Sound designers often rant and rave about the noise caused by production elements and the audience's inability to cease being noisy. We then increase our complaint volume as we are misinterpreted, misquoted, and bashed about in the press (for good reason or no), praised and cursed simultaneously by producer, composer, music director, and star (to name but a few), then to add insult to injury, we are often wholeheartedly ignored by the same people.
I'm tired of this talk about sound this and sound that. I just want some peace and quiet. What I mean is, I think we have forgotten about the dramatic impact of silence.
How could we allow this to happen? We all know about the dangers of loud sounds, quoting OSHA and watching our SPL meters like traffic cops looking for an easy bust. But what is with the recent trend in musicals that sound like a CD set to 11 — everything simply loud and non-dynamic? I'm sick of hearing complaints about shows being too quiet. Still, few people in our industry (and I mean everyone, from house staff to actors to producers) have misconceptions about the danger of loud sound. More and more co-workers ask me if I might suggest a good audiologist for them. Not surprisingly, I have several names I can provide. The fact that people are asking for help means they are aware of the dangers. But if they are asking because they have noticed some kind of a change in their hearing, they are taking action too late. In the sound industry, the concept of going deaf is a fearsome consequence second only to the death of a loved one.
It is easy to expose yourself to dangerous levels in your everyday work. Construction and transportation noise is around every corner; and damage to the ear can be instantaneous. Being too close to an explosion or impact can cause an instantaneous rupture of the eardrum, while much damage occurs slowly with the listener unaware of abusing their ears to find significant damage at a later date. Sadly, most of our damage comes from working in loud environments — with a large band, listening to our car or personal stereos at extreme levels, or playing home surround systems overly tweaked for maximum effect. Yet the good news is many in our industry are grabbing ear protection and trying to ensure they have hearing left in their old age.
Working with other professionals on big-dollar events is a real pleasure. We are all out to do our job, turn out a great design product, keep our clients happy, have a good time, and make a couple of bucks in the process. But we also recognize our responsibility to preserve ourselves and our sanity with some insulation so that we can go home to our loved ones at the end of the show. So we make sure we are working intelligently and safely, and we choose our hearing protection wisely. Personally, I love the flexibility offered by my various types of hearing protection. I started out with generic Hearo plugs, moved up to Doc's vented & non-vented ProPlugs, and have been using Entymotic Research custom — 25dB molded earplugs for years.
I still utilize foam earplugs daily (my favorite for the subway, bike riding and sidewalk strolls) and gun muffs are always among my arsenal of secondary protective tools. I should own stock in earplugs, as I buy them by the gross and hand them out to kids and security guards at shows. This type of thinking can be positive but being too aware of your ears can have its drawbacks. Several audiologists and ear-nose-throat specialists have peered at my stapes, tympani, and anvil. Overly protective of my eardrums, I rush to the ENT at the slightest discomfort trying to discern the source of my ear-itations (pun intended).
So what's the big deal? Why all this talk of hearing protection? Because without hearing protection, one will most certainly experience tinnitus — a constant ringing in one's ears. Tinnitus prevents you from ever experiencing silence, and we then lose the ability to listen objectively.
Silence is one of those precious commodities that in the theatre is rarely used and is often misused or misinterpreted. As a production element, silence adds an element of danger. It heightens the awareness of the actor and audience alike; it binds us together in a dramatic moment in which someone's candy wrapper can be the downfall of the entire production. What is the definition of tragedy? When Lady Macbeth has to wait for the lady in row K to get the Halls lozenge into her mouth before she can complete her monologue.
Whereas sometimes silence is an appropriate tool, it can never be the only tool employed. The use of sound and underscoring in contrast to a selective moment of silence makes each choice the more effective and powerful on the audience. Our own aural memories can be quite powerful. For example, my memory of my first French kiss, with an older girl named Debbie, is recalled whenever I hear The Commodore's “Three Times a Lady.” In that evening decades ago, the song was performed by The Backstabbers — a wonderful southern cover band clothed in bell-bottomed burgundy tuxes and leisure suits that introduced me to the good, the bad, and the ugly: Rhythm and Blues, the courtship rituals of dancing, and Disco.
In the same way some memories have underscoring, I can also recall strong memories of silence in my life. Sometimes they are memories of eerie natural silences, such as desperately searching for my sister Lisa whom we had believed accidentally drowned in a mountain lake when she was actually counting underwater to see how long she could hold her breath. There are also instances of brain-induced slow motion and accompanying silence, such as the time my boyhood friend Brian Williams slipped and fell off the top step of the high-dive ladder as I jockeyed to foolishly attempt to catch him to prevent his landing on the concrete, which we both did miraculously only scraped and bruised but otherwise undamaged.
While the world did not go silent, my brain shut out all accompanying noises as it focused on the stressful event in action. This kind of focus that sucks us quickly away from reality into a moment of focused tunnel vision is the theatrical silence we should seek to employ. If we can get an audience involved in a play and to a point where they can identify with the characters, a moment of absolute silence has the potential to draw an audience in to the middle of the action and bridge the gap between stage and seating.
I also recall very horrible silences, such as regaining consciousness to emergency personnel cutting my car door open after a massive crash to a new world of unbelievable pain, and the incredibly long silence I experienced just before my daughter Hannah's first cry of life. These silences are more difficult for an audience to imagine without the close-up perspective of a camera in the first person point of view, but are certainly attainable in any medium.
There are silences to be experienced in wonderful and unusual places. The walk over the Bridge of Sighs in Venice; the shushed footsteps in a crypt, my first visit to the Musee' D'Art in Rouen, France that houses some of the finest Impressionist art ever seen in intimate sitting rooms and mounted very inconspicuously, unprotected and unguarded, just inches from your viewing seat. I can recall the isolation I felt when I heard the blood pounding in my own ears as I entered an anechoic chamber.
But how easy is it to pitch your desire for a moment of silence to the director? Silence is a hard choice to make for a designer, because silence is risky. What worked at a midnight tech rehearsal may not play elsewhere. You might end up with a Wednesday matinee of coughers, candy-unwrappers, and whisperers, or a Friday night preview with out-of-town salesmen with overly active cellphones and bimbos on their arms. Regardless, it is worth the risk to try and extend the boundaries of the aural experience.
I am at a point in my career where I have done loud shows, and I have done soft shows, and I am proud to say I have done them both well sometimes, if not always. I still fight with theatrical producers over volume, I still fight with patrons and band managers and record label execs over volume. I still fight with musicians over playing too loudly. Are we all going deaf? Do we all need a time out for some silence?
The trends of modern productions make me wonder about the term psychoacoustics. Does something sound louder to me because others are getting deaf and punching up volume levels? Is the world louder because noise pollution is so rampant and unchecked, or is it because I am acutely aware of all sound and auditory stimuli? Perhaps it is because I am now trained and vigilant to notice any tiny changes in my hearing or aural universe that I can perceive any subtle change in air pressure?
In an age where the bare stage is an intimate place for projections, light, and smoke to build a scene into extraordinary majesty, silence may be viewed as a wimpy, easy choice. Nothing could be further from the truth, as doing silence right requires great consideration and hard work. Silence has no guarantee. You might catch an ambulance on the way to a heart attack, or a drunk fighting a garbage can in the theatre alley. You might hear the patrons arguing with their babysitters or kids on their cellphones, or the man snoring away in the second row. However, you might be shocked to find the audience totally in tune with your protagonist, holding their breath for the next uttered word. The next time you are looking for an answer to a design query, ask yourself if silence might be just what the doctor ordered. If dispensed properly, it can cure what ails you. Or it can get you fired.
Shhhhhh. Be vewy vewy qwiet. Jim van Bergen can be weached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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