Festival Dramaturg Kee-Yoon Nahm spoke with M. Anthony Reimer about his process as festival sound designer and composer at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF). Reimer has also curated a playlist to give readers insight into his creative process, which you will find at the bottom of this article.
Kee-Yoon Nahm (KN): To start off, would you talk about your history with ISF? How long have you been involved in the festival?
M. Anthony Reimer (MAR): The first season that I worked on was in 2018. I had just started teaching at ISU part-time the prior year. That was the year that John Stark started his term as Artistic Director, and I think it was a natural fit. I have composed music for every show that I have done with ISF, and this summer will be my fourth season. Shakespeare’s plays are my favorite thing to work on in theatre and something that I have done throughout my career. Before ISF, I worked at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. I have also done summer Shakespeare in South Florida for several years.
KN: What about Shakespeare’s plays appeals to you as a sound designer and composer?
MAR: The plays are a blank slate, which means you can set them in different time periods or geographical locations. I think that appeals to all areas of design, but it becomes very attractive to a sound designer, especially if we are not trying to fix the setting to something too specific. I can take license with instruments that were not invented at the time that we are setting the play, for example. That is fun to do, and it also simplifies the process. If I were to try to write music that was tied to the time that Shakespeare was alive, I would have so many limitations not only in terms of the instruments I can use but also in terms of music theory. A lot of music at the time was still tied to the church, which had rules about which notes could be used together and which chords could be formed.
The other appealing thing about Shakespeare is that there is very little that is stipulated. It is interesting to see to what extent playwrights prescribe sound in their writing, and also to see that change over time. Just in my own lifetime, we went from having playwrights being very specific to having almost no sound effects indicated in the stage directions. Recently, it seems that many playwrights are going back to being specific about sound. But with Shakespeare, there is usually not a prescribed plan already in place for sound. So, it is up to the sound designer. To take King Lear as an example, there is a big storm in the middle of the play. But there is not a crash of thunder specified on line 362 or something like that.
KN: Whereas in a modern play, it is more likely that the playwright will indicate where during a speech we hear those thunder sounds, right?
MAR: Yes. So, there is a great deal of creativity to work with, even as we try to stay true to Shakespeare’s words. That brings me to a third reason I enjoy working with Shakespeare. He includes a lot of aural imagery in his writing. It is interesting to see how he maintains consistency in that imagery through the course of any given work. For example, there are a lot of bird references in Macbeth. There is a lot of water imagery in Hamlet and a lot of references to bells in Romeo and Juliet. It is hard not to pick up on that as a sound designer and ask what Shakespeare is trying to communicate through it. It is not in every one of his plays, but it is interesting to find those little through lines in some of them.
KN: Some historians say that audiences in Shakespeare’s time relied much more on hearing in the theatre. That is different from us where visual stimuli are by far the primary way that we experience stories. It makes sense that Shakespeare’s plays are able to evoke these rich soundscapes through language.
MAR: Before my father passed away, he was a great resource because he studied etymology, the study of the origin of words. So, I could go to him and ask why Shakespeare is talking about an owl here or a sparrow here. What are those connections? Sometimes Shakespeare goes out of his way to set up certain imagery. I have to do my own research now, which is a lot of fun. That is also part of Shakespeare’s appeal, I guess.
KN: Going back to what you were saying about limitations on music in Shakespeare’s time, I want to ask about the actual songs that are inserted in many of the plays. These songs usually do not contribute to the plot, so it is easy to ignore them when people read the plays. But they can be nice moments in the performance. Published versions of Shakespeare’s plays contain lyrics to these songs, and historians think they can guess the melodies for at least a few of them. But for most other songs, we do not know how the tune goes. In that case, you would have to write music to go along with the words. For example, there is the “Hey, Nonny Nonny” song in Much Ado About Nothing, and the Fool has some song snippets in King Lear. What is your process for writing music in these cases?
MAR: Honestly, that can get quite difficult sometimes. It becomes like a puzzle. The first step is to scan the line and understand the rhyme scheme and syllable count. Then I have to figure out how to fit, say, these particular seven syllables into a phrase of music. The next step is to try to incorporate that music into the style of the rest of the production. That can also prove to be very hard. I try not to change Shakespeare’s words too much when I am working, but occasionally I will expand a contraction into two words or vice versa.
KN: Is it challenging because it is like working with a lyricist who is not willing to change anything? It sounds like you as the composer has to make all of the accommodations.
MAR: I choose to think about it as working with a lyricist who is okay with whatever I do. But it is definitely tricky trying to honor not only the lyrics themselves but the surrounding text as well. Sometimes, it also depends on the performer. I might realize that this actor will not be able to deliver something aria-like. I then have to make changes to help the actor succeed at singing the song and telling the story we are trying to tell.
KN: Does the opposite also happen? After meeting the actor and seeing what skills they have, do you ever go back to tailor the music to take advantage of what they can do?
MAR: Yes, absolutely. For example, Dan Matisa played Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale last summer, and his character had a few songs. After I saw him read through the play, the music I had already written changed quite a bit—if I did not actually just start over on a few things. I saw what this actor was capable of, so I wanted to give him the space and the music to show off his individual talents. As a composer, I have always written music in collaborative situations, except in grad school. I am not the kind of composer writing a Symphony No. 9, who says you had better play every note or else. It is hard for me to picture a situation, especially in a Shakespeare production, where I tell an actor you have to sing my notes exactly as I wrote them. We are all trying to tell a story. It is not my job to dictate how this story should be told just because there is music in a scene.
KN: You said earlier that Shakespeare’s plays do not have a lot of specific stage directions for sound cues and music. So, you have to decide whether there should be music at a given moment. How do you make those decisions? I am curious about how you initially work through the script as a sound designer and composer.
MAR: Some of it comes down to the style or genre of music that has been chosen for the production. There are certain styles of music that preclude the use of heavy underscoring. For example, if the overall concept uses a lot of percussions, it becomes challenging to have music to go along with a soliloquy. But setting those constraints aside, I go through a script looking for places where I can help tell the story. In the film, this is what is called “spotting.” I am trying to spot cues for sound and music. Also, Shakespeare tends to write a lot of small scenes that do not all fit in one location or tone. He likes telling big, epic stories. So, I have to find those moments where, for example, an army walks off stage and other characters come on stage. That transition will take a certain amount of time, and I have to pay attention to those moments.
When I first started out as a sound designer, I wanted to underscore everything. But the older I get, the more discretion I use. It is not about the music; it is about the storytelling. Sometimes, the performer is better served by letting them give a speech without any underscoring. But in general, I often look for places where a character speaks for an extended period of time. To use this season as an example, both Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing have important moments where they are on stage alone. Here, I could help the audience understand how the wheels are turning in their heads. Of course, it can be hard at first to know whether you are being too heavy-handed because it might be more fun for the audience to discover those ideas themselves. But maybe I can help show that the two characters are on a collision course or something like that. In King Lear, Lear has some fascinating monologues that pose a problem from a sound designer’s perspective. We are supposed to believe that Lear’s life is in danger because he is outside during this severe storm. But at the same time, Lear is having these very intimate thoughts and revelations in his monologue. It can be challenging to try to have a big storm but also have the actor be heard.
KN: Right, the scene has to be loud and quiet at the same time.
MAR: Yes, it is very challenging. Finally, I look for what I call the “dream ballet” moments. The example that comes to my head is in Act 5, Scene 2 of King Lear. Edgar leaves Gloucester by a tree and goes off stage. And then a whole battle happens in the span of a single scene. If you look at the published play, it just says “Alarum within. Enter, with Drums and Colors, Lear, Cordelia, and Soldiers.” That is all that describes the battle. So, I have to ask what story needs to be told there. These are fun elements because I do not have to worry about covering up the text. It is easier to compose music for that because there are fewer constraints. I have an example from last summer. For Measure for Measure, the director Jenny McKnight noted a few moments in the play that she wanted to be more theatrical and set apart from the rest of the show in some way. For the ending of the play, we started with a handful of lines, and then it turned into a minute-and-a-half choreographed sequence. The music I composed tied back to a couple of earlier moments in the play where we introduced some of these ideas. But it did not come to fruition until that last moment. So, part of the process is discovering those journeys. Sometimes those ideas are thought of in advance, but often they come out of the rehearsal process.
KN: To wrap up, I want to go back to what you said before about it not being about the music but rather the story. I understand your point, but if an audience member wanted to appreciate sound design and music a little more than they go to the theatre, what advice would you give them?
MAR: I always go back to a quote that has been attributed to Noël Coward, although I do not know if he actually said it. Apparently, he is quoted as saying, “Get on stage, say your lines, and try not to bump into the furniture.” I always have that quote in the back of my head. I am here to support the story. I am not here to necessarily make you notice the sound design. Everybody likes to see their names in reviews and have that recognition. But it is always a mixed feeling for me if I see the sound design mentioned in a review. It makes me think, ‘Oh, my gosh! They were paying attention to the sound. I did not know that part stuck out so much.’ Ideally, the audience would not notice the sound design unless you ask them afterward. Then they might say, “Oh, yeah. It was nice. It really fed into the scene.”
There are three categories of sound that I think about when working on a play, although of course, these are loose categories. I think that you can use these as strategies for listening to a show or breaking down the sound design and music. First, there are presentational sounds that exist to let you know you are watching a play—such as what we sometimes call “sit down a shut up” cues at the top of the play. This also includes transition music that bookends scenes. Then, there are diegetic sounds that are meant to help you believe that you are in a certain location or that there is a car offstage or something like that. These sounds are there to support the storytelling quite literally. Finally, there is a whole other set of sounds that support a mood or a theme. They are not noticed if they are artfully done. These sounds help lift a certain moment or highlight an idea that is not otherwise readily available in the text. You can think about which category each sound you hear in a show fits into.
KN: I think having this vocabulary helps understand what purpose different kinds of sound and music can have in production. This is very helpful to keep in mind. Thank you.
Sound designer’s playlist
Reimer has shared the following links and descriptions to give you a glimpse of his creative process. The first set of links is his compositions for Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale from the 2021 ISF season. The final link is a Spotify playlist with tracks that Reimer has selected as inspiration for the sound design of King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing this year.
Diegetic sounds are sounds that exist within the fiction of the story, while non-diegetic sounds are sounds that do not originate from something that exists within the fiction of the story.
Measure for Measure
This music is for the opening dance sequence. Before the interruption, this track plays to an opening choreographed sequence danced by the company to introduce the conflict involving the depravity of the people in Vienna. It is thematically tied to the other tracks here.
An example of a diegetic cue is something that exist in the “world of the play.” Note that they steal the melody from the non-diegetic music tracks.
Music for the ending of the play. This is an example of a piece that straddles a number of boundaries in the play. It is played under a final short moment in which the Duke finally reconciles with Isabella. It serves as subdued underscoring which leads to a slow waltz and takes us to blackout in an unresolved way, suggesting there is more to be learned from this play.
The Winter’s Tale
The opening of the play sets it up as a fairy tale. The piano serves as a timekeeper. More contemporary elements are employed for musical interest and to provide a “cinematic” feel. As the opening narration introduces characters, we hear snippets of their themes that are expanded upon later.
The piano, representing time, continues on as Leontes’ theme can be heard growing in the string bass. The introduction of the accordion includes Polixenes as a contributing factor to Leontes’ madness.
The happy ending song, which incorporates all of the earlier themes associated with the characters of Leontes, Hermione, and their children.
Curated Spotify playlist for inspiration on the 2022 season
“First Construction (In Metal)”
For King Lear, we are looking at piano and percussion as a palette. Cage’s “First Construction” is interesting for the colors he comes up with and the raw energy afforded by writing for percussion instruments.
Again for King Lear, this piece uses a “prepared piano” which I am hoping to leverage to reflect Lear’s mental state as the story progresses.
For Much Ado About Nothing, this is from Max Richter’s reimagining of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” I keep coming back to Vivaldi as a source of inspiration for this romantic comedy. Richter manages to capture the energy from the original, but casts it in a more contemporary light.
“Celesta Taboo Lament (Title Edit)”
Again for Much Ado About Nothing, this is another Richter piece that has a light feeling and represents his instrumental handling in a way that would fit nicely with our production.