Show artwork for Feature: Adventures in Sound Design

Feature: Adventures in Sound Design

From camels to coastlines and everything in between, the world is Russell Goldsmith’s recording studio, writes Megan Byrne.

When sound designer Russell Goldsmith moves through a geographic landscape, his ears – and his recording equipment – are automatically tuned into the sonic one.

‘I try to take my location recording equipment with me everywhere I go, as I am constantly immersed in new and novel sound environments that I want to capture and add to my significant library,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I am simply intrigued by a strange sounding exhaust fan on a building, sometimes it is a street-scape in a foreign city, and sometimes I deliberately go out seeking new sounds for a particular production.’

Sound Designer Russell Goldsmith on location. Image: R Goldsmith.

Amongst his expansive collection of global sounds, there are several of which he is particularly proud.

‘I have a lovely recording of three camels in Morocco, whose handler encouraged them to perform so that I could capture the full gamut of sonic expressions they made,’ Russell said. ‘I also have a number of recordings of woodcarvers in a small village in Vietnam, who were all delighted to hear themselves back on the recording I’d made, chatting between carving, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.’

Russell has worked with MTC on several occasions, most recently on His Girl Friday and The Golden Dragon. Like most creatives, his design always begins with the script.

‘Usually I will read the script through twice in quick succession to understand the overall arc of the show, develop an idea of its length and tone, and identify areas where I instinctively think there might be possibilities for audio to contribute,’ he said. ‘In the case of The Other Place, it was immediately clear to me that the sound design had the capacity to inform the feeling of confusion, helplessness and disorientation that the main character, Juliana, feels throughout the piece. Much of her tension and frustration can be aided by the sound environment in which she is immersed, and Nadia [Director Nadia Tass] and I very much wanted to allow the sound to carry a sense of intangibility and

Heidi Arena and Catherine McClements on stage in The Other Place

Following discussions with Nadia, Russell identified three main areas of exploration: Juliana’s conference speech that is delivered through the first half of the play; the work of Gustav Mahler; and the idea of ‘the other place’. The first two items were relatively simple to explore.

‘It was clear early on that Juliana is intended to be amplified [during her speech], to distinguish it from the other parts of the play,’ Russell said. ‘[And as] there are direct references to the work of Gustav Mahler in the script, I wanted to use elements of his music in a way that placed them in a dream-like realm; wafting in and out of scenes, and hinting at an intangible past that Juliana desperately wants to firmly grasp.’

But Russell’s most interesting project for the production revolved, rather appropriately, around ‘the other place’.

‘As the audience becomes aware of the significance of ‘the other place’ for Juliana, sonic elements from that environment start to rise,’ he said. ‘It is expressly stated in the script that this place is located in Cape Cod, an affluent seaside holiday town on the north-east coast of the United
States. Its beaches are famously covered in pebbles, rather than the mostly fine sand beaches we are used to in Australia.’

How then to capture the distinctive sound of waves crashing against a pebble shoreline, rather than sand – a vast difference in sound? Cape Schanck, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, provided the answer.

Russell captures the sound of waves on a pebble shoreline, at Cape Schanck. Image: R. Goldsmith.

‘Cape Schanck is the closest pebbled beach to Melbourne that I know of, and a place I had visited before, wishing I had brought my recording equipment with me,’ Russell said. ‘But it is a relatively steep 20-minute walk from the car park to the beach itself, and fully encumbered with equipment, it was quite a challenge!

‘I recorded on both the front and back beaches for a few hours, obtaining various perspectives, and different stages of the tide coming in. Many of these sources are combined together to contribute to the overall soundscape of the show.’

The sound of rain on a Cape Cod shingled slate roof remained more elusive – but was eventually achieved with the help of Melbourne’s weather, and a little editing.

‘Some of the rain was recorded in my backyard in the inner-west of Melbourne – far removed from the east-coast US, but the sound itself is universal. My Melbourne rain functions as a completely plausible stand in!’

The Other Place is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse until 2 March.

Published on 7 February 2013