Agile Chambers: Roundtable Interview 3: Permission to Speak: An interview with the creative development team

Transcription of interview with creative development team from Permission to Speak. Recorded on Friday 9 December, 2017 at RMIT University’s Design Hub, Melbourne, Australia.

Facilitator: Associate Professor Lawrence Harvey, Chief Investigator

Participants: Tamara Saulwick (Concept, Direction, Text & Libretto), Kate Neal (Composition, Libretto, Instrument Design), Jethro Woodward (Sound Design)

Agile Chambers was part of Agile Opera: Chamber Opera in a New Era, funded by the Australian Research Council, the Australia Council for the Arts, Chamber Made Opera and Federation Square Management.

FACILITATOR:  Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the third and final lunchtime talk, as part of Agile Chambers, here at the Design Hub at RMIT University.

My name is Lawrence Harvey and it gives me great pleasure today to introduce the cool creative team from Permission to Speak. We have Jethro Woodward, Tamara Saulwick and Kate Neal.

And it’s an opportunity to talk to the team who have, in the last week or so, come out of the premier of Permission to Speak at Arts House, North Melbourne. So, this is a very new work; the newest work that we have presented as part of Agile Chambers.

I have a couple of questions to put to all of you today. But, again, given that it’s very new work, and, also, that we have been doing some other creative development on some spatialisation ideas this morning, it’s probably going to be more a conversation than a set of questions. I will also use that as my alibi for not emailing the questions to you beforehand (laughs); but we will go from there.

One of the aspects that we have been talking about with Chamber Made Opera’s work in the last couple of days—and it’s been a conversation amongst the company now for quite a few months—is the idea of the Digiwork that is arising out of a production or performance, albeit not necessarily in a traditional space. There is another realisation; another form or format for the work, so that it has a life other than the one that we may see in a performance.

I think I might be right in saying that Permission to Speak is the first work that’s come after this emergence of the idea of the Digiwork; although I realise when you are in a creative team, the timing of when things come into play is sometimes a little blurry.

But has the notion that the Digiwork of Permission to Speak may take on another life shaped your conception of the work?

TAMARA:  No (laughs).

FACILITATOR:  Good. Thank you, Tamara.

KATE:  No, but we did start trying to think of what form that Digiwork might take earlier on. So, this idea of a spatialised kind of sound version of it did arise quite a while ago; but it is only now that we are engaging with it. But whether that’s actually going to be a good way to go forward with the materials is really still entirely up for grabs or because there’s many, like, very, very different directions potentially we could go; but that’s the one that we are flying with at the moment.

FACILITATOR:  I suppose it goes back to this question of mobility as well, and we have been discussing it with some of the other works, in that obviously, we can do a recording; there could be a filmed version of that as well. Although that may not necessarily form the conception of this work, is that something that you all think about with your work? Is there, “a production goes up; what happens post that?”

JETHRO: We were just having the discussion this morning about the touring version of this show. As soon as you start discussing that, you realise how complicated is the tour; I think any show, but certainly this show, which had so much sound content. So, the idea of a digital version that’s more mobile, it’s kind of interesting; and possibly more tourable than a show with all of the things that we managed to squeeze into this production.

TAMARA:  I haven’t really thought about it yet, but yeah, I’m not sure. I think we are still working out where it might go. I haven’t really thought about that, up to this point.

KATE:  The one thing that I have thought about with that is: if it were a kind of sonic experience, with a non-live element, that it would open it up to different presentation contexts; and perhaps also be able to be paired with the context that live performance would happen in, so a festival context. But it also might mean that it could move into more sound-based presentation contexts than theatre or live performance context.

So just opens up—I hate to use the word—”market”. I used it (laughs).  It is out there; it’s been recorded and everything. So “context” is probably better. In that sense, it can move into different communities.

FACILITATOR:  One thing that struck me with the performance was the idea, like, the vast landscape that was set up around the voices as well. And there were so many different terrains, vocal terrains, that you traversed through the work; from one-on-one spoken conversation, to incredibly elaborate musical sections and enunciations and things like that. Almost as a listener, I wanted to take that journey through a number of pathways; would be interesting as well.

Could you talk a little bit about how you came into that musical language of just that array of voices and utterances?

KATE:  Well, I think it was sort of a long process in trying to find a way to support these interview texts; and Tamara would edit pieces of information. There was sort of musical problems to solve because obviously we had four singers and lots of talking; and they are all in this similar frequency. So there were some puzzles there as to how those things might talk to each other, sonically. And talk to each other with one or other being a primary force, too. How can we listen to some kind of short narrative or story and listen to complex or simple music at the same time. So, you know, issues of underscoring came up, which I really enjoy doing that; to think of primary force and secondary forces within an artistic statement.

There are times where the music comes forward and then sits back and comes forward and the talking does the same and the libretto is sort of drawn from the talking voices. There was a consciousness of how to draw those things together and composing to the interviews and then cutting the interviews to music. So, there were all sorts of processes in drawing that together; lots of going backward and forward.

FACILITATOR:  Between the interviews and the vocalisations.

KATE:  Yes, and between Tamara and myself.

TAMARA:  In terms of that, it’s interesting being in here today; because we are asking the questions, “Well, can we take these materials and make a new work?”, in a sense. So one of questions is, “How robust are those materials; or how” if this is a word  “dismountable”; is that a word?


TAMARA:  “Or possible to be dismantled? And is it of interest to kind of take sections out or to decouple the spoken narrative from the music that’s been written in and around it? Or do they have to stay together in a particular way to maintain their integrity?” And that’s an exciting/interesting provocation in a way, to see “how much can we mangle things up in a way? Is it interesting; is it not interesting?” But because they have been so intricately sewn, originally, I never conceived that it would be so intricately sewn together.

FACILITATOR:  But it’s almost like the anti-composition, isn’t it? You spend all this time getting it to work in a theatre and think, “Well, someone is going to walk in. They will sit and listen. Is it coherent? What’s the arc? Are they going to sense the energies and the layers?” Turn around ten days later and say, “Great, let’s take it all apart now” (laughs).

KATE:  Well, yeah, we were just listening to something and Tam and Jethro said, “Oh, I think this is nice, if it was just the music without the talking.” And there is a thought that the music was only written so that you can listen to the talking (laughs). So there’s sort of a…I mean, that is partly true but there’s been a big process in joining them together. But then to go, “Oh, well, yeah”, it sort of makes my head flip around a little bit; but in a good way, that things are now elastic again, and what happens in that process.

FACILITATOR:  In some ways, it is a strange form of restaging, isn’t it? That if you map it, you either take the work to another theatre or you take it to another context or arrangement like this. It is a 21st century version of transcription, maybe, or something like that.

Jethro, from your side, could you talk a little about the process that you had with working with Tam and Kate on this?


KATE:  The nice version (laughs).

JETHRO:  (Laughs). Really, the large part of my job on this was just making it possible; building software architecture that could handle not only all the voices and the spatialisation, but, also, look after the singers. The singers were on radio mic, too. Partly putting the speakers in a place where the radio mic sounded very natural and they were time aligned. And then get the spoken word to sit in there; and yet, still be legible, which was the toughest thing.

That has been the prime concern, actually, here as well. We have the same things. It is just hearing the voices and making sure all the parts are audible and understandable. Yeah, that’s about it.

FACILITATOR:  And then the recording process for that, is…how do you see the throughline then from, you have been in the theatre, you have had that sound, you have created the sound stage for the work and then going through to the recording?

JETHRO:  I guess each way of presenting, like, if it is a CD or it is a performance, it just has its own set of logistical things. Recording, actually, we just tried to make it as similar to the performance as possible, in order to get that to happen very quickly, in terms of what the singers were hearing and monitors; which we spent, I don’t know, getting weeks, tuning just right to the hearing; you know, the right clicks/notes, and just enough of each other.

So coming in with almost the same setup that they were hearing themselves; recording all in a group, so everyone felt comfortable; and then going back and doing overdubs which has proved really wonderful for this work, to have the voices all broken up and doubling; like, having them doubled up, sounding really beautiful; which I think will allow us more possibilities in this 3D version.

We had conversations about the recording process before the performance. One option was to look at doing individual recordings. But then we decided not to do that after, uhm, I can’t remember.

FACILITATOR:  Yeah, I think after rehearsal; mainly because then the singers could come back in and they were very confident about doing it together; but then there was the question, “Could we get separation between the parts?” Because they knew with the spatialisation, ideally the more separated the sound is and it gives you options. But hearing how much energy is in the work and then working together and locking in closely, I don’t think individually recording them, even with the ensemble in the ear, they would have had the same aspect. Because I noticed with the recording setup, they all stood in the pod facing each other, which again gave them that opportunity to take those other cues from each other.

JETHRO:  It wasn’t too bad, once all the ensemble singing was completed; and going back in, just singing with themselves, it was actually pretty quick; it was right; it wasn’t too bad. And without that recording process, it just wouldn’t have been possible, really; especially for tuning and cueing and the vibe.

FACILITATOR:  Again, with the sort of technologies we are using in theatre or even in the gallery today, there is the possibility for a spatial choreography of sound, but how did you work in the theatre with the physical choreography?  Because there was quite, well, not quite, but it was very elegant/formal, the way people would assume certain positions and the staging. How did you work with the physical choreography of singers/sound?

JETHRO:  Well, I spent a couple of weeks building this 3D pan, where I could map all the performers as they moved. I pretty much gave up on that, once I saw how fast the choreography was moving (laughs). I was just like, “That’s not going to happen”.

So, essentially, you do that trick where you time align the re-enforcement just a fraction later than you hear in the room; so that your ear draws you to the actually performer, rather than the reenforced sound. So, actually, all the voices were in mono the entire time (laughs); but with the idea that your ear plays that trick, where you can follow the person.

FACILITATOR:  I remember a number of projects that we have worked with the studio, where we certainly have more than four/five sounds or instruments that you need to pan; trying to do that. By the time you think of something you want, to be able to sit and physically grab a pan or move that many, so, yeah, we have done it to automate lots of them and then…

JETHRO:  That’s right. You know, if there was a thousand more hours, I could have…


JETHRO: and we knew the choreography, I could have sat there and drew it all in. But, yeah (laughs).

KATE:  I just interject in saying: one of things that I think worked very well in the live performance was the fact that it was in the rounds. So all audience members were proximate to the live performers; and you got a very different sonic experience, depending on where you were. But the fact that their acoustic voices were very audible, and so in a sense the amplification was supporting the acoustic voice, the voice was never completely decoupled from the body. We always had that acoustic voice which was like the anchor. Whereas if it had been done in a proscenium arch, well, you wouldn’t have so much an issue around the spatial issue anyway. But you also wouldn’t have that sense of…you would be hearing the amplified voice much more than the acoustic voice. So in that sense, it just needed to support that live voice in the space, rather than to locate it in the space. Is that fair to say?

FACILITATOR:  I think, too, with the musical language, our attention was being asked to quickly shift between characters and sections as well; which again is what you often do in a conversation. There’s that rapidfire shifting of attention, backwards and forwards.

KATE:  One of the nice things that we discovered earlier over there—we don’t know whether we will follow it up or not—one of the challenges in the live performance were these prerecorded voices and “how do you make these prerecorded voice have a presence, energy/intimacy in the space that matches a live body, and a real live voice?”, because it has a broader/fuller sound; and it’s attached to a body, so it is quite compelling. And it was a challenge, actually.

And, also, because the voices are predominantly coming out of these very kind of intimate/quiet conversations. So they have this kind of relationship. They are often not spoken like you would be speaking to a large group of people. So one of the things that we were playing with before was: we had been trying to, again, deal with that message “how do you make the live spoken word present inside this sung environment?”

So we brought one of the speakers quite close to us and we put the voice just in that; so it is not booming around the space; it is just there. And the singing voices are booming around the space and doing all that beautiful stuff that they do. And that was nice; it felt like it was just for your ear.

And then we started going, “Oh, okay, what if you are in a banana lounge? What if there’s a thing, like a drive-in movie, where you have got your specific speaker? And then what if the speakers are in an aeroplane; you know, the pillows that can adjust?” So you have this kind of slightly open sonic field, and it is a much lower volume; but it is here, like someone whispering in your ear. So you have that spoken word; someone recounting what is often a very intimate, personal story; and then that being able to sit in this broader/louder sound world.

And there was something, for me, I think we all got a little bit excited about that in that moment, actually; because it was a way to kind of match the quality of those spoken voices in a delivery mode that actually is much more aligned with the way in which they were first recorded; in a way that’s impossible in the live performance, and kind of captures—I think it has the potential to capture—something in a way the live performance can’t. And that is an exciting possibility.

FACILITATOR:  The other aspect, we were talking about that as well, as I mentioned earlier—and it is probably more a comment than a question—but then we get that whole situation of: so it is a performance work; and we have, if you like, a beginning, middle, and end; but then in the gallery, of course, you don’t have that. There’s a certain sort of…there’s an accidental nature to when an audience member might come into the work. How do you think you might deal with that, say, going to an installation version? In some ways, it goes back to what we were talking about before, having to decompose the work into some other kind of arrangement?

TAMARA:  You know, I think that the whole; we worked quite hard in making a long bow across the work. So you come out with some kind of experiential effect of all these stories; and some deeper content, put into deeper content and what you might leave with. But I do think individual moments/movements within the work could be experienced; not with the same kind of overall content, but you could still have a strong experience of individual stories.

So it does lend itself to going in/out, in a way. It feels too soon to know whether that’s hurting the work, actually. It could be. Certainly spending all that time making a long bow; I don’t know if we have got enough perspective yet to know if you can just take those small things. My feeling is that you could actually just have individual stories within an installation-type environment; and then someone could leave that story. Obviously, if they stayed for the whole thing, they would get more out of it (laughs).

KATE:  But you could also, I mean, we are saying “installation” because we are not thinking of a live performance, but we could call it “a listening room”. It could be a ticketed start/finish event; where you come in and you lie in your banana lounge in some kind of curated or, you know, a space that’s been designed for it; and it’s still a spatial sonic experience; but it’s one that’s a set duration, where you come in at a beginning and you leave at the end, and you have that bow. But it is just designed as a listening experience rather than a live performance experience; and I think that’s equally viable/valid. As soon as we use the word “installation”, I suppose we have that sense of something that “one walks in/out of”, but…

TAMARA: …controls it.

KATE:  Yeah, I feel like that’s all up for grabs, really.

FACILITATOR:  I think on a number of fronts, with the recent issues with ABC, Radio National taking a lot of their music off—I think there’s just about only one show left—one of the comments that I saw from management was that they were now going to predominantly cater for the “nonlinear audience”, as we are all now called; so that we are downloading and they would see it as “listening at our own choice of time”. But it is possibly also the same as well; that you have that possibility of dipping in/out of the work at particular points, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you sit and listen to the whole piece, or you have got that opportunity.

Okay, there’s certain convenience; yes, you can get a lot of listening done on an aeroplane, for example, that you couldn’t have done before or different times of the day; but it will change listening patterns, I think, particularly for works that are normally conceived to be listened to from beginning to end, but can be stopped and started.

I am just getting up on my iPad here a work that won one of the British Composer Awards this week, Sonorama; winning the Sonic Art award. It has an interesting way of dealing with that idea of “at any time”; because it’s designed to be listened to on a particular railway route in the UK. So I will listen to it; I am sure I won’t have the same experience; but that’s locating it back to “you have to be in a particular”—and Janet Carter works like this too—”you have to be in a particular place for these other layers to make sense”.

KATE:  I have done a few of Janet Carter’s things, or I have listened to a few of them not in the location; and then subsequently done them in the location and it’s quite…

FACILITATOR:  And the difference?

KATE:  Oh, the difference is enormous, but it is quite pleasing, actually, to be familiar with the materials in advance of the actual located experience and go, “Oh, okay, now I”  there was one that we did in, ah, where were we? Denmark. What’s the name of the gallery there? It is the name of an American State?

PARTICIPANT:  Louisiana.

KATE:  There’s this Louisiana piece. I had always imagined that she had made it for somewhere in Louisiana. And then we were there and it was for the Gallery Louisiana; so the context was completely different to what I had imagined.

FACILITATOR:  Again, it can be taken into consideration by composers in other ways. I know in Juliana’s article, she’s talking about—her name escapes me just now—opera in a games engine. So the longer you spend in a location, more musical layers begin to permeate the listening texture, as you go through.

So composers and sound designers would have to start thinking differently around how these works are going to be inside a three dimensional locative media as opposed to something else.

Have you worked on games/installations before or mainly just in theatre?

JETHRO:  Mostly in theatre; not in the games. Mostly just in theatre, really, and live performance. A little bit of installation work, but really, yeah, I would say 90 per cent of the work I do is linear, you know, for live performance.

FACILITATOR:  But you are interested in, maybe, working in these other areas?

JETHRO:  Uhm, yeah, I just find it really—even what you are saying about the “games engine”—I find it really fascinating, and the idea of different layered kind of experiences. Yeah, I just don’t quite know how to fit that in a theatre show (laughs).

FACILITATOR:  I realise that we are very early into the workshop today, but any other comments/observations that anyone would like to make at this stage?

KATE:  Just what a kind of Pandora’s…no, that is the wrong thing. Pandora’s Box is full of awful things, isn’t it? Or is it just full of a lot of things? Bad things? What a…yeah, how it’s opened. When you opened that bit about software and you go, “And there’s that, and there’s that,” and you just go, “Oh, okay”, you get a sense of just the enormity of going into a new process and, like we were just saying before, to think about it in spatial terms is like a whole recompositional process. It is a new compositional process which is potentially really enormous, exciting, but you go, “Okay, it really is a whole”. It’s not something that you can just whack together (laughs). It is completely another whole new thing, a whole new learning. So who you would do that with and how that would occur and to what extent we would be involved in that; how that would transpire?”. You just go, “Okay, they are all”; you just open the little window and go, “Okay, this is an enormous, new endeavour,” which is exciting but also, it is so full of possibilities, that it feels like the very, very beginning “opening a window”.

FACILITATOR:  Certainly what I found out over the years, it does cause you to think differently about attention; particularly the attention of the listener because that’s who we are thinking about, in that way. Your ear will scan a work, even if it is in two channels or live performance, once you move things around. And even if they are static, simply statically placed, not even moving in real time, you very much become aware of how quickly you can saturate or overwhelm that space. I have always thought about it as a type of choreography. It is more like the lighting state.

I know when I have worked on theatre productions and even spatialising performances, you get the best result when that’s taken into consideration in the rehearsal period. It’s kind of like, “Oh, we need an afternoon to set the lights.” We need about a day to set the spatialisation properly, to do that. Because even just beginning to listen to the space and work out what’s going to happen if you work with different locations, but, also, even what the energy of the space is like, as well; you have to get a sense of that. So it can be quite time consuming.

TAMARA:  It is a whole new exciting set of problems and puzzles and possibilities, actually; and a sort of deep collaboration with engineering and physics of sound.

FACILITATOR:  Any questions from the floor today? Greg?

PARTICIPANT:  More of an experience I had with an audio spotlight; the ability to…the technology that came out of RMIT, where they basically could make sound like a headlight; so you could project it in a straight line. And I remember at the Powerhouse, up in Sydney, they had an exhibition about Jung, Sigmund Freud’s competitor or contemporary; and they used that to bounce voice off mirrors. So if you walked up to a mirror, you would start to basically hear the sound of a voice in your head; but the audio spotlight is so directional that as soon as you move out of the beam of sound, it disappears. So when I heard Tamara talking about “lounging”, to get that very close intimacy of that, which the physical contact is very important, but, also, technology is, like, audio spotlight; being able to give people a completely and somewhat, I guess, “disassociated from the body” but incredibly intimate sensation of a conversation that feels like it’s just happening in your head because you don’t know where it’s coming from.

KATE:  Yeah, actually…you know those really super-directional speakers; is that what you are talking about?

PARTICIPANT:  Potentially. They haven’t got a great range…base and they are like panels and they are very directional.

KATE:  I have heard of these speakers. Maybe it’s the same thing or maybe it is different. Essentially, if you are standing here, it’s like someone is whispering into your ear. If you are standing here, you can’t hear it at all.  And that would—and I have been fascinated by that idea, actually, using that in an installation context—that would be interesting in here. It would be amazing, actually, to have all those singing voices; and then to be able to step at one point and then have that real whisper right in your ear of the spoken story; and then kind of try and find; have to try and find it again is…it would be beautiful, actually; if you didn’t want to do a sit down thing but you wanted…it would be great.

FACILITATOR:  It would be pretty interesting to have it standing up because—it was at the MCA work in Primavera—I saw the same thing. I think it is for its consulting rooms. When you sat down in the chair, they had an actor that would start talking to you. Of course, it is the “talking cure”; to suddenly sit down and have Freud in your head was very…(laughs). As soon as you stand up, it moves away. But having it in this work, that if you…you would think that you are listening to an ensemble of orbiting voices; and then suddenly you sit down and you have got a very personalised tale in your head, it would be unusual.  But it does sound a little like a telephone because it doesn’t have…

PARTICIPANT:  Oh, does it?

FACILITATOR:  Yeah, the audio quality of it isn’t great. It is legible; you can certainly hear it; intelligible, but you can’t…yeah, the quality is not great. Any other comments/questions?

DAVID:  You talked a lot about the audio materials or the recordings and how that might be translated. I was wondering if you had ideas about what visual elements, if any, might exist as a Digiwork or might respond to the work as it exists now or might manifest as an installation or an online experience, et cetera.

TAMARA:  I haven’t actually. That was one of the things that Kate—when we were talking about the “digi” thing—was talking about visual elements and I don’t, for some reason. I can imagine kind of creating a listening space and in that sense, a visual; it would have kind of an aesthetic experience of a space, I suppose.

But in terms of visual materials, like video materials, I feel resistant to that idea, for some reason. I think there’s something about sonic materials that are able to trigger and open imaginative spaces, memory spaces, associative spaces in people, that sometimes I find visual media can kind of close down that.

Actually, where I think this so successfully, now that I think of it; Turbulence, what I loved about that, actually, there was kind of a level of abstraction and openness in that visual material which I found allowed me to listen more deeply. So maybe there would be a way to find visual materials that do that.

There’s something about Super 8, family Super 8s, that I can imagine can sit in this world. They have a universality about them. They are kind of the family holiday things. But I also, yeah, I haven’t thought about that. Nothing has foreground. I have always just thought about a listening experience. But you did, didn’t you? You were going, “It would be great to be looking at something”?

KATE:  I think early on I did. I haven’t revisited it since you talked about it being an audio work. But, yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t put enough thought into it. You know what, I think the visual experience of the work as a performance was engaging, but it was very much an aural piece to experience as well. So it makes sense that it would go on to encourage that deeper listening experience….

FACILITATOR:  I remember many years ago when ACMI was starting up, they had a presentation from Peter Weibel who was director of ZKM at that stage. And someone in the audience asked him a question, “What the future of cinema was?”, and he…well, no, “the proposed future of cinema would be, where you could project images into directly people’s brains?” And he said, “Oh, no, we have that already. That is called sound.” I thought, “Yes, good on you.” (Laughs). I thought it was a great answer from the director of ZKM.

Could you join me in thanking our panel members today?


FACILITATOR:  And we are going to have a break for lunch and then we will continue back doing some spatialisation of sections of Permission to Speak. Thank you.


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