The Magnolia Ballet
Written by Terry Guest
Directed by Mikael Burke
Produced by About Face Theatre
5/20/22 – 6/11/22 @ The Den Theatre, Chicago IL
Tickets and Info: https://aboutfacetheatre.com/show/the-magnolia-ballet/
Warning sound design and music cue spoilers ahead!
This is a ghost story in the swamps of Georgia, USA. To set the scene of this world, playwright Terry Guest has included in his script the most rich environment descriptions that I’ve ever seen. The stage directions for the sounds of this world were so engaging, that I kept forgetting the audience wasn’t going to get to hear these wonderful words! Infact, it was my job to make the audience know and feel what Terry had written in the script through sound design. A tall order for this play. There are many animal sounds and swamp descriptions throughout, the environment is loud, dangerous and ever present. About half the time you’ll be hearing real swamp sounds and the other half of the time you’ll hear swamp sounds that I’ve created on musical instruments such as the cello and pipa lute. There are many different Pipa (Chinese lute) sounds embedded throughout the play which emulate bugs, insects, and frogs. There are also thematic shimmering cello textures which emulate the birds of the swamp, the rustling of animals through swamp waters, trees and vegetation, and recreate the incredibly active life in the swamp. Sometimes you’ll be hearing one or the other, and often times they are mixed together as scenes transition in and out of the real and present moment. Not only will you hear snakes, alligators, frogs, and cicadas in the environment, you’ll be hearing those animals inside the music and sound effect cues as well! For example, there is a terrifying scream in one scene which breaks the action that is actually a combination of a frog sound mixed with a snake sound. There is a door creak which is really an alligator hiss mixed with an acoustic cello creaking sound effect. This creaking cello comes back later to become the sounds of a ship hull and also a burning down house. There is a moment when a dream catches on fire to become a nightmare and the terrifying, distorted crackling you hear are really snakes, cicadas and alligator sounds with distortion pedal, pitch, and tape delay effects. In another scene there are rapid gun fire shots in a video game which are actually all cicada sounds. When Papa is introduced in the play, he is getting off of work at the factory, we hear a jet of steam coming from the factory machines as he opens the window, which is really a snake hiss. There are even a few moments in musical cues where I’ve transformed these animal sounds into musical instruments! In my re-creation of “Ooopps I did it again” by Britney Spears, the keyboard part is actually made from a frog sound that I turned into a musical instrument! Later, we find ourselves in an impromptu history lesson listening to a rendition of the confederate anthem “(wish I was in) Dixie”. As the song plays, we can hear a jangling banjo strumming along to the violin melody, but again, it’s not a banjo, it’s actually another frog instrument that I created! It turns out, you can make a lot sounds and instruments from just frog noises alone – a very fascinating and versatile animal. I tried to find many creative ways to incorporate the sounds of the swamp into each environment, sound effect and music cue.
One of the other special aspects of the Environment sound design for this play involves live mic effects. What’s a ghost story without a ghost, right? Well we have an absolutely phantasmic apparition character, expertly played by Sheldon D. Brown. This shape-shifting spirit is tied to the land, tied to the history of Georgia. He is the ancestors you can hear singing from across the swamp if you are just quiet enough and listen. Throughout the play, the apparition helps to create the world by singing and vocalizing which are accentuated by effects like reverb, octave pitching, distortion, echo delays and more. The apparition breathes the landscape into existence. Sometimes sounding like a snakes and frogs, sometimes like church, and other times sounding like blood and mud.
The Apparition oohs and ahhs throughout the world, singing mostly in a Bb minor pentatonic scale. This minor pentatonic is the the origin scale of African American Spirituals, the Blues, and Jazz. But it goes deeper, the pentatonic scale pops up in nearly every culture throughout the world, from ancient to modern. It is the universal scale of all our ancestors. This Apparition is singing to us from the beyond, where our ancestral spirits live together. The Key of Bb was picked because that is the home key of the Blues. This minor pentatonic scale is specifically chosen for its use by the Commodores in the bridge of their song “Zoom” (one of the ballet pieces in the beginning). This single scale fits over all of the different chords in that bridge; and it’s important to note this, because the shimmering cello and organ swamp chords which are heard throughout the play are sourced from Zoom’s bridge. That’s my favorite part of the song and it happens to be sung by the Commodores with just ooohs and ahhhs! It was just too perfect, I had to use it in this show! The minor pentatonic scale appears in this production not only in “Zoom” by the Commodores and sung by the Apparition throughout, but also in “Untitled” by D’angelo, in Tani’s song “My Love” from Mali, West Africa, and in “Papa’s Blues”. It is a musical thread which is sewn from the beginning to the very end of this play’s tapestry.
Re-Records & Re-Makes
This play called for many specific music cues, which involved me re-making, re-recording, and re-creating a lot of songs from scratch. In the first 2 scenes, we are introduced to two piano plus cello Ballet renditions of RnB classics from Boyz II Men & the Commodores. I chose “Water Runs Dry” and “Zoom” not only because they fit the musical requirement for the cue, but because of the lyric content too. The messages in those songs exactly match with the context of the situation that they accompany on stage – this was very important to me. And every time you hear the themes and variations of those songs (of which there are many) throughout the production, it is for a specific thematic reason which absolutely correlates the lyric content with the character moment. In scenes 3 and 4 the script calls for some late 90’s nostalgia with re-makes of “Ooops, I did it again” by Britney Spears and “Untitled (how does it feel)” by D’angelo. I had an absolute blast re-creating both of these from the ground up, making them feel as close to the original as possible. For Oopps, I created an instrumental version which comes out of the real song’s chorus, and with Untitled, I re-made the entire back track and thematically replaced the vocal part with a church organ. Both of these pieces show up in different ways throughout the rest of the music cues. For instance, in a scene with Papa and Ezekial V debating about the land they live on, there is a heavy blues jam which introduces Papa to the scene. It’s a very late 60’s Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies vibe, featuring the late, great Madsion legend Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”) shuffling on the drums. The distorted riffs that I am playing on bass guitar are a theme and variations based on a guitar riff that happens halfway through D’angelo’s “Untitled”. It’s also no accident that the 6 feel of Papa’s heavy blues shuffle is directly correlated to the 6 feel slow jam of Untitled. The re-recorded drum part alone from Untitled comes back a few times, for the appropriate atmosphere. We hear the vocal harmony parts from the last chorus of Oops, reappear later on as the main horn and brass parts of a ‘Call of Duty’ style video game soundtrack that I made, because Oopps themes are specifically tied to Danny’s character.
There are also a number of re-records and re-makes of the Gone With The Wind soundtrack as well as some old Dixie tunes, which you’ll understand if you see the show…
Musicians on this Production
Tani Diakite (Mali / Madison, WI) – Vocals, Kamele N’goni
Djam Vivie (Ghana / Madison, Wi) – Jembe
Paddy Cassidy (Madison, WI) – Jembe
Clyde Stubblefield (Madison, WI) – Drum Set
Eric Harland (from Houston, TX) – Drum Set sounds
Brian Grimm (Madison, WI) – Cello & strings, Bass Guitar, Pipa lute, Piano, Organ, Music Production, Composition
I’m so thrilled that one of my favorite Madison based musicians, Tani Diakite was willing to be involved and contribute his beautiful songs to the production. Early on I asked Tani (from Mali) and his drummers Djam (from Ghana) & Paddy if we could record some videos of them performing West African songs and drum rhythms for myself and the Actors to learn from. I had such a blast hosting them at my house for a day to record instructional videos and also to record drumming, clapping and songs which we used in the play. Tani has a joyous voice that always makes me smile. I’ve been wanting to collaborate with him for years and I’m glad we finally had a chance to work on something together!! A huge thanks to Tani, Djam and Paddy for their performances and for teaching us their beautiful song and rhythms.
[I will be updating this post soon with some clips of those videos here]
Please check out Tani’s music, you won’t regret it!
the Elephant in the Room…
I am a straight white male from the north working on a play which celebrates black life and queer love, but also speaks the harmful, painful truths of living a black queer experience in the American south. Why did Mikael choose me to do sound design for this particular play? It’s a conversation we really haven’t had yet, but it was one of the first questions on my mind after I read the play. With so many specific calls for black music in this script, was it really appropriate for me to be the person handling those cues? If I make a wrong move, or pushed something too far in one direction or another, does it become tokenism, cultural appropriation, minstrelsy, or some musical equivalent of black-face? This has been in the back of my mind the entire time. I’m sure on paper alone, some people will feel this way regardless and would check “Yes” to a number of those boxes. I don’t have all the answers on such a massive issue such as this and am always open to criticism, but I can say that all of these musical cues were made from a place of love, empathy and absolute respect. One of the plays Mikael and I worked on together last year at our alma mater Butler University deals exactly with this issue. In “We are Proud to Present…” by Pulitzer Prize winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, we explored whether one can truly tell someone else’s story. Whether our never having lived such an experience automatically negates our ability to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes” and empathize with that experience. No matter how hard I might try to imagine or how honest my intentions may have been, I have never lived a black queer experience in America. Where does the line get crossed. When is it twisted out of proportion, cultural appropriation, misunderstanding or missing the mark to the point of causing pain to the people who’ve actually lived that life?… Mikael trusted me enough to pick me for this position, so I had to trust him and know that he’d tell me if things were heading in the wrong direction or getting inappropriate.
But the question still remained, especially when Music is such an integral part of Black Culture and along side dance artforms, the single most inappropriately appropriated aspect of Black culture on a global scale – for centuries. This is one reason that I wanted to involve the fantastic African and African American guest musicians that I did (see above), I knew that I wouldn’t feel right if the music was exclusively made by me, a white person.
African American music has been an enormous part of my life, since I was a child. For most people in western culture, the first image of who a “Composer is” (and can be) is Mozart or Beethoven – but for me it was Duke Ellington. I had a children’s book about the life and music of Duke Ellington and his big band. It was filled with water color imagery of Sir Duke playing on stage with his band. These beautiful depictions absolutely captivated my young imagination. It was no coincidence that the first cassette tape I remember owning was a Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits compilation. So for me, before I knew of Mozart or Beethoven or Bach – I knew Duke Ellington. Duke was my first image of who a Composer is, of what a Composer can be, and how a Composer writes, performs, & records music. He was a Composer, an American Composer, an African American Composer – one of the greatest to ever do it.
This early exposure as a child to the wondrous music of Duke Ellington opened my eyes to Black Beauty, to Black Excellence. But these sorts of cultural exposures shouldn’t be random or happenstance. Culture is learned, culture is taught, culture is passed down. White people must learn to see Black as Beautiful, it’s something that White people need to culturally teach one another to recognize and appreciate and support. Racism is taught, learned and passed down, but so is Love. White people: we’ve got to chose Love and to teach Love over Racism for America to heal. Black Excellence in the Arts shines so bright that you can see it with your eyes closed. See it. Celebrate it. Cherish it. Learn lessons from it. Be inspired by it. Through the words of Terry’s magnificent script, under the direction of Mikael’s nuanced storytelling, through the passionate layers of Wardell & Sheldon’s performances, you are witnessing Black Genius.
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