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22 November 2013

Exploring the bond between imagination and sound

Exploring the bond between imagination and sound

Piotr Nowotnik recently collaborated with the Melbourne-based theatre director Suzie Hardgrave on the production of Elizabeth Taylor Is My Mother. Written, directed and performed by Hardgrave, the piece tells the story of an unrecognised child of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The production team set out to explore personal memories by creating 'imaginary worlds': these were partly achieved through exploration of sound and voice in order to create character and atmosphere - for instance by switching between amplified live voice and pre-recorded 'past' voice, and experimenting with sounds, words and microphone effects. Elizabeth Taylor Is My Mother was performed at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne 8-10 November 2013.

After meeting Suzie Hardgrave for the first time to discuss the sonic layer for her project Elizabeth Taylor Is My Mother, I was left with the impression that we were going to try to blend the popular perceptions of music with sound design. Where 'cinematic music' idioms end, a vast and fertile landscape of unfathomable potential spreads out across the horizon. This is where the 'composer' is no longer needed and the 'explorer' starts the journey. Moving away from recognised idioms allowed us to discover a deeper, almost subconscious bond between sound and imagination.

The piece itself - contained within the relatively small space of La Mama Theatre in Melbourne - transported its audience to the darkest alleys of the main character's mind: uncharted and spacious yet claustrophobically contained, vivid yet grotesque. This is where the sound of a foetal heartbeat became a texture, where wind in wailing wires became a 'choir' and the disassembled ambience of South American swamps became a metaphor for our internal voice - a residue of our linguistic brain.

Notes from a broken music box summoned childhood memories. The music box was one of very few actual musical devices in the whole piece, apart from a cameo appearance by a muted trumpet and double-bass equipped with sympathetic strings. The latter - pointing us in a direction of smooth jazz - was a device creating a connection with a sham lifestyle and 'celebrity culture'.

'Tyranorexia' - our term for a world-devouring monster inhabiting the main character's memories - was a completely different beast. The sound of crunchy gravel and rustling shrubbery accommodated more subsonic material which acted as a kind of physical trigger to the audience's perception of low frequencies.

Suzie often asked me to use my 'initial response', my 'gut feeling' as my guide when it came to creating music for her piece. So my work was searching for the right sound in my head before putting its acoustic realisations together.

Not being able to predict how sound and story will eventually come together - and if any new strains of it will sprout as a result of this 'audio-mental' reaction - was an incredible opportunity to test my aural instincts. And while my logical mind often pushed me towards revising my initial ideas, we decided to resist the temptation. It worked very well and way beyond my expectations.

Suzie's amazing ability to tell the story rather than act it, created one of the most honest and authentic performances I have seen in a long time. It was a very humbling experience to see and hear how the cogs of this enormous creative machine were working seamlessly together - initially powered by our creative impulses but eventually living in their own inner momentum.

AMC resources

Piotr Nowotnik - AMC profile
Elizabeth Taylor Is My Mother - production details on La Mama website

Peter Nowotnik is versatile composer and performer creating music in a variety of genres, from contemporary and classical to pop, folk, world music, electronic and period music. Born in Europe, he ventured onto the music career path in Australia where, in 2003, he founded band Umanee, which toured Australia performing original fusion of ancient poetry with Nordic and Middle Eastern folklore. He graduated from Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne with a Degree in Music Composition. He is continuously engaging in collaborations with artists from across disciplines of arts including video games, film, experimental cinematography, dance theatre and puppetry.


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