Show artwork for The Sounds of Storm Boy
Ellen Bailey and Conor Lowe. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The Sounds of Storm Boy

Composer and Sound Designer Darrin Verhagen tells us about the sonic world of Storm Boy.

Award-winning sound designer, composer and installation artist Darrin Verhagen reunites with the team behind Jasper Jones to create the sonic world of the Coorong in Storm Boy.

What is the world of this play that you’re creating through sound?

Part of sound’s role is to establish the diegetic world of the play – essentially an authenticating agenda – so providing all of the noises you might expect from the environment and elements of action that you see. The more important world though is the emotional heart of the play. In this case, this involves finding musical themes that speak to innocence, joy, sadness, but also more abstract aesthetic states (such as beauty, majesty, scale, intimacy, and an almost spiritual connection to nature). There are times when music subtly opens up a window for an audience to more deeply experience whatever they were already feeling emotionally. This can be like a detached frame where permissions are gently granted through a looser composition or simple soundscape (think of a hand placed on a shoulder at a funeral which opens up all the emotions previously held in check). But then, there are other times when music’s role is to actively generate emotions – to prescriptively push audiences into specific states. These are more musically-focused moments, drawing on an established “be sad” or “be happy” toolkit.

My endless fascination though is in a messier territory than those two extremes – where you might lay up something sonically pretty against something narratively tragic, or where something musically tender and beautiful becomes frail and endangered given the context. One of my favourite sequences in the play is at a key moment of loss when we shift into a beautiful First Nations’ song by Eleanor Dixon accompanying [Projection Designer] Justin [Harrison]’s top-down drone footage of country. On one level, it underscores a large narrative shift into deep poignancy, whilst simultaneously feeling like a detached side-step shift into the spiritual heart of the land. Although neither of these ideas will be ‘read’ consciously in the audio-visual experience, they are ‘felt’ incredibly deeply, both individually – a heart-wrenching narrative moment with a powerfully beautiful connection to country – but also as a fusion, where that conflict has the capacity to hit an experiential flavour close to the sublime.

The more I understand about how music works with vision and narrative, the more fascinated I am by those surprise moments when all I can speak to are the circumstances which lead to powerful or complex emotional states rather than detail the specifics of what is actually being experienced. Whilst part of soundtrack work involves drawing on knowledge as to what needs to be achieved (narrative, emotional or structural support) and the techniques you know will deliver that mechanistic objective, the magic is always in reflecting in those moments when you see all the elements together and question – “What just happened there?!” Julian Meyrick once suggested to me that there were two types of plays – ships and gardens. For the former, you get on board and it knows where it’s going, so you barrel along to get to that point. The latter is a more exploratory affair for an audience, where you may immerse yourself in more of a personal contemplation – where there is a more active relationship between the work and the audience. Music is very similar. Some cues are very clear and prescriptive, working to synchronise group emotions; other cues open up a space for a viewer, to make a scene their own, with inevitable room for subjective variability.

What are some examples of diegetic sound you’re using in your design?

This was a question we were exploring early on – finding how we might represent something like a pelican sonically in the world we were crafting. Given the layers of pretend that exist in theatre, where it feels like the suspension of disbelief requires a greater level of imagination and generosity than film, there are various possibilities in how something might be materialised. With pelicans for example, on one end was a (Warner Brothers cartoon composer) Carl Stalling-esque metaphoric representation (using squawking bassoon noises) to musically represent the actual sound with a metaphoric musical gesture; at the other extreme was actual field recordings of the real birds. When the options were laid up against the puppets however, the first felt way too pantomime; whilst the second opened up a clear disjunct between the puppet and the real sound, heightening the artificiality of the animal on stage. So we found vocalisations from the puppeteers worked the best to bring the visual gestural world into alignment with the soundscape.

MTC-STORM-BOY-photo-Jeff-Busby_519.jpgEllen Bailey, John Batchelor, Tony Briggs, Conor Lowe, Emily Burton and Drew Wilson. Photo by Jeff Busby.

What kinds of sounds/instruments are you using in your composition and sound design?

My early explorations when I was first opening up conversations about the musical landscape of the world involved ambient electric guitar textures – so a reflective but a gently contemporary language.  But then I disappeared down a Nils Frahm-style felt-piano rabbit hole, which I am yet to emerge from – so for now it’s a mix of the two. In my mind it feels like the piano speaks to the characters/emotion of the play, whilst I think some of the guitar textures will bind with the video footage of the landscape. This is something that will become clearer as the rehearsals continue and as video footage is added into the mix. This tends to be part of the ongoing surprise of how sound works – where conceptual discussions at the outset of a production to delimit a particular sonic approach are often less useful than the intuitive exploration that follows in the development.

There’s also a need to cross-reference how music is working to service scenes at a local level, compared to understanding how the narrative arc is supported more globally (e.g. how seeding down a theme at one point might buy particular permissions for a reprise down the track; or how establishing a consistent language as the play is unfolding might encourage a violation of that convention for dramatic effect at a key point). I’m currently at the stage where scenes are working well, but we’re all keen to see full runs to get a better sense as to how (or if!) it all fits together.

What does the rehearsal process look like for a composer/sound designer?

The thing I find most fascinating about writing music to narrative is just how many possible approaches will work. It’s not that one choice of instrumentation or musical approach is right and another is wrong. Particular options will just work differently in how they effect the audience’s perception of the world. As a result, I usually start throwing some initial sketches into a sandpit that the creative team can begin discussing early. These aren’t written with any sense of where they’ll be placed but are used more as a conversation starter about what the world of the play might be. Thereafter such sketches become a quick way of exploring options – “Is this too hopeful here?; is this sad enough there?; are we hitting this too hard/not hard enough at this point?”  Such an open-ended approach also allows for others to make suggestions about where they feel tracks might sit against particular scenes (rather than my brain prescriptively locking in to templates it knows have worked before). Neurologist David Eagleman talks about creativity being about “bending, blending and breaking” of elements. The development of a play is all about the intermingling/mangling of ideas in order to create something surprising and new.

In the past (when I’ve read back over old emails) I have found that early conceptual conversations about sound haven’t ended up being particularly useful. Music works so intuitively, it’s more a matter of experiencing rather than pre-emptively thinking about it. This is why I start throwing offers into the mix well before the rehearsal period starts. I’m also a big fan of experimenting with juxtapositions. So rather than just pre-empting an approach with logic (and writing a track for a specific scene) I find value in also undertaking a “what would happen if we tried this” methodology.

Unlike film where there is a clear image I am working to and a locked-off performance with a specific energy level or emotional tenor, the dynamic nature of theatre (particularly as a show is being developed and different ideas tested) makes for a much more fluid process. And then when you see it all for the first time in the theatre (with set and lights) everything can shift again. So it really feels like many of the musical offers are placeholders in a process that will be tested when everything comes together in that final week.

Storm Boy plays at Southbank Theatre from 17 June. Book now.

Published on 12 June 2019

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