How do you bring an audience into the world of a play? One important way is to set the mood with music. The Gunnery’s multi-talented Paul Searles – composer, sound designer, classical pianist, film-maker – is the man behind the music you hear in the theatre every night. Listen to the beautiful opening track from The Optic Trilogy while Paul explains how he was inspired to design soundscapes both local and celestial for the three plays in the festival.
Tell us about how you’re involved in the ongoing Alfian Sa’at: In The Spotlight festival.
I’m part of a small team from The Gunnery and we’re doing sound design and music for the three plays. We worked on Romeo and Juliet last year and we had a ball. We’re very excited to be along for the ride again with W!LD RICE.
It’s an honour to work on this festival. Alfian’s work is so present, a real voice for Singapore. I bought the text of The Optic Trilogy at a play last year and was stunned at once by the immediacy and wisdom of his writing. I highly encourage anyone at these performances to pick up one of his books for a different experience of his work.
As sound designers, our job is to use everything at our disposal to make sure every word of his text is clear. This includes sound effects, composed and adapted music and manipulation of the space we are working in.
What are some of the challenges you faced in designing the sound for these three productions?
Three very different beasts indeed, each dealing with such pressing issues. As an Aussie here, it has been a nice challenge tuning into to the local voices.
Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. I is the most challenging in terms of the complexity of the cues and emotional dynamics. It’s a delicate rollercoaster ride, really wonderful. It’s Alfian’s adaptation of a play by a man on the brink, or way past it. I’m amazed at how he has turned this into an incredible and local dreamscape, and how Ivan has brought the different worlds to life. It is a great score for a musical journey from the heavens to Singapore and back again. We are quite a mixed bunch here at The Gunnery, and we all found ways to be involved. The music is a mix of show-tunes, sparkly remixes and pounding classical pieces. I’m very happy at how it has come together, and as always the most exciting thing is to watch as the actors take over this sonic space.
Cook A Pot Of Curry was immediately interesting to me, personally. A while ago, in Australia, I made a documentary that became an exploration of indigenous issues, about how my family came to Australia in 1830. I met a lot of Aboriginal people and the more I researched it, the more impossible the problems of reconciliation seemed. So many of these problems stem from fear and insecurity. In Australia, I think a lot of people still regard indigenous culture as fodder for souvenirs, while in Europe, it is widely regarded as our greatest cultural asset. At the end of the day, for the play, we mainly adapted local music. Ben Rosen did some wonderful vintage arrangements of Malay and Philippino tunes, and Eddie Lim made recordings of spaces around Singapore for the show.
The Optic Trilogy is written like a fugue: it’s already a beautiful perfect musical structure and it doesn’t need so much from us. The challenge is to carefully take the audience from the sound of Singapore into the actors’ delicate personal space. The stories unfold gently, and it is important to write music which helps us to introduce the characters without giving too much away.
What stands out for you in the process of designing and composing the music for a theatrical piece?
I love how the process is so alive, so personal. Of course, with our advertising work, there are many, many people involved. Creating 15 seconds of sound for an ad can be a very long and convoluted process. In the theatre, I can write something in one context and Ivan can flip it magically in a second to mean something completely different. This, of course, can be a little humbling!
How did you get into the sound design line?
I played piano from an early age but I ended up studying architecture. I got distracted and ended up joining a band, signing record deals and touring the world, all that rock and roll stuff. I got into film-making for a while and was about to start my own little film company in Sydney when I got the call from The Gunnery a few years ago. It’s been quite a mix and I’m very happy where I’ve ended up, even though for the past few weeks it’s been in a very cold little black box!
A lot of our work at The Gunnery is in advertising, which of course in so many ways is the polar opposite of what we’re doing here at the festival. But it hones your skills, you have to turn things around so fast, and to a very high professional standard. You have to lose your ego. Theatre work, I guess, is more of a spiritual deference. You have wait for the truth to emerge in the rehearsals and do your best to respect it, wherever or whoever it comes from.
How did you first get involved with W!LD RICE?
One of the first things I did with Ivan was a video teaser for The Weight of Silk on Skin at The Gunnery. It was such a stunning performance, I knew immediately that I wanted to work with him. Being fresh to Singapore, I didn’t really know much about him, but that little taste floored me. Azmi [Jaffar], our producer at the Gunnery, has had a relationship with W!LD RICE for many years, so I guess I just landed in the right place at the right time.
What aspects of W!LD RICE’s shows and ethos appeal to you?
I love the local flavour; I hope audiences appreciate that much of the future of the country can be shaped by work such as this. It’s funny but, in Australia, we are only recently becoming proud of our multicultural heritage. For example, I was in my 20s before I’d even heard of laksa. These days Australian culture is proudly defined by ethnic fusion.
W!LD RICE takes a lot of risks. It’s over-the-top honest, brave and outrageously funny. Entertainment which is truly for your heart and mind. It’s so much fun working with them.
Do you have any advice for students who are thinking about becoming sound designers in the future?
Get out and travel lots, go and see and hear the world. The audience has to go on a journey and you have to have many experiences to share with them.
Be completely all over technology. People need to hear things they’ve never heard before.
Study story and structure: context is everything. Learn to find a way to enjoy every sound you hear.