I remember a conversation with a friend while I was studying something called Sound and Music Design at UTS.
My friend found it so hard to work with theatre directors who knew little about music or the terms used to describe it. Being given the vague brief to compose something ‘dark but upbeat’ had him totally flummoxed. Meanwhile I was drowning in Root notes, tonics and Just Intonation, which is some sort of mathematical way of tuning your instruments. Please look it up if you want to give yourself a headache.
As you can probably guess, my approach to music and sound design is still not overly technical.
I go on instinct and gut feel. I am fascinated by how certain sounds create a specific mood or feeling – how the xylophone and glockenspiel evoke childlike wonder, for example.
Paul Gilchrist, director of Subtlenuance Theatre Company, knows absolutely nothing about music, which is why I love working with him.
“Give us some of your magical fairy dust, Ash,” he says. At which point I immediately forage through the menus of my synthesisers to find mallets and other high-pitched sounds. The world’s most famous fairy is not called TinkerBELL for nothing.
It’s been a while since I did music for theatre, so I was quite excited when Paul contacted me about doing the music for Simple Souls. It’s the story of Terri, a woman who wants to stage a sketch comedy of sorts in the hope that it will help her understand the chaotic state of the world.
Ash Walker (and Relevant Elephants)
Paul’s initial brief was for sounds that reflected that certain characters on stage may be only in Terri’s mind. He wanted nothing musical and nothing repetitive. I enjoyed the freedom to create something loose, abstract and experimental after just releasing my second album of techno and breakbeats, Who is the Dreamer, under the moniker Relevant Elephants.
He also wanted a theme for a game show that was “light and stupid”. Damn it, the guy just summed up my entire artistic philosophy.
The game show theme was particularly fun to compose. I started with a military-style stand-to-attention snare loop and ended with a slightly irritating organ loop that never quite finishes when you think. I thought it might be a good running gag to have the actors be increasingly exasperated by being cut off by the final note as they were about to say their next lines. I’ll have to wait till opening to see if Paul has used this idea.
We’ve settled for a minimalist approach. A piece which once had insect like effects, a synth part, and reverse kick drum stabs has been reduced to a single bass drone. Interestingly, this pairing back with each new version of a piece was also the approach I took when writing some of the techno tracks for my album. I love Minimal Techno.
This is the fifth time I have worked with Paul Gilchrist and Subtlenuance. We are still friends so something much be going right. Personally I think Paul could use more music in his productions than he does but each play is his own unique vision and as a sound designer/musician I have to respect that and do my best to help him achieve it. After all, working with a theatre director with no personal vision would be very dull indeed.
I’m yet to see exactly how my music fits into the show. Can’t wait to find out.