By Lesley Gibson, Publications Coordinator
As Chinglish audiences stream out of the Albert after each performance, one of the most talked-about topics inevitably is the arresting music that pumps into the theater propelling each of the play's transitions. Devised by Sound Designer Darron L. West, Chinglish’s soundtrack of contemporary Chinese music plays double duty in the sleek production, creating a riveting theatrical experience while accurately evoking the play’s setting—present-day Guiyang, a provincial capital of 4 million people in southwestern China.
West, who was called on to help create the sound for the play by Playwright David Henry Hwang and Director Leigh Silverman after working with them on Hwang’s 2007 comedy, Yellow Face, started his career as a resident sound designer at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and has since spent almost 20 years as a freelance sound designer working regularly at theaters in New York and around the country. Shortly after Chinglish opened, he talked to me about the current state of Chinese pop music, Celine Dion, and the process that went into conceiving the soundtrack for this world-premiere production.
Lesley Gibson: What was your initial approach to the sound design for Chinglish?
Darron L. West: I’m a real research freak; I have a tendency to pull a big, enormous palate of sounds and noises and things I think are appropriate for the show, and then make my decisions once I get into the theater and hear the actors and see how the set is going to move. And initially I was really thinking about [the main character] Daniel’s journey, so I created a sound design that started with incredibly strange, unfamiliar Chinese music—sort of a “stranger in a strange land” situation—that gradually began to soften as the piece went on. It involved a lot of really traditional Chinese music and little snippets of opera, which I was going to use for the frame of the design and then as we went into the scenes you’d hear really hip, cool, contemporary Chinese music.
When I arrived in Chicago for tech rehearsals I did one pass at the show, and Leigh and I had a listening session after rehearsal and she said, “You know, I think it really needs to be more urban.” She wanted to push the envelope and not rely on what you would normally think of when you think, “I’m doing a show with a largely Chinese cast called Chinglish.”
So basically I ended up turning the design inside out. And I went back home after that meeting and stayed up pretty much all night and just re-envisioned it, because we didn’t want it to be too stereotypically Chinese, or an American take on Chinese music. We wanted it to be super legitimate and edgy and fun. I started re-cutting things, and had little pictures from the set model all scattered on my table, trying to figure it all out.
LG: Where did you find the music you eventually ended up using?
DLW: The majority of the source material is from a Chinese American artist Leehom Wang but, in my early research work I did tune into a lot to Guiyang radio online and just listened to that, and if I heard something that was really amazing I would run over to the computer to write down the name of the song—and of course it was all in Chinese characters, so my notebook looks like a crazy person’s, because I was trying to draw my own crude versions of the characters.
LG: What kind of music are they playing in Guiyang in 2011?
DLW: It’s funny, because in the research that I was doing I found that it’s like their popular culture hasn’t moved past the mid-nineties; their hip hop samples sound like Missy Elliott samples. And it was hard for me to actually find stuff that was theatrical enough to use, that could take up the amount of space that the Goodman needed, because [the Albert Theatre] is a big room. You need a certain amount of frequency response and a certain amount of depth in the music, and a lot of the Chinese radio music came across like "easy listening," or what we think of as Celine Dion-type music. One of the big Chinese pop stars, Song Zuying, sounds a lot like what I remember Celine Dion sounding like—a very particular style. And I didn’t want it to be sappy; I wanted it to feel edgy.
But at that meeting that I had with Leigh after rehearsal, [Cultural Advisors] Ken and Joanna were there and they kept mentioning Leehom Wang, so we played a couple of his songs in the rehearsal hall, and I thought, “Wow, this guy’s doing something really interesting.” He’s singing in Mandarin and he’s sampling old musical styles inside of it. So part of my process of rethinking the design was really digging into his oeuvre as an artist. And it was just all right there—it was one of those situations where I ran into a sample of something and thought, “Oh, that sounds like the show. This sounds like the show,” and so on. The majority of the music in the show, if it wasn’t traditional, is all me ripping on Leehom Wang’s work.
LG: Do any of the songs you chose hold particular significance for the characters or the plot?
DLW: Originally, yes. But in my conversation with Leigh I realized that’s not the job the sound design was supposed to do in this particular play. It’s not trying to tell any sort of story; it’s a part of the engine. So it evolved to become a utilitarian design like the set is—it’s solving a very practical problem. For each transition I began to think along the lines of, “We need a hip piece of music that’s going to be aggressive and fun so that when we bump out of it the joke will be funny.” Or, “does this song fade down into the scene as a character begins to talk over it?” It was all about very practical concerns. There were of course moments of setting up say, a seduction scene with a sexy saxophone solo that gives way to a love duet before the lights come up on two characters in bed but, for the most part it’s not overly emotive or character driven.
LG: Was it a conscious decision for all the music to be in Mandarin?
DLW: Yes. There was originally one section during one of the transitions that was in English, because in the song two artists were constantly rapping back and forth in Chinese and American. And there was a big discussion between Leigh and I about whether or not we wanted to leave the English lyrics in the show. So I cut a version of the song without the English, and when I played it I thought, “Oh yeah, of course, we should just not have any English in any of the transitions at all.” We wanted it to be super legitimate and edgy and fun, and with the way the beats are working now it sounds familiar to our ears, but we’re hearing it only in Chinese.
LG: It sounds like you and Leigh are great collaborators.
DLW: Yes. Leigh is an extraordinary director; thing I love about working with her is her energy. She’s so meticulous in crafting little moments, and it’s just so fun to be in the room when she’s working. You know, when a bunch of designers are sitting around and really enjoying the director’s acting notes, and they’re informing how we think about what our jobs are, you know something good is going on.