What's That Rap-Tapping At My Door?

While in my first year at college I took a Hitchcock and Herrmann course, and developed a deep appreciation for The Birds. I decided to do my thesis that semester on the movie, partly because it had no score and I wanted to challenge myself in examining the relationship between the movie and the soundtrack. I had not yet trained in sound design or electro-acousmatic composition, but I think that through this movie I become aware of the power of sound, and perhaps that was what planted the seed. The lack of definite pitch in the film adds to the isolation, uncertainty, reality, and terror of the unfolding events; there are no chords to tell us how to feel, to imply what might come next; we are, in audio terms, left alone to decipher our thoughts and emotions. This experience served as central to a play I worked on just recently.

The Thrush and the Woodpecker opened last week at The Custom Made Theatre Company in San Francisco. It's a new play by Steve Yockey, with plenty of creative sound opportunities of the pitchless kind. The play starts out subtly; there are a few moments where sweet garden birds and thrushes serve as ambiance, woodpeckers attack the door (sounds that are mistaken for someone knocking) but for the first half of the production the audio is meant to be constructive, and help move the story along like many other plays. Then the mood shifts, and, without giving too much away, we are thrown into a Hitchcockian horror complete with cacophonies of swarming wings, chirping, and terrifying bird cries: veritable and atonal polyphony. A sound designer's dream!

Thrushes and woodpeckers have very different songs. The thrush meanders in almost decipherable melodies with a sweet voice that playfully soars and soothes. The woodpecker, well, squawks and drums and steals other birds' eggs. The personalities and traits of the birds are an important part of the undertone of the play, and so interweaving them as the action escalated was essential, and challenging, the thrush being more prominent in the beginning, the woodpecker later on.

I decided upon an entirely non-musical sound design. Preshow and transitions were non-tonal and the only music was to accompany two short animations in story-sequences that arguable lay outside the realms of reality. It was important for this project that the audience was not coached on what to feel. Tracy Ward, the director, wanted no foreshadowing of events before they unfolded, and music-based interludes within scenes may have given the viewers too much in the anticipation of plot points. The only foreshadowing aided by sound were shrill bird noises and a kettle screeching and boiling in the background at one point. The play worked well when sound was held back until it was essential, and then it broke loose with apt impact. At the end of the play birds become trapped inside the house, so speakers were placed on both sides of the stage and behind both set doors to give the idea of infiltration. At the culmination we hear a cacophony of trapped birds, flutters, woodpecker cries and drums, and earthquake, creaks, and cracking wood.

I collected and created a variety of audio for this production: specific bird calls as I mentioned, knocks, earthquakes, creaking wood, cracking, pigeons chattering, trapped birds fluttering...an overall unsettling library of sound. The large woodpecker cry was a pitch-shifted woodpecker pattern mixed with some crane for added punch, with a small amount of reversed reverb so that it sounded larger than life while still quite real. It's huge wings beat furiously back and forth (almost like a dragon), and when it lands its huge talons thud then scrape the roof to find footing. I tried to always use source material of these actual things when possible, and to edit for size and impact.

In order to create a world of audio that was cohesive to the dialogue, I mixed in sounds in the beginning that could have been mistaken for human sounds (like human door knocking edited to sound like it could be a bird, mixed with actual woodpecker drums that could be human), then gradually decreased these in favor of more alienating bird-like design. The other design elements regarded a similar approach, carrying us from a seemingly ordinary world into an extraordinary one.

At the end of The Birds, the house fills with trapped swarms of every kind of garden and local sea bird. Layers of birds on film were stacked to show a house filled with winged intruders and sounds of aviary mayhem were rife. In plays we cannot add layers of film, or let loose hundreds of animals inside. We can't bleed on contact with everything sharp, every time. But we can simulate the effects of these things with direction, acting, lights, sound, set, costumes and props...and a little imagination.

The Thrush and the Woodpecker runs until Aug. 27th, 2016. Tickets can be found at custommade.org

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