Full of Sound & Fury - A Look at the Sound Design & Original Music by Lindsay Jones for Macbeth

by Michael Eddy
in Design

'Did I tell you that I need you to create a score that kind of sounds like Game of Thrones in addition to the music for Macbeth?’ “Uh, no. I don’t think you did.” This was a call between director Robert O’Hara and original music composer/sound designer Lindsay Jones. This was three days before rehearsals were to begin for Macbeth at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) “So, in addition to mixing in trap music, lots of sound effects, and other really exciting stuff, I quickly started writing a score that sounded like Game of Thrones,” laughs Jones. Fortunately, Jones and O’Hara have worked together on a number of productions and the process for Macbeth would result in a composition and sound design that one critic described as, “mind-blowing.”

“Robert and I go way back. We’ve done about a dozen shows at this point,” says Jones. “I love working with Robert because I think he is one of the most innovative and exciting directors currently working in American theater. He really has a completely different voice than anybody else I know working out there. He is doing things in theater that I haven’t seen anybody else do. It’s pretty awesome to work with him. All of his ideas generate from his personality and who he is and his life experience. What usually happens is he will have this wide-sweeping idea and then really entrust me to do a lot of the finer points of sketching of what is that idea, within this big concept.”

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Pit of Acheron is a swamp near Macbeth’s castle where the witches bring Macbeth. In O’Hara’s production, this pit becomes the setting of his entire play. Also, O’Hara had a very distinct vision for his first Shakespeare directing project; an all-male cast.  “The reason why it was all-male is because he wanted all of the people in the story to be warlocks,” explains Jones. “Robert’s conceit was that the witches that normally start off Macbeth are actually part of a group of warlocks that are really putting on the show for their own entertainment; almost a play within a play. The warlocks are entertaining one another by performing the story of Macbeth as a kind of passion play; a ritual that’s gone on for centuries.”

As part of this ritual, the warlocks have this affinity for trap music. “Trap music is like hip hop, dub step, house, and electronica combined together in a lot of ways,” explains Jones. “The play is really sketched out in a way that the various mileposts of the plot—the killing of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, or Banquo’s return as a ghost—are marked by these dance and movement sequences set to trap music.”

This Macbeth is set in DCPA’s newly re-opened Space Theatre. The theatre is in the round and scenic designer Jason Sherwood’s set uses a series of automated turntables and lifts to quickly change the playing space. Alex Jainchill's lighting, music, and sound also aid in the various transitions of the show and help support time, character, and movement. 

“The trap music tells these different stories,” Jones says. “Each piece is different based upon what character is in the story. That part really helps define a lot of character within those sequences. Conceptually the way Robert thought about it was that the trap music, these movements, are really parts of how the warlocks tell the story. But within the actual story of Macbeth, there still is a lot of scoring that has to take place to tell that story.

And this is where, three days before rehearsals began, that O’Hara reminded Jones that he wanted a ‘Game of Thrones’-style score. Jones got to work adding in this new layer to his sonic design. “I think it’s a testament to the fact that Robert and I have a long-term relationship where he knows that he can be fully creative, in the moment, and just turn to me and say, ‘I’d like this’ and has enough trust in me that I’ll be able to produce it,” says Jones. “Sometimes in our collaborations he will ask for things that are extraordinarily difficult to produce. He won’t necessarily have the knowledge of how difficult it is, but he’d just like to have it now, and I have to just do it. I’m grateful for his trust in me, but at the same time I’m always a little bit terrified of what he might pull out of his hat at any moment!” 

Jones explains his score for this testosterone-fueled Macbeth. “The larger orchestral stuff that I created was large drums, deep horns, cellos for melody lines, stuff that feels very rhythmic and very masculine. I created this additional orchestral score that goes around it, which is meant to imply strength and, to a certain degree, military power. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.” Jones saw the trap music and the score as two things that worked in parallel to support the production. Director O’Hara asked that they should feel like two totally different things. 

“I think if I were talking to a fellow designer, I think the first thing I need to do is acknowledge Craig Breitenbach, the Sound Supervisor for Denver Center,” comments Jones. “He and his team; they really did an incredible job to get the sound system sounding great under some pretty time-intensive conditions. Denver Center was to take possession in mid-May. Instead, they took possession in mid-August; very close to when we went into tech. So, I want to just acknowledge them because I could not have done any of this without their hard work.”

The other thing that Jones would highlight to another designer and would want them to experience in the show is the low end. “I think one of the big things about trap music, hip hop music—most modern forms of electronic music these days—the low end, the bass, is really the primary vehicle of conveying the musicality in a lot of ways. If you look at modern music trends, we’re relying on lower sub frequencies as a musical device more and more. It becomes a really important part of it. One of the things that we worked on in putting the design together was positioning of subs and working diligently with how we used subwoofers to get the maximum amount of punch and rumble so that the audience sitting in there could really feel the music hitting them. I think we did a really good job of that. It especially serves the trap music very well.” 

Jones was equally as dependent upon the low end for his orchestral score because in it he used large taiko drums, cellos, deep tubas, and French horns, instruments that have a lot of heft to them. “The low end is really helpful to convey a certain primal quality that really is supposed to hit you in a deep place. That’s definitely the thing that, as a designer, I’m most proud of.”

“I would like to acknowledge that I had this really terrific associate sound designer on this show, Jeffrey Levin. He’d assisted me on a Chicago production of Bootycandy, which I also did with Robert. He seemed like the perfect person to bring to Denver for this. I was with the show only for a short period of time because I had to go to New York for another show. Jeffrey was able to get the horse into the barn, which I’m super grateful.” 

 Not a lot of sound designers wear two hats—designing sound and composing original music for a production. Jones shares his views on the subject. “I personally really enjoy doing both. I understand there are some people who just like to do sound design, and there are some people who just like to do composition. But from my perspective, I find it hard to think about doing just one or the other because I feel like music and the sound are so tightly integrated with each other that having it come from the same creative source really seems to make the most sense to me. I’m not a traditional musician in any sense. I’m completely self-taught, musically. I look at sound and music and textual ideas. In other words, I feel as though I can take any kind of every day sound and really listening to what the quality of that sound is, there’s a way to create music out of it. I really think of sound effects in a musical way. Then when you’re attempting to integrate sound and music together, the sound effects frequently become part of the score in its own format. That’s how I usually think about it. But it’s a great challenge to do both. Especially on a show like Macbeth where there’s a tremendous amount to do. I still find it’s exhilarating and slightly intimidating, but really, really exciting and fun.”

Jones really enjoys experimenting with new ideas; it’s the core of where his sonic creations come from. “I really like pushing things beyond the boundaries of what’s possible. I really just go into every project committing myself to the idea of really exceeding everyone’s expectations of what can be accomplished; maybe in some ways exceeding my own expectations. I wish I could say there was some other brilliant secret of how I do it, but really, it’s just I work really hard at it.” It’s quite apparent that reviewers and audiences are coming out of Robert O’Hara’s vision of Macbeth with a new appreciation of the production as well as how and where music and sound can take you.