This year, I had the opportunity to curate and design the biennial Sound Kitchen exhibit, which took place over four days in Taipei, Taiwan, as part of World Stage Design 2017, and featured 21 performances by sound design students, educators, and professionals from 16 countries. Sound Kitchen was launched by the Organisation Internationale des Scénographes Techniciens et Architectes de Théâtre (OISTAT) at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial as a “listening-friendly” venue for sound artists to share their work. The experience was both exhilarating and challenging, yielding insights and opportunities that not only enrich my immediate work but a broader scope into the future.
As in previous years, a jury of sound design professionals, including myself, curated presentations that required a live performance component, or a playback of one. In addition, applicants were encouraged to submit work that was previously developed for a performance or theater piece; involved remote collaboration; or incorporates audio recordings taken on site at World Stage Design 2017. Of particular interest were pieces that not only pushed the boundaries of sound technology but more importantly, used the sonic medium to explore innovative ways of narrating a story, foster audience interaction, and stage compelling theatrical experiences.
The resulting program also tackled subject matter as varied as the quiet of a Lutheran chapel in Helsinki; a traditional Korean folktale retold using Western-style music; legal tender; space flight; electronic dance music (EDM); and the literary canon. Some presenters leveraged technology to transcend cultural or geographic borders, composing sound art utilizing audio recorded in real time by webcams in different countries, or multiple performers in remote locations. Others experimented with multimedia interfaces to make their own instruments, set music to images or text, or, in a performance by Carnegie Mellon University, correlate different body parts to sound. For me, theater is meant to transform people by taking them places they have never been. These experiences can lead to new ways of thinking and potentially, in a way, can help transform the world. These experiences are most effectively achieved when the entire team is working in concert toward the same goal. Much like an architectural design team collaborates to design a building, theatrical teams, including the sound designer, are part of a team working to develop a specific, unified outcome.
Personal highlights of the exhibit included “The Mushroom Head,” by Jorge Hernández Jiménez-Smith and Yao Liao, which invited audience members to don mushroom-shaped headpieces containing speakers. Participants were then directed, through the speaker, to perform tasks as they wandered among and interacted with the rest of the audience, who listened to a different soundtrack. In “Acoustic AV Laptop” by Roger Alsop, performers played sounds by manipulating feedback with simple hand gestures in front of a laptop’s internal microphone. Audience members were also invited to participate.
“Being in Sound Kitchen [made me feel] accepted (and kind of validated) among sound and composing [communities], which was one of my ultimate goals in life,” Jiménez-Smith told me. “I loved being part of this sonic bridge.”
Sound Kitchen represented one of my professional design goals: creating and being part of a space that sparks creativity and intimacy. While theater is universal and uses languages that go far beyond words—in our case, sound—there were some differences. Listening to the artists explain their work and what they were trying to communicate was deeply insightful. At times, we “got it” and at other times, we didn’t, but in every case it was a rich and educational experience.
Following Sound Kitchen, my sound design friends toured me through theaters in Taiwan, South Korea, and Shanghai. I was pleased to see that theatrical language and design standards are both universal: Everything I saw was built to the same high standards I have strived to achieve in my design work in the US and UK. We had wonderful conversations about what worked well architecturally and what didn’t. For example, we connected on the challenge of the proscenium arch, which is often so deep that it keeps the performers too far from the audience and inhibits connection. It seems that the design challenges of our Greek and Italian forefathers are universal.