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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Interview | Fitz Patton, Sound Designer After the Revolution

by Rachel Lerner-Ley, Dramaturg

I recently caught up with AFTER THE REVOLUTION sound designer Fitz Patton to discuss the pre-show and transitional music that he created specifically for the show. The music features embedded historic texts from the likes of McCarthy and Malcolm X.  

After listening to some of the pieces, Fitz and I got into a fascinating conversation about the power of rhetoric, how we think about history, and the use of sound design within the world of the play. Here are some highlights from our chat:

Rachel Lerner-Ley: Why combine speech and music?

Fitz Patton: When you embed text in music, you take away the speaker's command of time. You strip away the moment in which they're operating, and you connect with the way they use language. Music has this funny way of imposing a kind of objectivity where you can really evaluate what the experience is of listening to this person. You can strip away the decisions we make about history: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This music has the ability to put McCarthy and Martin Luther King together, and you can appreciate that on some weird level, they're actually equal in making their case.  When you go straight to the voice it's really an amazing thing because what you learn is that when you compare McCarthy with Martin Luther King or to Malcolm X or Huey Newton who founded the Black Panthers, you see that all of these people have an incredible command of language. It's a power in as many ways as it is a synergy between a kind of zeitgeist and the capacity of someone to rise and harness it. You realize the power of oratory to drive social movements.

RLL: It's easy for us to talk about McCarthy, but forget about what the horror is of actually listening to his words, of seeing him in action. But listening to the track you just played for me and hearing him, I was like "Oh my God. He can really suck people in"

FP: He's totally mesmerizing.

RLL: And I can totally see why we had another red scare and why people were turning in their neighbors, their friends.

FP: And what's weird is to make it effective with regard to the music you heard, the music has to get behind it. It doesn't do anything to paint a skeptical frame through the music because what you really want to do is get at the speech. And the skeptical frame comes from other experiences outside of the music.
The other thing that's interesting about these pieces is that they are really musical events sculpted around a person's spoken series of ideas in solving a political moment in their life. The cameras are on them, the microphone is there. Whatever they say now is going to change the direction of everything they've been working on and they speak with incredible concision and you really can feel it.

RLL: And how did you go about finding the texts?

FP: They're online. Because people are so passionate about them, they've organized them into archives.

RLL: How long does it take you to compose one of these pieces?

FP: About four or five hours each. I've made about 10 or 11 of them. It's a chunk of work, but the speeches just inspire the music. The music is entirely responding to the person speaking. And so, the music comes very, very quickly. If someone is singing to you, you can write the accompaniment because they've already made the song.

RLL: So how do these compositions work within the play?

FP: Rather than illustrate or decorate the play or solve the play's technical problems of getting furniture moved around, the music can actually flow in independently of content and inform the way we see what is happening in the play without the play really acknowledging that it is there. It's truly theatrical. It's truly why this is a play and not something else.
This music also re-tensions the arguments inside the play. Because the play is so intensely personal and somewhat provincial to the family, the music gives you a window into what is driving them into the arguments and that, in a way, puts extra muscle onto the bone of the play.

Amy [Herzog, playwright] is really staggeringly brilliant to have seen the epic social storylines behind events mentioned in the play. And then not to have offered any answers to them. The role of dropping the music into the play is similar. I hope to find resonances with the text but not to answer it or reduce it in any way or narrow the message of the play.

This type of sound design is asking bigger questions about plays. Plays are produced as entertainment, but maybe plays should really be an event. The play occupies a point on a landscape of ideas. And so, if we have this preshow music that drives this world and then we flow that preshow world into the play itself, then maybe we'll think of the play as part of something larger, as a point on a landscape of ideas.

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