Apart from my semi-normal life as a graphic artist and musician I have been a theatre sound designer and composer for more than 25 years. In that time it has been my good fortune to collaborate with many widely diverse theatre practitioners in Calgary and throughout Canada; Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects, One Yellow Rabbit, Vertigo Theatre, Ground Zero Theatre, Quest Theatre, Downstage, Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Theatre Junction, Citadel Theatre, Workshop West, MTP, Prairie Theatre Exchange and more. In that time I have received a number of nominations and awards: Theatre Junction’s Boy Gets Girl, Ghost River Theatre's Mesa and The Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s Beowulf, Alberta Theatre Projects Butcher (in collaboration with Morag Northey) all receiving Calgary’s Betty Mitchell Award. A couple of Edmonton's Elizabeth Sterling Awards went to designs I created for Running with Scissors' Mom Dad I’m Living With A White Girl and Workshop West's Mesa (in collaboration with Edmonton’s Dave Clarke.)
Butcher by Nicolas Billon. Alberta Theatre Projects. Cello, Morag Northey. Directed by Weyni Mengesha. 2014.
Katurian death cue from The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. Ground Zero Theatre. Violin, Brigitte Dajczer. Directed by Kevin McKendrick, 2007.
Beowulf . Compilation. The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Directed by Coral Larsen Thew. 2002.
Glenn by David Young. Compilation. Blacklist Theatre. Directed by Kevin McKendrick. 2004.
The Good Life by Daniel Brooks. Theatre Junction. Directed by Kevin McKendrick. 2003.
Boy Gets Girl by Rebecca Gilman. Compilation. Theatre Junction. Violin, Jonathan Lewis. Directed by Kevin McKendrick. 2003.
Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicote. Compilation. Workshop West (Edmonton). Directed by Ron Jenkins. 2002.
20 years of sound design
WARNING: SOUND was developed as an audio installation for One Yellow Rabbit’s 2010 High Performance Rodeo. It’s a re-imagining/re-mixing of theatre sound designs that I’ve created over the last 20 years. This 53 minute CD is an edited version of the 1 hour 45 minute installation.
The designs represented are from the following shows: Beowulf, Old Trout Puppet Workshop; The History of Wild Theatre, One Yellow Rabbit; Closer, Edible Woman, Faraway, Boy Gets Girl, The Optimists, Show #2, Theatre Junction; Dig, The Photo Double, Ghost River Theatre; DeadRats In Hell, generic theatre; Mary's Wedding, Workshop West; Sherlock Holmes, MacBeth,Theatre Calgary; Lawrence & Holliman, Being at Home with Claude, Blacklist Theatre; Pillowman, Ground Zero Theatre; Drowning Girls, The Syringa Tree, Alberta Theatre Projects.
Some of the many artists involved in this creation: Brigitte Dajczer, The DeadRats, Onalea Gilbertson, Tim Koetting, Lands End Ensemble, Trevor Leigh, Jonathan Lewis, Dan Meichel, Meg Roe, Brigitte von Rothemburg, Phillip Warren-Sarsons, Vlad Sobolewski, and Anne–Marie Timoney. For those I may have missed, sorry but you know who you are!
–Peter Moller, December 2009.
Heard But Not Seen
Calgary’s Peter Moller, the man behind the music
By Zac Bolan / ATP LIVE magazine 2017
“The house lights go down and the curtain rises…” That is how a story about seeing a play usually starts. After the show, we talk about how the set was impressive and the costumes were beautiful. “The lighting in that dream sequence was really spooky,” we say. “I loved the sunset in the final scene.” We talk about what it looked like. Less often, we think about how it sounded.
The use of sound effects has been an integral part of the theatre experience since Shakespeare, when they would hammer on a sheet of metal to create the sound of thunder. As recently as the 1960s, theatrical sound design consisted mainly of live sound effects, like shaking a box of broken glass backstage to create the effect of a window breaking, or snippets of pre-recorded music painstakingly spliced together and played back from reel-to-reel tape machines.
In more recent times, an evolution in audio technology has greatly increased the importance and complexity of one of stagecraft’s newest disciplines—sound design. In 1967, a theatre lighting designer named Dan Dugan decided to change his focus to sound design while working on the Shakespeare Festival in San Diego. He went on to create complex soundscapes for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) during its 1968-69 season using three stereo tape decks routing sound to multiple speakers throughout the theatre. For his innovation, Dugan was credited by ACT as Sound Designer, and was possibly the first to bear this title.
Calgary’s Peter Moller is a percussionist and graphic designer who is the principal of Egg Press Co. But he is perhaps best known as a prolific sound designer for theatre. Moller has designed sound for several ATP productions including The Syringa Tree(2005, 2008),Tyland(Enbridge Playrites 2010), Dust (Enbridge Playrites 2013), Red (2013), The Motherfucker With The Hat(2013) and most recently Butcher(2014).
“I started doing sound design three decades ago, mainly in the form of live percussion,” explains Moller. “But when the digital revolution hit in the mid ‘90s, I could see that everything to do with sound was going that way.”
Moller explains that while his job does have a very practical aspect, sound design is much more than simply technology to create sound effects, or overseeing amplification to make sure the performers are heard from every seat in the theatre.
Sound design today nowadays involves selecting or creating sounds and music to deepen and support the emotions and themes of a production. The sound designer studies the play and becomes intimately familiar with the script. Then the real work begins. The sound designer and director work together to create a sound environment or musical style that will fit the world of the play. They then identify every sound cue in every scene, and the sound designer builds each cue one by one.
“I’ll offer my insight and expertise to help facilitate what the director envisions,” continues Moller. “At that stage I’m pretty much a creative partner, but the form my contribution takes depends on the director. There are many directors I woirk with repeatedly, because when they find designers they like to work with, they stick with them.”
“Sound design takes many forms,” says Moller. “It could include anything from creating original music to going out and recording found sounds, in addition to the elements needed for sound effects. For example, I might have to take recording equipment into the field to capture sounds such as wind and tress rsutling, or cars and traffic.
“When I worked on Butcher for ATP, the script called for cello music. I worked with Calgary cellist Morag Northey to record several of her idea, which I later layered into tracks ion my production studio. Then, during rehearsals, the director, Morag and myself arrived at consensus on what music would be used in the play—more of a soundtrack fro the performance.”
According to Moller, a sound designer needs to be in the rehearsal hall and in the theatre during technical rehearsals, to work out the cues for the sound with the director and actors, and to hear how the sound works within the performance.
“At rehearsals I work with stage management who operate the controlling console,” says Moller. “I’ll be there to make necessary changes to the sound files, but it will be the stage management team that actually calls or runs the cues.
“The beauty of doing sound with digital controllers is that you are able to make changes on the fly (while in technical rehearsals)—the same way you can correct lighting. The controller the stage manager uses can control sound, lights and even projections—so one cue can trigger three or more events at once. And that technology enable us to store the cues, making it consistent from night to noght throughout the run.”
For Moller, the biggest challenge facing any sound designer is to find a way to work collectively with everyone involved in the production to create the final product as the director envisions it. As a team, they must accommodate the end goal of the overall process—to produce a great show that puts patrons in the seats.
“I’ve heard it said that great sound design should be the sound design you don’t notice,” muses Moller. “Possibly that’s true—`but I think that if a sound design is working in conjunction with all the other elements on both sides of the curtain, then you have a good show. You don’t necessarily have to remember the individual aspects—if the show pulls the audience member in, then all the elements are doing their job.”