There’s a pregnant pause before shows start: an anticipatory silence before the roaring soundtrack begins and the performance unfolds. Sean Hagerty, seasoned sound designer, composer and musician, relishes that moment. In Third Rail Projects‘ Steampunk Haunted House, where Sean first started working with the group, that moment of silence was always an “omnipotent experience.”
“I would sit in the audio booth of the empty main theatre. And, with a single push of a button, the spaces all around me would come alive with sound.”
With these early shows, Sean experimented with frameworks that laid the groundwork for the following Then She Fell performances. Synchronizing multi-track soundtracks from one centralized system was one decision that proved to be crucial. Another was creating “spatial arrangements” by breaking the music into different versions depending on the environment. Wiring rooms to each have their own sound system proved to be tough, particularly in the Maujer St. location where no sound system had previously been in place. Composing and recording different spatial arrangements for each of these rooms, says Sean, proved to be an even more interesting challenge.
“What I really love about doing sound design for theatre is how contextual it is. You don’t write for a concert hall, you write for a setting, for people. Third Rail Projects is especially collaborative and contextual; as much as they adapt choreography to space, I adapt sound.”
The music for Then She Fell started from an improvisation session between the dancers and musicians. Isaiah Singer (bass, harmonica) and Brian Olin (electric guitar) joined Sean on violin, looping and recording their musical dialogue. Sean drew from this material, writing new sections, piecing together a collage of movements. He incorporated driving gypsy music from a collaboration with Ben Magnuson and recorded languid bass-clarinet parts with multi-instrumentalist Tom Regouski. With Third Rail Projects Co-Artistic Director Zach Morris‘ guidance, the structure came together, one that would marry the music with multiple experiences, simultaneously.
One of Sean’s favorite aspects of theatrical sound design is its collaborative nature, especially with Third Rail’s leadership. In one memorable instance, Zach sent an email of himself humming a melody based on a selection of Lewis Carroll‘s writing. Sean transcribed the melody and began to build an arrangement from it with banjo, air organ, and accordion parts. That bitter-sweet and reminiscent tune later became a major motif within the show, at times sung live by Elizabeth Carena, and subsequent Hatters.
While Sean pulled stylistic inspiration from a diverse range of artists (Tom Waits, Jonny Greenwood, J.S. Bach), his vision is present from the soundtrack’s initial conception to its final arrangement. Amidst a spiderweb of speaker-wire,the pluck of an instrument finds its final place between the hallowed walls of the Kingsland Ward.
For Third Rail Projects’ next work, Roadside Attraction (Twitter #Roadside), debuting June 23 at Brookfield Place Plaza, Sean returns to work with Third Rail Projects Co-Artistic Director Jennine Willett to create an original composition supported by New Music USA‘s 2013 Live Music for Dance Program, playing live alongside previous collaborator Isaiah Singer, and with Elizabeth Carena on vocals.