Are they composers? Technicians? Avant-garde artists?
SF's earwax productions have been creating and collecting strange noises for years. Liz Sizensky visits the guys who run the "one-stop shopping center" of cutting edge sound design.
When a loud fly buzzed into their quiet, well-equipped sound studios one day, the proprietors of earwax productions made the most of it. "We happened to need a fly sound, " recalled earwax partner Barney Jones, "so we got a good microphone, put it in a central position, went out and bought fruit, and grouped it around the mic. One of us chased the fly around the room to get it where it needed to be for the recording and another one of us was running levels. It worked. We got a good fly."
Recording the humming of flies is just one aspect of earwax's extensive work in sound. And although earwax has done recording and engineering work on albums by musicians such as Joe Satriani, Exodus and the Potato Eaters, that, too, is a small part of the company's business. Earwax specializes in work that employs the full range of the partners' creative and technical talents in music composition, music production, sound design, sound engineering, sound editing, sound effects and recording. Unlike other sound companies, this one brings together the entire spectrum of sound work in one place. As partner Andy Newell puts it, it's "one-stop shopping" for sound.
The passion and knowledge of earwax partners Jones, Newell, and Jim McKee rings through loud and clear as they explain wave forms, sound envelopes, harmonic and non-harmonic sounds, why voices don't sound the same on the telephone as in person, why synthesizers sound unnatural, and how audio evidence proves that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald fired at John F. Kennedy.
"People don't understand the power of sound--and that's a great thing." says Jones. "Sound operates on a much more subconscious level." From the emerging work of avant-garde sound artists to the aural playfulness of rap music, sound is currently a fertile area of exploration and experimentation in the arts.
Earwax grew out of an audio lab at Antenna Theater, and while the partners composer music and create sound designs for many local theaters including ACT, Magic Theatre, Berkeley Rep and SOON 3, they have expanded into radio drama and audiographs, books-on-tape, creating sound and music for film and multimedia projects, and even their own video.
A typical week at earwax's studios begins with Jones, McKee, and Newell holding a jobs meeting. Here's a typical meeting's agenda.
Newell is working on John Williams' score from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to be used in the forthcoming LucasGames video game. Using sequencers, samplers, synthesizers, hard disk recording devices and multi-track tape recorders, he's digitally recreating Williams' orchestral music. Williams asks Jones to do one section of that.
McKee is working on sound icons for the Discovery Group of Apple Computer--sounds that help orient the user through an interactive environment. He has to choose, categorize, acquire and place the sounds. He asks the others, "Do you know a good wolf sound? I need a wolf sound, I also need a slicing sound."
Jones is working on an audiograph about a homeless person's death called "A Wake for Tom". He asks Newell to call the coroner to arrange for an interview about the processing of indigent corpses.
Earwax's work so often stretches the boundaries separating "music" from "sound" that the distinctions between the two forms can seem pointless. harmonic and non-harmonic sounds can be either sound or music, depending on how they're used. The earwax partners are fully aware of John Cage's idea that all sound is music and of Edgard Varese's concept of the organizational difference between sound and music (sound is randomly organized and music is consciously organized), but rather than steeping themselves in theories they opt for a more practical approach.
"I don't make a clear delineation between music composition and sound design," says McKee, "although you can say that there's music at one end, sound at another, and maybe sound design fits in between somewhere. The Western orchestra, and rock and jazz instrumentation, have their vocabulary and their emotional effects and you can stretch those to the nth degree in terms of what your range is. But my sensibility right now is finding elements like voice and sound effects and using the vocabulary that exists within them. It seems like the best place for that is in radio drama and film. When I choose which cricket sounds and which footsteps to use, I create an emotion and I work in the same way as a composer who says, "Oh, let's use a clarinet instead of a flute or a trumpet."
There's a big difference between the old-style radio drama of the 1930s and 1940s and the kind of work earwax does. The art of recording came about after old-style radio drama was born and matured. Radio drama was performed live, and closely resembled live theater. Now, sound effects and sound designs on many different levels can be added to tape to enhance the drama and amplify its meanings.
In addition to radio drama, earwax's radio work includes audiographs. A term coined by former partner Markos Kounalakis, an audiograph consists of journalistic-style interviews cut and shaped into musical forms. It combines aspects of radio drama, documentaries and concerts. Earwax's radio pieces are so full and rich that with each successive listening, new levels of meaning emerge from the skillful juxtaposition and layering of sound, music and words.
"Songs From the Tenderloin" is an audiograph that was commissioned by New American Radio, and created by Jones, McKee, and Kounalakis. McKee composed the musical structures and Jones, looking for musical turns of phrase within the interviews, made the voices sing inside those musical structures. The words and intonations of the homeless and unemployed interviewees repeat in a musical pattern, powerfully and poetically expressing the reality of the speakers' lives.
"Songs From the Tenderloin" was created in 1987, and earwax has maintained contact with the audiographs interviewees. In the ensuing years, however, alot of the people interviewed have died, including Tom, one of the principal voices on the tape. A new audiograph, "A Wake for Tom", has grown out of that sad fact. "I started seeing all this death on the street," says Jones as he explains the origin of the project. "I also felt like making something for Tom."
"Metal" or "Views from the Karamazov Vista" is an audiographic example of earwax's ability to sonically make the most of a situation. At one point, a lot of heavy metal musicians were hanging around the Hyde Street Studios complex, so earwax decided to make a piece surveying the metal scene. "Metal" has a complicated underlying musical structure and features interviews with fans and musicians, including the amazingly articulate and cosmic Sandy Pearlman, head of Popular Metaphysics Records and manager of Blue Oyster Cult.
In addition to combining sound and music with words, earwax has ventured into the visual arena. Among other film projects, they created sound for Pathe Entertainment/Cannon Films "American Ninja IV" and composed the music for Vox Films' "The Color of Honor". They've produced music and sound designs for multimedia projects such as GTV and the Visual Almanac. GTV is a set of interactive laserdiscs developed by LucasFilm and the National Geographic Society for teaching American history. The Visual Almanac is an interactive laserdisc by Apple Computer Multimedia Lab on subjects ranging from space exploration to marine life.
The visual elements of film and multimedia create new challenges for the composer and sound designer. "If there's the right marriage between the sound and the visuals, you've got an impact you can't get anywhere else" says Newell. "It creates a superimage. Turn down the sound and it's something completely different. " Adds McKee, "We've got handles on the metaphors and vocabulary that we've identified in sound. We know what a particular kind of scream is going to do to a scene, or particular kinds of strings."
Earwax's "silent" partner Bob Davis is also working in film. A founding member, Davis has taken a break from the day-to-day work at earwax, but maintains an association with the company. He's composed most of the score and created the sound design for "Vegas in Space", a long-awaited camp sci-fi romp produced by Doris Fish and Philip Ford that's scheduled for a fall release at the Castor. In collaboration with Jones, Davis is currently working on "Ecomania", an audiography about the timber industry. Davis and Jones also worked together on "Flying Hormones", a radio drama about sexual information for teenagers written by Erin Cressida Wilson.
The company's endeavors in film and multimedia have led to their newest venture, "Microtheater", a video directed by Starr Sutherland. The piece is a collection of playful and very short (30 to 90 second) performances by 15 Bay Area artists with strong local followings. Although New American Makers screened "Microtheater" at Opera Plaza Cinemas in May, earwax envisions it as an interactive piece to be shown in places such as a South of Market club, an airport or a hotel.
"We're always making sound and music in a multimedia environment," Jones says. "That is, making sound and music that works with some other element to have its effect. It's a pronounced difference from the kind of work concert composers do, and we found we could make a living doing this.
The earwax partners have an easy camaraderie, and although their conversations are peppered with jokes, they take their business seriously. Each averages a 60-hour work week and they have to yell at each other to take vacations. Newell may say with a wink,"We want to become the McDonald's of multimedia production," but almost in the next breath, he'll counter that with, " We're not audio dreamers. We want to go into something thinking, "Yes, this is definitely achievable, how do we do it?" Certain things are serendipitous, but we really plan it out. There's nothing magical about it. It's really alot of hard work." For the award-winning artists at earwax, that hard work seems to have paid off. Business is humming right along.
For a catalogue of available tapes, contact earwax productions, 245 Hyde Street, SF 94102, or call 775-8561.