Believe it or not, this year's EDDY Award-winning sound designer and Oscar-winning rapper have a lot in common. Both Dan Moses Schreier and Eminem hail from Detroit. Both were deeply influenced by the music of their city, the former by Motown, Iggy Pop, and the Detroit Symphony, the latter by hip-hop. And both create their own music.
“It's interesting,” says Schreier. “Eminem's experience with being a white guy in a black culture is sort of my experience also. Motown was such a community thing; I went to school with all these kids who were related to Motown artists. At the same time, there was all this white punk trash of Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5, as well as the great Detroit Symphony Orchestra. That was the world I grew up in, and it was a very exciting musical place.”
It's also interesting that most people don't automatically associate sound designers with musicians and composers, yet some of the best in the field, especially those who work on straight plays, also serve as composers for the shows they design. Although much of his most recent high-profile work has been with musicals, from the recent revival of Into the Woods to the Public Theatre production of Radiant Baby, the designer considers himself as much a composer as a designer.
“It's just part of who I am,” he explains. “I view the job of the sound designer, certainly on a musical, as an extension of being a musician. As a matter of fact, I am a member of 802 because when I write music and go to a studio to conduct it, I have to be a member. A lot of classical avant-garde composers — people like Stockhausen or Philip Glass — have sound mixers listed as members of the band.”
Into the Woods director James Lapine has worked with Schreier on a number of projects, including The Diary of Anne Frank, Golden Child, and Dirty Blonde, and actually first came in contact with him as a composer years ago, on the project Hopi Prophecy at Playwrights Horizons. “I love working with Dan because he is a composer,” says the director. “He brings that set of skills and mindset to what he does.”
For Schreier, sound design was a natural outgrowth of his studies in electronic music at the University of Michigan and later at Columbia University in New York, where he first learned about amplifiers and the rest of the electronic world. His first job out of college was on Pirates of Penzance in Central Park, a gig he got because they needed someone who could read the score to help with mixing the orchestra. His first real sound design job also came at the Public in 1981, working on Richard Foreman's Penguin Touquet. “All of the sounds were Richard's work,” he notes. “I was just hired to build a system and make Richard's sonic ideas come true.”
From there, Schreier has built an impressive body of work, from his Drama Desk Award-winning design for Floyd Collins to the technically challenging Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk to the stunning but controversial production of The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. A chamber opera he composed, The Shoulder, has played around the country over the years. And in the past year or so his work has included Topdog/Underdog, Homebody/Kabul, and Dance of Death (which he designed with his wife, lighting designer Natasha Katz), plus the aforementioned Radiant Baby and Into the Woods.
Schreier points to his work on the Steven Sondheim revival as one of his recent personal highlights, as well he should — between the crispness of the vocals and orchestrations to the evocative effects of the chirping birds and imposing presence of the giant, it was one of the more challenging and impressive sound designs in recent memory. “That was one of those shows,” he says, “where every single aspect of it had great demands: the quality of the vocals; being entrusted with Stephen Sondheim's music and words and making sure every one of them was clear — and there were lots of them; working with the orchestra and being entrusted to make that as clear as possible; and then, on top of all that, to create the silent world of Into the Woods, plus the giant and the forest. It was a project where every single aspect required the most care and the highest quality of work. And it was just a great joy to work with all those people.”