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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

Sound Design
by By Anders Wright

Theatrical sound design has bloomed in recent years and it now finds itself at an interesting intersection between technology and art.

 
     

Shahrokh Yadegari, Ph.D. ’04, spends a lot of time thinking about what you will hear. As head of the new sound design area at UC San Diego’s Department of Theatre and Dance, he’s pushing the boundaries of both art and technology. The field of theatrical sound design has bloomed in recent years, as audio software has finally made it possible for designers to work in the theatre instead of the studio, and it now finds itself at an interesting intersection between technology and art. It therefore makes sense that UCSD’s new program was created by the Department of Theatre and Dance in conjunction with UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

“ We needed to come up to speed, match our competition, and get involved with sound and video design, ” says Walt Jones, who chaired the Department of Theatre and Dance from 1996 to 2004, and who now heads up the theatre department at Colorado State University. “Sound design gives atmosphere and ambiance, and it takes a lead sometimes, in the same way scenery or costumes or lighting do. It was always the missing element for us.”

Lorene Chesley, M.F.A. ’09 (left), and undergraduate Matthew Black, ’09, in a scene from The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by Sarah Rasmussen, M.F.A. ’08. Chris Luessmann, M.F.A. ’09, collaborated with Rasmussen to create an elaborate speaker plot that engulfed the audience with musical and ambient sounds.

For many years, sound design was a job relegated to a technician, someone skilled in setting up audio systems and finding sounds to support a director’s vision. But that has all changed. “Sound designers are becoming part of the collaborative team,” says Yadegari, who launched the program two years ago. “It’s similar to how costume affects an actor because it envelops their body. Sounds affect the action, and can provide an emotional impact that drives the audience.”

As examples of the collaborative nature of the work, Yadegari refers to his students. Toby Algya, who will graduate with an M.F.A. from the program next March, won the Patte award for his sound design on Medea directed by Isis Misdary, M.F.A. ’09. “Toby collaborated very closely with the director from the beginning of the project, defining a musical structure by which they could deconstruct the lines of the chorus,” says Yadegari. “He was present at many of the rehearsals and worked closely with the actors to make sure they were trained and supported in this unusual approach. He also created a score for two musicians to support the emotional arc of the piece.”

TECHNO-FILE Qlab under mac platform, and SFX under PC platform are the basic programs used for playing cues in theatre. In addition, programs such as Pure Data (Pd) and Max/MSP, both developed by Miller Puckette (professor of music at UCSD), are employed for real-time processing of audio or automating interactions controlled by the actors or other programs. (For example connecting a sensor to an actor and using the data of the sensor as a specific parameter of a design). Editing programs such as Protools (by Digidesign), Nuendo (by Steinberg/Yamaha), or Logic (by Apple) are used as are other programs such as Live or Reason for music productions. Various types of microphones, mixers (analog and digital), outboard gears (reverbs, compressors, delays, etc.) and speakers are used to define system configurations of the sound design.

During the rehearsals of The Skin of Our Teeth, Chris Luessmann, who also graduates next March, collaborated with director Sara Rasmussen on an elaborate speaker plot to engulf the audience with musical and ambient sounds. “He planted microphones on stage for slight reinforcement and processing of the voices and then progressively added mostly reverberation effects to the voices,” says Yadegari. “Then when the play’s final moment of violence arrived, the effect was suddenly withdrawn. The audience, which had become accustomed to the sound, was shocked by its sudden absence. It was a sobering climax.”

•••••••••••••••••••••

Yadegari was a natural choice to develop and run UCSD’s new sound design program. He was already on tour with the groundbreaking director Peter Sellars when he earned his Ph.D. from the UCSD Department of Music in 2004. On the technical side, he has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Purdue and an M.A. in Media Arts and Technology from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He spent time working as a senior software architect for Sun Micro­systems and has had a longstanding relationship with Calit2 and the Center for Research in Comput­ing and the Arts (CRCA) at UCSD. He is also an accomplished composer and performer, who runs his own record label, Kereshmeh Records, dedicated to the advancemnt and preservation of traditional Persian music.

Acting student Jiehae Park, M.F.A. ’09, as Medea in a production of Medea, directed by Isis Misdary, M.F.A. ’09.

All of this has placed Yadegari front and center in the fairly new field of using interactive computing and software during live performances. His most recent work ranges from Laptop Connections, an intriguing performance at the Masary­kovo Train Station in Prague in June 2007 (during the Prague Quadrennial design forum) that linked in real time with trombonist Michael Dessen at UC Irvine; to his work with Steve Schick, a UCSD?music professor (see page 12, May issue) on Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonate, a piece of sound poetry performed this July at the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble festival. (This was described by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as “a tour de force”).

“ Shahrokh is trained as a composer and as a computer scientist,” says Sheldon Brown, an artist in his own right, and the director of CRCA. “He syn thesizes his view of sound from those two perspectives. When you’re able to bring those unique characteristics to the table, you’re able to transform the field, rather than just repeating its standards.”

As yet, there seems to b e no standardization as to how sound design should be taught. “Each one of the programs has a remarkably different point of view and perspective,” says David Budries, who has taught sound at the Yale School of Drama for more than two decades. “Each program has created a different opportunity set and different attractors for the student out there. There’s enough room right now for everybody to find their niche.”

While Yale concentrates on the technical aspects of design, and UCLA has a concentration on film scoring, Yadegari says that the sound design program at UCSD not only concentrates heavily on the artistic education of the students, it also aims to make them musically creative, and critically versatile and informed.

Dorian Christian Baucum, M.F.A. ’08, Johnny Wu, M.F.A. ’09, as the chorus behind Jiehae Park, M.F.A. ’09, in Medea. Sound designer Toby Algya, M.F.A. ’09, worked closely with director Misdary to define a musical structure for the lines of the chorus.

“ Art comes first,” he says. “The technical elements are there to support the student’s artistic ideas. The point is for them to learn how to express themselves. I feel the theatre department has this enormous potential to connect with audiences through work that has the traditional feeling of theatre, but also using technological advancement and something of a modern aesthetic.”

Yadegari practices what he teaches. He is skilled at working in concert with other artists and with groundbreaking technology, often performing live electronic sound wizardry, manipulating the voices of an artist during a live show. “Shahrokh has an incredibly subtle mind,” says Peter Sellars, who had Yadegari onboard for his production of Children of Herakles, in 2004. “His avant-garde approach to a world of new sound structures and new acoustical realities is informed by a sense of poetics in which light and sound function as spiritual quantities and qualities.”

Yadegari is currently working with internationally renowned cellist Maya Beiser providing the sound installation and design as well as performing in her piece Provenance—75 non-stop minutes of continuous live music with original text in Ladino, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. It will have its New York premier at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall October 30. Closer to home, he is also designing sound for Tobacco Road, which will start previews September 30 at La Jolla Playhouse.

•••••••••••••••••••••

“I wasn’t looking for a program that would teach engineering,” says Algya, one of the two members of the program’s inaugural class. “I was interested in embarking on things that are new, that maybe weren’t codified. A place where you have tools, and have to figure out how to combine them to make new things.”

In fact, however, the sound design program’s biggest challenge to date has been getting funding for the tools—the technology in question—that Yadegari feels he needs to truly flesh out his curriculum. “I can teach theory,” he says, “but our work here is production, so it has to be done well.”
Frank Teplin, Marshall ’99, an associate director of Development, confirms that his team is on task. “The sound design program is definitely a top priority for the arts and humanities division,” he says. “We’re actively pursuing strategies for corporate prospects and individual donors.”
Still, says Algya, the program is on its way and will only get better. “I know that what Shahrokh wants and what we’re doing aren’t in line yet,” he says. “But it’s closer than when we started. The reason I am here is that Shahrokh is my mentor, and I think he and the program have made me a better artist and a better collaborator.”

Anders Wright is a freelance journalist in San Diego.

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Professor Shahrokh Yadegari, Ph.D. ’04, teaches his students to understand how sounds affect the action, and provide an emotional impact that drives the audience. “Art comes first,” Yadegari says. “The technical elements are there to support the student’s ­artistic ideas."