By definition, a production’s sound design is meant to be heard.
But I’ve been intrigued by three recent examples intended to make the audience question what exactly they’re hearing, IF ANYTHING, for thematic purposes.
We’ve already covered Who Killed My Father’s aural fuckery.
We’ve also already covered White on White, but without mentioning the persistent, discomfiting vibe created by the sound design. From the jump, we hear strange noises seemingly emanating from the other side of the theater’s walls, or even from inside the walls?! When a character finally asks if anyone else hears what sounds like faint breathing, I was put out of my “AM I GOING CRAZY?!” misery.
Somehow, the sound design indirectly conveys the suspicion that the show’s normal appearance masks…something, and that something echoes the horrors of our questionable cognition. As characters speak, the audience might be able to detect laborious (key!) exhalation between the words, coming from…where?! As soon as you’re sure it’s the sound design, all sounds dissipate.
Since White on White thrives on seeding the climactic chaos throughout (the chest is a Chekhov’s gun), like a ticking clock lumbering towards inevitable explosion (heartbeat-timed breathing can sound like a metronome), the sound design is essential in messing with the audience’s conception of the drip-drip-drip insanity before them.
And, in terms of intersecting with the play’s themes, the sense that the very structures we inhabit are haunted by our own fractured psyches of questionable veracity…well, the sound design hammers home this precarious lunacy. How much of our lives do we spend in visually-innocuous spaces, blissfully unaware of the hints of turpitude raging beneath the surface? Which is an arrangement with corporeal, sociopolitical, and existential dimensions.
And now, for something lighter:
The soundscape of off-Broadway’s Winnie-the-Pooh counters the auditory standards of most kiddie fare, which strive to immerse fickle attention spans with in-your-eardrum, over-the-top, nonstop cacophony. Winnie-the-Pooh’s sound design operates by an inverse logic, as if everything we hear peacefully wafts in at its own pace from a faraway land.
You know, like the quiet world of The Hundred Acre Wood.
Perhaps a product of the era standards from which it hails, the franchise has never cloyingly aimed to please. Rather, all things Winnie have stayed true to its own subdued spirit. Instead of incessantly reaching out to inundate the viewer with appeasement, Winnie lets the audience settle in to the appealing peculiarity of its own folksy rhythms and quaint sensibilities, in miniature.
All of which are adjectives that can be used to describe the New York production’s sound design. The entertainment doesn’t come to us; we must lean in, beyond the din of our everyday lives in The Big City, to access the wonders of this intimate, fragile realm.