Sound from All Angles

by Natalie Robin
Sound and Music for the Theatre: The Art & Technique of Design by Deena Kaye and James Lebrecht
Sound and Music for the Theatre: The Art & Technique of Design by Deena Kaye and James Lebrecht

Beginning with an insightful foreword about the presence and place of sound in our consciousness by Peter Sellars, Sound and Music for the Theatre sets out to dissect and explain both the art and craft of sound design and composition for the theatre. The new fourth edition includes the prefaces from each previous edition as a kind of reminder of how far the field has come in thirty-odd years.

Kaye and Lebrecht do not start their book as a compendium of technical terms and expensive equipment. Instead, their fundamentals begin with the imperative to allow one’s self to “aurally daydream” and begin designing from an imaginative place. The text is in some ways applicable to any aspect of theatre making. Replace the words “sound” or “music” with light or scenery or staging and much of the work applies.

Interjected throughout are anecdotes from both writers about specific moments in their design careers, as well as historical facts and concise technical pointers or explications:

“Since the 1990s Russia has had a VLF (very low frequency) modulator under development, operating at frequencies below 20 Hz. At low power, this directable acoustic weapon could induce nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pains. At high power, it could cause a person’s bones to resonate, which is apparently quite painful, and incapacitating. While this might be a bit of overkill for a theatrical event, it does underline the human body’s sensitivity to the visceral effects of sound”

The second half of the book is made up of a series of “Feedback” chapters, each of which asks theatre professionals to discuss their relationship to sound or a specific aspect thereof. Directors and playwrights discuss how sound impacts their work. Other sound designers and composers discuss their processes. Sound designers specifically working on large-scale events like musicals discuss sound reinforcement design (as separate from design and composition of cues). And finally, sound operators and mixers and stage managers “sound off” on their relationships to sound design as the execute the visions of the designers.

As someone with only a minimum of experience with sound design aside from through collaboration, I found the book both thorough and readable. I am always a fan of the focus on art over technology as a starting place, but I do not feel that Kaye and Lebrecht let the craft and technology emphasis suffer. The text strikes a satisfying balance between the two. I am sure that Sound and Music for the Theatre would be an excellent textbook for a college level class in sound design. It is also a class in itself, thorough, readable, combining equal parts art and craft, into a single text. The “Feedback Forums” allow the book to encompass a diverse number of voices, points of view, processes and approaches to sound design—serving as a kind of guest-lecture series for the class already contained within the covers of the book.