Devoted & Disgruntled 7

This weekend was one of my favourite theatre events: the annual D&D gathering run by Improbable. Using Open Space technology to generate a conference/meeting place for anyone involved with theatre, anyone can start the debate they need to have in a fluid and informal way.

In between group discussions on Alan turing, folk music and being grumpy, I spoke to Martin McLean from Deafinitely Theatre about my fledgling opera project that aims to engage the hearing impaired with sound and music. He pointed me in the direction of performer Sophie Woolley, who has been working on new captioning technology. Using motion sensors and speech analysis, caption programmes can respond live to the delivery of lines and change size, font and colour as a broadening the communication of performance to deaf audiences. Could this be used as a way of expressing musical changes? Could this improve the ability to communicate opera to deaf audiences?

sophie woolley

We also discussed the political implications of casting a hearing person as Annie, who was deaf. This is a thorny issue for deaf theatre-goers, but how many deaf opera singers are there? I know of one; Janine Roebuck. Would it be possible to have an orchestra of mixed hearing abilities, and a deaf singer? I’m looking forward to finding out..

In other news, my experiments with looping sounds and using programmes like Garage Band have sparked an idea for a new kind of album. Listen to this space for more developments.

Acoustic adventures

This week I spent two days with Sound Designer Seb Frost as he supervised the fit-up for a musical. Planning and building the acoustics for a large auditorium is a delicate a and complicated business; a slight difference in the angle of how a speaker is hung can radically alter the sound-experience of the audience. As sound waves bounce around the wall and seats, weird things happen. Sound smears and distorts in the back seats, appears where you don’t expect it or gets lost altogether. Complicated looking computer programmes are used to work out exactly how high and at what angle each speaker needs to hang for the clearest sound across the whole area.

The human ear is a precise instrument. It picks up the direction from which a sound is coming by noticing millisecond differences in the acoustic field. This is ability is used to balance out sound in a performance by putting delays of fractions of seconds on the speakers. A person sitting at the top of the back row will still identify sound as coming from the stage even though they are really hearing through the speaker above their heads, because their ears will detect the source of the sound a split second before the speaker repeats it.

The sound designer’s job is intimately connected to audience experience, although invisible, It is akin to sculpture – manipulating and shifting the acoustic field to create a coherent shape, an audible body, an environment.