NxNE: Vision Mechanics In Production

21 Oct 2011 in Aberdeen City & Shire, Dance & Drama, Highland, Outer Hebrides, Showcase

KENNY MATHIESON hears how sound will lie at the heart of Vision Mechanics’ Dark Matter

A VISIT to a garden is usually a relaxed affair, but Symon MacIntyre and his collaborators have a different experience in mind for those coming to see Dark Matter.

THE company’s new touring show for North By North East features Inverness-based actress Emma Anderson, seen recently in Wildbird’s excellent version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in Working Holiday in the Play Pieces lunchtime series in Inverness, presented by Skinny Dip, the company she formed with Melissa Paterson.

Emma Anderson in rehearsal for Dark Matter (photo Symon MacIntyre)

Emma Anderson in rehearsal for Dark Matter (photo Symon MacIntyre)

Both shows were directed by Wildbird’s Chris Lee, and he is also the writer chosen by Symon MacIntyre for  Dark Matter. Emma also worked with Symon on the Inverness production of The Big Shop, one of the first pieces of professional work she did, and she had no hesitation in taking up the offer to do Dark Matter, despite the challenges involved.

“Living up here you are always looking for any project that is coming up,” she said, “and having worked with Symon before, I knew it was going to be an experience, and a different way of working as well. Doing a one-woman show was a huge opportunity, too good to pass up.

“It’s hard to say too much about the character I play without giving too much away, but what I can safely say is that it probably the most intense character I have ever had to play! It is also quite physically challenging, with a lot of rolling around on the grass and so on. She has to look as though she is naked underneath the great coat I wear, so I have a flesh-toned body suit on, and we quickly realised that I was going to need thermals and heat packs as well, so I’ve got all these layers on.

“I had never done anything in these kind of temperatures, and I innocently assumed I could hack it, but it does get so cold, and that is just with the wind and rain so far. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the snow comes …

“I have no regrets at taking it on, though – it is proving to be a fabulous experience, and a great learning curve.”

Tam Treanor and his sound control system (photo Kenny Mathieson)

Tam Treanor and his sound control system (photo Kenny Mathieson)

While Emma is the only physical performer in the show, sound designer Tam Treanor is very much of the view that the sound – which the audience will hear through a pair of wireless headphones – is very much a second protagonist.

“I think partly because there is only one actor the soundscape has to help really bring out Emma’s performance,” he said, “but I have also approached it thinking of the sound as another performer – Emma can interact with the sound, and the sound can interact with Emma, and I have done that in two main ways.

“I have built a system with the computers and the controller here that is like an instrument in itself,” he says, pointing at the keyboard and screens spread across his control desk.

“It is partly played by me interacting with Emma, and partly by the environment out in the garden. I’ll have microphones hidden out there in every location, and the microphones and the samples I have prepared and the computer code I have written all work together in creating it. They make up the system, and the system can be played by me and also by the external environment.

“It’s like bringing the real world and everything that is happening out there into the virtual world – as an audience member, you are out there with your headphones on, so you are in your own little bubble in a way, and I have this opportunity to create a virtual world in your head that is like a twisted version of the real world you are looking at.

“So I can control what is coming in, but there is also an exciting element of out of control to it – the weather will always be different, and every garden will be different. It’s not like a set sound job where you have it all ready and you press the button and sit back with a beer. That would really bore me – I wouldn’t be interested. No two shows will the same, and that is what really excites me about it – I want that feeling that you are there and it is happening now.”

Tam Treanor at work

Tam Treanor at work

Tam began his involvement in the music business as a songwriter, and still does a bit of that, but gradually shifted his focus to recording and producing bands. He recently completed a Masters at the University of Edinburgh in sound design that will feed into this show.

“I got very into coding and new languages, which was all new to me, but I really jumped into it. The birds that you hear in the headphones are made entirely of numbers, synthesised from numbers in code. Basically what I’ve done is built living birds inside the computer, using the same algorithm ­that they used on Jurassic Park to get the dinosaurs moving around.

“It allows me to create sounds that would be very difficult or extremely time-consuming to capture with a microphone, if you could get it at all, so I have a lot more control over choreographing the birds and their sounds. It is very time-consuming, though – ­I haven’t had much sleep!

“The beauty of the headphones is that you are enclosed in this virtual world that I’m creating sonically. I’m giving the audience a binaural mix, which is like the equivalent of 3D – you are hearing the sound from all around, like surround sound in your head. That gives me a lot of scope to play around.”

I spoke to Tam in the room full of equipment he was using as a control centre at the cottage on the outskirts of Nairn where the team were doing final rehearsals ahead of the tour.

“There is a lot of gear here, although I may be able to pare it down a bit for the tour, once I’ve have sorted out exactly what I need.”

As well as working on the code, he was still in the process of adding to the stock of recorded samples that he will be able to use, although most of the sound work on the show will be live.

“I have a bit of sampled stuff that I have recorded in here,” he said, gesturing at one of the computers. “Some of it I’ve recorded here in Nairn while we have been rehearsing, and I can play around with those and change the samples, and that may be something I do as we tour, collecting new sounds and throwing them in.

“I want each venue to be different, and I want it to be a new challenge for me each time, which is always what I want as an artist. And I want there to be an element of risk as well – I don’t want to know in advance exactly what is going to happen. That’s what keeps it enjoyable for me.”

Dark Matter is on tour from 26 October 2011. See Vision Mechanics and North By North East websites for tour dates and information.

© Kenny Mathieson, 2011