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Unlocking the Technology and Technique Behind Complicite’s The Encounter

Editor’s note: On October 2, 2016, Complicite’s The Encounter Sound Designer and Olivier Award Winner Gareth Fry visited Ann Arbor on behalf of a partnership between UMS and the Ann Arbor District Library. Jocelyn Aptowitz attended the workshop. The Encounter comes to Ann Arbor March 30-April 1, 2017.

Photo: Simon McBurney during a moment in The Encounter. Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola.

There is whisper coming from behind me. I am in Brazil, and someone is moving around me, telling me a story. I can hear the Amazon Rainforest: a mosquito buzzes in my right ear, the faint gurgle of a river up ahead.

When I open my eyes, I have not moved from The Secret Labin the basement of the Ann Arbor District Library. I am at my table; the whispering, the mosquito, and the river were all a trick courtesy of binaural sound.

Gareth Fry, the sound designer for Complicite’s The Encounter shows us only a small slice of the experience that we could expect at the performance this spring, following a three-month Broadway run this fall. It’s no wonder The New York Times calls this production “one of the most fully immersive theater pieces ever created.”

So, what is binaural sound?

One way to describe the experience of listening to a binaural recording is that it is listening in 3D. Unlike conventionally recorded sound, binaural recordings give the listener the sense of the relationship of between where the sound was produced in relation to the microphone which recorded the sound. In fact, binaural recording replicates the volume, timing, and distance of sound so perfectly that one feels immersed in that environment.

Why is binaural sound special?

A conventional microphone has no sense of space. Any sound that is recorded on a conventional microphone is generally broadcast directly back to the center of the room. Binaural recordings, on the other hand, allow the audience to use their hearing to calculate an environment around them. Humans are naturally equipped to have a very accurate sense of direction with respect to sound. Binaural sound uses shading (how our right and left ear hears sound differently) to reproduce the processing our brains automatically do for us in a given environment.

How is binaural sound recorded?

Binaural recordings are created using a binaural head, which contains a microphone in each ear. Fun fact: The binaural head was first unveiled at the 1933 Chicago World Fair by AT&T. Fry’s own head for The Encounter is nicknamed Frida, and The Encounter team flew to the Javari Valley in Brazil with their equipment to record the sounds heard in the performance.

What are the challenges associated with binaural sound?

Because binaural recordings recreate the environment of space that the sound was recorded in, it picks up a lot of ambient noise. This is a challenge for sound because all the recordings need to be very carefully captured to avoid unwanted noise. For example, when recording for The Encounter, Fry and his team had to be very careful not to whisper or use any noisy equipment while recording.

The Ann Arbor District Library has binaural recording equipment available for circulation! For more information, please email, and make your own field recording.

See The Encounter in Ann Arbor on March 30-April 1, 2017.

April 1: UMS Bans Cell Phones, Installs Pay Phones

New technology is challenging some expectations of performing arts experiences.

Photo: Willie and Ushers: Get them out of here!

The classical music world has recently been abuzz with high-profile instances of confronting cell phones in the auditorium. There’s Patti LuPone, who “snatched” a cell phone from a texting audience member. New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert stopped a performance after hearing the familiar iPhone “marimba” ring. In a performance of the Goldberg Variations with the pianist Igor Levit, the artist Marina Abramovic purposefully banned cell phones to create a specific effect. Sometimes, lasers are involved.

On the other hand, organizations are also embracing technology in productive and interesting ways. Through its live streaming of concerts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has exposed new audiences to orchestral music.Theater makers are exploring co-creating with audience members through social media. Through our own experimentation with tweet seats, we discovered that some audience members in fact experience performances more deeply through tweeting.

Conversations about technology can quickly become polarized, and that makes sense, because people’s experiences of performances can be deeply personal, and so opinions about how performances should go run deep, too. But we believe that technology, in itself, isn’t necessarily isolating, distracting, or bad. It’s how we use it that can create such experiences.

This video was funny for us because we often have these conversations on staff and with our community. But it’s also meant to start a conversation.

Our general policy at UMS is to ask audience members to turn off cell phones and electronic devices during performances. We all know how terrible it is when a phone rings during a performance. It can break that special bond between a performer and the audience. Illuminated screens on phones are also a visual distraction in a darkened theater.

But we’ve made (carefully considered) exceptions, for example, during our tweet seats experiment.

What are your thoughts about technology and performances? We’d love to hear about your positive or engaging experiences with technology and performances, too.