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Dreams of a New Earth

a sound design thesis by Jacob Montgomery

with cinematography and visual direction by Jonas Bishop Hayes

The Process

The process of developing this show began in earnest in Spring 2020. Looking at the prospects of trying to produce something in the midst of a global health crisis, I knew that there would be some challenges. Over the course of the following year, this project went through several iterations. At one point I even considered composing and writing a musical, but that ended up feeling a little bit too ambitious considering the circumstances. One thing that I knew I wanted to accomplish, however, was to create a project that encapsulated the skills I'd been developing over the last four years. Eventually, this fall, I developed a short document that reflected my goals and aspirations at the time.

Over the next months, I began producing sound sketches that would help me refine my goals and the aesthetics I wanted to explore. One of the initial ideas was to use sound that I recorded from the world around me in combination with sound that I generated. A couple of those (very rough) sketches are below.

2020-11-28 Sketch
00:00 / 06:18

This sketch represents an idea that I had, which was to record sound from outside my window, and then attempt to recreate it using various software tools. The first two minutes of this are the raw recording; the middle two minutes are using software instruments such as Native Instruments Ethereal Earth; the final two minutes using the program VCV Rack, a free Eurorack-simulator that I used to create more generative ideas. The idea here was to see how different elements of our natural soundscape could be translated through various sound design techniques.

2020-12-15 Sketch
00:00 / 01:41

For this sketch, rather than show how I could interpret the natural sounds differently, I wanted to explore how the natural sounds could interact with the synthesized sounds, simultaneously. This example is again using VCV Rack as the main synthesized sound source.

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At this point, I went home to Chicago for the holiday break. While there, I starting thinking about adding a visual component to the process. I went to Starved Rock, a nearby state park, and set about recording a couple hours of sound and video that I could use. Although this didn't end up making it into the final product, it was great experience both with doing "location" recording, and with thinking about how to use video dynamically to tell a story. I continued to experiment with these sounds, using them in different applications and with different sound design ideas, through the early months of 2021, but struggled to find a thru-line that would make this not only a fruitful project for me, but one that I could share with my peers as an entertaining, if not thought-inspiring piece of work.

Around the beginning of March 2021, I re-discovered a poem that I had picked up back in high school, titled "The Big Loser," by Max Ritvo. To me, this poem spoke to some of the ideas that I had been having as I was developing this project, so I wanted to move forward with it as more than just an inspiration, but as a framing device that I could graft my sound and video ideas on to. For a while, the poem was going to be part of the final project, either read aloud as a voice over, or simply as text. I identified the four main sections of the poem, and set about creating a piece of music that would match up to it not literally, but more emotionally and aesthetically. This was the major thrust of my work through March and April.

About a month before the presentation of this work, it became apparent that I would need help with the visual components, so I enlisted the help of my friend and colleague, Jonas Hayes (see more of his work here). We had collaborated before, when I scored two short films that he shot, and on a recent project with the New Repertory Theatre in Boston on a filmed staging of a play. So, knowing that we had similar aesthetics, I prepared the following script for us to follow as we moved forward.  Note that while quite a lot is different from the final product (especially the title and a lot of the visual references), the structure and sounds mostly stayed the same.

With this script in hand, we were ready to move forward with a clear idea of where we were headed. The first steps were to capture the images that we needed, and we knew that we would have to go outside of Boston proper. We filmed at 3 main locations: a park in Boston, Wachusett Mountain, in Central Massachusetts, and Crane Beach, about an hour's drive north. With the images from these three locations, Jonas was able to compile and edit together the visuals which you see in the final product. One of the important ideas to this project that both Jonas and I were interested in, though, was the idea of editing a picture to the score, rather than scoring to a picture, as is typical in a film workflow. This was a great opportunity for me to take more direction than a film composer might normally, and for Jonas to get a chance to work with music in a new way.

As for the actual way in which I wrote and generated my sound, I exclusively used a hardware synthesizer, the Digitone by Elektron. This is an incredibly powerful box that I picked up around the start of the pandemic, and which has been a huge source of inspiration since then. All of the sound for this project came from this box, with very little post-processing. Additionally, as I was developing this piece, I envisioned the whole thing to be performed live, so I programmed my sounds and patches with that in mind. As I continued developing this piece, and eventually moved into the space it would be performed, however, I realized that performing live would be too much of a risk given the compacted timeline I was working under, and I ended up just recording my best take of each section and compiling them in the video editing software.

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After the visual components were sorted, it was just a matter of refining my music and getting ready to share it with my friends and colleagues in the final days of this project. In this period of time, I made a few discoveries. Namely, that the poem that I had initially used as inspiration for much of my work and was at that point prominently featured in the video, was no longer working, so I made the difficult decision to cut it entirely. By doing so, I feel like I gained a more clear understanding of the purpose of my own piece. For months, I had been struggling with figuring this out. What was I actually trying to say? I knew that I had questions about the interplay between nature and synthesis, but I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to say, or how I wanted to say it. But after one of my performances, I realized that what I had at least tried to do was to create a sonic space for the listener to simply be; not too different than they might do if they were to go out into the woods and sit there for a while. It would still be guided, through both images and sound, but the poem was too prescriptive of a treatment, and ultimately conflicted with the main message of my piece. The poem is telling it's own story in it's own way, but that wasn't the story that I wanted to tell. In fact, I don't think I ever had a concrete story that I wanted to tell, because nature doesn't have just one story. I wanted to let the listener create their own story and their own meaning out of the work, and in that way, I hope this project was a success and was as meaningful for you as it was for me.

If you've made it this far, I would love to hear what you thought about this project and to discuss it further. I will be putting together a more comprehensive reflection paper in the coming weeks, so if you are interested in learning more I will make that available to request soon. Feel free to contact me with any thoughts, ideas, suggestions, or otherwise. Thank you!

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