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/

Laila Biali on Her JUNO Win, Learning from Failure, and New Album

Laila Biali is an award-winning jazz pianist and singer-songwriter. She is also the host
of Saturday Night Jazz, a weekly program on CBC Music that features jazz music from Canada and around the world.

In 2018, Biali reintroduced herself with a self-titled album that saw the Toronto musician bring together jazz and pop. The album won Vocal Jazz Album of the Year at the 2019 JUNO Awards.

Let’s go back a few months. Your self-titled album receives the JUNO nomination for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. What is going through your mind?

Shock. Because I live in-between the worlds of jazz and other genres, I really didn’t expect to get a nomination at all. I have only submitted an album once. It didn’t get nominated, but it was the last record that I put out called House of Many Rooms [released under Laila Biali & The Radiance Project], which was a total departure from jazz. You don’t want to get your hopes up. You want to focus on the reason why you make music in the first place which is not necessarily to get a JUNO or to receive a nomination.

Of course, I was also thrilled because it felt like affirmation of this direction I have been going in which blends jazz with other genres.

While preparing for this interview, I found an interview with you from 2005. How do you think 24-year-old Laila would have reacted to your JUNO win?

Oh my gosh. You know what? I think 24-year-old Laila would have expected it more than 38-year-old Laila. I was more optimistic and, to some degree, not more confident…a part of me was seeking my sound, which I think I have settled into more authentically now than ever.

Back then, I was a little less beat up, just by virtue of years on the planet. I hadn’t weathered the ups and downs that come with being in the music business. I would have been like yeah, man, I could get a JUNO.

You were already making waves. You won the CBC Galaxie Prize at the National Jazz Awards in 2003, and then two years later you won SOCAN Keyboardist of The Year and Composer of the Year.

Yeah! It felt like the world and the industry, and what we might have called gatekeepers back then, were more on board with who I was at that time. And then I went through this spell of 10 plus years of searching. During that time, I started to question — Is what I do viable? Who am I? I love jazz so much, but I really love pop and mainstream music. Is there a way to combine those worlds? Or am I always going to be too pop for jazz and too jazz for pop?

But we are now in an era where artists like Esperanza Spalding are all over the map. Jazz has claimed Snarky Puppy and yet the Grammys they’ve won have been in different categories, like contemporary instrumental. Jazz really embraces them as a fusion group because those guys all come from and respect jazz. It is an integral part of their sound, even if it’s not jazz as many people would conceive of it. I feel like I’m in this neat creative time where the idea of what jazz is, is becoming more expansive and allowing more room for play and crossing over.

I want to go back to the 10 year period you just mentioned. It seems like it was a difficult time for you. What is your relationship with failure, and what lessons have you learned from it?

It’s a real cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. You know how they say the journey is as important as the destination? In a way, that is completely my motto, musically speaking. Anybody who’s gone backpacking or travelled knows there are always ups and downs. Challenges. Missed flights. Illness. Maybe the destination you get to isn’t even the destination you expected. You have to allow for that as part of the process and embrace that for what it is knowing that it is, I think, as important as the destination.

You also can’t let it define you. The process is not the destination. They are not to be confused. When somebody writes a really critical article, or you put out a song that doesn’t do well, that can be a teaching moment. There might be some good you can take from that. You can allow it to shape you and inform steps forward. Or, if you disagree with it, then hopefully it enables you to focus all the more on the places where you think the truth lies for you.

Failure is a refining part of the process. It’s like when people talk about the crucible. When you want to refine gold, you put a flame to it. If you think about the equivalent for us as people, it’s like “Aah! That hurts! That is not comfortable.” But you come out a little more focused, a little more purified, and hopefully a little more you.

You mentioned that sometimes a song doesn’t get as much love as you would have liked. Is there a song or project that you wish had picked up more attention?

Yeah, House of Many Rooms. We got so much love from this whole other community of younger listeners and the college radio crowd, kind of the indie-alternative world. But because I was known as a jazz musician, very few within the jazz community really embraced that project. They were like, what is she doing? That kind of hurt, because that was like my music family. And so, I felt like a woman divided. I really had hoped that I could still be Laila Biali the jazz musician, or the contemporary jazz musician, and then have this other project that would signify to people that it was a different approach but equally me.

I remember reading an article in Rolling Stone about Taylor Swift and her transition from country to pop. Even though she is wildly famous, that was actually a very difficult transition for her. She kind of wanted to be in both worlds, but she went through this period where she was getting rejected by both. She said, and this is a loose quote, you can’t chase two rabbits. The genres representing the rabbits. I was like, oh, maybe I’m chasing two rabbits. That was when I was like: what happens if we try to combine these worlds? That’s what I felt like I did on the self-titled record which is why we made it self-titled. It felt like it brought these two formerly disparate aspects of my artistic self together.

It seems that these days, there are a lot of things competing for people’s attention: Netflix, YouTube, podcasts. Where do you think jazz music falls in the mix? Do you think Canada’s jazz scene receives enough attention?

I think we are lucky in Canada to have grants bodies like Canada Council for the Arts, all the provincial arts councils, and then also SOCAN Foundation and FACTOR. They are getting behind all the genres, including jazz. Jazz musicians are able to pursue their art without packaging it in a way that gives it its best chance of commercial success. So, you are getting a lot of music in our country that is distinctive and has managed to reach more listeners because of the grant support and being able to hire publicists. It gives album releases the campaigns they deserve in terms of marketing, radio, and publicity. I think that’s kept our scene more diverse.

In terms of the general public, I actually think audiences are increasingly open to different styles and the blurring of the boundaries between different genres. I do think the appetite for longer form music has decreased to some degree, but then at the same time, we are engaging with music a lot of the time as the soundtrack to our lives. In that sense, and especially with Spotify, it doesn’t matter if a track is seven or ten minutes long and is less radio friendly. People will have access to it anyway. And if they really enjoy what they are hearing, then they are going into incorporate into their day, even if it’s just as background.

Since 2017, you have been the host of Saturday Night Jazz on CBC Music. Has the program changed the way you listen to and appreciate jazz?

Yes! Other than the fourth hour which is intentionally a little more experimental, I am reminded of what makes jazz, jazz in terms of its traditional roots. There is a real sense of the tradition and the roots of the tradition. It’s good for me to be reminded of them because sometimes an artist like myself is at the risk of breaking away from those roots altogether. 

My producer Lauren chooses all the music. A lot of the times she chooses songs I wouldn’t choose myself. And so, it stretches me which is healthy!

What keeps you grounded when life gets too stressful?

My family. They are my northern stars. They are the constant. And my faith. People have come at life from many different faith perspectives. I was raised in the church and then moved away from the church in my late teens and early twenties. I came back to it with a different and more broadened worldview, but it still provides a real sense of anchoring and where I want to go as a human on this planet with one life. Those two things are very centring. Faith, family, and friends — if you want to go with alliteration!

How do you organize and schedule your day?

My husband is a freelance musician. We are constantly colliding and trying to manage co-parenting and everything else. We routinely have a morning meeting, because we don’t have day jobs. One of us, or both of us, will drop off our son at school and we will come back home for tea/breakfast. We will sit together and talk about the day, sometimes the week, sometimes the month, or sometimes the next few months. We lay out what we can. We might say a prayer together to get our hearts focused in the right direction. And then, we dive into the work, but also try to be flexible when things arise, which they often do.

We don’t lock into our schedule obsessively, but in a time like this season where I have a pretty tight deadline to come up with a new record, we have to map things out and stick to those commitments as much as we can.

Can we talk about the new album? Going into this new album must feel pretty good with a JUNO under your belt.

It’s also terrifying, because I’m like, aah!

What do you want to achieve with this album?

It sounds so cheesy and so basic but be myself without judging so much. I think the thing that’s my undoing now and in some ways more than ever in light of the JUNO is: are people going to like this? Is this jazz enough? I won a jazz vocal JUNO, so now I have to be a jazz musician — that thing is creeping back in. Instead of allowing the songs to dictate the direction we go in. My husband, who is co-producing the album and co-produced the last one, always reminds me of the importance of that.

Once you have birthed these songs into the world, they no longer belong to you. They belong to everybody who listens and for whom they take on meaning. You have to let that be what it may be. That’s the beauty of being an artist. For me, the goal is to express and then connect. That’s what I’m hoping to accomplish on this one.


Laila Biali will be playing Saturday, May 25 at the CBC Music Festival in Toronto. The festival will feature performances from Alvvays, Coeur de pirate, Peach Pit, and many more!

She will tour across Canada starting next month. For more information, visit: https://lailabiali.com/

 

JUNO Nominee Alison Young on So Here We Are and Learning to Let Go of Perfection

 

Alison Young, saxophonist.

Alison Young’s So Here We Are is up for Jazz Album of the Year: Solo at the 2019 JUNO Awards. Photo Credit: Lisa MacIntosh Photography.

In January, saxophonist Alison Young earned a JUNO nomination for her debut album So Here We Are. The album is up for Jazz Album of the Year: Solo at the 2019 JUNO Awards. The Toronto-based jazz artist remembers feeling shocked when the news broke.

“Initially I thought, that’s got to be a mistake,” Young said. “It’s my first album, and that it got nominated is a big deal for me. The recognition is so meaningful to me. It feels really important to be acknowledged like that.”

“You never know if you are going in the right direction or if people like what you are doing. You feel heard.”

The Ottawa native has been active in Toronto’s jazz scene since the early 2000s. She studied music at the University of Toronto, and since then has toured across North America, Europe, and South America.

Young describes So Here We Are as a “musical hello” and an amalgamation of all the music she likes to play.

“I’ve been wanting to put out an album for years,” Young said. “I’ve been trying to talk myself into it for five or six years. It’s easy to get distracted from my own projects.”

Movement on the album began when recording engineer Jeremy Darby of Canterbury Music Company offered Young studio time.

“The way it happened was Jeremy Darby gives away a day of free recording time to people he thinks deserves it, “ Young said. “It was a real push, him awarding that to me. That really forced me to get the band together and actually lay it down.”

“I felt like I wasn’t ready. I felt stressed out. It was hard to make decisions about how the songs should be presented,” Young said about recording the album. “By the time we did the second session, it was a lot more fun and cool and not as stressful.”

Young recorded the album with her band the Alison Young Quintet. The band has played together since 2012. “We are all friends and have played together in various bands and also as a band. It’s a good hang. It’s good musical chemistry there.”

Young has learned many things over the years as a jazz artist, but perhaps the most important lesson she has learned is to let go of perfection.

“I actually quit playing after going to university, because I over thought everything so much. I thought I needed to make music more complicated than it needed to be.”

“You just have to start. You’re always going to learn as you go. Let go of the idea of ever attaining any kind of perfection,” Young said. “The more you know, the more you don’t know. Be okay with it always having to be a learning process. That’s the thing about music, it’s really beautiful and daunting, but you never get there.”

What’s next for Young after the JUNO Awards? In June, Young is going on the road with Corey Hart, the latest inductee into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. After the tour, Young says she hopes to play music festivals with her band.


The 2019 JUNO Awards will be live from Budweiser Gardens in London, ON on Sunday, March 17 at 8 PM ET and broadcast live on CBC, CBC Radio One, CBC Music, the free CBC Gem streaming service, and globally at cbcmusic.ca/junos.

Learn more about Alison Young at alisonyoungmusic.com

Follow Alison on Facebook and Instagram.

 

Dr. Wendy Freeman Talks Conducting and Building Trust with the Ensemble

In her senior year of high school, in Grandville, Michigan, Dr. Wendy Freeman auditioned for the position of drum major. She won the position and enjoyed a successful year with the band, which performed all across the state of Michigan. While Freeman had always loved music, practicing flute from an early age and singing in the church choir, it was this leadership opportunity that sparked her interest in music as a conductor.

“I actually thought I was going to be an architectural engineer,” says Freeman, speaking on the phone from Westmount Charter School in Calgary. “After I realized how much I enjoyed being at the helm of the music, that sort of took over my scholarship applications and my dreams.”

Today, Freeman is the music director at Westmount, where she conducts students from grades 5 to 12. She is also an adjunct professor for the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. (Freeman received a Master of Music in Conducting Performance from U of C.)

“I teach the undergraduate education students interdisciplinary learning,” says Freeman about her duties at the Werklund School. “I’m a field instructor, so I’ll watch the student teachers teach and give feedback on their lessons.”

And at the U of C’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, Freeman helps with the Music Education courses.

“I’m a pretty busy gal.”

“I decided early on that I didn’t want to just be a tenure track professor,” Freeman says. “I wanted to have a farther reach. Part of that for me is seeing young people grow their technical capacity and being able to influence future teachers.”

When I ask about the work that takes place before rehearsal, Freeman tells me there are two essential things that happen: “picking repertoire that suits the ensemble well” and rigorous score study.

“Before you can get on the podium and lead a group, you have to be able to sing every possible part,” Freeman says. “You have to know the music inside and out, and you have to have a vision for how you want it to go.”

Score study is important for building trust between the conductor and ensemble.

Respect is earned, says Freeman, when it is clear that a conductor has studied the score and they can deliver feedback that helps make the music sound better.

“I think in adults, anyway, it garners a certain amount of respect.”

With younger people, it’s more about “communicating effectively.” When a change is made, Freeman helps her ensemble to listen to the sound result. “We always refer back to, do we like that better? And if so, why?”

But building trust can also happen outside of rehearsal. “I try to know as much as I can about my musicians and who they are as people. I think it’s about caring for the whole person.”

“And when they do trust you and you have a journey in a concert that goes well, there’s also that sense of shared joy. If you can get to a place of shared joy, I think that’s really important.”

“And also [shared] disappointment. It’s how we handle the challenges that teaches others who we really are as people. You could be a crazy conductor with horrible stick technique, but if you are a lovely person who cares about the people in your ensemble and you can show empathy and you can be a kind person off the podium I think that goes a long way for adults and children.”

What advice does Freeman have for young conductors?

“Breathing with the musicians,” says Freeman about conducting orchestral and/or wind band musicians. “That’s really key for young conductors to remember, that they want to take the same breath with the musicians to start each phrase, to start each piece or to start each new entrance as they would use to play their own instrument.”

“If you breathe with the musicians, they will breathe with you. You will get a much more beautiful attack or start to the phrases. That’s something that young conductors often forget, to breathe with the musicians. It’s weird, because we don’t actually play. The baton isn’t making the music. We have to remember to breathe, because when we breathe with them they also take a nice breath.”

And practice self-assessment: “In my master’s journey, I videotaped every rehearsal.” Later, Freeman would go back and think about what gestures were helpful (or not) for musicians. She also considered the effectiveness of what was said to members of the ensemble.

Freeman also recommends watching videos of the great conductors and “going to a lot of symposia over the summertime.”

What does Freeman find rewarding about music?

“What I love about music is that it breeds a feeling of community and belonging. Whether you are in an orchestra or a wind band or a school band, you belong to something greater than yourself.”

“We always hope that the end performance will be the best time that we’ve ever run the work and we often do find that it is. To me, the hard work, the best work, and the most rewarding work is done in your eight rehearsals that led up to the concert. That’s where the team really grows.”

That brings Freeman to her last piece of advice for conductors.

“When you take a bow at the end of the concert, you are also doing that on behalf of the players that made the music. After the concert, I think it’s really important, no matter what age level, to say thank you.”


The Calgary Wind Symphony will be presenting Starry, Starry Night on Sunday, December 16th at 2:30PM. The concert will be held at the Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall (Rozsa Centre, University of Calgary). 

About Starry, Starry Night: “A collection of music to highlight the best parts of a Canadian winter, including the endless night sky.”

Dr. Wendy Freeman, an associate musical director with the CWS, will be conducting part of the concert.

Tickets are $20 (12 & under free) and can be purchased online.