Subterranean Sound Design

By Julian Evans
Sound Designer for The End of War

Julian Evans
Julian Evans is a composer, sound designer, and musician  —

In June 2016, Nathaniel Shaw sent me an early draft of a new work – a two-act drama set in WWII with extensive musical needs. Nearly nine months later, we would go on to open The End of War at the Virginia Repertory Theatre’s November Theater, with a mix of musical selections from Bach, Brahms, Wagner, Reger, Bruch, Bloch, Stockhausen, Mahler, Boulez, and Rachmaninoff – many of which are performed live by cellist Erin Snedecor, some of which are pre-recorded orchestral performances, and one of which is performed live with pre-recorded accompaniment. Getting there was a process of collaboration, research, listening, and more collaboration.

Back in June, my initial reactions to the script emphasized the crucial role of the Reichsmusikkammer – the Nazi institution which promoted “good German music” composed by Aryans, while banning “degenerate music” composed by Jewish composers, or having modernist sounds like jazz and atonal music. Indeed, this was built into the text in the very first minutes of the work:

“But it’s been five years. We’ve heard nothing but the German composers. Only them, over and over. Please, could you play someone else?”

Challenge accepted.

From the very first iterations of the musical selections, we knew there was another story to tell in the music. The story of how Aryan musicians thrived under the Third Reich, as a result of the suppression of Jewish musicians. How Schoenberg was forced to move to the United States in 1934 after his works were labeled as degenerate and banned. How Strauss, despite privately condemning the Nazi regime, accepted a position as President of the Reich Music Chamber in 1933 to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. How Mahler, a German Jew, was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1897 in order to be appointed Director of the Vienna Court Opera. How Mendelssohn, despite being born Jewish, was forced by his family to be baptized in 1816 as a result of anti-Semitism. How could we use music to tell these stories in a meaningful way?

The first round of musical selections sought to juxtapose and highlight the cognitive dissonance embedded in the Third Reich’s simultaneous praise of Aryan composers, and denouncement of Jewish composers. Mendelssohn was first-handedly responsible for Bach’s resurgence in his lifetime, and some of his music is nearly indiscernible from his idol. How could the Nazis promote Bach and denounce Mendelssohn when you can barely discern select compositions of one composer from the other? Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Brahms, and Haydn were all on our list of approved Aryan composers, while Messiaen, Schoenberg, Webern, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Debussy, and Bloch all offered options for compositions banned by the Nazis. But there was also a third category I was interested in – music that rose as a result of the World Wars. Cage, Kodály, Stockhausen, Xenakis all wrote music in the 50’s and 60’s that was unlike anything the world had ever heard. Varése completed the masterful “Ionisation” in 1931 in reaction to the first World War. The first ever Western composition written for only unpitched percussion, the last minute of the piece is quite literally a musical recreation of trench warfare – it even featured a lion’s roar and an air raid siren. The End of War required approved music for historical context and accuracy, banned music to create meaningful artistic dialogue, and modern music as a way of hinting at what was to come – and to twist a metaphorical knife into Nazi ideals. I constantly was asking myself, “would this have pissed off Hiter?” Perfect.

The End of War
Photo by Aaron Sutten for Virginia Rep.

Nathaniel immediately gravitated towards Stockhausen’s “Studie I,” the first ever electronic composition created with pure sine tones. Written in 1953, the piece works on multiple levels. Stockhausen was one of the most influential pioneers of electronic music and a German, who only began composing after WWII. In 1941, his mother was gassed while hospitalized for being a “useless eater.” The composition itself begins in the middle of the human auditory range, extending in both directions to the limit of human perception. I utilized this compositional feature to parallel the psychological journey of Ilya and Konsta throughout the piece, as they transform from humans into monsters. To quote Konsta, “We’re sergeants now… and whatever else we are.” In particular, we marry and affect this composition to coincide with the ghosts of German soldiers that haunt Ilya, and the relentless gunfire he hears in his head. During pivotal moments in which we enter Ilya’s psyche, we swap the external, objective sounds of deep, distant explosions for the internal, subjective sounds of the lowest sine tones in the Stockhausen.

Another purposely anachronistic musical selection comes in the form of the tenth movement from “Messagesquisse” by Pierre Boulez, one of the great serial composers of the 20th century. Titled “Aussie rapide que possible” – literally “as fast as possible” – this was an early selection that jumped out to both Nathaniel and I for it’s rawness, aggression, and recklessness. This atonal musical cut is a bullet that serves to forcibly jettison us into Act 2, and is recalled later in the piece during what historians refer to as “the rape of Berlin.” It serves to bring the intensity of the text into musical form, while further reinforcing the atonal style that was banned in Nazi Germany. It is essentially The End of War meets the end of tonality.

Knowing that we’d have a bevy of opportunities to marry sound and projections, we developed the idea of using German newsreels to motivically transition through the piece. I selected the first movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to underscore these transitions. Titled “Trauermarsch,” or “Funeral March,” it gave us the opportunity to juxtapose images of Nazi propaganda with the thunderous sounds of a banned Jewish composer. The opening trumpet motive at one point underscores a scene, stylistically serving as a call to battle for Ilya and Konsta, before dovetailing into a stylized transition with projections. For most, these battles were a funeral march, especially in the penal company. As a trumpet player of 15+ years, I tend to incorporate trumpets and brass into my work whenever appropriate as a personal artistic signature.

Late in the selection process (around January), we determined the need for a musical theme to associate with Ilya and Konsta. Nathaniel and I chose the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata No. 1 to be performed live by Erin. The piece has a sound that is undeniably Russian, and develops along with the characters. At one moment in the play as the Russians approach Berlin, this music transitions us from a battlefield outside the city and into Freya’s Berlin apartment. In this way, as the Russians finally enter Germany, so do their musical themes descend upon this German home, foreshadowing the realization of the direct confrontation in the play’s penultimate scene.

Photo by Aaron Sutten for Virginia Rep.

There was a need for an overtly Jewish theme to connotate with Julius, the Jew kept hidden by Freya in her basement. Though we were considering the third movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which is characteristically Yiddish, there became an apparent need for a theme that would translate better to solo cello, thereby providing a better sense of intimacy when performed live versus a recording of a symphonic track. Erin suggested Bloch early on, and we finally settled on the first movement from his “A Jewish Life.” Titled “Prayer,” we first hear this before we become aware of Julius’ presence in the basement. It rises as Freya considers the yellow door, which will later symbolize much of Julius’ presence in the piece, and provides foreshadowing in this particular circumstance.

Finally, the Kol Nidrei was written into the text by playwright David Robbins. Sung before the beginning of the evening service on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, it is not necessarily a prayer, but a sort of religious legal contract. It’s message essentially boils down to a promise to God to not be sinful for the coming year, tempered by the realization that mankind is flawed by design, and so this promise will inevitably be broken. This warrants thoughtful consideration towards all characters (not to mention WWII as a whole), but Lottie in particular. Her character displays the mindset embodied by Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came…”, and her suggestion in the second act to play the piece on cello is exemplary of her ultimate realization of her own moral flaws and weaknesses.

Most audience members will surely be affected by the deep explosions that underscore nearly the entire piece, as they grow to deafening cacophony up until the end of the war. But there is a deeper level to the sound design, latent in the musical selections that score the play. The hope is that this subterranean level of sound design will be appreciated by listeners well-versed in classical music, and the long history of anti-Semitism in the world. Hopefully readers of this article will be reminded that music has historically been wielded as a terrible tool by fascists to control the public, and that it is always our own duty to be aware of the horrors that nationalism can cause – a message that unfortunately has only grown in relevancy, and lives at the heart of The End of War.

The End of War is on stage at the November Theatre through March 26.

One comment

  1. David L. Robbins says:

    What a brilliant and generous contributor to the play Julian has been . This article is a telling testament to the depth of his commitment to the work , and a fine exemplar of the dedication expressed by everyone who worked on it. My deepest thanks , and lasting appreciation to Julian , Nathaniel , all the designers and cast who made the script come alive . DLR

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