Sound Design Tony Awards


It was with a strong sense of deja vu that I read of the Tony decision to eliminate the category of Sound Design from it’s awards. Having seen a similar decision (since reversed) by the Drama Desk to eliminate the Orchestration award, it made me wonder if there are some similarities. 

When the Drama Desk decided to eliminate an Orchestration Award (which they had originally established decades earlier than the Tony Awards) they gave two reasons - 1) they were trying shorten the awards ceremony and 2) they felt those voting on the awards didn't feel qualified to make a judgement about orchestration. I am wondering if similar reasoning has motivated the Tony Awards to make the same decision.

Certainly, time is an element in the CBS portion of the broadcast - but all the technical awards have already been moved to an earlier period before the network broadcast begins (with the bizarre choice of also relegating best score and choreography to that earlier time.) So is time really an element here? Maybe this problem could be further simplified with the same process that the Academy Awards use - a separate event the day before for technical and design awards. Though I have enjoyed attending the big event, I’d be happy to be relegated to a smaller event the night before and to celebrate with my peers.

And how about the issue of judging technical awards - should the same 50 member committee presently making nominations of best play and best actress also be deciding who might be best sound designer or orchestrator? The 50 member nominating committee for next year’s Tony Awards was recently posted online. While this is a distinguished group of theater professionals including a number of artistic directors, it includes only one musician if I am not mistaken. No music directors, no orchestrators, no sound designers. While some of the non-musician members may be well qualified to express opinions about music and sound design, perhaps there are not enough experts in music and sound present on the committee to raise the technical level of discussion.

While I admire and appreciate my fellow orchestrators, I know our styles and approaches to solving the dramatic issues are different. We all try to be flexible to solve all problems and deal with all styles, but our personal approaches all shine through. The same is true with sound designers: they deal with that amorphous beast, the new musical, with different personal approaches and styles. The orchestra shows up a few days before the audience does and the designer has to create his magic in maybe 2 or 3 days. And sometimes in the midst of previews he is asked to radically change the approach and style of the design that had earlier been agreed upon. 

We can see sets and costumes in a photograph - but like lighting, we only carry the sound design out of the theater in our memory. (The sound of the cast CD is a wholly different beast, created under ideal conditions, bearing little relationship to the work of the sound designer in the live space.) Certainly it is difficult to judge something so evanescent - but we have come to understand what a lighting designer can do - the moods he can create, the focus he can use to direct our attention. Certainly we can take the time to try and understand this younger art that focuses our hearing on the proper elements, brings our attention to a character's words without causing us to look up at the speakers where the sound is coming from, that can bring forth the orchestrator’s work in a delicate balance that shades the lyricist's words without overcoming them.

My favorite sound designers (and I have a couple of them) are artists who love the theater and bring as much artistry and passion to their work as I do. As an orchestrator I carry forth the composer’s intentions and assist him in telling the story; the sound designer does the same for the composer and myself. The person who thought of eliminating this award is not someone who has been through the incredible onslaught of a final dress rehearsal or the slow battle of a preview period and seen the sound designer down in the trenches with the rest of the team.

It would be naive of me to think the Tony Awards are purely about merit, and that there is no business or politicking involved. Yet there is a certain amount of recognition of merit that goes into these awards. But the decision to blithely eliminate one of the main design categories does not bespeak an interest in recognizing artistic merit - it does a disservice to the work of theater professionals who help to create the vibrant work of our industry. It gives one the impression that the Tony Awards are more about the yearly broadcast and the publicity it can provide than the awarding of artistic accomplishment. We are in a commercial art form - the balance between business and art is somewhere in the middle - let’s not lose track of that.


the crystal point

I’m find there’s something called “a crystal point”.

I first look at a number and I start out complaining: “How am I going to do it with so few instruments?” “Why does he make these compositional choices? They seem arbitrary.” “Shouldn’t there be a much more different arrangement?”

Then, I’ll go and procrastinate - torrent a little, a book on tape, a book on Kindle.

Then I’ll come back to the chart and maybe look for a starting synth sound, stare at the screen for a few moments ...

Then it lines up ... a sort of ‘crystal point’: suddenly a few colors in my teeny tiny band match an odd choice of the composer - a synth patch work for a figure here - a woodwind choice is just right for the line there - throw away that vocal doubling - add a fill into the gaping hole there with a fill.

This moment usually happens about 1 am. I often stand up and go right to sleep. Colors and choices don’t disappear from memory like pitches and rhythms do (at least for me.)

Occasionally such a crystallizing moment (is that a more apt phrase?) occurs upon first hearing. Receiving an assignment from a performance as opposed to the printed page presents solutions much more quickly. if the emotional journey of the song is clear, and you’ve become familiar with what your present instrumentation can do ... sometimes all the right choices play out in your head as you are listening. The score page becomes an issue of how well you can execute what is already obvious.

The challenge, of course, is when such a moment of crystallization does NOT occur - and you have to move forward anyway. You want to think that only you can recognize which scores were inspired and which ones just got done. But sometimes, it’s all too obvious.

lyrics, Debussy, Kandinsky and throbbing

I saw a theatrical piece tonight that didn't work. A piece done on a symphonic scale with beautiful music and orchestrations, but it just washed over me.

The problem was that the characters kept singing what they were feeling - and nothing happened, They didn't 'move' through an emotional process - they just stood there and THROBBED at me. And the music, as beautiful as it was, did not move me because the context of the music's emotions had not been established.


Claude Monet's SunriseBut now I start to wonder - all the non-theatrical music I'm moved by - am I creating the emotional context in my own mind? Or hearing one that the composer is implying in his music?

When I listen to Debussy's "La Mer", I hear more than his capturing the physicality of the sea - I hear his thrill at the feel of ocean spray on his face, his delight at the lighting shimmering on the waves. It's his emotional reaction that causes him to write more than just shimmer and movement - his delight emerges as harmony and melody.


I recently caught the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim (stick with me for a moment ...) I chose to see the show backwards - and I'm glad I did - I started at the top with the final works and worked my way doKandinsky - Composition VIII - 1923wn. As a result, instead of the exhibition being a biography, it became an analysis of what he was striving for by examining where he came from (as opposed to what he turned to next.) So I wasn't aware of his roots in Russian folk art till the end. I noticed his similarity to Chagall only incidentally through some similar use of color before reaching the end and seeing how they both really started in the same place. But mostly I got to enjoy Kandinsky's use of abstraction without looking for what was being abstracted. That only became an issue as I worked my way backwards.

As a result, the later works seemed to float - geometric elements seemed to float on top of color blotches - black line markings appeared to be improvised comments on the shapes of color below. One painting seemed to be pulled away from the viewer as it fell away into a black field behind it.


Kandinsky - Composition V - 1911But in each painting, there was a context for the abstractions - there seemed to be a dialog between colors, shapes and lines. The dialog was sometimes violent, sometimes serene. But never silent. Each painting was a universe with it's own rules.

It is so hard to look for that kind of process in words, when they're being sung. It is so easy to be swept up in the feeling when there's music present, and leave behind the thought that triggered the feeling. Lyrics appear to us in real time - we need to move with the mind's process, even if it's the million thoughts one has in a few seconds.

Perhaps it is best not to delineate the feelings, but just present the thought process and let the audience 'throb' itself, without doing it for them. Music is such a strong emotional language, it can over-color those thoughts very quickly. Perhaps music should be like Kandinsky's color blotches - coloring the sharp black lines above, while being cut themselves into pieces that fall away.