'The Glass Menagerie': Sound designer Matthew M. Nielson conjures up auditory effects
What does glass really sound like when it shatters?
The question is a tricky one for Matthew M. Nielson.
"That's going to be the most difficult sound effect in the show, honestly," says the composer and sound designer as he sits behind his black Sager laptop in the Gonda Theatre at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center.
It's two hours before the first technical rehearsal for a new incarnation of "The Glass Menagerie," the Tennessee Williams play that, in one scene, depicts the accidental breakage of a glass figurine. Nielson needs to translate that plot twist into auditory reality - an assignment that's harder than it sounds.
Shatter a glass prop onstage, and the impact might not be audible throughout the theater, especially because dance-hall music, chosen by Nielson and director Derek Goldman, will also resound during the scene. But weaving a breakage noise into the design - Nielson can upload effects from searchable databases - could be risky, too. If the audience thinks, "That didn't sound like a figurine breaking," the theatrical illusion suffers. One solution, Nielson notes, might be to craft a very stylized effect.
"I have a couple of different options prepared," says the soft-spoken, bearded 36-year-old, a two-time winner of the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Sound Design who has wizarded up sound for Theater J, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and many other local groups.
Finessing cracked-crystal noises is just part of Nielson's mandate for the "Menagerie" production, which is the centerpiece of "The Glass Menagerie Project," a mini-festival of multimedia installations and other events exploring the inspirations and alternate drafts behind Williams's masterpiece. The "Project," which began Thursday, is scheduled to run through March 27 at Georgetown and June 9-July 3 at Arena Stage, as part of an Arena Stage-Georgetown partnership.
Nielson also composed original music for the show using a computer program called SONAR X1. The tech rehearsal's opening moments find him recalibrating his score.
Actor Clark Young stands onstage, surrounded by a bluish dusk that lighting designer Colin K. Bills and projection designer Jared Mezzocchi are monitoring from movable desks near Nielson's. Young, who portrays the play's narrator character, Tom, is delivering the opening monologue.
"In memory everything seems to happen to music," the actor enunciates, as an instrumental controlled by Nielson - via SFX sound playback software and an Ethernet cable - ripples through the theater. It's a shimmering piano melody with repetitive arpeggios.
During a break, Goldman putters over to Nielson. "Does it need to go somewhere else?" the director wonders, referring to the music, adding, "I don't want us to get something insistent."
While colleagues deal with other issues, Nielson hunches over his laptop. Bars and lines scroll on screen; icons appear and disappear. When Young tries the monologue again, the underscoring is darker, ranging into lower registers and more erratic rhythms. Now when Tom refers to a "fiddle in the wings," a string instrument intones. It's a cello, not a fiddle: Given the script's poignancy, Goldman and Nielson are leery of anything that could sound too sentimental.