Writing Music for Theatre – Helium

The ‘short adventure for one’, Helium, has completed its run at the Barbican.

4 stars in The Guardian

The show is a theatrical installation, or ‘box show’ where an audience member travels through a number of specially-constructed rooms featuring digital audio, video and live performance.  The audience is invited to follow Bella’s imaginary journey through her Grandfather’s diary to discover why he sends her a Helium balloon every year on her birthday.

Without giving away too much, here is an account of how I approached the sound and music for this particular piece of theatrical legerdermain…

This show was a delight to compose and sound design, as well as a wonderful challenge.  It seems I always write for Slung Low shows as if I was composing a film soundtrack, as the shows we create are more like ‘live’ films, immersing the audience into the world of the story rather than sitting them down and playing to them.

Three out of the five of the rooms or ‘boxes’ had digital audio dialogue and video projections, so the sound had to be synchronised, to varying degrees of precision, to the picture. I must admit, it’s soooo much easier to compose to picture, to a pre-ordained structure.  You’ve a certain amount of time to fill, a few sync points here and there with events on the screen, and between that you’re free to create the sonic heart of the narrative.

The other two rooms had no video element though there was still audio dialogue track, which I had recorded and produced, that had to fit a certain time limit, and it was this that gave me the mental picture to compose to.

Then there was the overarching ‘soundscape’, the sound design/music which played in the open space outside the boxes.  The audience was escorted through this space by actors playing removal men (and women) between the boxes, so the purpose of this space was to enforce the surreal and imaginary aspects of the show.  The soundscape in this space also had a secondary, unexpected function: blurring together and masking any sound ‘bleed’ from inside the rooms.  It felt a little like we were showing the inside of Bella’s mind in that space, perhaps the unconscious part that made connections and tried to understand what was happening in the individual episodes that occurred within the boxes.

I have to admit: one of the most memorable, exciting (and a touch nerve-wracking) parts of working on Helium was recording dialogue with Patrick Stewart, who plays Bella’s non-corporeal but omnipresent Grandfather.  His audio conversations with Alexander Winterkamp’s Gargoyle in each of the spaces acts as a voiceover (a distinctly filmic convention) guiding the audience through the Grandfather’s most significant life events.

Yes, I admire Mr Stewart’s gravulous (no, really, it’s a word…), sonorous tones.  I’m impressed with his seemingly effortless and subtle acting ability, projection and the respect he commands on stage and screen.  But mostly I have to confess that I’m a hopelessly addicted Trekette and to work with the actor I watched play a certain well-know Captain of the USS Enterprise for over a decade on the small and big screen was a bit of a coup for my ego 😉

So… on to the music and sound design.  

The soundscape is emotion.  Tone, atmosphere, ambience, heart… all of these things I consider when beginning to formulate a musical palette for the show.  Helium is any one of nostalgia, bittersweet love, fear, horror, relief and elation and more at any given point, so it’s pretty complex. I needed a hook: it’s Bella’s journey we’re accompanying, her innocence and inquisitiveness that are the throughlines that tie it all together.  A high-register flute plays a playful, quirky yet melancholic theme whenever she’s mentioned or inferred.  The Gargoyle is alien, the other, and his ebullient and explosive character is reflected with ambient sound design, indistinct and nebulous with a harsh edge pushing through unexpectedly; middle-eastern-type musical harmonies underline his unfamiliar nature.

The Grandfather is everything else: the child at the theatre watching the magician in awe; the young man shivering in horror in the Lancaster Bomber after he’s participated in the bombing of Dresden; the old man dying in a hospital… and letting go of his demons by making a leap of faith.  It is this emotional journey that I put into the music and sound.  The black-and-white silent film is accompanied by a piano tremolando-ing its melodramatic highs and lows; the bomber is ultra-realistic, the sub-woofer in the floor of the room rumbling the lower frequencies of the engine sound so the floor vibrates, the appearance of the gargoyle accompanied only by an other-worldly drone; the uncomfortable brightness and disinfectant smell of a hospital ward and closeness of the gargoyle appearing in person reinforced by realistic hospital corridor sounds descending into the ethereal and alien harmonies that are his theme.  

The final room (again, without giving too much away) is the one that, in some ways, challenged me the most.  Design-wise, it is the most minimalist.  All the other rooms are lovingly detailed to the nth degree which really immerses the audience in the five-minute excursion into that particular diary entry… but this room is purely projection on one curved wall.

You hear the Grandfather and Gargoyle, two sides of the same coin, talk to each other as if they were standing on either side of you, right there in the room.  There is a hint of reverb on each, as if there were in a very large, stone building.  As the final room, the climax of the show, the make or break room, there’s considerable pressure to create the deepest, most heartfelt, plumbing-the-depths soundscape without overwhelming the finely crafted writing that these two evocative actor’s voices are saying.

Needless to say… the most challenging was the most fun.

And seeing any member of the audience exit with a look on their faces not knowing whether to beam or weep is absolutely the best reward.  I truly hope that it’s an experience they’ll carry with them for a long time to come.

Read Mark Trezona’s review of the show here.

Read Webcowgirls review of the show here.

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