Insights: ILIAD - creating a unique sense of time, place & environment
From the everyday to the epic - from John Hardy
It was back in the early summer of 2013 that I first started discussions with Mike Pearson & Mike Brookes about Christopher Logue’s extraordinary version of Homer’s Iliad.
It was less than a year since we had finished making Coriolan/us, which had been a lovely project in so many ways.
At the time Sam Barnes and Pete Smith were both full time students at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, studying Composition, with emphasis on Creative Music Technology.
Though at the time they were both outstanding students, none of us could have imagined that they would now be so intrinsic to the creation of the soundtrack for the vast and at the same time intricate ILIAD for National Theatre Wales.
We have loved working on this music, from recording small sounds and making them big, and big sounds and making them small, to the huge implications of the moment by moment events and the tiny nuances of observation and expression which illuminate the events of the drama, from the everyday to the epic.
Sourcing Sounds - from Sam Barnes
From discussions with Directors Mike Pearson & Mike Brookes, it became quite clear to us that ILIAD wasn’t to become a period drama set in ancient Greece; Christopher Logue’s wonderful text itself is so cinematic, and it subtly references modern day culture and geography – nor was it intended to be set in the space age. Instead, we had discussed using sound to create a unique and coherent sense of time, place and environment, without overtly referencing any particular era. In order for us to achieve this compositionally, we couldn’t simply use ‘out-of-the-box’ sounds – it would become completely integral to the process to source our own sounds, and to use these to sculpt the entire sound-world of the show.
We understood that, due to the vastness of the text, the collection of sounds would have to be similarly vast. In addition to this, these sounds had to have an element of flexibility, in order to successfully be used and developed upon throughout the show, and had to be free of any existing associations.
In June 2015, while visiting to my family home in North Wales for a long weekend I ventured, recorder in-hand (Zoom H6), into the wilderness to forage for sounds. I collected percussive sounds from barbed wire, fence posts, rocks and logs, as well as longer textural sounds such as scrapes and natural ambient sounds, gathering as many variations of each as possible. I later brought these recordings back to the JHM studio to be used compositionally.
As with the nature of all of these sounds, their harmonic properties are completely untuned by Western standards, so when used in a sampler (re-pitching & stretching recorded audio) their unique properties become more apparent, and aids in further detaching the music from any particular time or place. During the compositional process, we found that we could use these sounds in combination with more conventional acoustic instruments, such as hide-headed drums and old brass horns, while still maintaining a coherent sound-world. These instruments were played by either John, Pete or myself, and then used as a basis for composition or as a textural device in cues for other episodes.
In The Space - from Pete Smith
As far as most theatre productions go, National Theatre Wales' post-modern adaptation of Homer's well known epic The Iliad has been monumental in scale from the get go. This description can be applied to the ambition of the project, the length of the performances and everything in-between, including the amount of gear needed to facilitate it and make it come alive. To put this last comment into perspective, at this stage in the rehearsal period (tech and dress) we are running upwards of 37 speakers, simultaneously at any one time (not even including the 6 subs), some grouped – most not.
Once inside the space the first thing you will notice are the microphones hanging vine-like from the gratings located above you (each with unique timbre and sonic quality), ready for a member of the cast to dash up and and perform at a moment’s notice. Situated around the staple characters microphones are a set of four speakers, each angled in and down, in order to cover all angles of the room. This is particularly notable since it not only enabled us as composers to make even more use of the 3D space around us, but it gives each of the performers a definitive sense of individuality and location within the environment. Something that is helping give the performance a sense of real impetus.
[On top of all this you have 5 'God' screens running in tandem with the 15 metre wide dual projector behemoth responsible for showing the window-like landscape videos.... but that is getting onto something else entirely, thankfully handled with much skill by those with more experience in this field than Sam and myself!]
Writing and creating the sound for The Iliad has been one thing, but making it take advantage of the space, in the way it is starting to, has proven to be something of a different beast. Most of our time during the tech & dress process has been the manipulating of sound's destination and mix in the room. Everything from the ambient temperature of the space, the number of people in the room and (more obviously) the actors’ delivery of the lines (it has developed immensely over the past two months) seems to be changing the perception of the soundtrack as it is played within the theatre. Needless to say, catering to this is something we have had to account for after every run, and we could quite happily fiddle with it until judgement day. Alas, our fun must come to an end with the performance-in-earnest looming ever nearer!
It goes without saying that to keep on top of this wealth of kit you need a team that knows how to handle it. Such a team we definitely had in Mike Beer and James Marsh. Both people who have been utterly instrumental turning the concept of Iliad into reality.