The Composer (?)
by Estelle Rosen
Rob Denton is an independent theatre artist. Coming to theatre from a background in the music business as a sound engineer, he got his start in 1997 mixing the Yiddish musical The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He has since tried his hand in most aspects of theatre from technician, to sound, set and lighting designer, director and producer. In 2006 Denton translated, directed and produced his translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit under the title Out There and in 2009 offered his own Tryptich, three short plays presented at the Theatre Ste. Catherine. He received a MECCA for his Sound Design for Satchmo’ Suite in 2007 and shares a MECCA with Tsultrum8 for his design contribution to Jesus Hopped the A Train in 2004.
Besides probably loving music which likely was the impetus for getting involved in sound design, has being a sound designer (currently referred to as composer) lived up to expectations, despite no doubt always facing challenges with each production?
As the son of a math professor I must first address the parentheses before attempting to solve the rest of the problem. Just for fun, let’s put the parenthetic phrase in quotes, “currently referred to as composer”. There. Now it seems a lot more important, doesn’t it? I think so and here’s why.
First, I have been fortunate to work with directors, like Mike Payette, who have given me the opportunity to actually compose original scores. This is my preferred way to work and is most fulfilling on a personal level. For the current production of Harlem Duet, all the guitar, piano and harmonica parts were played by me. Certain instruments were virtual i.e. drums, bass and synthesizers but all were triggered by my fingers and arranged by me... For better or worse.
Second, with regards to the title Composer as it pertains to theatre, we enter a darker realm. The title Sound Designer has been monopolized by a group called APASQ who have unilaterally negotiated contracts with “professional” theatre companies in Quebec. For the privileged title of Sound Designer I must pay them and abide by their terms. This is extortion and should be illegal. The only person I will ever allow to negotiate on my behalf will be my agent or my lawyer and only under my close scrutiny. This is why some of my colleague Sound Designers have adopted the title of Composer.
While proud to claim the title Composer I still lack the raw talent and discipline to be a Real Musician. I make stuff that sounds like music. Some people give themselves credit as Sound Designer for selecting the music that is played during the play. This usually amounts to selections made from a juke box with rarely a coin inserted. These Sound Designers you might see tapping on the head of a microphone to turn it on for their opening night speech.
Finally, getting back to Harlem Duet, a lot of the soundscape was written into the script. Djanet Sears, the author, has been very accommodating by giving Mike Payette and me considerable leeway to try our own ideas. I have reserved feelings about the growing trend of very specific stage directions regarding sound, “... there is the sound of wind... there are bells and a distant river flowing....” etc. Please, we take our work very seriously, let us do it. I have yet to read a play that has in its stage directions “... it is nighttime, the stage is back-lit with Rosco 80...” or, “... the actor sits down and places his head in his hands because he is conflicted about the feelings he has for his wife, his lover, and his mother...”
So the short answer to your question is yes, despite some jaded bitterness and frustration, I truly love the work I do and am honoured and grateful for the opportunity to do it.
Harlem Duet continues to November 11
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