Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Here's One We Prepared Earlier

Picture this - players on stage start a scene where they are hacking through the jungle, searching for the lost temple of Quetzawhatever. What sort of music do you play for that? Dramatic or suspenseful music makes sense. Or you could play the Indiana Jones theme music, if you can remember it. OR... you could play a recording of the actual Indiana Jones music.

I'm a software developer (like many of the improvisers I work with), and several years ago I wrote some software that made it easy to very quickly retrieve and play sound files. It was all set up so if you knew a bit of the title of a song, you could type that in and hit a key to instantly play the first thing that matched. Tapping "Indy" and hitting the play button fired off the Indiana Jones music, and hey presto, instant atmosphere!

There are theme songs from movies that are incredibly evocative. Indiana Jones is a good example - for me, as soon as I hear that first daaaah-da-dup-daaaah, I'm in the middle of the emotion and mental imagery of the movies, and *that's* what my mind fills in for the scene. There are other songs, mostly movie soundtracks, that are just as meaningful and evocative for me. Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Matrix (ok, I mentioned I was a geek), Mission Impossible, Top Gun, Harry Potter, Batman... firing off the actual music from the movies sets the scene instantly.

This isn't limited to particular movies either. For example, for a western, introing a scene with the Gunsmoke theme, and dropping in the famous showdown bit from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I always found they were great for setting a scene. With enough variety I could cover an entire western with pre-recorded music, changing emotion and following the scene.

I think this probably had the most impact for games like Play in the Style Of/Genre Rollercoaster. The scene might be in slapstick comedy... MC calls out "Horror!", fire off some horror music as quick as you can (cleverly mapped to the "H" key, in my case), and you've transitioned the scene before the players have said a word. Having a switched-on lighting person makes a big difference too; I've always had the luxury of good lighting folks for the shows I've done, and when they're on the ball the combination of music+lights can work really well.

Portable music players have evolved so far that having a library of soundtracks on tap is within the reach of pretty much everyone. As long as they're organised for quick navigation and retrieval, this can be a really effective way of adding to a show. Now that it's so easy to purchase single tracks from on-line music stores, it doesn't take much to set up a collection of music that can be used surprisingly often. (Sadly that means you will probably be obliged to purchase My Heart Will Go On; scenes based on Titanic still seem to pop up with astonishing regularity for us, most recently, last night at Youth Theatresports...)

It's been a few years since I've used that stuff. I had some technical difficulties with the software I wrote (curse you again, Windows Vista!), so I was forced to do that stuff on my own and not rely on a recording. Where I am at the moment, I'm happier with that. Every bit of music in the shows that I do is live and on the spot, no sequencing, no recordings. That's forcing me to work harder and stretch, at least compared to when I could delegate some of the work to a computer. I find most of the time I can recall theme songs and play them effectively, and still evoke memories of the movies to help conjure up the same atmosphere.

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