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November 06, 2006



I'm sorry, but this beef made me chortle at my pathetic cubicle.



Hey David,

You and I have talked about this before, I almost wrote a blog post about it when we covered PIGFARM (the incidental music in that being a prime example).

I think it has to do with a number of things:
(1) Sound Designers thinking that they're composers (and being wrong).
(2) Difficulty of licensing music (this isn't, you'll notice an Off-Off issue, we just use music without permission)
(3) The ubiquity of television aesthetics
(4) Directors not thinking of sound design as important. In other words, they think all we need is something anonymous to get us from place to place, just as lots of directors and designers think the job of a set is to look as real as possible, or for light design to just make us able to see everything, or costume design to look as close to the every day as possible. Now that sound design is a serious art form in theater, it's going through the same "invisibility" blechiness that frequently affects other forms of design at larger more conventional theaters. Thank god for Rob Kaplowitz and Darren L West, I suppose.

I obviously come at this from the perspective of being a director who cares *very deeply* about sound design and frequently at least music supervises my own plays.


I think the point is to let the audience know that this is a play just like a million others and that there is no need to pay close attention.

Rob Kendt

I know exactly what you mean, David. But as a musician myself who's done some music for theatre, I have to say a word on behalf of my colleagues. In this case, the composer on "Clean House" is Andre Pluess, who did music for "I Am My Own Wife" and "Metamorphoses," as well as other work with Lookingglass and Steppenwolf. I wasn't particularly bothered by his chambery, plink-plunky music for "Clean House," which was used throughout, not just at the opening. One part of the problem seems to be more an issue of where music is allowed to go in the context of most plays. Basically you hear it during scene changes, at opening, etc. Very seldom is it used to underscore a scene, as in movies--and strangely, when it is used under a scene, it's often some familiar recorded work, as with the operatic passages in "Clean House." I think this is because what's called "incidental" music is slotted in at the very end of tech rehearsals. I think "muzak" is probably too harsh a word for the result of this circumscribed process, but agreed: these tidbits are always prerecorded, and often (though not in this case, I don't think) with synthy approximations of "real" instruments. The alternative is for the director (or sound designer) to pick something well-known (and very well-recorded) and just crank it up for the scene changes. This can be very reassuring to an audience--and frankly, some of my favorite plays have used this device, and the use of well-known songs served as a comment on the action--but, as with the trend of movie soundtracks turning into jukeboxes, it means less original work for composers. I know this doesn't really address your main point, which is that the house style of many middlebrow OB plays (or, as a West Coaster like me thinks of it, the South Coast Rep aesthetic) is precisely what you describe: quirky chamber music, a la Thomas Newman's (pretty great but too much imitated) "Six Feet Under" theme. But frankly that's not too far off the tone of many of the plays of this ilk (in which I would include your beloved "Rabbit Hole"). Just my two plink-plunking cents.

David Cote

I should say that I didn't mean to disparage any composers for stage or Thomas Newman (whose theme to Six Feet Under is pretty cool, no?) -- even though my tone was snotty and dismissive. I have friends who are composers and a significant other who plays new music all the time. I understand that a composer who's asked to write curtain-raising music and snatches for scene changes isn't going to try to compose a symphonic masterpiece. So I guess my beef is with directors who don't demand more sonic ingenuity, either from the composers or in terms of how they place or contextualize the music. Not using real instruments, though understandably cost-efficient, is heinous. At Anne Washburn's intriguing and beautifully written and directed The Internationalist (at the Vineyard), she uses a song by her brother, singer-songwriter John Washburn. It's a thoughtful, evocative song that sets the scene very nicely. The scene changes are accompanied (if I recall correctly) by vaguely Gypsy or Middle Eastern-sounding folk music.

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