Daniel Kluger: Triple Tony-Nominated Composer/Sound Designer

Composer/sound designer Daniel Kluger received three 2020 Tony Award nominations including Best Sound Design of a Play for his work in both The Sound Inside and Sea Wall/A Life, as well as Best Original Score for The Sound Inside. Live Design chats with this triple Tony nominee.

Live Design: This year there are no musicals nominated in the Best Score category, only plays. For The Sound Inside, the score is a single track, called, “To Lie Face Down in a Field Full of Snow.” Tell us about that.

Daniel Kluger: It’s a piece for piano and strings and the recording features the Momenta Quartet, a string quartet I love working with. Without giving too much away, the music serves a surprising role in the production.

What I love about the piece of music is it’s extremely soft and intimate and casts a spell after 90 minutes of silence; that’s the first time you hear this piece of music. It’s like the first drop in a still pond, and the director David Cromer creates this hypnotic experience that leads up to that moment.

The music is a response to an image in the piece of a solitary person alone in the cold, so the score is meant to deal with elemental frailty and loneliness.

The Sound Inside, photo by Jeremy Daniel, 2019

The play is about a surprisingly intimate relationship between a teacher and a student, and that relationship feels dangerous and surprising and metaphysical. Both the teacher and the student deal with confronting their own fears of mortality and intimacy, so I wanted to make a piece of music that could hold that space with them without telegraphing too much emotion because the aesthetics of the play are very quiet and delicate.

The track will be released soon on an upcoming new label, Archie and Fox Records. It’s sad that this season was so abbreviated, but it’s a serendipitous surprise that we’ve been able to have a discussion about scores from plays; not just this one, but the others that are nominated. That work of scoring plays happens every season on Broadway, but there isn’t a category for them, and it’s quite a different practice.

LD: In what way would you say music for dramatic plays differs from a typical musical theater score?

DK: Firstly, scoring a play has much more in common with film scoring, both in terms of aesthetic and the technological production process. The challenge of producing a recorded score for a live production leads to exciting creative limitations, and I’m really interested in the problem solving of how to produce an excellent recording that meets the needs of a live performance as well.

I think the community of composers that deal with that problem solving is investigating some of the more interesting cutting-edge technical possibilities involving the use of electronics and music production.

Unlike a composer of concert music where you write a melody down and someone plays it, composing music for plays is inextricably linked from technological questions of music production and playback in a theater.

The questions that that brings up about our relationship with musicians and to technology itself is really important for us to think critically about as we imagine the modes of production of the future. I’ve found that in order to produce theater music, it requires being portable. For example, you need to be able to hear the final recording in the theater before a cue is approved, which means you either need to finalize your editing and your mixing in the theater, or you need a really good software mockup before the recording even happens. As a result, I bring a mobile rig to the theater that has redundancy with my studio setup.

Sea Wall / A Life, photo by Richard Hubert Smith

LD: How is scoring a play with dialogue different from scoring a film?

DK: In theater, the dynamic range of the dialogue is much wider than in a film. To work around that dialogue and sculpt something that supports it is a three-dimensional job. In a film, the dialogue is coming from the center speaker, and you can put your music in the left and right speaker, and the level of the dialogue in your film is usually relatively consistent. You’re aiming towards a somewhat standardized format, whereas in a play the dynamics of an actor’s performance might vary a little bit, moment to moment and night to night. Writing underscoring for that involves not just sculpting the music to the performance, but understanding the way it might evolve from night to night.

LD: Since Broadway went dark last year, what have you been working on?

DK: I’m preparing some music for release on the label Archie and Fox Records, I’ve been orchestrating a musical theater piece for Audible, I created the theme music for Vineyard Theater called “Lessons in Survival,” and I’m starting a website for community discussion about issues related to music in the theater.

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