Expanding Sound Design in Performing Arts

Kent Olofsson*


The new audio technologies available today are forces in the evolution of sound and music in contemporary performing arts. New sonic practices for sound designers, composers and performers emerge, which in turn change the creative processes for productions, as well as the aesthetics of performances. This article focuses on how a creative rethinking of work with immersive sound, virtual room acoustics and sonic spatialization can be a dramaturgical, compositional and scenographic tool for performing arts. It is a new sonic practice that offers interactive and immersive elements that interplay with performers, transforms spaces and shapes evocative experiences for the audience. The article particularly considers the creative perspectives of the composer and the sound designer in how new ideas and possibilities may unfold with such an approach. This may ultimately merge the often-separated practices of musical composition and sound design and further expand them towards scenography and dramaturgy.

Keywords: Sound design, performing arts, sonic scenography, new audio technology, musical composition, dramaturgy, theatre music

Sound and music have always been an integral part of theatre—the voices of the actors, the shaping of environmental sounds and incidental music. However, as a sonic practice in theatre, creating sound and music has often been a subordinate work with the role of supporting the drama, text and story by enhancing emotions, designing sound effects and creating senses of places through environmental soundscapes. With the experimental directions of theatre in the twentieth century, starting out from the Futurist, Dadaist and Bauhaus movements, sonic practices became ways to explore and transgress borders by working with sound as autonomous elements in performance. Mladen Ovadija outlines this development in his book Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre. In the late twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first, we can see new directions with an increasing influence of music and musical thinking in theatre, not least from compositional approaches found in Western art music. Examples of these directions and approaches are discussed, analyzed and contextualized in Musicality in Theatre: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making by David Roesner and Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes, a collection of essays edited by Mattias Rebstock and Roesner.

Today, we can see how new audio technologies and digitalization are forces in the evolution of sound and music in contemporary performing arts. New sonic practices for sound designers, composers and performers emerge, which in turn change the creative processes for productions, as well as the aesthetics of performances. In this article, I will focus on how a creative rethinking of work with immersive sound, virtual room acoustics and sonic spatialization can be a dramaturgical, compositional and scenographic tool for performing arts. As such, it is a new sonic practice that offers interactive and immersive elements that interplay with performers, transforms spaces and shapes evocative experiences for the audience. I will particularly consider the creative perspectives of the composer and the sound designer in how new ideas and possibilities may unfold with such an approach. This may ultimately merge the often-separated practices of musical composition and sound design and further expand them towards scenography and dramaturgy.

In the first part, based on my own practice and research, I suggest that to fully embrace the potential of new audio technologies we need to rethink, expand and go beyond the usual preconception of what sound design and music in theatre can be. In the second part, I will, through two detailed examples, look at how technologies can operate on the borders of sound design, musical composition, scenography and dramaturgy. I will use examples from two recent performances: the chamber opera In the Darkness, Everything Went All Black that premiered in 2018 and the intermedial theatre performance På spaning efter den som flytt (In Search of Lost Time), which premiered in 2019. The two examples are taken from two different fields in performing arts where music traditionally has fundamentally different roles. In opera, the music is at the very core, usually created before any staging takes place, while in theatre it has often been added in a later stage of the creative process to support the drama. However, as will be shown, the artistic ideas afforded by the possibilities of the technologies for immersive sound and spatialization open a way of thinking that suggests a fluid understanding of sonic practices in contemporary performing arts, defying traditional boundaries of genres. 

Current Tendencies in Making Theatre Music

With the rapid pace with which new technologies for sound production have been developing over the past few decades, an exuberant and overwhelming array of new artistic possibilities for sound design and music in live and digital performances can be seen. Looking at this development from the perspective of the history and traditions of music and sound design in the different forms of performing arts, many questions can be raised concerning what it will mean for the sonic practices in these fields. How has it changed, and how will it change the role sound and music can have in productions? How does it change the way we work, the way creative processes evolve and the way productions are made? Furthermore, how does it change the role of the artist creating sound and music, and, subsequently, how does it challenge the traditional working hierarchies in theatre?

In his recent book, Theatermusik: Analysen und Gespräche, Roesner traces new directions and changed practices amongst composers and sound designers of theatre music. It is based on a substantial number of interviews with practitioners in the field, most of them active in German-speaking countries. The tendencies discussed in the book can arguably be found in many other countries as well—it is certainly the case in Nordic countries. As a starting point, Roesner states ten theses; ten observations on the general development and aesthetic tendencies in the creation of theatre music today. One of the theses states: “Die Digitalisierung erlaubt der Theatermusik, im Dialog mit der Inszenierung interaktiver und flexibler zu sein” (“The digitalization allows theatre music to be more interactive and flexible in dialogue with the staging [my translation”) (21). Artistically, the statement poses a crucial question: how do we find new artistic methods, processes, and ways of creative thinking that make full use of the potential of new technologies available? To fully unlock and explore this potential, I would argue that it does not foremost require deep knowledge and understanding of the technologies in question but needs to be addressed and governed by artistic visions and experimentation. The aspect of digitalization Roesner contemplates in his thesis has been one part of a rethinking for me on the very fundamentals of the practice of sound design and composing theatre music.

Composing the Performance

In my thesis, Composing the Performance, from 2018, I suggest approaches to how musical composition can offer strategies for dramaturgical methods in contemporary intermedial theatre. I discuss and explore musical thinking in relation to acting, directing and the dramatic text. Sound and music are often considered as co-actors in relation to the actors. The text, scenic actions and situations influence how the music is shaped, and, vice versa, music influences how the actions and situations in the performance are shaped. It is a reciprocal process, both in creation and in performance. Sometimes, the actors together with the sonic elements form what may be described and perceived as a kind of musical ensemble.

Concerning the notion of musical composition, I merge techniques and concepts from a wide range of musical fields and traditions, based on my own work as a composer: the score-based approach of classical and contemporary art music; the work with sound transformation and processing in electroacoustic music; and the collaborative and creative studio practices of pop and rock music. One of the most indispensable influences has been electroacoustic music. Here, the explorations of sound are central; any sound can be a potential building block for a composition. The compositional parameters of spatialisation and timbre are often more fundamental than those of rhythm and pitch. For my work as a composer in the performing arts, the concept of sonic transformations, a significant feature of electroacoustic music, has been central. The potential of the transformation of voices, sound objects and soundscapes in performances has become an essential concept in works from recent years, an approach that is further transposed and paralleled in light, video, scenography and acting methods.

In the performances that make up the artistic part of my thesis, I show how sound and music can have many roles and functions: a co-actor in relation to performers and other media, as sonic scenography, serving dramaturgical functions, and as stand-alone music in sections which can be more like staged concerts. The key point is about the dramaturgical potential in how sound and music can shift and transform between these roles and functions. In the process of a transformation, we may perceive something else emerging in the processes of change that we do not yet know what shape it will take. We get a sense of movement, of direction and of intention. A strong anticipation carries a fundamental and inherent energy for dramaturgical and compositional work.

This approach suggests an open and fluid understanding of sound, music, sound design and composition in creation and performance. Furthermore, it can lead us into sonic practices that not only expand the notion of sound design and music-making but also go beyond. Here, I want to draw a parallel to scenography and how Rachel Hahn elaborates on the word beyond as “seek[ing] to recognize how concepts and practices of scenography are in a state of toing and froing, of moving between learned certitudes and potentials of practice” (1). While largely operating in different mediums and stimulating different human senses, the connection and partly overlapping practices between the sonic work I advocate and the “scenography beyond” can be found in that they both, to use Hahn’s word, sustain “a feeling of the beyond where the crafting of a ‘scene’—inclusive of the orientating qualities of light and sound, as well as costume and scenery—encompasses a range of distinct methods for atmospheric transformation that score how encounters of ‘world’ are conceptualized and rendered attentive” (1). This approach of thinking beyond sound design and music-making in performing arts, I would argue, can largely facilitate the work with and unleash the potential of sonic practices with new sound technology of immersive sound.

Technologies and Practices of Immersive Sound 

A significant part in the evolution of new audio technology is the development of tools for immersive sound. This has been essential for commercial productions as well as for creations in experimental art practices. Surround sound for film in cinemas and for home cinema systems are today standardized with formats and technologies such as Dolby Atmos.[1] In experimental music and sound art, immersive sound is often an integral part, with sound spatialization serving as a fundamental compositional parameter. In the field of electroacoustic music, the Acousmonium—the loudspeaker orchestra designed and developed by François Bayle in the 1970s at GRM[2]—had a central and vital role in the practice and development of sound diffusion. Composer Denis Smalley defines sound diffusion as “the ‘sonorization’ of the acoustic space and the enhancing of sound-shapes and structure to create a rewarding listening experience” (Austin and Smalley 10). With new digital technologies for immersive sound, such as Ambisonics, and with a plethora of software, like Spat Revolution, the exploration and experimentation in spatial sonic practices is today in an expansive phase. The development is further nurtured through new technologies in virtual reality where interactive and immersive sound is an important part of the experience.

In the field of performing arts, the use of new technologies for immersive sound are found in numerous theatres and productions. However, I would argue that this field and the practices within it remain relatively unexplored as it holds a vast artistic potential. In performing arts, each production has its unique set of performers, scenography and visual elements. Here, also, the set up for the sound can be shaped uniquely. The way the speakers are placed in the performance space determines how sound can move in relation to performers and audience and how immersive music and soundscapes are experienced. Furthermore, the experience of the physical space may be changed on a sonic level using technologies of virtual acoustics. Especially with larger and well-calibrated loudspeaker set-ups, the acoustic properties of a space may be perceived differently using realistic reverb rendering, giving the impression that the space we entered initially for the performance has changed physically. Such approaches may expand the work of a composer and sound designer to embrace scenographic aspects of sound in performing arts.

Sonic Scenography

To define my work with immersive sound in performing arts, I have used the term sonic scenography. In my thesis, I write that this is a music or a soundscape that “creates a sense of space, a sonic landscape that may suggest a particular emotional state or environment. It can range from abstract soundscapes to concrete environmental sounds” (184). For me, sonic scenography is work with pre-produced sound and, as such, is directly linked to sound diffusion techniques and how the loudspeaker set up is an integrated part of the overall stage design. I elaborate on this in the thesis and state that “[t]he architectonic approach to sound for theatre performances comes for me primarily from the idea of loudspeaker orchestras, like the Acousmonium, but also from modern days surround system for movies” (236). The term sonic scenography can be found elsewhere with somewhat different meanings. Mareike Dobewall uses the term in her recent thesis Voicelanding to describe her artistic practice with acoustic sound and acoustic properties of spaces; a practice situated between music-making and scenography. While fundamentally different due to the starting points with either the acoustics or the virtual and digital, they share similar ambition. “Sonic scenography, as a form of performance-making, is . . . a way to create worlds of affective qualities for an audience” (Dobewall.)[3]

In work with sonic scenography and new technologies for immersive sound, the notion of transformation can help to go beyond what immersive sound in theatre can be. Furthermore, it can lead us into sonic practices that not only expand the notion of sound design and music-making but also go beyond. A concrete example, which will be discussed in detail below, is how acoustic properties and characteristics, such as that of the reverberation of a space, can be an active element – a musical and dramatic co-performer – through the act of transformation. The working conditions for this approach can, naturally, be very different, as it depends on what kind of room acoustics that a performance space has. In a church for example, with usually very large and reverberant acoustics, it can be difficult to radically change this even with a high-quality sound system. In a performance space with more controlled acoustics, on the other hand, working with and shaping virtual acoustic spaces offers the possibility of radical changes and transformations. As such, it is not only a tool for changing the sense of different spaces but can be used as a dramaturgical and compositional element in performance, playing with the perception of the spectator in enhanced experiences of the movements between worlds and places.

Promo trailer of In the Darkness, Everything Went All Black that premiered in 2018. Accessed 9 May 2022. Concept design by the whole team. Libretto: Jörgen Dahlqvist. Music and sound design: Kent Olofsson. Scenography: Mattias Rylander. Performers: Hedvig Jalhed, soprano. Agnes Wästfelt, soprano.
Virtual Acoustics as Scenography and Dramaturgy in Opera: In the Darkness, Everything Went All Black

In the Darkness, Everything Went All Black is an opera that is performed almost entirely in darkness. The text and performance are open-ended. While the opera has a strong dramatic feel to it, there are no obvious narrative, characters, or places. The presentation text reads:

It’s a place where something or someone is hiding in the dark. There are also other traces of life there, two persons are desperately trying to struggle with the situation they are put in, hoping to find a way towards the freedom and the light.

In the Darkness
In the Darkness, Everything Went All Black. Photo: Mattias Rylander

For the audience, the special condition of darkness not only forces a heightened auditory awareness to and focus on the sonic elements of the performance, but it also sets in motion imaginations of visual elements, places and narratives. “The arcane text and the fragmented information were deliberately left open to the visi­tors’ personal associations and abilities to elicit mental images of their own. Long-spun parts without any visual stimulus at all were sustained to achieve a sense of loss of track of time and space” (Jalhed 157). Thus, the open and evocative setting invites the audience to shape their own stories in the opera.[4]

The project explores radically different relations between performers, audience, staging and space than we normally find in operas. Opera singer Hedvig Jalhed and scenographer Mattias Rylander, the two initiators of the project, state in their article, Opera Inside-Out: Reversed Staging for Sensory Immersion, that one of the aims was “to explore how withholding information can potentially increase immersion” (1). They continue: “By inverting the setup in terms of visibility, layout, work or­der, and surveillance, we . . . investigated how the unseen can be heard and imagined through operatic means” (2). Jalhed and Rylander “refer to immersion as a state of being . . . that makes you forget about the outside world and relational reality. This can be achieved . . . by blocking out information from the surroundings. Hence, stimulation, concentration, and grades of isola­tion are at the core of immersive practices and processes” (1).

In the case of In the Darkness, immersion through sound is crucial, aiming to give the audience a sense of being in places where something unknown occurs. We wanted to create a setting that stimulated active and reflective listening, which would set the imagination in motion, contemplating what was happening in the performance. Here, the work with immersive sound and virtual room acoustics was an indispensable compositional and scenographic tool that helped to shape the dramaturgy. Through a few examples below, I will discuss and demonstrate how this was used in the performance and the effect it had.

As the very initial idea for the production was an opera performed in total darkness, it meant that the set design concept was established before any text or music was written. This exemplifies a reversed process of operatic creation, where scenography is added and developed later, after both text and music are written. In this case, the creative process started out from the scenographic idea of a performance in darkness. “The team began to workshop and experiment with how to arrange the setting spatially, how to temporally introduce sound in relation to the lack of visual stimuli, and how to achieve confusion about the identities and positions of the voi­ces through vocal mimicry in order to spark imagination” (Jalhed 156). Thus, libretto and music evolved not from a narrative but from the particular conditions of the set design.

The sonic elements of the opera can be divided into four groups: two soprano voices that are slightly amplified, pre-produced electronic and sampled sounds, acoustic sounds and reverberation using virtual room acoustics.[5] For the set design, a large box—a kind of tent, approximately 1 x 2 x 2 meters—was constructed. It was fully covered in black cloth and placed in the center of the performance space. The two singers were for the most part of the opera’s duration inside this box. The audience sat with their backs to the box and thus with the singers behind them, initially not aware that they were inside. Jalhed and Rylander write about the set up:

the convex layout for the audience seats, . . . served two purposes: to turn visitor attention towards disparate directions instead of a common centre, and to facilitate the performers’ orientation through regularities and symmetry. Placed in half-circles facing outwards from the central point of emptiness, the exposed visitors could sit with their backs to each other and their attention towards the room instead of their peers—like an inverted panopticon”.

The set design for In the Darkness, Everything Went All Black at Atalante in Gothenburg 2018. Photo: Hedvig Jalhed

In the first part of the opera, the voices of the two sopranos were only heard from inside the box, both acoustically and from the small speakers placed there. The sound of the voices was thus coming from behind the listeners, making it harder to locate them precisely when compared to voices singing in front of a listener.[6] The microphone inputs from two voices were sent into Spat, the spatial sound software by IRCAM, which created virtual acoustic spaces. This was sent to all the speakers in the performance space, placed around and above the audience and inside the box.[7]

In the beginning of the opera, we first hear something that sounds like an old recording of an opera aria from the late Romantic era. It comes from one speaker, giving the impression of an old radio or record player. In the darkness, the audience can only imagine the sound source. However, its location is clear, and it is coming from one of the corners in the room. There are other sounds, soft noises and hums coming from different directions, creating a sense of a real place. These could just as well be sounds not belonging to the piece but rather emanating from devices like air conditioners or radiators located in the space. 

Sound example 1. In the Darkness: Prologue. Binaural mix

When the singers begin, they sing very softly, almost as though they were whispering. They keep repeating the line “Are they there?” as if they are unsure if there is anyone more than themselves in the room. The text line is open for interpretation, the audience cannot be sure the singers are addressing them, or someone else. Initially, the virtual reverberation is short, which gives a sense of a smaller, acoustically dry, room.

Sound example 2. In the Darkness: Three excerpts from section 1:1, 1:3 and 1:4. Binaural mix

The composition slowly evolves, and more melodic material is gradually introduced. Later, after around 20 minutes, the singers leave the box and slowly start to move around in the space. It is pitch black; the audience are not able to see the singers who navigate by using infra-red glasses. The singers have a blind stick each, tapping on the floor as they walk. At the same time, a pre-recorded multichannel sound file is heard. It is the sound of someone walking around with a stick in another room, recorded in a space that has different, more reverberant room acoustics. The blending of the real sticks tapping in the performance space together with the pre-recorded soundtrack blur the borders between the real and the imagined. The audience sense the singers walking close behind them, without knowing who is moving in the darkness. The singers occasionally touch some in the audience members lightly, which creates an uncanny feeling.

Sound example 3. In the Darkness: Section 2:1-2:4. Binaural mix

With the virtual room reverberation changing over time, it becomes an acoustic scenography in motion, altering the perception of the space’s properties, including its size and material. For the audience, it strongly contributed to their experience of immersion and being in another world. The absence of visual information increased sensitivity to the sonic elements, which stimulated and shaped their imaginations of places and narratives. For the singers, it had a more direct meaning as the acoustics affected the singing. As the singing gradually became more melodic, more poignant and dynamically stronger, the sense of a larger space supported the singers in their vocal performances.

Sound example 4. In the Darkness: Excerpt from final part. Binaural mix
Transferring and Transforming Acoustic Spaces: In Search of Lost Time

På spaning efter den som flytt (In Search of Lost Time) is an adaptation of Marcel Proust’s seminal novel in seven volumes. It had its premiere in March 2019 at Orionteatern in Stockholm. Staged for only one actor, the scenography, sound, light, videos, costumes and the large theatre space—an old mechanical workshop—were considered by the artistic team as co-actors in the three-hour performance. 

A tale of liberation, a sonata, a dream, an awakening, a gothic cathedral, a lovely dress, a modernity machine, a metaphysical lecture, an overwhelming hornyness, a jealous delirium, a gender euphoria, bathroom graffiti, a spy thriller, a disruption of chronological time, an antidote to rationality and measurability, a re-enchantment of the world and a hymn to sensuousness. . . .From the childhood paradise of the lush town of Combray to the empty snobbery and positioning of the Parisian salon, to the violence of the first world war, actress/director Nina Jeppsson brought a large Proustian gallery of quirky characters to life. 

In Search
Nina Jeppson in På spaning efter den tid som flytt. Script and directing: Maja Salomonsson and Nina Jeppsson. On stage: Nina Jeppsson. Scenography: Mats Sahlström. Music and sound design: Kent Olofsson. Choreography: Andriana Seecker. Costume designer: Johanna Mårtensson. Make-up artist: Linda Sandberg. Light design: Raimo Nyman. Video: Johannes Ferm Winkler/Visual relief. Performance technician: Ida Sundberg, Marta Khomenko. Technician: Torbjörn Isaksson. Photo: José Figueroa

For this section, I will discuss one scene where the work with real and virtual acoustics are both a part of the scenography and of the music, and how their transformation is a fundamental dramaturgical trait. During the creative process, the artistic team referred to the scene as “The Gothic/The Nightmare.” The idea for the scene was initiated when one of the directors pointed out that some sections in the novel created associations to Gothic art and architecture (such as cathedrals), and she suggested a scene where this was expressed. Certainly, parts of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time carry such an impression of a cathedral, not only in the text but also in the form and structure of the novel. In the last volume, where the narrator finally finds the starting point for his book, he says that the writing will be like building a huge cathedral, of which there are many that are never really finished (which also became true for Proust’s novel, as Proust never finished the last volume before he died). Indeed, Proust stated in a personal letter that he actually had planned to name the different parts of the novel after architectural parts of a cathedral (Frank 117).

From these ideas, scenographer Mats Sahlström brought in different images inspired by Gothic styles, and from that I, in turn, had the idea of using the sound of a church organ. For the performance, already from the start, I had envisioned a large set up of loudspeakers. The set up was specially designed for the huge space of Orionteatern where the performance took place. Speakers were not only placed in front, above and behind the audience, but also below the seats and in adjacent rooms of the theatre. This allowed me to experiment with a sonic interplay with the space and its acoustics, with the sound system changing the perception of the place. As such, it became a part of the scenography, as I elaborate upon below.

When I worked out the idea of the church organ, I decided to not only record the instrument but also try to transfer the acoustics of the church into the theatre by using the same number of microphones as speakers in the set up. The recording was made in St Johannes Church in Malmö. The church organ was played by organist Mats Hultqvist and me. The microphones were placed all around the church, from very close to the organ pipes (some microphones were in fact placed inside the organ) to very far, placed at the other end of the space. The multitrack recording was then transferred into the theatre, again using the Spat library for Max (the software tool for spatial sound). With this software, the discrepancies of distance and elevation between the spaces, between the placement of each microphone and each speaker, could be adjusted. The transformed recording and the transferred acoustics became the fundamental sonic material for this scene.

We enter the “Gothic/Nightmare” scene from the idyllic landscape of Combray, with warm light and a pastoral soundscape, where the actor has been speaking, singing and dancing joyfully. The light fades out, it becomes silent, and the theatre is almost entirely dark except from the tiny lights above which resemble stars. The actor disappears, and now we only hear her voice, which is amplified. We hear her close. She is scared, almost crying, and hoping for her mother to come to her bed to give her a long-awaited goodnight kiss. She is listening for her mother’s footsteps on the staircase, but the mother does not come; she is downstairs with the guests. Instead, the faint light of a laterna magica (an old type of mechanical image projector) starts showing rotating figures, and we hear strange sounds coming from all corners of the space. It is wind-like noises, soft strokes on wood and metal. In the darkness, a soundscape emerges that seems to transform the sense of place. The sounds are mechanical noises from the church organ: the air that runs through the pipes, the opening and closing of stops and noises from the keyboards played without any pipes opened. Just like the opera discussed in the previous section, by fading out almost all light and thereby reducing visual information, the audience’s attention to the sound is intensified. The actor jumps out into the light of the laterna magica at the very back of the stage, strangely dressed as a fuzzy ball on legs. It is a nightmarish figure created by the narrator’s rampant imagination. The figure makes strange noises, puffs, laughs and speaks with a distorted voice. When the first chord from the church organ is heard, we seem suddenly to be in a large dark cathedral. The figure starts to sing, loud and intimidating.

The Gothic/Nightmare scene. Photo: José Figueroa
Sound example 5. På spaning efter den tid som flytt: The Gothic/Nightmare scene. Binaural mix

Through most of this scene, the sound of the organ is unaltered, though overlapping recordings are gradually introduced. Towards the end, however, the recordings are heavily processed, creating a swirling glissando, like a downward spiral. On its way down, echoes of the distorted church organ are left in a long reverb tail, slowly dying away. We hear only one tiny sound—a vintage recording of a violin sonata that is coming from inside the grand piano placed downstage left on the stage. The actor stops singing and notices the music from the piano. She walks slowly towards it, looks inside and listens. Gradually, there is a resonance of the soft music, which turns into very long reverbs in the space that again transforms the sense of place, now into something etheric and endless. She then puts on a ballet dress and starts dancing to the music.

The violin sonata inside the piano. Photo: José Figueroa
Sound example 6. På spaning efter den tid som flytt: The violin sonata inside the piano. Binaural mix

The sonically transforming and expanding space moves the spectator between vastly different places. It shifts from the small bedroom with the intimate voice of the child (as heard in the beginning of sound example 1) to the large cathedral with the organ and the strange creature’s voice, ending in what seems to be an endless space with the etheric violin sonata coming out of the piano (as heard in the second sound example).

The creative process outlined above exemplifies how ideas evolved and how they were realized in one scene from På spaning efter den tid som flytt. It shows the interrelation between concepts and materials; from the Proust novel and the director’s ideas to the scenographer’s associations and my musical ideas. From the perspective of composition and sound design, this example demonstrates how I work with both the scenographic potential of sound and the musical composition and performance.

The process begins conceptually, where dramaturgical, scenographic, compositional and technological aspects are worked out in interrelation. This was then followed by the composition of the organ music that was performed and recorded. The recordings in the church were mixed, edited and processed, becoming new material for the performance. This latter part of the composition process was to a large extent made in collaboration with the actor/director Nina Jeppsson, as we worked on the stage at the theatre, exploring the interplay between her performance, sound and space. In the very performance, the actor, the light, music and the transformation of the acoustics of the space interact in a unified and continuous dramaturgy. In the artistic team, we have described this process and approach, this response to reading Proust, as an intermedial reading for the stage.


In this article, I have discussed and suggested how today’s new audio technologies may influence and expand the practices of sound design and composition in the performing arts. Understanding and seeing the creative possibilities of the technologies can help us go beyond preconceived and narrow notions of sound design and musical composition in this context. Furthermore, a rethinking and expansion of sound, music and the sonic practices in the field are needed to fully unlock the vast artistic potential of these technologies.

The two examples presented, with a focus on virtual acoustics and immersive sound, show a fluid thinking in a sonic practice that is not only strongly connected to scenography, dramaturgy and performing, but is in fact an integrated part of these. The examples demonstrate how the border between the practices of musical composition and sound design is blurred; even dissolved – and necessarily so, I would argue, to fully embrace the potential of sonic work and new audio technology in performing arts. However, unlocking the potential lies not only in the very practice itself but is connected to the working conditions and hierarchies between the artistic and technical team. In more open and non-hierarchical collaborations with non-linear creative processes, as is the case with the two performances discussed, an explorative approach can be taken to enable the kind of fluid thinking of sound and music in performing arts as I have advocated for. It can pave the way for strengthening the artistic practice of the sonic artist in performing arts.


[1] https://www.dolby.com/technologies/dolby-atmos/#gref.

[2] Groupe de Recherches Musicales at the Maison de Radio France.

[3] https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/1148192/1312320.

[4] Opera singer and researcher Hedvig Jalhed made a thorough study in her thesis An Operatic Game-changer: The Opera Maker as Game Designer and the Potentials of Ludo-immersive Opera (2022) on the audience’s experience in the opera and what places, characters and narratives they imagined.

[5] Using Spat~ library for Max, which “is a configurable real-time spatial processor integrating the localization of sound events with room acoustic quality”, developed by IRCAM, the French research institute for music and acoustics.

[6] An interesting fact that we in the artistic team had not expected was that because the two singers have rather similar voices, several audience members told us after that they were not sure how many singers there were, which opened further imagined narratives.

[7] Around 16–20 speakers were used—the number of speakers varied for different performance spaces.


Austin, Larry, and Denis Smalley. “Sound Diffusion in Composition and Performance: An Interview with Denis Smalley.” Computer Music Journal, vol. 24, no. 2, 2000, pp. 10–21. JSTOR.

Dobewall, Mareike. Voicelanding—Exploring the Scenographic Potential of Acoustic Sound in Site-sensitive Performance. 2021. Stockholms konstnärliga högskola, PhD dissertation.

Frank, Ellen Eve. Literary Architecture: Essays Toward a Tradition: Walter Pater, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marcel Proust, Henry James. U of California P, 1979.

Hann, Rachel. Beyond Scenography. Routledge, 2019.

In Search of Lost Time.” Orionteatern, 21 Apr. 2021. Accessed 29 Sept. 2021.

In the Darkness, Everything Went All Black.” Operation Opera, 13 Sept. 2018. Accessed 29 Sept. 2021.

Jalhed, Hedvig, An Operatic Game-changer: The Opera Maker as Game Designer and the Potentials of Ludo-immersive Opera. 2022. University of Gothenburg, PhD dissertation.

Jalhed, Hedvig and Mattias Rylander. “Opera Inside-Out: Reversed Staging for Sensory Immersion.” Music Theatre Symposium, 24–29 May 2021, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Olofsson, Kent. Composing the Performance: An Exploration of Musical Composition as a Dramaturgical Strategy in Contemporary Intermedial Theatre. 2018. Lund University, PhD dissertation.

Ovadija, Mladen. Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-garde and Postdramatic Theatre. McGill-Queens UP, 2013.

Rebstock, Mattias, and David Roesner, editors. Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes. Intellect, 2012.

Roesner, David. Musicality in Theatre: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-making. Ashgate, 2014

—. Theatermusik. Analysen und Gespräche. Theater der Zeit, 2019. 

*Kent Olofsson is a composer and an artist in the field of performing arts with an extensive artistic output that spans a broad range of genres, ensemble types, art forms and contexts including music for orchestra, chamber music, electronic music, contemporary theatre, dance performances, opera, radiophonic art and rock music. In recent years, his artistic work and research has been particularly focused on exploring musical composition as dramaturgical strategies in interdisciplinary and intermedial theatre performances. Since 2021, he is professor in performing arts at Stockholm University of the Arts.

Copyright © 2022 Kent Olofsson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email