Judgment Day, Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth’s gripping moral fable-slash-social commentary, examines the complex layers of guilt and blame that unravel in a series of events that begin when a distracted stationmaster causes a tragic train accident.
Director Richard Jones (The Hairy Ape)’s ambitious staging of the 1937 work in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory takes full advantage of the building’s cavernous, 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, re-imagining the grand European stations of decades past as stark, shadowy, striking spaces. It’s a stunning, opera-scale production, punctuated by composer Daniel Kluger’s dramatic brass score and Drew Levy’s immersive sound design. I talked to Kluger and Levy to learn how they’ve honed a collaborative process that allows them to execute some of the most visionary ideas in immersive theatre sound.
Live Design: The last time we spoke, you both had just been nominated for Tonys for your work on Daniel Fish’s revival of Oklahoma! Tell me how this new collaboration came together.
Daniel Kluger: Oklahoma! was so successful in terms of our workflow and what we were able to achieve, so it just felt very natural to keep doing it. For Judgment Day, the producer at the Park Avenue Armory, and the director had approached me about doing the score. I proposed a collaboration with Drew because we had just finished doing this spatial presentation of the dream ballet recording in Oklahoma! and I wanted to do something similar.
LD: What’s your process? Do you work in a studio space?
Kluger: The Armory had just finished building a rehearsal room on the top floor of the building. I wrote a lot of the music in that room, as well as in my home studio. We created demos of the music with Spitfire Audio Studio Brass, then we recorded a nine-piece brass band at Bunker Studio with John Kilgore engineering. I premixed everything in stereo and then brought it into the theater, and at that point, Drew and I were able to modify the mix with the spatialization capabilities of the d&b system.
Drew Levy: Until we get into the venue together, our collaboration is primarily conceptual discussion about how we want to use the space and how the music wants to be distributed, and how we want to approach reinforcement. I designed a system that allows us to have that workflow that we built upon from Oklahoma! that allows us to do that stuff quickly and experiment spatially in the venue. That's where the rubber hits the road, so to speak.
LD: Did you get more preparation time in the performance space than you would in a more traditional theater setup?
Levy: We didn't have a whole lot of time in here. But for a play, I feel like we had the right number of days. What was particularly short was the preview period, because we're not in a commercial setting where we're going to preview for weeks, which is really where a lot of the refinement of a reinforcement system happens because you need to do it with your audience in real time under show conditions.
LD: How does the production’s exaggerated aesthetic inform music and the sound design?
Kluger: The play is about a train stationmaster, Hudetz, who experiences tormenting guilt in the aftermath of a train crash. The playwright Horvath gives us this amazing thematic provocation at the end of the play. Hudetz asks his brother-in-law, Alfons, “Do you hear trumpets?” Alfons says, “No, it’s only the wind.” We were given a really clear, thematic mandate to hear the trumpets of God’s judgment in his mind; our director, Richard Jones, felt that the music could setup Hudetz’s decline into this final moment.
At one point earlier in the process, I actually wrote a fair amount of music for strings, and Richard said very clearly it should only be trumpets. He's very pure in intention in moments like that, and it's so helpful to have a commitment like that to a certain approach.
But we also wanted the score to have full range through the frequency spectrum, so we extrapolated a bit in building our brass section: three trumpets, two tenor trombones, a bass trombone, two French horns, and a tuba. This gave us a wider range of expression which served the dramatic scope of the piece. The music was performed and recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble.
LD: How do you approach mixing for such a vast, open space versus a proscenium stage?
Levy: It's basically doing a play in an arena. So, you really have to embrace that from the get-go. With the d&b Soundscape system, instead of doing a standard proscenium setup—which could be left-center-right, and you have some pan control and some surrounds—we can move things between individual loudspeakers in the system, so it opens up this whole palette.
Kluger: The amazing thing about Drew's amplification of the voices is that, because everything's spatialized so precisely with the Soundscape system, you're able to go from a pretty natural performance volume up to something that's almost cinematically loud with a very smooth transition. By the end of the play, the final scene is almost completely underscored with very loud music throughout, but you still feel connected to the people who are speaking.
If you're mixing everything quite loud in a stereo format or even just in a proscenium format, you have to solve conflicts by dealing with frequency interactions and maybe some panning, right? In our case, we were able to say, “Okay, the person's speaking here, and we've got three layers of wind and music, and it's all interacting, and we've got a traffic jam.” But, we can say, “What if this layer of wind and this music element come from the far end of the room—not just to the left, but what if it feels like it's coming from 100 feet upstage of the actor?”
Suddenly, you have a much more nuanced approach to the sonic space, to be able to move things out of the way the dialog.
Sarah Jones is a writer, editor, and content producer with more than 20 years' experience in pro audio, including as editor-in-chief of three leading audio magazines: Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician. She is a lifelong musician and committed to arts advocacy and learning, including acting as education chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, where she helps develop event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.