Interview: Sound Designer and Composer Deanna Choi

Deanna Choi takes time from her busy schedule to speak with Joyful Magpies about sound design and composition.

Choi is a sound designer, composer, and violinist based in Toronto. Theatre Calgary, Theatre Passe Muraille, the Stratford Festival, and Theatre New Brunswick are just some of the companies Choi has worked for in the past. Choi’s credits with TNB include Fortune of Wolves (2017) and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2018).

Choi holds a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in behavioral neuroscience from Queen’s University, as well as a theatre minor.

What is the difference between sound design and composition?

I think it’s almost a symbiotic relationship. Sometimes it feels like composition is like architecture whereas sound design is more like interior design and ergonomics where you take that concept, that framework, and all these blueprints for the sonic environment and you have to adapt it to the world of the play.

For me, composition involves — yes, it’s writing the music and the score, but it’s also taking into consideration the genre and instrumentation. If there’s lyrics in the show, how do you write music that suits the lyrics? It’s world development.

With sound design, you really have to make it specific to the play and the production. What kind of venue are you performing in? Are the actors mic’d? Where is your sound system relative to the audience? And how do you optimize all of these internal features in order to deliver the kind of experience the composer wanted?

Sound design is not something you see on stage. Do you think audiences appreciate sound design, or does it tend to be overlooked?

I have a lot of conflicting thoughts on this.

On the one hand, I had a mentor who once said if they don’t mention the sound in a review, then it’s a good thing — because it was integrated so seamlessly. But then, there are other times where the music or sound plays a very prominent role.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a big vocabulary, especially in the English language, in which to describe sound. Most of the time, if my design is ever mentioned in a review, it’s referred to as atmospheric. But what does that even mean? We use words that are visual or tactile to describe sound, like bright or soft or muted or warm. You can describe a pitch as high or low and the volume of a sound as loud or quiet. But I think because we don’t have words to describe it, it’s hard for people to remember.

Sound doesn’t show up in production photos, so you can’t really refer back to it. Sound is temporally based. You can’t get a snapshot of a sound. You have to experience it over the course of a second or ten seconds or fifteen minutes to get the full impact of it. I think that makes it hard for people to review and talk about, because you have to describe your experience and how, if the design was executed well, it changed over the course of a play.

In the case of sound design in a musical, a successful sound design is one where the story comes across very clearly. You can hear every word the actors are saying, and the balance with the band is good. If it’s done well, then you would never really think of it, because it allowed everything else in the story to come through.

In your Tedx Talk at Queen’s University, you speak about the effect of music on the brain’s chemistry during group music making. What happens when an audience listens to music during a theatre production?

It’s been a few years since I’ve been involved in research, but what I may venture to presume is that there are similar effects happening albeit differently.

I focus more on the sensory perception and memory pathways in terms of design. Let’s say I’m trying to build up tension in a scene. A common thing sound designers will do is play a low frequency sound and build that up. We have a more primal, primordial reaction association with low frequency tones. That’s a really quick shortcut into the brain’s neural circuitry that indicates oh, something scary is going to happen.

With memory, it comes to things like a type of thematic motif associated with a particular character that keeps repeating over the course of the play. They say audiences need to hear something three times before they recognize it. By the third or fourth time, they are primed by music, or by their sensory perception, and then that can become a conditioned cue.

There is overlap with the lighting world because we are used to observing phenomenon in the real world as a visual paired with an audio cue. If a book drops, you hear the sound of the book hitting the floor, but you also see the book falling off the shelf. Or if there’s an explosion, you see the flash, and you hear the sound. In theatre, if these visual and audio cues aren’t timed well together, then it pulls us out of that moment because that’s how our brains are wired. That’s how we have learned to perceive the world.

It seems that this knowledge about music and its effect on the brain is advantageous to your work. Would you say that’s true?

I guess so. Most of the time, it’s not something that I am consciously doing. Certainly, there are these principles of psychology and behavioural neuroscience that affect the way I conceptualize sound.

For me, the biggest difference between sound design in theatre, compared to other mediums like film and television, is how sound operates with regards to physics and psychology. In theatre, you have control over the space (the physics), and how the sound waves are travelling to your audience. The psychology of it: the actors can hear the sound just as well as the audience. You have to factor that into account in terms of how you create and program and structure the design.

Your work for theatre and dance tends to be collaborative, is that right?

It’s pretty much always collaborative.

How do you navigate the needs of the director and your own artistic vision?

Collaborative is sort of the main way I like to work because I don’t ever write music for myself. I find it actually quite challenging. I could never be a singer-songwriter because I can’t just sit down and think of something I want to write music about. I need a story which is why theatre, film, and dance are great because generally someone else has come up with a story first or we create a story together. The story inspires the music and the creation of it.

What is your cultural background?

I was born in Canada. My parents are immigrants from South Korea.

When we talk about diversity in theatre, we often talk about staging more playwrights of colour and playwrights from marginalized communities. New perspectives bring new stories and new ways of shaping roles. In what ways do you think your upbringing has influenced your approach to creating sound and music?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is it’s influenced me very little because all my musical training growing up was in the Western European classical tradition.

With regards to diversity in theatre, I think the biggest learning curve for me and what I’ve been trying to incorporate into my practice has been working in collaboration with Indigenous artists. So, there have been a number of times where I have been working with an Indigenous playwright, director, or group of actors as a sound designer/composer. There are moments prescribed in the play where there has to be a song. Unfortunately, I don’t have any training with Indigenous elders from any nation on Turtle Island. In cases like these, what I have done is be more of a music facilitator, so allowing individuals in the group who have songs from their background, histories, traditions and have their permission to use them. The group jams on them through a live improvisation in rehearsal to create new material. I record this on my phone, or with a microphone, and then take it home to transcribe. And then, I pick apart different sections to craft into a more structured piece of music that then becomes part of a soundscape.

There have been other times where they have hired an Indigenous composer to write the music for a show, and then I incorporate it as a sound designer.

I think this is an okay intermediate step until we are able to train and hire more Indigenous composers and sound designers in theatre. It’s sort of a middle ground that I’ve found in terms of avoiding cultural appropriation and exploitation. Can I find an expert in this style who can either teach me basic things or I can record and use their work with their permission? I follow this approach when I am asked to use music from another culture that I am not familiar with, or I don’t have any training with.

What are you currently working on? What’s coming up in terms of projects?

Right now, I’m in Niagara-on-the-Lake [Shaw Festival] composing and sound designing the next installment of their Narnia series. It’s called The Horse and His Boy [runs April 6 – July 21], adapted by Anna Chatterton and directed by Christine Brubaker. 

Next for design, I’m doing the lemonTree/Buddies in Bad Times/Why Not Theatre co-production of Lilies [May 4 – 26]. I’m also doing August: Osage County at Soulpepper [May 18 – June 23]. That’s what my design docket looks like.

This summer, I’m going to take time off and pursue some personal projects, of which I haven’t decided what they are going to be yet. Maybe I’ll delve back into the intersection of neuroscience and music and theatre. It would be nice to get back into that. It’s sorta been on the backburner.

Is there a specific topic you would like to research?

There are so many. There are a lot of labs out there exploring what our brains do while we are creative or improvising. A lot of labs looking at the health impact of music.

It’s hard to say.

A few years ago, I would have said I want to research the benefits of performance, and why is it important for us to advocate policies that encourage arts funding or arts education. Now, looking at the political climate, I don’t even know if research is going to help because no one is listening to scientists anymore! It’s a little discouraging, but I still think there’s still room for hope and to keep fighting the good fight.


To learn more about Deanna Choi, visit: http://www.deannahchoi.com/

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