The Art of Sound: Discussing the sound design of The Adults with composer Bhob Rainey

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Bhob Rainey
Bhob Rainey | photo via www.bhobrainey.net

There’s no short version of the story with Bhob Rainey.  The local composer and sound experimenter’s personal history is as complex as the realm of improvised music he’s been exploring for the past four decades: an introduction to the saxophone in middle school, a summer at the immersive and intensive Governor’s School for the Arts, a suppressive and then expressive college experience in Miami, a collaborative stint in Boston and finally a fruitful career in Philadelphia all helped to shape and funnel the Hatfield native’s hunger for true improvisation into the boundary-eschewing amalgamation it is today.

With an arsenal of non-traditional compositions under his belt, Rainey now works primarily in quilting together field recordings and coded computational sounds.  The Pew Fellow’s current effort comes in collaboration with New Paradise Laboratories‘ production of The Adults, a staged play with Rainey providing sound design and a live score.  The show, which was inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and the artwork of Eric Fischl, follows two families as they “gather at a vacation house to let loose, play out a classic comedy of manners that never existed, and prod each other with intimate cruelty.”  It premieres tonight at the Painted Bride in conjunction with this year’s Fringe Festival.

Rainey has been part of The Adults since the play’s earliest beginnings, meeting with director Whit MacLaughlin to discuss the relationship between sound, audience, actors and space over the course of many months.  The result of their discussions (which crossed into topics as ambiguous and meta as transcendence vs. immanence and membranes of silence) is a style of sound incorporation that doesn’t seem designed, but instead flows organically from the stage to the audience’s ears.

Sound design in stage productions can be as overt as the final gunshot in West Side Story or as subtle as the flick of a lighter in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Some sounds have obvious sources and purposes, while others barely cross into the audience’s consciousness.  As Rainey discussed over email, incorporating sounds into a stage production is often less about drawing attention via noise and more about a lack of separation between sight and sound.

“I showed up to rehearsals with a laptop, my saxophone, and a few mics, and I very quickly realized that I had no idea what I was going to do….  I started thinking about how the action of the play would be a fundamental sound source – people dragging things across the stage, footfalls, bodies slipping or slamming into objects, etc. We were in very quiet spaces, and all of these sounds were becoming very focused, rhythmic and melodic.”

He emphasizes the role of the environment itself as a character, and it’s clear that he sees his own role as being a transparent filter, translating spacial action into sound.

“I hope, actually, that people barely notice the sound design and that they perceive the sound as merely emanating from the presences in the space, as if the sound were a visual element that you happen to see with your ears (or feel as a vibration).”

And sometimes the most dynamic sound effect is no sound at all.  Rainey talks about the “threshold of silence,” a phrase that evokes the same heightened suspense on paper as the sudden cutting of all noise does during a combative climax on stage.

When asked if there is a difference in how he approaches composing for a commissioned art piece, such as The Adults, as opposed to composing for his own purposes, Rainey shows that he hasn’t left the principles and experiences of his improvisational roots behind.

“I have entered a phase where I have basically no specific approach to my work as a whole. I may latch onto a set of sounds or ideas and run through the logic of that particular knot, but the next piece ends up being an entirely new set of problems for which I’m entirely unprepared.

“If there is a significant difference between my sound-only work and what I’m doing here, it would be that the sound work usually offers a complete picture of action, event, psychology, space, purpose, etc., while the actors, set, and lighting are doing a great deal of that work in this case. So, I’m presenting more of a lacy web with a few cakey blood stains and maybe some gunk from a greasy lake bed.”

While the actors and the props will provide most of their own sound effects, Rainey will also be contributing a live score to the production through a method of computer programming.

“At one point, I needed to come up with an agile, intuitive way to add clouds of sound without tying up my hands, so I hooked up a mic and wrote a quick block of code that would allow me to sing (or grunt) into it and trigger some pitched events. That ended up being extremely useful and has now become a fixture in the sound design and execution. Whit refers to it as “singing the show”, though the actual singing I do probably sounds more like someone grumbling in his sleep.”

So what sorts of integrated “non-human textures” and sounds can we expect during the production?

“[In] the end, it’s a fairly mongrel set of sources: many insects, pure tones pressing on the edge of silence, digital clicks, a few nasty synth moments, a taste of Jimmy Buffet, sounds that might be rain or fire, slowed down piano, some aural illusions, moments of sublime devastation, and a healthy dose of nothing to keep you glued to the moment.”

The Adults premieres at the Painted Bride on Friday, September 5th in conjunction with the Fringe Arts festival.  More information can be found here.

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