David Sonnenschein Special: Exploring Aesthetics, Pt. 2
This is part 2 of the conversation David and I had about aesthetics. Part 1 can be found here.
Designing Sound: So, we’ve been talking about ways to identify and develop your own personal aesthetic. I’m just wondering, do you feel it’s important to track changes in your personal style over the years? Is it beneficial to consider how your aesthetic has changed over the course of your career?
David: It’s been an interesting observation. I’ve made intentional changes from being a classical musician, to one that can improvise. That’s one of the major changes, stylistically, for me. But more than just style, it’s been a way of training my ear/finger coordination as a musician, not just eye/finger coordination. While being a very strong sight-reader and classical musician, that shift opened me up stylistically to many things that would have been “wrong” as a classical musician. It allowed things to come in as not “wrong or right,” but interesting…and an exploration of different ways to make sounds with the same kind of instrument. That was one tracking that I did.
The other went beyond even the Western ear, and was listening to other cultures. Listening to the speech of other cultures, their musical scales…getting used to the micro-tonal scales of India and Bali…the use of “beat frequencies” in Balinese music that helps induce the trance in their dance and masked dramas. Those things influenced me and influenced my styles. I’m noticing that I may come full circle and come back to explorations and styles, and they now have a richer contribution to what I can do.
DS: So you’re saying that you’ve been able to keep track of some of your stylistic changes over the years, but then go back to earlier states. It sounds like you’re taking ideas from those “early” aesthetics, and applying knowledge that you’ve gained since then to those ideas…getting something new from them. Am I correct?
David: That’s right, and not only with my own styles, but the roots of my styles. For example, going to listen to the Los Angeles Philharmonic…I hear the clarinet playing, and I can imagine myself playing those pieces as I did many years ago. I hear that as a real live experience. I had the opportunity to play a Mozart quintet a few years ago, and I had played it in college decades earlier. I hadn’t seen or played that piece of music in that span of time. I sat down with four professional string players and an audience, with zero rehearsal, and was asked to play. I found myself enjoying it on a totally different level, because I’ve played a lot of Jazz improvisational since that time. My own breathing style had evolved considerably having played flute and didgeridoo for many years. At the end, the string players asked me, “How did you learn how to play like that?” It was so interesting, because I recognized that I’d evolved so much in those years. I moved away from that, and came back with a richness to contribute. That was a confirmation from other people that I was playing “better” classically than I’d ever played before.
DS: Let’s shift away from the purely personal aspect of this and go into a slightly broader context; in particular, technology. With modern technology and it’s continuing advancement and development, how has that affected your stylistic development ?
David: Moving into the digital world made everything so much quicker: to try things out, to find sound effects in a library, etc. We used to have sound effect libraries on reel-to-reel tapes. I mean, imagine…there used to be a piece of paper, and you’d find the keyword on it…have to wind down to it. It would take maybe five or ten minutes just to find a single sound. Then you’d have to take it to the machine room, transfer it to mag tape, sync it up to the picture…I mean, it was a process! It wasn’t that easy to find them either. Where else would you look if what you needed wasn’t on that tape?
So the whole digital world completely changed those possibilities enormously, as well as recording. To get a good quality sound, I’d have to get the Nagra recorder with reel-to-reel tape (of course we still need really good microphones…that’s one thing that hasn’t changed much). The recording medium was really bulky, heavy, expensive, and it didn’t do well in the elements. Having now a handheld recorder, giving me close to the same quality, it’s amazing that I can just capture a sound. Being in a cool environment with an interesting sound, I can just record. And, of course, in post production, I can find thousands of sound in a microsecond. The actual editing is just a-whole-nother world entirely. Everything is accelerated and at our fingertips, including the idea of being able to process sounds.
It used to be that any filtering and processing had to be held off until you were close to the mix stage. Now we’ve got Pro Tools at home, and maybe you have a 5.1 surround monitoring system. You pretty much can do the whole thing. So there’s a lot more control, access and speed. This allows us to do things that would have taken a long time to do, and time is one of the most valuable things we have. I love the idea of trying things out. If it doesn’t work, just let it go. That’s one of the major changes in my life.
DS: So, you talked about time there a little bit, but we’re still working with time constraints. At times, we’re expected to work even faster because of all this wonderful technology that we now have (and that’s not always unreasonable). The aesthetic difficulty of the work, in some ways, hasn’t really changed though. What about when working collaboratively in a group, where you’re trying to blend multiple peoples’ aesthetics? That can be heavily affected by time available.
David: Once again, the technology has helped a lot. You can send files over the internet. You don’t have to wait for everybody to get together physically. If you’re working in a studio that’s got a network system…where multiple people are working on different scenes, if you have a sound effects library on a master server, you might be able to access all of the files at once (even from off-site)…so that collaborative nature is actually being served by the speed of technology as well. I think that no matter what though, you’ve got to use a non-technological language for understanding character and emption.
Ultimately our bodies and brains are working on an analog level. We want to collaborate with our directors, editors and composers on a visceral, gut, level of what’s working. Those ideas, and brainstorming, are way beyond a digital idea, but you can adapt those techniques with Skype or google documents. There are a lot of tools that are accessible, and inexpensive or free, to help people collaborate. Ultimately though, it’s really about a meeting of the minds. That’s not necessarily going to change, no matter what technology you’re using.
DS: What about a situation where your personal and someone else’s stylistic choices aren’t meshing? How do you deal with that conflict?
David: First of all, I think there’s a responsibility of the producer, director or whomever is the hiring crew that will work together, to have a grasp of the importance of that meshing. When people get together, and it’s their first project working together, sometimes there are unpleasant surprises. Hopefully things go well, and you get a chance to work together again. Then you know things are going to move well. Even if you like someone else’s work, you may not mesh well with their work style…or their communication style. You just have to grin and bear it sometimes. In the worst case scenario, you may have to shift and change in a way that’s…let’s say legally, morally and time-wise the most efficient way to move on and get someone else to work with you.
One of the things I teach, specifically for sound designers, is the different kinds of language you can use to communicate with your collaborators. There are different strengths that some people have. Some people are visual, some are verbal, some are sonic, others are kinesthetic and move their bodies. One example is Dane Davis, who did the sound for The Matrix. He worked for a long time with the composer, even before the film was shot. However, once he started getting into it with the directors, they would make sounds with their mouths. That would be a really good clue for him to offer something that was close to what they wanted, stylistically. Find out what will be the best way to communicate with your collaborators. You have many kinds of languages to make that connection.
DS: Before we finish up, is there anything else on this particular subject that you would like to discuss? Or do you feel that there is anything pertinent that we might have overlooked?
David: In the question that you just asked…if there’s a stylistic disconnect that might be happening with collaborators, it’s useful sometime to have an external reference. It’s great to have a film reference, or some other piece of work, to shape your ideas before you even start. Just establish a genre or a general stylistic framework that you’ll all be working in, because this helps guide everyone in the same direction. I do this on many levels in my productions, as a director and as a sound designer, to try to get everybody on board. You don’t want to put a whole lot of energy, from anybody, into something that’s going to get thrown out. It’s a matter of checking in, and also being aware that ego is sometimes a little bit of a trap. “I want to do something different here, something that’s going to be heard.” It may not be called for.
The director has an idea, whether they realize it or not, and you want to get that out by feeding them possibilities. That’s one of the trickiest jobs of any member of the crew, getting on the button when the director isn’t consciously sure of what they want. When the director is not really a specialist in music or sound, they know what they don’t like…but they’re not sure what they do like. So, it sometimes takes a bit of offering of yourself without being too attached. That’s my recommendation in this collaborative art: “Don’t be too attached to your own personal creativity.”
See what serves the project best, and you’ll have a chance to do something really cool on the next project.
DS: That’s always very good advice, and one that I’ve heard repeated ad infinitum over the years.
David: [laughs] Yeah.
DS: Thanks for taking the time to share your opinions on this aspect of our field.
David: It’s a continuing conversation. There’s so much more to contemplate, but this is a good starting point…and I thank you for all of the stimulating questions.