David Sonnenschein Special: Exploring Aesthetics, Pt. 1

David and I sat down for another interview, this time to talk about aesthetics and personal style. We tried to focus on a discussion of one’s personal stylistic approach in the contexts of self-development and collaboration. It was a long and interesting discussion, so I’m going to break this up into two posts. Here’s part 1 of the transcript…

Designing Sound: I wanted to take the opportunity to talk with you this month about aesthetics: developing a personal style, and meshing that style with other peoples’ in a collaborative project. I thought you could bring into scope some interesting perspective for our readers, since you have experience as a sound designer, a producer, a director and a writer.

David Sonnenschein: It’s really a very specific role that most sound designers take in a project, where they’re serving a bigger vision than their own personal aesthetic. How does that work so that you can collaborate well, so that you can get the jobs and so that you can have some room for creativity? I’d also like to touch a bit on the idea of “free reign” and where you might be able to find those open grounds for exploration.

DS: Well, why don’t we start out from the very personal orientation and work our way out. People who are getting started aren’t always sure what their personal style, or personal aesthetic, is. They see and hear other people’s work, and they get an idea of what kind of skill level they would like to have…but they don’t necessarily have an idea of what their personal influence on a work can be.

So, what are some ways for you to analyze your own work: to identify trends, and pick out what some of your common stylistic choices are?

David: I think what you get attracted to as an audience is an indication of where you are most likely going to lean in your own personal expression. If you really like watching horror films, you’ll probably really like making sounds for horror films. If you like Jazz or Classical music, you might like training to play those styles respectively. So, that’s a hint as to where you might start. The other aspect of this is the training we all have, to become technically skilled in our craft. As you’re doing that, there are ways to explore the different genres and styles.

In my classes, the students learn some very powerful tools of sound design working with plugins and layering, and learning concepts about listening modes and Sound Spheres. [ed. refer to these two articles for more about Sound Spheres.] But the time where they start expressing themselves is in the final project. I ask them to take a movie trailer, and strip all of the audio from it. I then ask them to change the genre of it by constructing a new soundtrack that fits with the images, but is absolutely a different story. This is one exercise that can help you identify what kind of films you might like to do. I’ve also had students from other classes where they had to do something similar. First, to strip the audio from the trailer, but then to rebuild the track as closely as possible to the original…but they had to record all of the sounds. So that’s another way to explore what you really like doing.

From a musical perspective I was trained and practiced classically, in the “proper” form. But what is it that I’m drawn to play when I’m just sitting by myself in the woods. When I just want to entertain myself, and I have no audience…what comes out of me? That’s an extremely different form of creativity than practicing to be in a symphony orchestra. So, I think that finding ways to break out of your structure as a sound designer…to be able to work on your own projects in free-form without a deadline, and see what happens…it’s a way to let loose and discover what might be your own style.

DS: Let’s say someone’s gotten a good grasp on what their own personal aesthetic is. Now that they’ve gotten that kind of analysis out of the way, what are some ways to sit down and analyze another’s work? How would you suggest people look at someone else’s work to analyze those approaches, to figure out personally how “I” fit into the schema…maybe of the same genre or field of work?

David: One thing as an audience, when I’m analyzing a piece of work…the first viewing is essential and unrepeatable. Once you’ve seen or heard something once, it will never be the same thereafter. So, there’s a certain mindset that I have when I’m going into it with the intention of learning or critiquing, or even for just entertainment, that I’m going to be ready to note my reactions as it’s going along. Sometimes, I literally will have a piece of paper in a dark room with a pen. I won’t even look at the paper, but I’ll make some quick notes that will remind me of my reactions to those things. There’s that initial impact that I think is important to get. You’re not going to get that with your own work obviously.

DS: You’re either too invested or too habituated to it.

David: Yeah, after over and over again, it’s really hard to tell. Is it funny? Is the timing too fast, too slow? You need another audience, a fresh ear,  to come in and listen with you. So, I recommend that people take advantage of the detachment that comes with others’ work, and to record it when it’s fresh. If you’re not writing concurrently, at least make notes right after you finish watching. If you can’t do that, sit with another person that you want to communicate about with it, and have a conversation right away. It’s kind of like remembering a dream. It may stick with you, but it often evaporates. Looking at it again, may remind you of that first experience, but it won’t be the same thing. That’s an important analytic tool to use.

DS: That’s an excellent idea. To kind of continue along this idea of analyzing aesthetics for personal development, from your personal experience, what helps you identify that something in the way you work may be getting a little stale? What helps you decide it’s time to alter your creative path?

David: If I’m watching my stuff and after the third or fourth time I watch it, I start to space out or lose attention…that means that I’m off target. At that time I like to walk away from it for a while; if I have the chance, at least for a few days. Maybe I’ll take even longer if I can, and then look at it again. Does it still feel stale, or was I just habituating? Is it really something that is no longer grabbing me? What does that mean, to be grabbed by something? I will look at some of the things I’ve done, and after years, they still intrigue me.

When it comes to sound, I like to have something that will attract me on a visceral level, that doesn’t have to do with my knowing what’s going to happen. It has to do with my neurobiology reacting to its impact, on a level of surprise, contrast or subtlety. Just having those changes makes my nervous system stretch to track them. No matter how many times I listen to it, it’s going to have the same effect. So, there’s some level that is independent of how many times I’ve seen it.

If I’ve done something that just only has that element though…with no story, emotional or character link…then it can become kind of manipulative, or worse…trite and boring. So, I’m always trying to combine these listening modes where I’m able to affect people on multiple levels; especially myself.

DS: So, let’s say you’ve identified a particular aspect of your work that needs a different perspective….we’ve talked about giving yourself room to explore, or working on a project without deadlines to develop new ideas, what are some other exercises you’d suggest for people?

David: Well, one exercise is almost the opposite, giving yourself a really intense deadline; kind of like you’ve done on the Sound Design Challenges you run. How fast can you do something? Don’t worry about the outcome, just make sure that you’re liking every single second of what you’re working on. You’re enjoying the process, enjoying the discovery of something you’ve never created before. See how far you can go in that limited amount of time. It’s almost like sketching in a live modeling class, where they give you a minute for each pose. If the model changes poses, you don’t have anything more to sketch. They’re in a new spot. That’s another way to loosen up your creativity and let go of the “critical” voice that’s going to keep editing things. Fix this, erase that, undo, different plug-in…

DS: Forcing yourself to make a decision and then sticking with it.

David: Yeah. There’s no more time available; work on top of that. So, that forces you to drop the critical voice, first of all, and work with what you have and build upon that. That’s really useful for when you’re under a deadline for real. It also draws upon a different part of your brain, that is going to be free of that judgement. At the same time, you may feel that pressure…and that pressure may push a different kind of button that you wouldn’t have ever thought of. An example would be if you’re working with a sound effects library to build a scene, and you need several sounds. You may not find that exact sound, but you may find something else in your search that’s really interesting. “Let’s just stick it in there and see what happens.”

It may or may not work for your original idea, but it gives you a new impetus. It’s like musical improvisation. You try something out and it works or it doesn’t. With sound design, you can play things back multiple times. In musical improvisation, unless you’re recording it, it’s gone. It’s there and it’s gone, but the activity of improvisation brings out a different part of your being. It’s live. It’s realtime, and it’s interactive. Some of those methods of approach can be applied to sound design.

DS: What about applying outside influences? Pulling in ideas and techniques that you’ve identified from other sound designers, or outside the sound field itself…finding ways to apply ideas from other fields; be they art or dance…

David: Sure. Within the sound field, one of the elements I’ve experimented with is vocoders. Vocoders were used heavily a few decades ago with rock groups, to have the guitar sound like it was singing. You have one wave that acts as the modulating wave, and the other being the carrier wave. That was something done for a very particular purpose that can be applied to lots of other possibilities. I’ve used it in a recent film, where I had the sound of a rock speaking. I took the sound of a landslide, a rumbling of rocks, and I used the voice as the modulator and the rocks as the carrier. So these rock “open and close” in a voice pattern, and that became one layer of the sound. That’s an example from inside of sound where I’ve done that.

DS: Now, I know you also play music and you’ve directed films before. Are there other forms of art that you are particularly drawn to, that you think have affected the development of your particular style of sound design?

David: Yes. I’ve seen people do things that are really wonderful painting, dance and music combinations. For example, an artist painted the bodies of dancers, and the dancers would move across the canvas. The artist would follow them to paint more “motion” on the canvas with the brush. It was a combination of paint, movement and dance…and it was wonderful. Another example that has to do with sound is in the National Australian Bank Training Center. They created an interactive staircase, where the people would walk up and down the staircase, which had a video sensor. When they would move on the stairs, each stair would create a different sound…really fun and interesting. The purpose of that was to stimulate people’s creativity in an open and public environment.

Another example was a film I created based on a sleep study lab; which is something I’ve done in the past professionally. The dialogue was speaking about the experiment. As the film went on, and got more and more surreal, the speech became something modulated by my clarinet. I was speaking into it; without the mouthpiece. I was using it as a resonating tube for my voice. Then I slowly transitioned to singing through the clarinet, moving my fingers across the keys. So, there was a modulation of the sound itself in the tube. By the end of the piece, it was a totally non-verbal musical piece that was very strange and nightmarish. That was a way of bringing in my classical music training, along with my vocal training, by writing a piece that was totally experimental.

The conversation continues…

Look for the rest of it later this week.

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