What is Sound Design? Working With the Jose Limón Dance Company

“To Everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the Sun.” Recreating a group dance piece during a pandemic and the black lives matter movement.

“The original music was commissioned by The Julliard School and composed by Norman Dello Joio. The composer won a Pulitzer Prize for the score, entitled Meditations on Ecclesiastes.”

In the summer of 2020, I had the opportunity to join an incredible power-house of a team. Together with Dante Puleio, Kelly Puleio, Ben Fee, and the dancers from the Limón Dance Company, an historical reproduction of a renowned Limón piece was made for video. I was tasked with the sound design and audio mix. What is sound design? But first, establish context. Only weeks into the Covid 19 pandemic, Dante Puleio is hired as the new creative director of the iconic Limón Dance Company. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the company, and his first piece as the new director commemorating this grand occasion is a modern reproduction of a celebrated Limón classic, There is a Time. The original choreography is made for the stage, and performed in a group. The first major challenge presents itself: physical distancing. With the help of his team of dancers and choreographers as well as the vision of Kelly Puleio, each dancer performs the piece alone and sends what can only be described as oodles of footage in to be edited. During this profoundly complicated process, an extraordinary social justice movement takes the world stage; Black Lives Matter. From this point on, Ben Fee begins the extraordinary task of piecing together a group piece using a seemingly infinite number of video clips of individual dancers. With the brilliant direction of Dante Puleio and Kelly Puleio, a marvellous adaptation of a widely celebrated, studied and reproduced piece is born and appropriately dubbed, The Time is Now.

The Time For Sound – but first, fast forward – after the release and celebrations around the video, it became abundantly clear that most of my friends and family had no clue what I did nor understood the purpose of sound design.

Context; upon receiving the video edit, the work is silent. Generally speaking, this is the case with the majority of sound design and composition work. If the video has dialogue, there will be dialogue tracks included in the project assets. If there is no dialogue in the video, it is typically completely void of any and all sound.

Back track to the video, assets, notes and direction landing on my desk.

“[…] my first and most important task was to incorporate modern twists and technical compromises to this renowned piece of music history.”

The first and maybe most important part of the sound involved in There is a Time is the music. The original music was commissioned by The Julliard School and composed by Norman Dello Joio. The composer won a Pulitzer Prize for the score, entitled Meditations on Ecclesiastes. My first task was to incorporate the original recordings of this renowned piece. Guided with tact and precision by Dante Puleio, the music was synced with the choreography. Due to the nature of the video, some parts of the choreography were repeated several times, which meant at certain points, the music needed to be altered. We also understand that this is a modern reproduction, and the times and technology have shifted. A need for the music to feel updated was expressed. To put it bluntly, my first and most important task was to incorporate modern twists and technical compromises to this renowned piece of music history. The priority of this whole process for me was to do so in a transparent way. There are many moments where new instruments, sounds, textures and layers are weaved into the musical landscape. This had to be done in such a manner that a listener would never assume it did not belong there in the first place; celebrating the original score with the utmost respect.

what does ripping open your soul sound like?

Sound As Art. The second phase of the creative process here incorporates sound into the choreography itself. My first collaborations in sound art from my days at Concordia University in Montreal were with members of the dance department so it was especially exciting for me to revisit this mindset. Working closely with Ben Fee, Kelly Puleio and of course the continued direction of Dante Puleio, concepts for the various scenes were put into play. Questions like, what does ripping open your soul sound like? and, how can we represent silence with sound? were among many creative and philosophical discussions.

“This piece was conceived during a time of great social injustice. One of our major objectives was to reflect these times using sound.”

My favourite scene in the development of this piece is Speak/Silence. This is the merging of two acts from the stage piece in which no music is played; instead the dancers clap and the sound of their feet takes the forefront of the audio landscape. These scenes represent an incredible amount of tension and became a major focus for me. While we worked on this, we were in the thick of a major social shift in the United States and around the world as the Black Lives Matter movement reached new levels of attention and understanding.

“These scenes represent an incredible amount of tension and became a major focus for me.”

Using sound as a storytelling tool. This piece was conceived during a time of great social injustice. One of our major objectives was to reflect these times using sound. Dance can be interpreted in many ways, and it was important to the creative team that this specific socio-political energy was unwavering and clear. With the help of footage captured on the ground in New York City during the June 2020 Black Lives Matter protests provided by Olivier Sedra, also known as Olivier “The Voice”, a palette of audio was put together. This palette included things like the sounds of emergency response teams, thousands of people clapping in unison, and the cries and chants of revolutionary change. It was truly surreal to harness this energy and incorporate it with the intensity and delicacy of The Time Is Now.

“It was truly surreal to harness this energy and incorporate it with the intensity and delicacy of The Time Is Now.”

How can we exaggerate silence? One of the several strategies around this was to add very delicate footstep sounds at very precise moments to exaggerate the tension. It was deeply satisfying to create the sounds of sneakers on gravel and bare feet on a wooden bridge and then precisely syncing them with the intention in the steps of the dancers. Remember the context, the video is originally silent.

Remember the context, the video is originally silent.”

Ambient sound and the power of white noise. Dante was very specific about wanting to feel like he was there, on location with each dancer during each scene. Since this was shot across the united states in different environments, the final edit switched from urban landscapes to rainy forests and back seamlessly and frequently. It was important that this felt captivating and believable. Things like a car passing by or a bird taking flight needed to be included in such a way that the sound design itself felt invisible. When we see rain hammering into the ground or waves crashing on the ocean, they become part of the choreography. Incorporating the sounds associated with these elements is crucial in bringing the audience into the space, and truly creating a world. These examples are obvious because the sounds are directly associated with something visual. Less obvious moments are as simple as the white noise of a city rooftop versus a grassy field. The two surely sound different, but we typically do not notice these kinds of details during our daily lives. The white noise, and the nuances therein were the real icing on the cake. This attention to detail affirmed the true brilliance of Dante, Ben and Kelly and made me feel truly privileged to be among such minds in one project; these three world class creators used their feelings to express the subtleties of things as nuanced as white noise in a way that was absolutely remarkable.

“[…] these three world class creators used their feelings to express the subtleties of things as nuanced as white noise in a way that was absolutely remarkable.”

Sound plays a very profound role in our human experience. So much so, that the majority of the time, we are completely unaware of its presence. Unlike eyes, our ears cannot be shut; they are always open and always perceiving. Everyone can relate to that relieving moment when the refrigerator stops humming. A sound designers role, among other very stimulating creative tasks, is to simulate this fundamental subconscious detail of the human experience in a transparent and convincing way.

“When we see rain hammering into the ground or waves crashing on the ocean, they become part of the choreography.”

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