Chris Wenn*

The exterior of La Mama Theatre, Carlton. Photo: C. Wenn

La Mama Theatre, Carlton

It is a cool night in late summer. Two of the three doors that open the intimacy of La Mama to the outside world are open, and the sounds of that world ease into the space with the gentle breeze. La Mama itself sits in an acoustically rich location, as northbound traffic on Lygon Street crosses westbound traffic a block away on Elgin, the frantic speed of the Grill’d burger franchise blending with the conversation and laughter of customers at the nearby Italian restaurants and boutique bars. Constant foot traffic, a roosting colony of sparrows in the courtyard, the jarring crash of bottles dumped into recycling skips, and the distant sound of the city combine in a complex auditory backdrop that is as much a part of the La Mama experience as its rickety seating and the stairs that dominate the space’s western wall.

La Mama Theatre’s courtyard “foyer.” Photo: C. Wenn

This acoustic richness overlays the dense text and organic drone that opens Woodcourt Art Theatre’s Encounter. The text is from a short story by Kirby Medway, acted or read from the screen of an iPad by the performers. It describes a meeting in a park between a reporter and a homeless man—possibly mentally ill, or possibly the only person who sees the whole truth of the world. Sound designer Liam Halliwell’s textural ambience is barely audible against the acousmatic sound of Friday night on Lygon Street. At first, this giddy rush of real-world sound is exciting, not intruding on the imagined park scene but enhancing it. But the performers are clearly unsettled—perhaps this touring show from Sydney has not been performed like this before, the evocation of outdoor space is accidental, not intended. Later, the entire theatre—audience and performers—seems to flinch as a cascade of bottles is dumped in the skips outside, accompanied by one side of a strident conversation. We can only hear one voice, perhaps a dishy on his mobile making plans for later tonight.

The rear of La Mama Theatre. Photo: C. Wenn

The Aesthetically Intensified Site

The German sound artist Georg Klein argues that the sound of a site is the sound of its space: that sound art brings out the specificity of space in a concrete manner, as opposed to the abstract concept of space that compositional music admits. “The sound of a space,” he writes, “is no longer one of several compositional dimensions, but moves to the center of perception as space that is made to resound, which is reflected on the behavior of the recipient.” This site-sound, Ortsklang, grows out of the site itself, and represents the way that site is altered through sound; Klein refers to the “situation on the site” being “influenced and aesthetically intensified.” The work of art in a site is a “material confrontation with reality” that has a dual orientation to the world “through the site as performance venue and the aesthetic and thematic conversion of the site,” which “achieves and demands a much deeper penetration and integration with reality” (Klein 2009: 101-02).

While Klein is specifically writing about his own site-specific and politically engaged public installation works, the notion of Ortsklang provides a powerful tool for examining live theatre: by its very nature, theatrical performance influences and aesthetically intensifies sites. It deliberately gathers together an audience to witness; it places that audience in an aesthetic relation to the work as it unfolds; it confronts the architectonic reality of a location with the ongoing creation of the work of art.

It is true that theatre, in general, has an audience conscious of its constructedness; an audience that has self-selected to be in this place at this time and is not simply encountering a public artwork “while going about their everyday activities in the public domain” (Batchelor 2013: 14). Yet, it is through that constructedness that each new iteration of performance generates its sound-site. Performance spaces are, after all, “delineated, cordoned off, set aside . . . confined to and conditioned by a particular area, volume or architectural feature . . . organised through displacement of spectators” (Pearson and Shanks 2001: 22) and are, therefore, positioned as spaces which are aesthetically intensifiable. This is one way in which we are able to make sound for performance: in that the site itself permits it through its arrangement—that which we refer to as architectonics, its combination of built and physical environment.

It is critical here to note that Ortsklang implies a certain relationship with acousmatic sound, sound which is heard but its source is unseen. The Ortsklang of La Mama in Carlton extends from the unseen, outside world of traffic and nightlife to the interior world of amplified sound, voice and body on stage. Further, Ortsklang holds within itself the acoustic properties of its site. Consider the ringing of a bell in the tower of a church nearby: at my desk in my house two or three blocks away I do not see the bell in the act of ringing, and for all the familiarity of its tone I do not perceive the bell itself. Instead, I hear the sound of the bell echo and reverberate from its point of origin in the bell tower across the rooftops and apartment blocks of the inner-city suburb in which I live. The bell’s sound is irrevocably changed by its passage through the world, reflected by the concrete and glass of the city. In this sense, we do not hear the sounds of things themselves: we hear the sound of the sounding, not the sound of the sound.

So it is when we are seated in a theatre: the sounds of the work before us are contained, shaped, changed forever by bare brick and concrete, woollen drapes, timber, steel and bodies. A theatre filled with an opening night audience will sound entirely different to a dress rehearsal, with the acoustic baffle of fifty or a hundred human bodies in place. There is a richness and complexity to the acoustic life of the theatre.

fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne: A Site Survey        

The entrance of fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne. Photo: C. Wenn

Acoustic ecology is the study and recording of sounds in their physical environment. It is an acoustic practice: the acoustic ecology of place is of necessity the sound of that site, but it is not the sound made by that site. It is not, itself, a sounding object. Rather, it is the sound of the things that align with, occupy, and surround that site: seen and unseen, identifiable, and not. The practice has its origin in the 1970s, imagined by the composer R. Murray Schafer as an essentially conservative way of recording sound-worlds that are being lost to ecological destruction or decay, encompassing the “noise” of the human world as well as the natural, and “to counter the types of soundscapes that produced a non-listening habituated response to the acoustic environment” (Truax and Barrett 2011: 1202).

It is not so great a stretch, then, to imagine—and describe—acoustic ecologies of our theatre spaces. It is true that larger venues and purpose-built spaces are specifically designed to minimise external acoustic intervention. This should not imply that they are without an acoustic ecology entirely: volume, dimension, reverberation, resonance, diffusion, reflection, attenuation are all constituent parts of what I will describe using Klein’s concept of Ortsklang.

These larger, grander spaces do not offer the acousmatic richness of the independent theatres that I work in as a sound designer. Small theatres and the makeshift venues of fringe and independent theatre have the most readily identifiable Ortsklang. I have already given a brief précis of this with regard to La Mama, on Faraday Street in Carlton; I will now be somewhat more descriptive with fortyfivedownstairs, at 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne.

The rear of fortyfivedownstairs, showing carpark and alleyway.
Photo: C. Wenn

The performance space at fortyfivedownstairs is a former clothing factory, situated in the basement floor of a nineteenth-century commercial building. The basement is significantly below the street level of Flinders Lane, and partially lower than Flinders Street on its southern side. Immediately above the performance space is fortyfive’s gallery and offices, while the ground floor is occupied by commercial gallery Span and the Cumulus Inc. restaurant/bar. The upper floor is occupied by fine dining establishment Cumulus Up. Immediately nearby, there are offices, car parks, galleries, bars, boutiques, restaurants, the vast Collins Place commercial complex and a constant flow of city life. Therefore, the surrounding acoustic environment of the venue is full and rich with the acoustics of the urban environment: voices, feet, cooking, laughter, movement, rats and birds. Traffic passes on Flinders Street and Flinders Lane, cars rev slowly through the adjoining multi-storey carpark, tyres squeaking on painted concrete, doors slamming. Empty bottles cascade, air conditioners and heating systems hum, water drips.

The performance space itself is large, wooden-floored and brick-walled, divided by four steel structural pillars arranged around the approximate centre of the room. Its eastern wall is glass windows in steel frames, its southern wall a grimy loading dock. Despite its heritage listed pressed-tin ceiling and hard surfaces, the old wood and relatively low five-metre height of the space keep sharp and extended resonance to a minimum, and this can be further reduced by draping. Along its long axis, the space is about twenty-one metres end-to-end, sound emanating from a point source at the southern end of the space would take approximately 0.6 of a second to reach a listener at the northern end—a clearly audible delay.

More than one hundred years of hard use has left the wooden floor uneven, full of mysterious creaks and flexes. The old dry wood sends a footstep thumping through the space. Sound transmits well between the lower ground floor and basement—footsteps and movements above clunk and rumble through the space below. So too does sound travel between the stairwell (the usual means of public access) and the performance space. Four flights of wooden stairs separate the basement from ground floor, each step a darkly resonant and almost weary clonk, clonk, clonk. Cumulus Inc. tend to avoid bottle disposal during performance times—their bins are located in a closet above the stairwell—so, the distinctive crash of glass is from other, more distant businesses. In the adjoining Spark Lane, which provides access to fortyfive’s loading dock, commercial traffic is steady on weekdays, as deliveries and pickups are made, sending the sound of light truck and van motors resonating out over the concrete walls of the laneway. On some nights, the occasional drunk can be heard finding relief for an overfull bladder.

This is a brief evocation of the Ortsklang of fortyfivedownstairs—a surface survey. It outlines the major sonic features of the venue’s acoustic and acousmatic environment: how it sounds, and how it is sounded. In almost five hundred words, I have described the everyday sounds of this site, but I have not described the increasing reality of our everyday world, a group of phenomena that Ross Brown describes as an “immersive theatre of sonic ambiguity” (Brown 2010: 5)—the complex sonification of devices, experiences and interactions.

Everyday Sonification

The rear wall of fortyfivedownstairs. Photo: C. Wenn

In our everyday lives, we interact with countless devices and machines: remote keys for our cars; ticket machines; card readers; EFTPOS terminals; lifts and escalators; trains, trams and buses; mobile phones. Each one of these—and many more—describes itself to our hearing with beeps, clicks, mellifluous tones, recorded voices, distinctive riffs, samples of devices long gone by. Brown evokes this immersion:

It is there in the architectural and digitally-emulated acoustics of cars and public “linger” spaces (lobbies, concourses and malls); in home entertainment systems and in-car audio “solutions”; in digital phones that sound like old-fashioned analogue ones but with a built in reverb effect to make them sound like they are ringing in a different, more sonically luxurious world. (Brown 2010: 5)

Indeed, there is a whole acoustic ecology that each of us carries with us everywhere, every day. It can present itself at any moment—in fact, I have been assuming it might at any moment in this presentation. We are conditioned to see this manifestation of our sonic environment as invasive (McElroy 2010)—almost every performance is prefaced with an admonition to “turn your mobile phones off, to silent or airplane mode,” while cinemas have increasingly slickly produced advertising films to promote the same message. Prior to the rollout of 3G and 4G mobile networks, older mobile telephony systems could cause significant interference with audio systems, even when on silent, as the device polled the network for the nearest tower—mobile device noise has been a significant factor in sound system design for at least twenty years.

The increasing sonification of everyday life reveals that almost any object or device can be a sound-object. In the performance space, we are used to the positional psychoacoustic effects of speaker placement, panning, reverb and other techniques to produce the appearance of sound-objects on stage—classic examples are an alarm clock or gunshot. With a broader understanding of objects-that-sound we can access an array of sonic possibilities that were previously unthinkable. Because we are familiar with everyday technologies of things-that sound, then, perhaps, we are better able to integrate those soundings into our theatrical worlds.

It is significant, then, that Klein’s notion of Ortsklang is not simply derived from the sound of a site itself, but evolves from the alteration of that site by the sound introduced to it. Through engagement with the acoustic ecology of the site, and therefore the acoustic ecologies of everyday life, a sound designer is able to enter into deeper relation with the work itself: as I have contended elsewhere every moment that we present in performance is capable of carrying meaning; each moment is a potential intersubjective understanding between the participants in performance, whether it is intended as such or not.

To return to my earlier example of Woodcourt Art Theatre’s Encounter, it was this impulse of meaning-making that excited me as I understood the Ortsklang of La Mama to be part of the work’s evocation of a strange meeting in a suburban park. We should remember that, in performance, our audiences are, in phenomenological terms, open and turned towards experience. They are welcoming into their sensory lives moments that are as yet unfashioned and as yet incomplete—it is only through their open engagement that meaning is produced.

Heidegger admits this possibility, saying: “We hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations or even mere sounds” (Heidegger 1993: 95). That is, we think, derive from and understand the sound of the thing that sounds, not the sound of the sound itself (Wenn 2015: 240-41). In this instance, in the making of theatre, it is performance itself that is the thing that sounds. As audience we have the capacity to make meaning from everything we experience; this is a fundamental capacity of audience itself, and in our everyday lives, outside of audience and outside of witnessing, we readily understand the sonification of devices, we interpret our sonic world. As Brown writes:

If we imagine a sound—say the chime of a bell and the way it echoes around the village—we may think and talk of its point of origin as an object (a discrete event) but the point of origin is not the sound, but the cause of the sound, which is spatial, and these spatial qualities are part of the environment within which the event-object of the bell figures. There is only one sound, one event, one thing, and logically a thing may not be both its self and its environment (Brown 2011: 6).

We are entirely used to interpreting sounds within their environments, delineating sound, sound-object, resounding-object, psychoacoustics and meaning as part of our normal interaction with the world, as part of our listening. So it is that we can draw into our performance spaces the sounds of our world. In much of independent theatre and performance, this is something we should accept more readily, as these sounds already infiltrate—as Peter Batchelor notes, we as a listening public cannot remove ourselves from “an audio ‘spectacle’ if uninterested or unmoved by it” (Batchelor 2013: 14). In the complex acousmatic world of our independent theatre spaces, a sound designer can respond to and integrate the “audio spectacle,” rather than resist it.

Works Cited

Batchelor, Peter. “Lowercase Strategies in Public Sound Art: Celebrating the Transient Audience.” Organised Sound 18.1 (2013): 14-21.

Brown, Ross. Sound: A Reader in Theatre Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2010.

—. “Towards Theatre Noise.” Theatre Noise: The Sound of Performance. Ed. Lynne Kendrick and David Roesner. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2011. 1-13.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). Trans. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

Kaye, Deena, and James LeBrecht. Sound and Music for the Theatre: The Art and Technique of Design. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Klein, Georg. “Site-Sounds: On Strategies of Sound Art in Public Space.” Organised Sound 14.1 (2009): 101-08.

McElroy, Steven. “Act I, Scene I: The Cellphone Must Not Go On.” The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2010.

Pearson, Mike, and Michael Shanks. Theatre/Archaeology: Disciplinary Dialogues. London: Routledge, 2001.

Truax, Barry, and Gary W. Barrett. “Soundscape in a Context of Acoustic and Landscape Ecology.” Landscape Ecology 26.9 (2011): 1201-7.

Wenn, Chris. “Headphone Listening in Live Performance: A Phenomenology of Sound Design.” Theatre and Performance Design 1.3 (2015): 236-55.

*Chris Wenn is a sound designer for theatre and contemporary performance, and is a Ph.D. candidate in the Centre for Theatre and Performance at Monash University. His work places sound design in a complex temporal landscape that is made recoverable by its archaeological traces, examining the relationship between sound designer, performance and audience, and uncovering sound in performance through the traces itself in imagination and memory, in site, space, body and text. His sound design and compositions have featured in works by Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Liminal Theatre and Performance, New Working Group and Malthouse.

Copyright © 2017 Chris Wenn
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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The Rush of Real World Sound: Acoustic Ecologies of Independent Theatre in Melbourne
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