The Nature of Why

“All the time you're saying to yourself, 'I could do that, but I won't,' — which is just another way of saying that you can't.” 
― Richard P. Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character

A quote from the inimitable American theoretical physicist, which really does sum up the approach taken for the sound design for 'The Nature of Why', a new performance piece, scored by Will Gregory and choreographed by Caroline Bowditch.  The work was commissioned for the British Paraorchestra, an incredible community of musicians brought together by their artistic director Charles Hazlewood to ensure that musicians with varying levels of disabilities have every chance to practice their art as much as any other musician.  The Paras are a joy to work with, and everything that happens is sprinked with humanity and fun.

Will Gregory, a fan of Feynman's maverick approach to physics and knowledge in general, turned to the physicist's deep well of quotes to form a framework for the nine movements of the score.  It was never going to be conventional, with each movement prefaced by recordings of Feynman discussing the nature of the question 'Why?' with a somewhat befuddled interviewer.  Add to that viola, electric guitar, electric harp, french horn, two percussionists (including a mobile marimba of immense proportions), clarinet, keyboards, double bass, two vocalists and an eleven piece string section and there's a challenge to be had.

However unusual the instrumentation, which would be an 'interesting' thing to mix at the best of times, someone thought it would be a great idea to put all the musicians, 5 dancers AND the audience all in the same space!  Will put me forward as sound designer, fully believing that I would have all the answers....

I sat for ages in the initial stages of rehearsals completely at a loss to come up with a design that would work in my mind that wouldn't jeopardise the show with complexity, fussiness and a huge bill.  Words like 'spatial' and 'immersive' were being bandied about.  I would smile and say 'yeah, of course!', all the while thinking 'but you're all in the audience, you're not supposed to do this'.

All the while I was thinking of how I could mic the show ambiently, giving it a lift, giving a sense of space and direction, without it constantly feeding back.  All the time I was saying to myself, 'I could do that, but I won't,' — which was just another way of saying that I can't' (After Feynman).

And then it just came to me in a moment - I can do it and I will!  I will hang 12 mics out of the roof and point all the loudspeakers at them!

And bugger me if it didn't work!  With the help of 12 DPA 4011 suspended at exactly the same height, and 7 loudspeakers placed in a 14m circle around the performance area, and a few radio mics, it was a joyous result.  Figuring that the 4011's would ensure an identical response from all mics, and the system being very carefully equalised, timed and routed accordingly, any erroneous summation nodes were made more controlled, and the system could act as an acoustic umbrella under which the show could be performed, delivering spatial information as well as lifting it for the very crowded performance area.

So apart from showing off a bit about a show which I am a huge fan of, I guess I'm also saying that sometimes when you can't put your speakers where you want to, step back for a moment and ask yourself what the consequences might be if you go with it.  You just might get lucky!

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