Interview with Sound Designer, Composer, and Musical Director Chris Houston (Web Exclusive)

When you think of some of the most memorable Marin Theatre Company productions of this season and seasons past, chances are good that Chris Houston was involved. As a sound designer and composer, and often both on the same show, Houston has been a mainstay design presence at MTC for the past seven years. His first show at MTC was The Good German in 2007, and he has since worked on countless plays here – most recently as the composer for the scorching original jazz soundtrack of Fences – creating vivid aural landscapes and unforgettable melodies. As the sound designer, composer, and musical director for the last show of MTC’s 13-14 season, the exuberantly music-filled Failure: A Love Story, Houston is working with director Jasson Minadakis to fulfill a new vision of the story in which each actor plays a character, a Chorus member, a singer, and a musician – often all at once. In an interview after the first week of rehearsals, Houston discussed how sound functions in theater, and how it works within the world of this play. 

What is the difference between a sound designer, composer, and musical director?

I wear a couple hats all the time when I’m working here, but I’ve got three hats in this show. Almost every show is going to have a sound designer, whose job is to provide the sonic support for the play. Generally speaking, that means sound effects. Past that, there’s color and texture to support the heightened emotional moments; wind, thunder, rain, traffic – all those things that create a sense of place, give us a moment to reflect on what has just happened, create a backdrop. That work sometimes feels very clear cut; it’s obvious what has to happen.

Good sound designers take it further in that each sound can change a little bit. The job is largely technical, but there’s also artistry because sound itself can have an emotional quality. It can create the illusion of depth and space – for instance, the sound of a distant dog can tell us about the next street over. When I’m working as a sound designer, I’m asking myself those kinds of things. I’m also asking about how the voices of the actors sound in the space: are we really delivering this text? How will the set design affect the sound? Are we getting the message across? Most of my work as a sound designer gets done during tech week, but I’ll be adjusting things right up until opening night.

Composers have a different kind of job to do. In a good piece of music, you’ve got four fundamental things: rhythm, harmony, timbre (which is tone color and instrumentation), and melody. In theater music, composers very often leave the melody out because the text – the voices – is the melody. The composer’s job is to read through the script, talk with the director, work out the sense of time and place, research the history of all the music, and then try to deliver something that feels appropriate. You’re creating something that hopefully stands alone, and it’s an awful lot of fun.

For me, most of the time, that means writing music but also performing and producing it. I’ve got a unique situation in this show because the original music that I’ve written has to be performed live onstage by vocalists and instrumentalists. So I’ve got the delight and the terror of walking into the first day of rehearsal not with prepared recordings but rather with pieces of paper which I hope will be interpreted, and I don’t really know what I’m going to have at the end. Right now, we’re at the beginning of the process; we’ve had a few days together, and immediately, we’ve started changing things. So I’m taking advantage of the talents that we have and shaping the things that I’ve written to make it work – that’s just totally thrilling.

The process of adjustment and adaptation is the third hat in the process, the music director’s hat. The music director’s job is to take the music that we have and the abilities that we have and try to adapt it to the needs of the blocking and the narrative. The musical director for this show’s job is also to adapt the primary source material that’s embedded in the text. We’re in twenties Chicago, and [playwright Philip Dawkins] has asked for five songs that are of the period. So, going into it, I’ve been not just a composer, but an arranger, and I’ve put together vocal and instrumental versions of those tunes. I’m trying to make them all fit in the same world, so I’ve adjusted the songs to be in the same key or key spaces, and done arrangements that fit our voices.

How do you look at a script and feel where the music fits into it?

It certainly does come from the script, first of all. Usually the playwright or screenwriter has given us some hints. But this production is unique. In theater, we don’t use underscoring very often, but what we’ve chosen to do here is to take the songs that Dawkins has suggested in certain places and continue them underneath the dialogue, re-embedding the music of those songs into the action. [Failure director Jasson Minadakis] and I sat down with the script and went through it a couple of times. That’s called “spotting” – when you say, “in my dream world, I would have this happening here, this happening here, etc.”  And you hope you can pull it off.

What does music and sound design mean to this play that’s different from other plays?

I can’t imagine it without music. This play is sort of magical, and music can be magical. Music acts as a kind of channel for that sense of wonder. I think it’s also super satisfying and supportive of that wonder and magic to have all of the music being produced by the actors on the stage. The suggestion is that the world of these people is not the ordinary world but has a kind of evanescence to it. At any moment, a snake could talk to you, or a piano could turn into a boat, or a ukulele could be a clock. That sense that everything is two things can be achieved by music so well. We’re going to do something really special with this production – we’re answering a lot of questions in the script, and in the idea of the play, musically.

What characterizes this period of music for you?

Post-WWI, the world is a different place. There’s this sense of hopefulness and release from fear. It pops the lid off. That roaring twenties feel is in all the music from that period. There’s an exuberance and a brightness to the melodies and the jazz rhythms that don’t ever really come back. That’s why these songs are still awesome and we still play them: nobody’s done it better. I could get into technical details about this stuff, but that’s the heart of it, really. It’s that exuberant, jazz-inflected rhythm and terrific craft – where words, lyrics, text, and melody marry to create very strong, hard-to-describe meanings. Dawkins has reached for these classic songs that encapsulate the funny combination of innocence and sexiness that is so great about that period – fantastic, crazy, foolishness that, at the same time, is sort of childlike.

What do you anticipate will be your biggest challenge working on this play?

I’ll say this – composers are like scientists. Most of the time they’re asking questions; they’re wondering, “what if…?” What if we try this? What’ll happen if we do this? Good theater does the same type of thing. I don’t think I’ve ever done a show quite like this before. I’ve done plenty of musicals and shows that ask actors to play instruments onstage, but this is asking even a little bit more than that. It’s asking them all to be more than one thing at once, all the time. Jasson’s asking a question: can we do this? And if we do this, is it anything? And what could be more exciting and terrifying than those two questions? In specific, we’re asking ourselves to pull off something that feels very big and powerful with a super limited set of resources. And we won’t know exactly what it is that we have until we get it on the stage, which happens five days before we have an audience. I’m thinking about that as I do arrangements now: how will this sound onstage? What’s it going to be like for the actors? And finally, because this material is so emotional and magical, how can I work it so that it doesn’t go too far all the time? It has to keep moving forward. Can we do that? Is it anything? That’s the thing that’s in my head as we work – I hope we can.

Is that the part that’s the most exciting too? Trying to figure it out?

I’m very interested in that. I’m attracted to things that are a bit nerve-wracking. The thing that’s a little scary to me is the most exciting and interesting. Also, I have to say, on a strictly personal level, I’ve written three new pieces for this and there’s something terrifically satisfying and deeply delightful about hearing them performed so well.