Beginner

by Erik Ehn directed by Emily Mendelsohn
venue: E407 at the California Institute of the Arts opened: March 11, 2008

Sound and Music

I Believe Download Link

This sample shows the two part song "I Believe" and the multi-tap delay effects used at the top of the play to clear the room and provide a change in acoustic space.

Stealing Breath Download Link

The cat steals Graciela's breath.

Deeper Sleep Download Link

A song sung by the moth to Graciela's sleeping mother.

Hell Download Link

These delay effects came on when Graciela and the Cat entered hell. They seamlessly turn off when Mom speaks because she has not crossed over.

Where Are We Going? Download Link

Dad sleepwalks into the river and the fish take him down to the Gulf of Mexico. This is his song.

Knocking Download Link

Ms. Mendelsohn conceptualized Hell as a place where people searched for each other by knocking. This cue played during the Hell sequences at a low level to bring that presence into the boundaries of the theatrical space.

O Carida Download Link

This song of mourning ends the first act.

This Little Play Download Link

The opening of the second act of the play. The sonar snuck in under the music of the previous scene, and there are very subtle room effects for the dialogue.

Whale singing "When Soldiers Stop Fighting" Download Link

As the whale entered, the sonar ducked out and was replaced by very soft whale song. She was wearing a hidden lavalier mic that was reinforced in the space with considerable effects to create an otherworldly, underwater feeling.

Rose is on a Pirate Ship Download Link

This song is a reprise of "Where are we going?" in the third act. Very fun pirate song.

Hermes Trismagistus Download Link

The penultimate song of the show, it is a very moving and frenetic pleading by Emily to the god Hermes, who joins her at the end.

Download the Full Score (PDF - 532k)

Download the Draftings (PDF - 168k)

Download the Cue Sheet (PDF - 88k)

Introduction

Beginner was written by Eric Ehn and directed by Emily Mendelsohn at the California Institute of the Arts from March 12 through March 15, 2008. The melodies for the music were provided by Eric Ehn, and I transcribed, modified, and orchestrated them for this production, as well as designing the sound.

Plot Summary

Beginner is a play of losing and searching for love. It begins with a prologue titled “Beginner” and has three acts titled “Mine,” “This Little Play,” and “Alphabets of the Sea.”

Beginner

Two girls stay up late and tie messages to their carrier pigeons. Then the birds return, the girls can’t read the scrolls—they are bird scratch. The girls speculate that “these are notes on how to get to hell and back. Three times. These are the ways people visit hell and fall in love. Because the world has turned out this way.”

Mine

Mine is the story of a nun (Sister Chantal) praying to God (who is drunk) to understand what she sees in her dreams. She sees a family crossing into Texas from Mexico: Mom, Dad, and Graciela. Graciela finds a Cat, who she convinces to take her back to her Grandfather, who is sick in Mexico. He dies before she crosses the border, and the cat takes her to him in Hell instead. Mom crosses back to Mexico to find her, but she eats food in Hell and dies. Dad sleepwalks into the river and dies. Sister Chantal dies in a fire set by the Cat. Mom eats the candy of grieving: broken shards of a coke bottle glass.

This Little Play

A Vietnam vet falls asleep in his submarine instead of watching the sonar and his entire crew dies as a result. He survives and washes on shore, and sleeps with a prostitute whom he impregnates. She has a daughter. He kills the prostitute and she curses him, saying that his daughter will kill him. Years pass and he forgets the whole thing, until he almost has a car accident with a tractor trailer. It all comes back to him, but he hides in the belly of a whale. The whale spits him out and he has tuberculosis, which he gives to his daughter. He kills her before she can kill him, and he awakes from his dream on a rock in Texas.

Alphabets of the Sea

A narrator (who died in a fire) lights candles. Meanwhile, a woman learns Hebrew. Meanwhile, Emily, Rose, and Monica become pregnant, marry each other’s sons, and Rose and Monica are killed by their husbands. Emily goes crazy because of her loneliness and mourns her death. She prays to Hermes and he gives her the power to bring them back to life.

Design Concept – Presented November 13, 2007

The overall concept for the sound design is that actions of the actors can alter the sonic space for the play. All sources of sound the actors interact with must be able to exist in harmony with the world of the play. The sound is meant to punctuate action; therefore all of the play’s sounds are initially created live in the space and then reinforced, effected, or perpetuated by the sound system and design. Much care is taken to ensure that the sounds are associated with stage actions before they grow out into the space. The sound design is meant to illustrate how the actions of the characters change the space they live in.

Music and Instrumentation

Most of the melodies will remain unchanged from the workshop. A few of the songs will need to be rewritten, extended, or otherwise reworked to better serve the staging and sound design. All songs will be orchestrated for the new instrumentation. Instrumentation will consist of a piano, an acoustic guitar, and found percussion.

The piano will be a detuned upright. The tuning shouldn’t be honky-tonk, but it should sound like a piano that’s been discarded or hasn’t been tuned in years. There will be some moments when the pianist directly manipulates the strings of the instrument and some moments for prepared piano. I would like to explore the idea of having a piano string break or cut for each performance. I would restore the string myself before each performance.

The guitar is acoustic, using standard tuning. There are moments when the guitar will be bowed instead of plucked.

All the percussion is found percussion. The script requires a popgun and slide whistle. Other items include steel wash-pans, buckets of beans or sand, miscellaneous pots and pans, pitched pieces of wood, and other similar items.

An ocarina will make an appearance during the song at the end of Mine (Graciela Ocarina). It may return in the other plays.

The goal for instrumentation is to have instruments that could be found or afforded by the characters in the play. Anything digital or of too high a quality would be out of place in the world of the stage. However, I proceed with the caution that while I can determine what is to be used as a piano and percussion, I cannot determine the model or quality of the guitar. That depends solely on the performer.

System Design

To accomplish the goals of the sound design, the system will consist of a full set of surround speakers on the sides and rear of the audience, and an enveloping surround on the stage. Ideally speakers will be hidden on set pieces to ensure that the sound does not live above the action on stage, but is actually a part of it. Using only an overhead system will make the sound too separate from the action on stage for the association between sound and their originating actions to be solidified. I would prefer to hide speakers in set pieces if they are on stage rather than have them visible. Any speakers on the grid or on the walls do not need to be hidden. An estimated 16 to 20 channels will be needed.

Microphones are needed for the band (two for piano, two for percussion, and one for the guitar), one each for hollow surface knocked on by grandad, two overhead to capture general stage ambience, and one wireless microphone for Bianca when she sings the whale’s song.

I will need four channels of effects processing and will need delay lines for each set of speakers.

Designs for Specific Moments

The system and sound design has been developed out of the concepts for realizing specific moments of the script.

Beginner
  1. Actors will perform bird calls, that will have minor reinforcement by the sound system
  2. Singing will be unaccompanied initially
  3. Guitar will underscore the last few lines, a single string will be strummed and reinforced by the system as we transition into “Mine”
Mine
  1. The fire at the end of mine will be initiated by actors spreading red stones on the floor or set pieces. The sound of these stones being spilled into the space will be amplified, extended, and then supplanted with the sound of fire.
  2. The wind in the corn will be created by the guard searching with his flashlight
  3. Grandad’s knocking will be reinforced. Knocking can be echoed around, or knocking can originate in places where he is not to support the disconnect and the size of the underworld.
  4. The fire changes to ocean waves as the boy goes fishing at the end of the play. The boy’s fishing pole will create the wave sounds at first and calm the fire.
  5. The cat will play an instrument, possibly a viola in only open positions, possibly only miming the playing while the band plays in her stead.
  6. The phone booth will have a functional microphone in the phone and have a speaker to originate the phone sounds and the photo booth sounds.
This Little Play
  1. Sonar begins and ends with finger cymbals manipulated by the servant
  2. Guitar will be retuned on stage and reinforced
  3. Piano strings will be strummed and manipulated directly to create the creaking of the submarine.
  4. Piano string will be cut around page 54 and then silence. Other loud percussive hit can be substituted; the important part is that a loud reverberant sound ends this section of the play.
  5. The whale’s song will be effected and pushed into the surrounds so the audience feels that they are inside the whale.
  6. This play ends with silence.
Alphabets of the Sea
  1. Opens with a breath in and then the whispering of the alphabet.
  2. The whispering of the alphabet is reinforced and continuous. When Julia stops whispering, the whispers will continue in sequence where she left off. Similarly, when she begins whispering again, she will pick up where the recorded whispering left off. The result should be a seamless, meditative drone throughout the act.
  3. Slide whistle and pop gun on birthing of the babies.
  4. Whispering gets out of control around pages 82-3. Multiple strains and tracks of whispering run concurrently are digitally distorted and mixed with electronic sounds and static. This cuts out when Emily’s clothes burn up. A beat of silence, and then Julia resumes the whispering drone.
Remaining Concerns

The sound design is holding for the other design elements to be solidified at this point. Consistent concerns have been where speakers can be hidden on the stage, whether or not booms will be in the space (I would prefer there to be booms so speakers can be hung on them), what stationary set pieces exist and what mobile set pieces exist. Black curtains will be hung on the rear wall to absorb some sound and help eliminate the excess reverberations in the space.

Rehearsal Process

Concept Changes

I made several large changes to the design concept during the rehearsal process. Though live microphones remained important to the design as a whole, I found that it was incredibly difficult to create the intended effects of picking up and then manipulating live sounds in the room while making the tech remain transparent (i.e. there was nowhere to hide the microphones). Eventually these ideas were abandoned in favor of the actors creating the necessary sounds in the room with dried beans, rain sticks attached to chairs, and their voices. The remaining microphones were only used to provide effects to change the ambience of the room as the play changed to different settings (i.e. Hell and the inside of a whale).

Challenges in Rehearsal

The main challenge I faced during rehearsal was time management. I held three roles in the production: sound designer, composer, and music director. I regret functioning as music director, and I think the piece as a whole would have been more successful had I not held that position. I found it difficult to find time to compose the music, teach the actors, organize the pit orchestra, and also create a working system and sound design. Of my duties, the music suffered the most.

Musical Difficulties

I rewrote fewer of the songs than I intended because I did not have time to teach and run new music with the cast. I also had very limited time to rehearse with the band. Because of that, we had to fire our pianist very late into the rehearsal period. While we did find a new pianist during tech, the cohesiveness of the music suffered because of that late substitution.

In addition to these problems, I found that without an assistant musical director or even a rehearsal pianist, the cast continued to revert to the music they learned previously instead of the new scores. While this tendency was limited to non-principals, many of the themes I tried to establish by rewriting portions of the score were subsequently lost.

Conceptual and Design Difficulties

Another major hurdle was Emily’s insistence on restaging the show completely multiple times throughout the process. Though I support her decision to make large changes to the direction of the play, it was disorienting, as I had to adjust my concepts and intended design very late in the rehearsal process. Consequently, as tech started I was behind in my creation of media and effects presets. While this didn’t affect the success of my design, I think given more time I could have fleshed out some of the soundscapes with more attention to detail, and could have salvaged more of my cues that were cut through the rehearsal process.

Analysis

Sound Design Analysis

My design can be separated into two areas: room effects and literal cues.

Literal Cues

The literal cues were all directly indicated by the script, and included cues such as phone rings with corresponding EQ put on a microphone in the phone booth to abstract ideas like air rushing through a small hole to equalize pressure and the cat taking the breath of Graciela. As a whole these were effective and added to the play. The phone rings were effective because if a phone conversation persisted, they were accompanied by EQ adjustments on a handheld microphone that the actor used to speak into, making it sound like we were tapping the phone line. Similarly, the cat stealing the breath of Graciela was effective because the cue began with the actor sucking her breath and then whistling it out on stage. The whistle was then joined by the sound of rushing wind that started low and then grew to fill the space. (Incidentally, the cues that were cut in other parts of the play would have functioned similarly to this, with a real action or sound serving as the seed for a larger effect.) Even the “car pulling up” sound effect worked well because it was met with two actors “driving up” holding two lit flashlights in a blackout.

The literal cue that stood out as not working was sound of rushing wind. This effect coincided with an actor removing a plate off the wall, revealing the face of another character. The sound was indicated specifically by the script, and was supposed to represent the breaking of the seal (as in a vacuum seal) between Hell and the world of the living. Emily insisted that the levels of this cue needed to be extremely loud, almost to the point of being painful. This extreme sound did not match the subtle stage action (and there was no lighting shift to support this moment) so I feel the cue ended up making no sense.

Room Effects

The room effects were incredibly successful. All of these were achieved by hanging four microphones from the grid and feeding their signals through the effects busses of the Yamaha 02R and then allowing a delayed feedback loop to occur when the effected signal was reproduced in the room. Different effects were used for the prologue, Hell, the opening of “This Little Play,” the inside of the whale, and the end of the play.

The prologue used a multi-tap delay and reverb so that the metallic closing of the latch, the first song, and the bird whistling would signal a change in the space and the beginning of the play. This effect was taking out immediately after the bird first whistled so that the first lines of dialogue did not occupy this acoustic space.

Hell had several multi-tap delays running to give the space dimension. The microphones were only on when the characters who were “in hell” were speaking so that a separation in acoustic space was achieved from the characters who were not in hell. This was an extremely effective technique: as it was executed, the delay trail from the dialogue of the character in Hell was still echoing while the other characters spoke with no effects whatsoever. This effect was used multiple times in the show, and after it was initially established it returned with lower levels so as not to distract from the dialogue on stage.

The second time the Hell effect was turned on, the first sounds that it picked up was Grandpa hitting his cane hard on a wooden table. This echoed throughout the space and was answered by a “knocking cue.” This cue played unique knocking patterns at low levels and at various times through all the discrete speaker channels available in the space. The goal of this cue was to present Hell as a place where people search for each other by knocking, but can never find one another.

A steady, reverberating sonar pulse opened “This Little Play” to introduce a dreamy ostinato that continud throughout most of the act. The opening speech of the act was processed with a flange reverb that made the space sound strange but slightly metallic. This was meant to provide a dreamy acoustic space that could disappear when the attendant wakes the sailor up at the top of the act.

The whale effect was my favorite part of the play and the most successful cue overall. In addition to the four overhead microphones feeding into a mildly detuned reverb, the actor playing the whale wore a wireless microphone sewn into her black chador. The actor changed into this costume on stage under cover of darkness, and the audience had no way of knowing she wore a microphone until they heard it. The whale’s song was reinforced and sent through the effects processor, filling the space with her song (remember, the sailor has been swallowed by the whale at this point, so the audience is swallowed by the whale’s song). The levels of the sonar are dropped considerably through the sequence, and real whale song plays through the song the actor sings. As suddenly as this effect begins, it disappears when the whale is done singing and spits out the sailor. The sound quality of this cue was quite fantastic, and it completely filled the space with the effected song, reinforcing the sailor’s surreal dream.

The end of the play is very subtle, but as the actors whisper the Jewish alphabet and breathe loudly, the same effect that is present at the top of the show is reintroduced. The effect is barely noticeable, and as a result, the room just feels “energized” without much of an effect playing through the system.

Functional Analysis

Overall, I think the design for Beginner was very successful. The show departed so far from what I expected it to be by the time we entered performance that I barely recognized my original design in the cues that remained. While my design still served to support the supernatural and strange parts of the show, the capturing and reinforcement of stage effects was cut, as were almost all ambiences under scenes. This was for the best, I think, since for many of these scenes, the river sounds or the fire sounds that would have been necessary to complete the intended effect of the sound cues would have had to play for very long periods of time, and would have distracted from the action on stage. My final cue sheet for Beginner was a quarter of what I anticipated (if not smaller).

If given the opportunity to remount this production, I would introduce more area effects and more cues that follow the actor’s actions. I feel that there was a wealth of opportunities to allow the actors to create the seeds of a larger soundscape through their gestures and actions that weren’t explored in our production. I think there is a danger of using this class of effect too often, but I don’t think there is any danger of reaching that threshold.

Music Analysis

Download the score (PDF - 532k)

Due to the previously mentioned time constraints, the sung music was very simple for this show. Most of the music was tonal, while a few songs departed from the traditional chord space (the most notable of these being the whale’s song). When possible I applied non-traditional and jazz chords to the accompaniments (see “Hermes Trismagistus” for an example).

Orchestration was locked into piano, guitar, and mixed percussion. I originally intended to use an acoustic guitar and more prepared piano, but these ideas changed with the skills of the musicians.

At many points of the play, improvisation was used to underscore moments. This technique was employed most often during “Alphabets of the Sea.” I provided loose instructions for each of these improvisational points, but the main feature was that the musicians reacted directly to the action on stage.

Theoretical Analysis

The composed music evolved throughout the play from points of clusters, dissonant harmonies, and tension to tonic and traditional folk songs. Certain materials reappear throughout acts and scenes. The “Do I Die Now” theme sung by Graciela in the first act is used throughout that act and then abandoned. However, “I Believe You Will Be Coming Back Soon” is sung in the Prologue, and then reprises verbatim in “Alphabets of the Sea.” The other significant repetition is the pirate song. It appears as a slower, darker dirge in “Mine” as Dad is drowning in the river (“Where are we Going”). In “Alphabets of the Sea” it is a manic song after Emily says she knows where Rose is (“Rose is on a Pirate Ship”). In its reprise, the dirge is sped up, and fleshed out with a chorus of “Yo-Hos” from the rest of the cast.

Each act contains a song of mourning/damning that occurs around the act’s emotional climax and a song of resolution that resolves the act. The song of mourning/damning always reflects the emotional timbre of the act, while the resolution songs are all similar.

The mourning/damning song of “Mine” is “Graciela Ocarina.” It is sad and mournful, and sung a capella (i.e. completely alone, like the character who is singing it). It is a simple song, and has the qualities of a child’s lullaby. “This Little Play” has the whale song (“When Soldiers Stop Fighting”) at its climax. This is a dreamy song that tips into nightmare and back again, reflecting the state of the sailor’s dreams at this point in the act. It ends on a dissonant Fdim7/B-flat, having departed from its tonic B-flat major. Finally, “Alphabets of the Sea” climaxes at “Hermes Trismagistus.” The song starts in B-flat minor and makes heavy use of the plagal cadence. The IV chord of this cadence is unstable, slipping from its initial statement as a borrowed E-flat major before slipping back to minor and resolving to the minor root. Once the pace of the song slows down, Hermes sings a falsetto descant above Emily’s melody and the song quietly slips into D-flat major where it stays for the duration.

The resolution songs are all major and fairly traditional folk songs stylistically. A portion of each is sung a capella, and each song features more than one character. These songs do not resolve plot points from the act, they just provide the final point of each act’s emotional arc.

Functional Analysis

The critical response to the music was mixed to poor. Most of the criticism dealt with the contrast the music had to the text and direction of the play. While the play is haphazard, random and often hard to understand, the sung music is tonal and fairly straightforward. Critics thought the improvised musical underscoring matched the style of the play as a whole and proposed that even the sung music should be fully improvised.

While I definitely agree that the improvisatory portions of the music meshed best with the style of the show, I don’t think the calmer, clearer sung music proposed as big a problem as critics indicated. Each song is an island in the show, representing a moment of clarity—usually an incredibly brief one—for the character before the play continues moving forward in its unpredictable path. To allow the entirety of the sung music to be improvised would remove those anchoring points.

Given time to step away and reflect on the music, I would rescore most of the songs, ignoring the provided melodies and breaking off into my own territory. I think some of the songs would stay tonal, namely the songs of resolution at the end of each act. It would be my goal to find the middle ground between completely tonal and free improvisation.

Conclusion

Throughout this process, I learned a lot about using live effects in performance, and gained insight on how to work with a difficult director who isn’t sure about her creative choices. I also learned how much responsibility is too much and now know that I need to step back from taking on music direction roles when also designing or composing. I understand much more about my process as a composer, and know that I do not want to be in a situation where I am limited by preexisting melodies or songs. I also know now that I should prepare more sound in advance so that when tech hits I’m not scrambling to develop placeholders at the last minute.

Overall, I would call my sound design and composition for Beginner successful. The life effects and music made the show what it was. Though I agree with some of the criticisms of my music, I think it was mostly successful, especially given the circumstances and the constraints for this particular production. While I wanted to use more sound effects and soundscapes in my design, their limited use ensured that the audience would not tire of the sound.