to the collaborative side of sound design: going into the rehearsal room with the rest of the company – actors, the creative team – and through working with them, get ideas, give ideas. For example, when working with a company like Complicite, this means being present throughout the entire rehearsal period, being part of the creation process of a new piece of work, and although this doesn’t happen with all theatre companies, it’s useful to come into the process as early as possible, even if it’s to start creative discussions with the rest of the team.

During the rehearsal period, depending on the show, I’ll usually enter with a palette of fairly generic sounds and musical ideas based on initial discussions with the director, they may or may not get used in the show, but it’s good to have a starting point. As we go through rehearsals, I’ll try playing these sounds along with the text or action, and once structures start to form, refine those ideas, whilst also responding to what’s happening in the room. I have a notepad with this quote on the cover: ‘a writer should write with his eyes, and a painter should paint with his ears’. It’s a good reminder to keep all my senses open to inspiration.

How did you get into sound design?

I started out with an interest in music, playing guitar in a band, and then went on to study Music Technology at college. After that, I studied Theatre Sound at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. In my final year I was lucky enough to have a placement with Gareth Fry. I’d emailed him to ask if I could observe his working process, and he happened to be starting rehearsals for a new Complicite show. That placement and the experience of working with the Collaborative and Devised Acting students at Central led me down my current path.

Gareth seems to be pretty big in the world of sound design. What makes him so notable?

He’s very collaborative and has a huge amount of experience in all sorts of theatre and non-theatre too, performances, exhibitions, events, film, you name it. For example he recently sound designed the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A. He’s also extremely kind, and happy to give advice and share his experiences with other designers.

Also – and this is true of many designers, such as Tom Gibbons – he has a close working relationship with directors. Gareth has worked with Simon McBurney [actor, director, and the founder of Complicite] for many years now, so understands what he expects in the rehearsal room, and how Simon likes to work with sound. The same goes for Katie Mitchell [a director whose work is notable for her experiments with technology]. The trust between them is key to allowing the sound designer enough freedom to explore different elements in the production, whilst keeping the director’s vision in focus.

What are you exploring as a sound designer – what technologies do you use, what questions do you ask?

My next production is The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. She’s already directed two Shakespeare plays set in a women’s prison, and this will be the third. We’re unlikely to just have thunderstorm sound effects – we’re not in a naturalistic ship to start with. Instead, perhaps we’ll experiment with the elements that are part of a prison to allow the actors to create soundscapes themselves.

I do find it interesting to use different technologies in different productions: this one will look at the actor-interaction with sound. They are telling the story in their habitat: the prison. So they have what they have in a prison: basic microphones that will probably look really battered and bruised, and we’ll try to turn them into a theatrical presence over the course of the show, maybe becoming more magical as the story progresses, forgetting that it’s a technical element. Technology-wise, something like The Encounter works well because you’re not thinking about the technical aspect of wearing headphones after a while: it’s not a gimmick, it’s there because it’s the best way to tell that story. I think a good approach to bringing certain technology into a piece is not to ask what technical element can I force into this story. Instead, it’s about listening to that story and trying to find the best way to tell it – that could end up being highly technical, or not.

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Do you have an internal catalogue of things you’re secretly excited about using?

Basic things include: sound effects, ambiences, drones, music. I love to create Soundscapes and unique sound effects by layering these elements together, it can give a sound more meaning. For example, the simple sound of a door closing can quickly transport you to a new location, layer this with a café bell, a reloading of a gun, a snare drum, they all give the audience a different context for the new location very quickly. It’s a simple tool, but a dynamic microphone (SM58 or similar) on a stand can change the way an audience hears text, they’re great for making quick voice over recordings on stage or adding vocal effects. In Beware of Pity, the actors all wear radio mics, so we can control the mix of their voices with the sound/music. But at times we used stand mics to help create the effect of listening to the internal monologue of the main character. We use them for vocal effects too, telephone voices, pitching up and down live, in fact, one character doesn’t speak with her own voice until the end of the piece, she is miming her dialogue, which is provided by a second actress on a pitched up mic.

Are there any notable new developments you can see happening in sound design?

Outside of theatre, there’s a lot of interest in VR (virtual-reality) for sound designers, in gaming especially. I’m interested to see how VR might be able to integrate into theatre. How might audience members react to wearing a headset and headphones, being isolated as such? There have been a lot of successful theatre shows using headphones now, and it offers a way for an isolating technology to be used in a large group, which seems to work.

I used an Oculus Rift for the first time a few weeks ago, and there’s so much exciting potential for sound tied in with visuals here. I played on a flight simulator game, and just looking out the window was creepy to me, it’s an amazing experience: your brain seems to react in the way it would if you were really in that position. The audio helps with that: it follows you around in the situation and so helps to immerse you in that world. In theatre you have to cue a lot of events live; sound, lighting, video, automation etc. And although it does happen occasionally, it’s very difficult to record a stable 45 minutes of cues and let it run on it’s own. You would usually make sure an operator has the ability to respond to the live nature of a theatre show: go a bit slower/faster here depending on how the actors are performing on the night, go with a visual movement, it’s all very live. I’m not sure there is technology that allows such a live response in the VR world yet – perhaps it’s a crossover into gaming technology, which could be interesting.

You’ve designed for both operas and theatre productions. Is there a difference between the two?

My first opera was as Associate Sound on Complicite’s Magic Flute, working with Gareth. I soon learnt that opera and theatre are very different: in terms of the sonic world, the conductor usually leads everything that is heard, whether that’s an instrument/voice or anything else. In rehearsals, with Complicite I’ll usually offer sounds that could work with the action on stage during rehearsals. You have to be particularly sensitive to the music in order to work with the conductor’s interests in mind, so had to be cautious with this. It’s another relationship to have, similar to the director. For an opera, there’s a lot of dialogue in The Magic Flute, so we used sound effects and atmospheres with those scenes – the challenge was transitioning from those into the music without it jarring. We did some quite cool stuff with a live Foley Artist (Tom Espiner originally and, more recently, Ruth Sullivan): we spent 2 months in Amsterdam creating that show, and every time it’s been on tour (it was at the ENO earlier this year) it’s had to change and develop, it’s been sung in a few different languages, with different casts.

I also sound designed a new opera with Annabel Arden as Director, who is a co-founder of Complicite. The composer wrote sounds into the score, things like ‘footsteps’, ‘sawing of wood’ etc, and that was interesting. They were part of the music and there was a very open approach to trying to find interesting sounds that worked with it.

How do you make a new sound?

There are lots of different ways and everyone has their own approach: you could record specific props, locations, vehicles or even actors and layer them with other sounds. Sometimes we use sound effect libraries – and there are some really great independent companies coming out with all sorts of libraries. Depending on the sound, for me it’s usually a process of re-sampling sounds, layering up those initial pieces of audio, reversing them, slowing them down, until you have a whole new set of sounds and can layer them with other sounds again. I tend to create a lot in the rehearsal room because scenes are constantly changing – the sound effect you made yesterday may not work today because a scene has been reworked, and that’s great. The show is growing and so you’ll react to that. In comparison to film, our process from start to end is short, normally a 6-week process. Recording specific sound effects can be tough in that time, especially with the constant evolution of scenes, so you have to be quick at using your library of sound effects and be able to quickly record them too, manipulating and integrating them to work in context.

Finally, how do you feel about the recent retraction of the Tony award for sound design?

I feel it’s simply a step backwards for the recognition of sound design as a creative discipline. There’ve been people who consider sound as a purely technical craft. Sound design is, and has to be, an immensely technical role, but when you’re amongst it everyday, and see so many different aspects of it, it’s very clear that it’s an art form in itself. It’s ultimately a collaborative process, the experimentation it allows, the emotive and imaginative experience it can give to an audience, makes it difficult for me to call it anything other than an art form. Sound designers have been part of core creative teams working closely with Directors for years, though there’s definitely less recognition of sound design in comparison to other creative elements in theatre, all deserving of their own recognition of course, it’s often completely overlooked.

It’s rumoured that the Tony award was dropped due to a lack of understanding of how sound design works. Abe Jacob said in an interview, “You don’t have to know how stitches are done on a costume or what color gel the lighting designer has used or how many nails went into the piece of scenery, but that’s still design”. Understanding the intricacies of sound design isn’t essential to enjoying its contribution to a show.

Could The Encounter change this, by putting sound at the forefront?

Hopefully. It allows your imagination to supply a sense of the world the story is in, through the soundscapes that Simon and our operators build during the show. It’s going to New York later this year and if anything, it would be great if it opens up more conversations about the important contribution sound designers make in theatre, especially that which the amazing sound designers working on Broadway shows deserve recognition for.

leoemercer

For more information about Pete Malkin’s work, please visit his website.

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