In 2005, I completed sound design and musical composition for Macbeth, presented by the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. In 2008, Colorado Shakespeare Festival employed the original Tahoe director, Lynne Collins, and me to remount and update this production at the campus of the University of Colorado. Lynne and I had the rare opportunity to update elements from our previous production at Tahoe while bringing forward those elements from the original production that were successful.
During our initial discussions, Lynne described her concept for presenting this play. We decided that our witches would be from the Celtic/Druid tradition and would be very connected to the natural world. She wrote to me in an email, “Their presence should be like a natural disaster--flood, fire and I'd like to find a sort of sound palette that is unique to them.” When I asked Lynne to comment on the general timbre of the sounds for her production she replied, “What I do imagine is lots of sound that evokes anxiety, terror...as a sort of ‘score’--heartbeats, metal clanging, screams, breathing.” She also told me that she desired to show battles rather than hear their detail described in Shakespeare’s expositional dialogue. She requested a piece of music be created for a sort of “dumb” show in which a funeral for King Duncan turns into a crowning of Macbeth as king. I quickly mocked up some music for her to respond to. It was comprised of a hurdy gurdy, drums, and low strings. She replied, “I do like the hurdy gurdy--it has a feel of bagpipes without actually going there. It feels medieval and modern at the same time.” In order to travel without packing my very delicate and expensive hurdy gurdy, I recorded all of the instrument's noises and created an electronic sampled version of it. The sampled version is what is heard in these tracks.
Lynne requested that the music provide a contrast between the old force or world represented by the Macbeths and the coming Renaissance. Music was created using a medieval sound palette for Macbeth scenes. Music representing Duncan and Macduff is more refined and uses Western conventions.
Director Lynne Collins provided an excellent overview of her motives for this piece. Click here to read it.
The director augmented the beginning of the play with a choreographed battle, providing comment about the fact that the Macbeths' are childless. After an overture, which also serves as Macbeth's theme, a surprise attack occurs and innocent bystanders are caught up in it. While fighting his adversaries, Macbeth accidentally stabs and kills a child. At this moment, the loud sound of a metal sword being sharpened "slices" through the audience using surround sound-techniques. This sound is used three other times during the play as a metaphor, highlighting Macbeth's lowest moments. After this prominent sword sound, Lady Macbeth runs down a staircase screaming and holding her dead baby.
This example reflects the soundscape accompanying the presence of the three witches. The witches instantly appear, and in this case are birthed out of the bodies from the previous battle. This ambience is programmed so the sound operator can make the sound disappear with the disappearance of the witches. This mockup ends with King Duncan's theme, which precedes his entrance into the next scene. A modern, European sound for Duncan's theme is employed to contrast Macbeth's medieval sounding motifs.
Macbeth’s famous dagger speech is augmented with the sound of an accelerated heartbeat and breathing. These sounds disappear during the moments of his monologue when he questions whether or not what he is imagining is real. While Macbeth struggles with the vision of the dagger, a fierce thunderstorm begins brewing outside. Just before Macbeth says, "I go, and it is done: the bell invites me,” a distant bell is heard. Macbeth exits and kills the sleeping King Duncan. The symbolic sword sound again "slices" very loudly through the performance space. As the storm dissipates, Macbeth hears someone or something pounding at the outside gate. This sound is engineered to relay to the audience what Macbeth perceives; however, the knocking turns out to be the play's comic relief, the Porter, knocking at the gate.
This moment is one of the most memorable in the play. The director creates a scene without dialogue reflecting a funeral for the King, which is also a coronation of Macbeth as the new king. Macbeth literally takes the crown and cloak from Duncan's dead body. This moment is choreographed to the music in this example, complete with a reluctant salute to Macbeth by Macduff, Banquo, and the remaining court.
Act 3, scene 3 reveals three murderers waiting for Banquo to arrive on horse. When he arrives, he has with him his son, Fleance. Before the murderers attack, Banquo and Fleance talk about a potential rainstorm. Fleance witnesses his father Banquo's death and screams, "Father" before escaping. Upon the killing of Banquo, the sword metaphor once again lashes through the performance space.
Since this production occurs outdoors, lighting is less reliable for implying that a human presence is really a ghost. Because of this, elements of sound design are employed to heighten Banquo's ghost appearance at Macbeth's banquet. The cue is engineered to start when Macbeth realizes he is seeing a ghost and to stop when he questions what he is seeing. This sound element vanishes, although the presence of Banquo remains visible to the audience. Each time the sound vanishes, the voice of Fleance, Banquo's son, is heard screaming, "Father!"
In order to help the audience understand all the relationships in the play, the director uses a silent montage to the music in this example. The lights fade to black during the swell of strings after the first half of the composition to indicate an intermission.
At the start of the second half of the play (Act 4, Scene 1), Macbeth is visited by the ghost of King Duncan. This is an example of the vocal replacement that is played as Duncan's motionless body stands before the audience.
A messenger arrives to warn Lady Macduff and her son that murderers are on the way to attack them. This music underscores the approach and attack of the murderers. When one of the murderers accuses Lady Macduff's husband of being a traitor, her son calls him a liar. The murderer stabs and kills the boy and then kills Lady Macduff. The final sword metaphor pierces the auditorium to signify the darkest and most horrible act of Macbeth.
This music, played during the final fight, heightens the choreography between Macbeth and Macduff. At the very moment Macduff kills Macbeth, the swell of drums and the piercing flute sound accompanies the action.
For exit music, the Macbeth coronation music is remixed with modern sounds and lyrics centered on the theme of hubris. This piece is engineered to use surround-sound so the vocal content surrounds the audience.
"The production is aided by Michael Rasbury's inventive and sophisticated sound design, which provides everything from bagpipe music to a metallic shriek that accompanies each stabbing."
-Denver Westword Arts