chapter  29
5 Pages

Defining and reconstructing theatre sound

ByADRIAN CURTIN

Scenography is crucially informed by the sensorium, of which sound is a constituent part. Although “sound design” as a term and a profession is of relatively recent origin, sound itself has always been a part of theatre, of course, both as techne or craft (i.e. integrated into productions by way of stage effects, incidental music, vocalisation, and theatre architecture) and as event (e.g. sounds generated by audiences, and by the site of the performance, broadly construed). The term soundscape (another recent coinage) is used as in the latter instance to refer to an acoustic environment that is inclusive of all perceived sonic elements (note the yoking together of the visual and the aural that the etymology of the word implies).1 Although sound design and soundscape are sometimes used interchangeably or are compounded in theatrical discourse (e.g. “soundscape design”), the terms may be usefully distinguished. Sound design is the province of a sound designer (or whoever is responsible for the designed sonic elements of a production, which may or may not include music); it belongs to the order of the scenographical (that which is crafted, intended, “written”). A theatre soundscape, on the other hand, is the province of no one in particular, but is the product of multiple factors: it is the sound design plus (or “heard through”) the performance environment plus (or “heard through”) socio-cultural, historical and material conditions. It belongs to the order of theatrical reception, scenic reading and the event. A soundscape cannot be designed, strictly speaking, it can only be experienced. Although a sound design can certainly influence a given figuration of a soundscape, it cannot wholly account for it because a soundscape is a phenomenological reality as well as a social

construction; it is therefore open to multiple, potentially contradictory readings. As Emily Thompson notes:

Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world. The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves, the waves of acoustical energy permeating the atmosphere in which people live, but also the material objects that create, and sometimes destroy, these sounds. A soundscape’s cultural aspects include scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what. A soundscape, like a landscape, ultimately has more to do with civilization than with nature, and as such, it is constantly under construction and always undergoing change.2