GETTING TO KNOW: KIMMO VENNONEN

In 2010 Kimmo won the MEAA Green Room Award for creative and innovative sound design. In 1991 his work on Collaborations with Jim Denley won the prestigious Prix Italia for the ABC. He studied immersive sound in a geodesic dome, becoming an ANU Visiting Fellow in the late nineties. He has run a music mastering studio at Gorman Arts Centre since 1997.

Designs for The Street include Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again; Cold Light; The Chain Bridge; Where I End and You Begin; Bartleby; All This Living, and The Faithful Servant. Other work includes The Slip Lane (AITC); Ghosts in the Scheme (bigHart); VerbatimAntigone (CYT);  Blue Roof; The Lost Thing; and, Pearl vs the World (Jigsaw Theatre). He collaborated with Denise Higgins and Gary Smith on Vox Nautica (ANCA), The Barbed Maze (CCAS) and on Anthology (Morris & Buining) at Westlake.

The Street talks with Kimmo about sound design for theatre and his role as Sound Designer for Icarus.

WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN SOUND?

I listened to the radio a lot as a kid – it was a form of escape & travel, a counterpart to reading books. I took it all in – ABC, commercial – the best was short wave. I listened to random music and voices from very far away as they phased in and out, skating off the ionosphere.… Some of the mechanical sounds were very alien and exciting in their own way – telemetry, data, jamming, distant waves of static. I used to listen for hours on my own and this created a real appreciation for the sounds of the human and natural universe.

HOW DID YOU RESPOND TO THE WORDLESS SCRIPT OF ICARUS?

I loved the story, it was such a strong statement of hope and faith. I wanted the gig. I took it as a personal as well as political story, in fact universal and relevant to anybody trying to rise out of whatever despair. The risk and cost can be very great, the odds are against success and yet we try, because we are optimistic and refuse to give in and accept our lot.

I also was inspired by the challenge of there just being sound and movement, no words to trigger thinking minds. I knew that we would have to be really effective and that well designed sound would talk directly with people’s bodies and feelings.

YOU WORKED WITH CHRISTOPHER SAMUEL CARROLL DURING ITS DEVELOPMENT LAST YEAR IN THE STREET’S FIRST SEEN PROGRAM. HOW DID THIS PROCESS INFORM YOUR IDEAS FOR THE SOUND DESIGN OF ICARUS?

After we did First Seen Icarus in April 2018, we knew we had something potent and good. It was a very visceral experience for the audience and we received great feedback after the showing. When we came back to it we kept a lot of what we’d built, refining and adding other scenes along the way.

WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON SOUND DESIGN FOR THE THEATRE AND TREATMENTS USING DIEGETIC SOUND OF ACTUAL SOUNDS ON STAGE VERSUS NON-DIEGETIC SOUND TO CREATE A SETTING AND CHARACTER TROPES.

I have strong feelings about this. I’m really quite uninterested in diegetic sound – eg using sound effects to create a world of actuality. I see that as a cop out and a substitute for creativity, a job for a technician going through a list perhaps. I don’t like sound being used to merely underline or flesh out a moving image or to make up for some failing of a script, but this happens often in what we consume. Sound becomes banal or functional rather than profound. Why not admit that a sound designer can be an abstract artist with the power to interpret the work, to convey the inner truths and intentions to the audience in sometimes indirect ways. It can be a very creative act to paint with sound and this might need bravery and care. In Icarus we use both naturalistic and abstract sounds at the same time and we take the audience to high places….

HOW DO YOU WORK WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS FROM START TO FINISH?

In theatre sound design I would read a script (or equivalent) and have an initial discussion with the director to get onto the same page.  I seek to truly “get “ it early on to inform my process. After then I come up with a first palette of sounds to choose from, hopefully I nail some things early on. Mostly my process is about making offers based on my interpretation of what’s going on or what’s needed. As the weeks go by I build sounds in the studio then slip them into rehearsals to see what works. At the end I’ll have everything done and ready to go for a sound operator, hopefully fairly easy and well documented.  Then it’s all about handover to that fellow creative person, who is actually a kind of musician, whose job is to get the timing and levels just right in sync with the on stage action and lighting.

WHAT ABOUT THE INTERNAL LANDSCAPE OF THE CHARACTER PLAYED BY CHRISTOPHER SAMUEL CARROLL – HOW HAVE YOU WORKED WITH CHRISTOPHER ON AN APPROACH?

The character has a journey beyond physical space, having feelings and sensory experiences which is my job to convey, alongside Christopher. We are always trying to be clear what’s needed and talk about that a lot in the design process. Abstract non-diegetic sound can be very effective, as can silence and space.

WHEN DOES THE SOUND WORLD OF THE PRODUCTION BECOME CLEAR TO YOU?

The sound world is first glimpsed at the discussion with the director, then becomes clear once I’ve tried out the first drafts of the major elements. Some of these may be thematic and keep coming back in various guises.

AND HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE IT FOR ICARUS?

Icarus has multiple sound worlds. There are both real and imaginary worlds of armed conflict and movements in response. Then of being in the maw of the jet liner in a place of awesome noise and sudden changes. And the most important – a serene world of peace and freedom, that pulls at the character throughout, a place far above human conflict and agitation. Also a nice morning world with a radio in it.

HOW DO YOU WORK IN REHEARSALS?

I go back and forth between the rehearsal floor and the studio, generating sound and trying it out. Often I will make something, it ends up being accepted then it goes through multiple drafts. It needs to be a perfect fit, but also plastic enough for an operator to adjust in real time to the movement on stage.

HOW DO YOU WORK IN PRODUCTION WEEK?

In production week it’s about stopping building new sound and fine tuning what exists to the needs of the performance. It can be way too disruptive to all involved to be coming up with new material at the last minute, so things need to be bedded in and fitted together into one experience. Sound needs to be flexible and often I’m interacting with the operator, making changes so they can deliver it precisely.

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET?

I have a multi-faceted relationship with The Street all revolving around sound. As well as designing shows I love mixing some of the great live music that comes through – for instance The Necks recently. And I’ve helped out with some of the theatre sound systems that need to be used in a variety of contexts at The Street.

WHATS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

I’m quite inspired by the music of feedback – some of which appears in Icarus. I have my own ways of growing and nurturing these sounds. They exist in their own right with no particular purpose in mind, but very strong identities. A kind of biological research lab. I have no need to release them into the world in any conventional way, but I harvest some for different works if I hear them fitting in.

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