Transforming the Dark: Using Colour to Compose Sound in Dark Matter

A discussion between Martyn Roberts* and Dr Jeremy Mayall**

Dark Matter is a performance with light as the main character and a soundscape composed by Dr Jeremy Mayall with Martyn Roberts. The theatre space is extremely dark with all care taken to eliminate all visible light. The audience, unable to even see their hands in front of them, are seated in a void, viewing low beams and shapes of light, with ghostly movements from two dancers resembling wraiths from another world. The sound forms an integral part of the performance; because so much has been taken away from them visually, the heightened sensory experience of the audience amplifies the sonic and visual perception. In this article, Mayall and Roberts discuss that process and describe the impact on the audience of the work as a whole.
Keywords: Dark Matter, Dunedin Fringe Festival, Leah Carrell, Megan Wilson, Underland,  Robert McFarlane

Introduction

Dark Matter is an installation performance with seven lighting based illusions, what Martyn Roberts called visual haiku, as the main character, supported by two dancers and a soundscape composed by Dr Jeremy Mayall with Roberts. The theatre space is pitch black dark with all care taken to eliminate any visible rogue light sources, including external light leaks and internal lighting glows from any equipment LEDs. The audience, unable to even see their hands in front of them, are seated and look into this void to watch very low beams and shapes of light, with vague movements from two dancers resembling wraiths from another world. The sense of depth perception changes, and the viewers begin to project their own imagined sights into the darkness.

The work debuted at the 2016 Dunedin Fringe Festival, where it won both the Design and Multi-media awards at the Dunedin Fringe awards. In 2017, it won the Best of Fringe award at the NZ Fringe in Wellington. In 2018, it was shown at the Arts Festival Dunedin, when it was given a reworking, allowing Mayall and Roberts to introduce a further element involving colour light over the audience.

Martyn Roberts is without a doubt New Zealand’s master of painting darkness over darkness, of sculpting the darkness as if it were a thing of immense solidity and form. At times it presses upon the eyeballs, and visions appear in front of us: seemingly as fleeting and as intangible as the flashes that we each see when the eye is depressed by the thumb or heels of the hand.

(Trubridge)

The soundscape that accompanies this 40-minute work is by Dr Jeremy Mayall with Martyn Roberts. The composition of the soundscape was informed by colour. Roberts presented Mayall with a series of colours to provoke the composer into thinking about the  mise-en-scène of the seven short pieces that make up the Dark Matter experience.

In this article, Mayall and Roberts discuss that process and describe the impact on the audience of the work as a whole. The sound forms an integral part of the performance, and because so much has been taken away from the audience visually, the heightened sensory experience amplifies the sonic and visual perception, what Roberts ascribes to the threshold of perception.

In the same way that the human figures are reminders of bodies, rather than their literal depiction, the sound reminds me of things with which we are familiar, but which are rendered so as to be mysterious and distant—a phone rings; a whistle sounds; a robotic woman counts numbers; goats walk by with bells around their necks; a piano’s keys are hit, heavily. It is beautiful, and it is menacing.

(Cunninghame)
Dark Matter, Dunedin Fringe Festival (2016). Photo: Cover Image, WINTEC. Accessed May 8, 2020

Martyn (M): If I recall correctly, when we were discussing the redevelopment of when the lights came up on the audience in between each of the dark sequences (the 7 Haiku), there was going to be a colour associated with them, and, at that point, I think you introduced a really interesting idea of the human chakra.

Jeremy (J): Yeah, we were talking about that as an idea where we can draw from the idea of the colours associated with the chakra. To see those colours as a kind of state of being, which as a concept is really interesting. I think the way that we react to coloured environments, whether it aligns with ideas of the chakra or not, is quite interesting—the experience of being immersed in a colour. 

J: The way that we perceive that as a feeling or as an emotion . . . has an impact, whether it’s conscious or subconscious. I think that introducing these coloured moments helped to craft the overall non-linear experience of the piece where it made the moments in between . . . the low light moments, the things where you’re kind of straining to experience and straining to make sense of what’s being presented to you. The yang to the yin are these light moments.

In the first literation (of Dark Matter), there were just white lights, and in the second, there were white lights and white noise, but it was never as purposefully designed; it was more of a “we need to do something to reset before the next sequence.” We then get to the point of introducing these moments of colour. Those specifically designed sonic and lights transitions, and now we get this entirely different experience, where it still serves the purpose of resetting the audience, but resetting in a more specific way. The combination of colour and sound has some kind of emotional or psychological weight because of the choice of colour and the way that the sound in some way resonates with what that colour is.

M: Picking up on the idea of the psychological weight and being in the moment, we examined what was happening in what we called the “dark matter” moments where we had a very clear purpose about what we wanted the audience to experience. The physical responses with light coming at them with projectors. At other times, the audience were really straining to see into the dark void to get a sense of what they’re seeing. The active engagement was a very deliberate choice all the way through. To create threshold states of experience.  

So, when we had the opportunity to re-examine what was happening outside of those moments, the colours became linked to what had just been presented. The sound and colour became very much tied to the resonating image or experience. We knew from what we gathered in terms of some informal audience feedback, what the experience was for them in those dark moments to be able to inform ourselves “so if they’re in this state of mind here, what’s a colour that matches that kind of state of mind?”

J: Yeah.

M: We talked about the chakra but also the psychology of colour, which is, you know, when something is pink and something is blue and something’s green, it takes you to a certain state of mind. Do you know that red makes you kind of hungry, does it make you kind of active? We think that green may make us calmer. Blue possibly makes you alert, so there are various states of psychological perceptions that could be triggered by colour.

J: Yeah, the chakra is one way of looking at it, and then there’s colour therapy and also just those seemingly simple emotional connections that we attribute to colour; the connections that you learn in primary school. When children are taught colours, they’re taught emotional links with them. Each colour represents something. I don’t know where that necessarily comes from, but it’s something that seems to be deeply rooted in human culture.

M: Yellow is “happy” colour, you know.

J: Yeah (laughs). Depending, if it’s that slightly more greeny yellow, then it’s sickly.

It’s a fascinating connection, where, conceptually, colour has this robust impact on the way that most people experience the world. Obviously, the experience is unique to each person. I don’t believe everyone who “hears” this one sound-colour as being blue; it’s different for each person. But, I do think what this work is doing is drawing on those emotional ideas and psychological ideas that resonated with us as artists and utilising them as a kind of pseudo-synaesthesic experience for the audience. An experience that is particularly interesting when you think about it in context of the purposeful manipulation of the central experience that is core to this work (the 7 haikus), in that it’s either really loud or really quiet or really bright or really dark, and the sound it’s coming for you or it’s moving away from you. It is very sensory.

M: It required an active connection from the viewer, for the audience to participate in that. The work required a very visceral connectionl audiences had to lean into it.

J: It [Dark Matter] kind of forces you to have an experience because of the environment that it’s in; you can’t really not engage. Whereas you can go and see another piece of theatre or a concert or whatever and you can choose to completely not engage in any of it; but I think because you’re dealing here with extremes of experience, you are forced to engage. Perhaps it has some link with the “lizard brain,” the kind of fight-or-flight mechanism. You are in a place that is so different to what you usually exist in; you kind of have to assess “are I in danger?” (laughs).

M: Often times, some of those reactions coming through from audiences was that when it went completely dark and people couldn’t see, those flight mechanisms were kicking in. One interesting piece of feedback was “I have to trust the artists here, to know that they’ve put me here deliberately, but it’s not permanent.” So, there is an interesting sort of communication going on between us as the artists saying we’re taking you here, we’re taking you there and the audience going ok, I’ll have to trust you with that. So, when it came to those colours, there was another component to that trust. To go “oh ok, now I’m in this colour.”

We made some deliberate sort of choices that were about what those colours were, whether the audience all understood why those colours were there and what they did; we have really kind of limited ways of knowing because everybody’s experience is unique as you say. 

J: But I don’t think that that’s necessarily a problem or a concern, because the way we engage with the world every day is that everyone’s experience is slightly different, and I think as an artist, particularly in my own work—and I think that you’re similar in this aspect—where we are saying something specific through the work, but whether or not the audience gets that specific idea, or they get something else entirely, doesn’t really matter

For me, what is really interesting is that there is an artistic conversation happening, and even if you’re drawing different things from it, it is still a positive experience because there is a connection, and ultimately that’s the thing. If it helps you to realise something about your own experience, then that’s a meaningful piece of art.

M: We’re talking about it from the point of view of two artists who operate together at an interesting level, and for all of this, whether it be the psychological profile of colours, the spiritual aspects of colour or that the various religions and spiritual philosophies around the world that use colour in their expression, all of those things come into play, so we’re not saying that the colours are associated with this or that particular idea or theory.

J: Definitely. We’re not trying to explicitly articulate chakras or colour theory or anything, it’s just an awareness that those things exist, and they speak to the human experience of how colour and feeling work. There are some artists who do that more explicitly, where they’re like “this is what the chakras are,” and “this is what the light’s saying,” they are dictating that “this is what your experience is going to be” and I always find that a little bit underwhelming.

Dark Matter (performers Leah Carrell and Megan Wilson). Photo: Martyn Roberts

M: You have a particular approach to thinking about those colours (I sent you)  in relation to the work overall, or did you put those colours aside and just went with your familiarity with the work?

J: I responded to the colours as a concept with my interpretation of them within the context of understanding the colour flow from your perspective. So, it’s hard to pinpoint; it wasn’t necessarily one thing or the other. From a compositional approach for each colour section, I had the colour written at the top of my screen, and so I’m constantly reflecting and imagining “this is what the last experience was, and this is how we will transition to the next one.”  These colour moments exist like a sorbet, they are this pallet cleanser between dark moments. It exists in a different realm to the dark (the 7 haiku).

In the dark moments of the work, what the light is doing and what the sound is doing are very much inter-linked and are telling this cohesive story. I think the experience of us feeling that we need to see the light makes the light really important in those dark moments, because they are the very thing you rely on. The sound is coming at you and a lot of it is quite loud and powerful and all-encompassing, but you’re striving for the light.

In the colour moments, the focus flicks back from striving for the dark towards focussing on the sound. In those moments, the audience is immersed in the colour of the light, and they can explore what’s being conveyed by the music. The sound and colour are connected purposefully and meaningfully. That perceptual balance in those moments shifts towards the sound. So, through having the different sections we can articulate that transition in perception and focus—so, the coloured moments with emphasis on the sound and the dark moments where the focus moves back towards the light.

In that way, the key thing about the entire work is the concept of balance. We explore the relationship between light and sound, how they interact, and how they shape space and time. If we think about the theatricality of sound within the context of this work, in the dark matter, there is a clear sense of shape and time for each experience, and so the soundscape is serving to help to articulate the abstract dramatic shape of each vignette. The sound is made in response to the requirements of the light experience—for most of the sections. But, interestingly, there was a different approach through sonic journey within the last piece where the music was first (this piece started with sound with the light added in response, unlike the other pieces where the light came first and sound added in response). So, we have this moment where there is a theatrical standpoint, the narrative and dramatic shape of that piece is dictated by what’s in the music, and so there is this kind of really nice sense of that conversation between light as an element and sound as an element where they are both serving each other to become more than what they are separately.

M: Yes. That’s a really interesting point because it was reflected in a lot of the kind of audience feedback which was, you know, that last piece, what we know as Himalayas, for a lot of people it was finding a balance, that, by the end, everything was beginning to sort of reach a zenith. The work converged, and it began to become this harmonious point with the perfectly calm conclusion to take people back out into the night, using that last piece of sound of the natural world to come and bring people up out of depth to the surface. 

I have just finished a book, which I highly recommend, called Underland by Robert McFarlane, and he writes about his experiences in various subterranean environments. He goes into various subterranean locations around the world—caves, the Catacombs of Paris and so forth—and he describes the experience of being in those spaces and talks about what happened to him when he went into these dark spaces: the sense of lost time and orientation, the fight with his inner demons, all of those things. Those are all our inner fights, but when you surface again, you come out back into the light into the warmth, into the world that is familiar, and there is that sense of relief, of taking a breath again; even though you’ve been breathing underground, you know, it’s like you’re breathing again for the first time.

I got that sense from McFarlane, that’s almost exactly what we did with Dark Matter.  We would put people safely underground, metaphorically, and bring them back to the surface. Through a series of chambers, like a cave, we brought them into momentary spaces of colour and light before plunging them back down into the dark ether. But, ultimately, we brought them through those threshold states safely.

J: Yeah definitely. There is a really beautiful moment of stillness in that final piece which becomes a state of transcendence. At that point, whatever fight or flight, or any other visceral reaction you’ve had is gone. You have arrived at this point of thinking “actually, it’s ok to be here in this moment.” It seems that the audience journey is that their trust in us as artists has been solidified, because they know that while they may have been in these potentially uncomfortable or un-natural places, they can come through, into that moment, into this sense of comfort or belonging or whatever that kind of feeling is. It is at that moment that we have the perfect thing to re-introduce the audience back into their everyday world, but with this transformative memory of having been on this dark journey.

Works Cited

Trubridge, Sam. “Sculpts Darkness As If It Were a Thing of Immense Solidity and Form.” Theatreview, 18 Feb. 2017. Accessed 11 Sept. 2019.

Cunninghame, Allie. “Beautiful, Menacing, Extraordinary, Unique.” Theatreview, 26 Sept. 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020. 


*Martyn Roberts is a multi-award winning lighting designer and Professional Practice fellow at the University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ. Martyn has been creating award winning light and set designs for a number of years here in NZ and overseas. Nominated 12 times at the prestigious Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards for his work, Martyn has built a reputation for innovative and exciting design. His New Zealand Festival designs include Dr Buller’s Birds for the 2006 International Festival of the Arts, Dark Tourists for AK07 and Mark Twain and Me in Māoriland for Taki Rua in 2010. He founded afterburner in 2001, a light and sound collective creating installation/theatre hybrid pieces like Man on the Moon, The Telescope and Fog and Mirrors, an urban light project. Other afterburner ventures include the Miranda Manasiadis written and directed work The Singularity (which Martyn co-designed with Rob Larsen), and Dark Matter, winner of two Dunedin Fringe awards in 2016 and Best of Fringe 2017 in Wellington. Dark Matter featured in the Arts Festival Dunedin 2018. Dark Matter has been transformed into a VR video capture and exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial 2019 as part of the New Zealand exhibit. 

**Dr. Jeremy Mayall is an award winning composer, artist and performer based in Hamilton, NZ. He was the Mozart Fellow at Otago University for 2014 and 2015. He works in music, sound art, installation and multimedia formats, with a focus on exploring the interrelationships between sound, time, space, the senses and the human experience. He is excited by collaboration and has worked with musicians, dancers, poets, aerial silks performers, theatre practitioners, scientists, perfumers, bakers, authors, sculptors, filmmakers, pyrotechnicians, lighting designers and visual artists. He works regularly with Horomona Horo and the multimedia ensemble Dr. Mesmer’s Private Army, has had works performed by the NZSO, APO, NZTrio and a number of soloists, as well as installation works as finalists in the Wallace Art Awards and the National Contemporary Art Awards. 

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