in: Reviews

March 23, 2011

Vagaries of Amplification in Death and the Powers

by

Operabots (Jonathan Williams photo)

In addition to wishing to attend the Machover opera, Death and the Powers, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre (which runs through this Friday, March 25), I was curious — as an acoustical engineer — about the sound aspects of this unusual production. But from experiencing two performances in two different seats, sound is only one – and possibly the least important – of the pieces that power this work of art.

The theme of the opera – that ideas may or may not be more powerful than matter – played out from the beginning of its creation. They started with a commission and seed money from Kwather Al-Abood, the board director of L’Opera de Monte-Carlo, for a work that would “galvanize opera.” She went to Tod Machover, who thought of asking poet Robert Pinsky for a libretto. Pinsky came up with the character of Simon Powers, an amalgam of Yeats, Walt Disney, and Sid Caesar. Powers is a billionaire bully, inventor, producer, and investor who attempts immortality by infusing the computer cloud with his own personality, retaining and strengthening his power over people and events even as his body dies. Simon Powers becomes the Judaeo-Christian god, the all, being everywhere, seeing everything, controlling the money and topping the hierarchy.

Pinsky’s ideas do not stop there; they raise (but do not answer) fundamental questions of who we are and why we do what we do. If in the cloud there is no struggle for food or sex, no gadgets to invent, diseases to cure, subordinates to pester, or superiors to obey, what do angels do? Do they get bored? If Power’s wife Evvy (Emily Albrink) or Power’s acolyte Nicholas (Hal Cazalet) join the cloud, do they retain their subordinate status? If another mogul inhabits an alternate cloud, do the two clouds fight? If so, what do they fight about? The robots complain at the beginning of the show that they do not understand death and struggle. We cannot comprehend their lack.

These ideas are all put forth on stage through an amazing collaboration among poetry, music, acting, and technology. The character of Powers drives the show – the other characters are not as complex. But Powers leaves the stage after the second scene. How do you create the presence of the major character when he is not there? James Maddalena as Powers voiced and acted his part from a booth in back of the orchestra pit, where he could see the conductor and hear all the music and action. His body was wired with sensors for his arm movements, breathing, and muscle tone. This information was used to infer his emotional state, and to display it the on the set through patterns of color on the walls, and the tone color of his voice. The technology works – the set comes alive and Powers inhabits it. (Perhaps a greater wonder is that an actor can so channel a character that his body reflects the emotion of the part.) The technology that drives the semi-autonomous robots – illuminated trophies with the heads of praying mantises – is also amazing. They seem animate, complex, sometimes threatening, sometimes merely confused. The robots that form the three-sided illuminated walls are equally powerful.

Machover’s music is essential, as was the collaboration between composer and poet. Machover and Pinsky had a dialog: where Machover felt a scene needed more words to drive the music, Pinsky came up with them. Machover says he starts with the words. Words for him automatically have melodies attached to them, and he works with these melodies as he develops the score. They can be tender, lyric, or harsh as the words command. From the melodies comes the orchestration – parts for the fifteen live musicians, and a wealth of real-time synthesized electronic sounds. All are synchronized to Gil Rose, the conductor in the pit. The combination adds powerfully to the words and or lyrics on stage. Like most shows this show is intensely visual. Light is the metaphor for the cloud — “the System,” and light is the major tool of for expressing emotion on the set.

What about sound? Where does it fit in? Some sound is essential – you can’t hear the text or the music without it. At a conscious level the quality of the sound may not really matter, but at a subconscious level it matters a lot. Human drama is conveyed best by a sonic connection between actor and listener, and this connection depends on a certain type of clarity. When sound travels to us directly from an actor unhindered by baggage of noise and reverberation, our brains detect the source as close to us psychologically. We are able to hear the words, remember them, and react to them at an emotional level. But when the sound is amplified through loudspeakers, this acoustic closeness is often lost. Sound reinforcement people are generally not aware of this phenomenon. It is considered sufficient if the words can be individually recognized most of the time. But when the brain must work hard to hear, relying on context and syntax to infer the meaning, there is not time to ponder, react, and remember.

Greater loudness is not the answer. The climactic scenes in the opera, where the sound pressure levels were up around 110dBA, were not the most gripping. Intensity by loudness seems forced. The most wrenching scenes were the quieter ones — the opening where the actors are basically unamplified, the scene where Evvy makes love to the chandelier occupied by Powers, the long arias by his daughter Miranda (Sara Heaton), and the scene with The United Nations (David Kravitz), The United Way (Douglas Dodson), and The Administration (Tom McNichols). When Powers comes back in the final scene, his vocal presence is immediately noticeable, only later to be overwhelmed by reinforcement as the amplified orchestra gets louder.

From where I sat about two-thirds of the way back in the orchestra section, the direct sound from the characters in these scenes was dominant, the acoustic presence sufficient to draw me in. (This may not have been the case further back in the hall.) The Cutler Majestic is a drama theater – designed to provide this kind of clarity throughout the hall with no need of amplification. When you add loudspeakers, especially multiple loudspeakers, they interfere with each other and with the natural sound. The sound is louder, but sounds further away. Cinema discovered this problem years ago. Movie theaters are as acoustically dry or dryer than the Cutler, and all movie dialog is reproduced through a single loudspeaker in the center of the screen. This loudspeaker is designed to reproduce the vocal formant frequencies with accurate phase. The timbre is often lousy, but the emotion is all there.

These days technology can make sound as loud as we could want, and it is being used more and more. Louder is generally assumed to be better, and for some scenes it is. With only fifteen musicians in the pit and a great deal of synthetic sound, reinforcement becomes essential. There are many places in the score where, without the microphones, we would not hear the actors at all. In theses scenes amplification is essential, and it does not matter if the voices seem muddy or distant. The music carries the emotion.

Amplifying the music is equally problematic. In this show the both the live and synthetic music were reproduced – partly in stereo – by two large loudspeakers on either side of the proscenium. Alas, stereo does not work very well if you are not sitting near the center line of the auditorium, and I was not. For me the orchestra, and most of the synthesized sounds, came all mixed together from the loudspeaker on my right. I heard the musicians in the pit only occasionally, and then only the brass. If you have an interest in how the music is scored – how the voices interact – you need to be able to individually localize each instrument or section. When they are all stuffed into a single loudspeaker hearing them individually is often impossible. Machover’s score was melodic and dramatically effective, but I have no idea of how it was put together. I do not think I would have paid less attention to the actors if it were possible for me to hear the score. Presumably Machover wrote the sounds to be heard.

Natural hearing is amazingly good at picking out individual voices from a scene. Reproducing this ability with loudspeakers is very difficult. Stereo is an illusion far removed from natural hearing. It only works along a line near the center of the loudspeaker array, and only in the absence of reverberation. Adding a center loudspeaker is immensely helpful. In this case instruments or voices near the center are reproduced through the center speaker only. Voices or instruments to the left of the center can be partially reproduced through the center and left speakers, but never reproduced in the right-most loudspeaker, and vice-versa. In this show a center speaker would have to be flown above the stage from the center of the proscenium, and perhaps this was not possible. (Ambisonics, the technique ostensibly used for the surround array, only works at a single point.)

I feel the sound people did a good job, considering what they were up against. The equipment was high quality. The timbre and richness of the sound was far superior to a typical movie theater, and the sound pressure the equipment could reproduce without distortion was very impressive. The clarity could perhaps have been better; but given the complexity of this show, the limited resources at the theater, and the fact that the sound designer was Ben Bloomberg, an immensely talented MIT undergraduate, the result was remarkable.

In sum, “Death and the Powers” is an amazing experience. Its combination of ideas, poetry, music and technology may well provide the galvanizing force that Al-Abood had hoped for.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

1 Comment

  1. A top-notch review (so what else?) by David, discussing issues of synthetic sound, as opposed to hearing naturally, without reproduction. Fortunately, we were sitting more or less in the center first balcony, so the synthesized sounds mostly came from both sources (or however many they were if it wasn’t in fact 2-source stereo). David also elucidated my prevailing dissatisfaction (unless it’s necessary) with amplified human voices in vocal production. Somehow, the voices in that context do seem both louder and more distant. The entire evening was a wondrous mix of media and content. The talk-back with Machover and Pinsky was worth the price of admission, or even more, assuming one can even put a price on indelible memory.

    Comment by Henry Hoover — March 27, 2011 at 10:37 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.