Audience members who see House of Joy will be treated to action, adventure, and romance—and exciting music to accompany it! When I saw the show last week, I was struck by the cinematic quality of the sound: majesty, dread, ass-kicking—it was all there, just like in the superhero movies. Once the dust settled after opening, sound designer and composer Arshan Gailus answered a few questions I had about his process for creating an original score for the play.
Alicia Coombes: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your theater background?
Arshan Gailus: I’ve been involved in music and theater for pretty much as long as I can remember, though on the theater side I was more excited about acting as a kid. My mom is a pianist and my dad is an engineer who also has a deep love of the arts, so I was always strongly encouraged and supported in artistic endeavors. I went to MIT for college, initially to study Electrical Engineering (I’m also a pretty big math and science nerd). But after my first two years I realized that while I loved the classes intellectually, I wasn’t excited about working in a lab or cubicle. So I ended up changing majors to music. After graduating, I got involved in professional theater first as an engineer then designing and scoring shows. I developed my work style and process through doing the work – I never was formally trained in sound design for theater nor did I do any assistant work. Instead, it was about pulling from my artistic and technical background and making sure to experiment and try new things on each show I worked on to continue to add to my conceptual toolbox.
What was your approach for designing and composing the music and sound for House of Joy? What are the primary sounds and instruments people will hear?
From the very beginning, Megan and I both felt House of Joy needed an original music score. We wanted something that could embrace the show’s epic storytelling style, its fluid balancing of time-period specificity and anachronism, and its cultural richness. So my process started with listening to a lot of music including Indian classical music, traditional and modern folk dance, film scores, and folk metal. From there, I went to work composing. My goal was to be inspired by all these sounds, while still creating a music world that was distinctly our own—the sound of “House of Joy”.
So in the score you’ll hear combinations of traditional Indian instruments (such as sitar, santoor, tanpura, and tabla), cinematic touches (such as sparkling harps, glockenspiel, and epic horns), and the sounds of heavy metal (distorted guitar, electric bass, and drum kit). There’s even a bit of fusion within some of the instruments. A number of music cues in the show use harp, but by using a digitally sampled virtual instrument, I’m able to play it with fluid bends in pitch—something not really possible on a traditional acoustic harp. This creates a sound that has the clear, ringing, film-score quality of a harp while also pulling inspiration from the fluid pitch bending of traditional Indian instruments such as sarod.
One effect of working outdoors is that there is constant, unpredictable sound from the world around the theater—whether that’s from wind, wildlife, airplanes, cars, etc. This makes it tricky to create deeply detailed, realistic soundscapes because the audience is always hearing our sound plus whatever is going on around the theater. So for those moments where we wanted to create the sound of a very specific location I leaned more heavily on music along with very specific, essential sounds. For example, to portray the royal gardens, I created an ornate, flowery musical gesture followed by very specific, clear bird songs. Or for a scene in the sewers I used the sounds of dripping water along with a low droning flute. As an added bonus, this hybrid musical approach fits beautifully with the cinematic aesthetic we were going for.
Another consequence of working outdoors is I don’t get the same natural acoustic reverberance I would inside. Especially for a show like House of Joy, where I want the music to sound lush and dramatic, this means I rely on extra audio processing to help me. Even though many of the music cues in the show are focused in the main speakers over the stage, almost all of them are also feeding a diffuse simulated reverb processor whose sound is routed to the speakers surrounding the audience. This creates that lush, enveloping feeling one would expect from an acoustically rich indoor space, even in an open air theater like the Bruns.
Can you describe any major challenges or sticky situations you had to work to solve on this production?
A big challenge in this production is the large number of music cues that want to be very clearly linked and timed to onstage action. This includes the many scene transitions, underscoring of scenes, and energetic music during fight sequences. Having music and action linked helps drive the story forward, support the epic, cinematic style of the show, and increase the sense of theater magic—where everything just seems to click. Like most things in a healthy theater process, working these moments out was a team effort! For some we worked closely with the actors in tech rehearsals to clarify exact lengths of certain text and movement sequences, while others involved me carefully designing music cues that can respond in real time to action onstage while still feeling musically coherent and deliberate.
Any advice for up-and-coming designers?
More and more, I’ve come to believe that the core of my work in theater is my working relationship with those around me—directors, other designers, crew, stage management, actors, theater staff. For one thing, those relationships are how I get most of the work I am offered. And moreover, projects like House of Joy where I can feel that everyone is working together thoughtfully and collaboratively are what make the job worth it for me in the first place! So I would encourage anyone hoping to work in theater to strive to be open, thoughtful, and empathetic—to be generous in your contribution to the project and in your capacity to listen to everyone around you.
Arshan Gailus composes original music and designs sound for theater companies including ArtsEmerson, The Huntington Theatre Company, Contemporary American Theater Festival, Capital Repertory Theatre, A.R.T Institute, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, SpeakEasy Stage Company, The Gloucester Stage Company, Company One, New Repertory Theatre, and The Lyric Stage Company. Arshan was awarded the 2016 IRNE Award for Best Sound Design (Small Theater) for his design of appropriate for the SpeakEasy Stage Company. He was also a member of the Elliot Norton Award winning design teams for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Company One, 2012) and Twelfth Night (Actors’ Shakespeare Project, 2011). In addition to his work in theater, Arshan composes music and designs sound for independent video games in the Boston area and internationally. Arshan teaches at Emerson College where he serves as the Resident Sound Designer for the Department of Performing Arts. Arshan holds a B.S. in Music from MIT, where he studied composition, instrumental performance, psychoacoustics, computer science, and electrical engineering. He has studied classical saxophone with Ken Radnofsky and Philipp Stäudlin.