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The Builders Association and dbox, SUPER VISION: full text for Dan Dobson, SUPER VISION interview

NYC, 1 December 2005.

Nick Kaye: How long have you been a part of The Builders Association?

Dan Dobson: I started with The Builders in 1994. They had started MASTER BUILDER and I had known of Marianne Weems and Jeff Webster from previous work. They had already built the show and I was just kind of running it. That was my first experience - we have been working together ever since.

Nick Kaye: What is your role in the company?

Dan Dobson: Well, I make the music and run the shows. I am on the Board of the company, that’s quite a role. I am the Vice-President and just try to keep the ship afloat. It’s very tough, very hard. Then, when we talk about collaborations and conceptualizing shows, I like to think that I do have a greater role in that sense. But I do it kind of quietly. I play more devil’s advocate - and I don’t say anything unless it is quite necessary. It is collaborative work and everybody has a little bit of a say.

Nick Kaye: With Marianne Weems of The Builders as well as James Gibbs, Matthew Bannister and Charles D’Autremont of dbox you are credited with the conception of SUPER VISION.

Dan Dobson: The whole crediting thing happened very early, but the dbox gentlemen really had a very strong voice in the beginning. We had a lot of meetings early on - which I was a part of - but they really did take the ball and run with it with Marianne WeemsJames Gibbs and Marianne -

Nick Kaye: When did that process start?

Dan Dobson: We had been working with dbox for three or four shows. I think we probably started talking about doing a show with them during the making of ALLADEEN (2002-5) - so maybe four years ago. Then we really started having meetings about what the show would be about two-and-a-half years ago, or something. We had our first real workshop in the summer of last year (2004) at the Wexner Centre. They gave us the theatre and use of the University of Ohio MoCap (Motion Capture) centre - we were allowed to play for about a week. You know, coming from a place where you don’t have a text to work with, we were playing around with so much technology and without a real destination yet. Very few of those ideas remained. We were working with an earlier video designer - and we didn’t really have that many sound ideas - and he kept going: ‘data,’ ‘data’. So that was our little mantra back then.

Then we just really talked about writing for a number of months. We were working with a film scriptwriter - just because we end up cutting text so much and a lot of theatrical writers have lot of problems with people doing that to their work and film writers don’t. They are much more use to edits. And we went around with stories for so long and then ended up in The Kitchen in New York, doing a little two-and-a-half week workshop.

Nick Kaye: That was in the spring (2005)?

Dan Dobson: Early spring of this year. We just walked in and started playing again. We had new video at that point, so nothing had been set yet. We just kept trying to get some destinations recorded and then found another writer – Constance DeJong. Constance started in June (2005). We had a weeklong reading - really with no technology - looking at a few things for live image manipulation. When we started again in August (2005) that was kind of from scratch - it was almost a clean slate. We did it in six weeks. We were really five because by the last week we were just trying to run it. So this show was kind of made in five weeks, which is pretty crazy. ALLADEEN was a much longer process and those earlier workshop periods really did create a base for things to move along.

Nick Kaye: How do you evolve the sound through that process?

Dan Dobson: We always do it together. I rarely work outside of the room where everybody else is working. When we start a workshop all the technology is present. I don’t know if there were some little ideas that we had had earlier on in our very first Ohio (Wexner) workshop that did survive all the way through. Then for a long time we had been thinking about what data sounds like: ‘data’. At one point one of the dbox guys was playing a guitar with sensors on his fingers - so there are just these kind of weird tinkley sounds - and this is ‘data’.

Nick Kaye: So were you linking sound or other aspects of the performance to the Motion Capture?

Dan Dobson: Yeah - in Ohio we were and we were going to take - we had no idea what to do with that data. The MoCap information is really just numbers - you can use the computer to make those numbers look like the dot. Yeah we did a crazy amount of motion capture. That was the early on certainly a lot of the ideas that would be using, that data to inform the technology in some interesting way. Like - just using those numbers that are there to drive the application Max (Max/MSP). Max is a programming environment and it really is just a number cruncher, but people use it to make sound - to affect video and sound. So we would have all these numbers floating around. But in the end on a performance level, an audience will never make that association. We didn’t find that as interesting as the representation of data.

Nick Kaye: So in this conception you were dealing with the numbers that arose out of the motion capture and feeding that back into the soundscape.

Dan Dobson: We never actually did it, but that certainly was a plan at one point.

Nick Kaye: So traces of that remain -

Dan Dobson: Very little, we actually do use some of that MoCap in the show, a little bit of it.

Nick Kaye: How did you move forward from there?

Dan Dobson: We went onto the idea of the ‘data body’ - that being that you are born and you are immediately give medical records, all of which is becoming electronic. So from the second you are born you have that electronic personality and then it just grows as you go through life. The big easy story is identity theft - and we hit on the fastest growing form of identity theft in this country being the family – family on family. Children are turning 18 and applying for credit cards and realizing that somebody has run up a huge debt in their name.

In the end, I will go back to the little guitar motion capture thing. We had video with a lot of numbers floating around. So when we were tapping away on the guitar, there was just something nice about an acoustic instrument. Then somewhere I heard this crazy Flamenco guitar riff and that is ‘data’ right there. That was one of the Columbus ideas that stuck - using a little bit of guitar sound. I forget exactly how the birds got into the story, but something about the birds entered the script. It was just in the script. It was like: ‘so you want me to make a bird sound?” I don’t want to make a bird sound – so Constance DeJong brought in some bird sounds she had – and the idea of data birds came in. So that turns out to be a good data sound - the sounds of flocks of birds.

Nick Kaye: When you are creating the sound environment are you working or creating a context for the performers by responding to what the performers are doing - or are you creating something that the performers then work against?

Dan Dobson: Yeah we go in to our six-week process (August 2006). First, all our equipment in comes in – all the actors use microphones. We start reading the script – Marianne Weem’s first question is ‘Dan, what you got?” It’s like ‘ I got nothing – I just walked in!’ There is a lot of pressure to get something for them to work with right away, because to be up there – loud, with a microphone, but naked – bare – is so very difficult for the actors. So there is a lot of pressure to get something in very quickly, so you are just spinning stuff out and nine times out of ten it doesn’t work. But you have just got to get something there. I just keep making stuff and this time was the first time where I actually did the process with an assistant –Josh Schmidt. It is unbelievable how much it frees up my time and just my nerves. The process used to be kind of painful – somebody is asking for sounds – I don’t have it. When did I have time to make it? So this was great. I could really afford to have the time to be able to have a headphone on one ear and listen to what they were doing and just think. Then just all of a sudden one thing kind of hit and then that feels good - you just work a lot at it.

Nick Kaye: How does the evolution of the sound work with the other layers of media?

Dan Dobson: The whole process is much harder for video people, because it takes so much longer to make video. We just keep working and there are some things that are now synched to video – but that happens after the process.

Nick Kaye: So things stayed fairly open until quite late?

Dan Dobson: A little bit more with SUPER VISION, because I am using software that is much more flexible. So we keep on adjusting and changing - and that keeps it interesting for me - and Marianne Weems has no problem with that. Actors don’t usually have a problem with that – we get to keep working on it.

Our first show, MASTER BUILDER (1994) was with cassette tapes. You cued up and rolled it back a little bit with your finger and so on – we made those loops on reel-to-reel machines with 54 loops and it was a lot of fun. Now I am using a programme called Ableton Live which is made for people who work live - and it is an unbelievably well thought out piece of software that allows me to do everything I want to do. Apparently nobody really uses for theatre. A lot of DJ-type people use it. It is very loop-based – I was given the concept of loop-based stuff when I started with MASTER BUILDER. So I have just worked that way since.

Nick Kaye: When you say loop-based what to do you mean?

Dan Dobson: It means, really, just the way that the music or sound works with the theatrical – with actors speaking. I have always found if you put in a melody or song you are saying a lot with that piece of music. It usually isn’t necessary. So we have always worked by using smaller, subtler, repetitive things. It is there, you hear it but at some point, but you really just don’t notice and you pay attention to the performance - it just supports very well. Loop-based stuff just works better for our kind of theatre. And this programme is really forgiving and flexible. It’s so easy to change things – and change them dramatically. It has been a lot of fun using this software. Before I would work out a tape or CDs and that takes time. Here you just replace a sound or just have a sound right away – so that made everything much smoother and fun.

Nick Kaye: Do you play the sound live during rehearsals itself?

Dan Dobson: Oh yeah - and in the show. The technology is as much a player as the actors. They are cuing off us - we are cuing of them. Everybody is doing is their thing and it’s never just press play and walk away. That always allows it to expand - people pick up on new things and things can change. It is always interesting. That is why we can run this for two years and not worry about it.

Nick Kaye: How open is the performance itself to change or development?

Dan Dobson: At this point, because we have it run a certain way and there are cues, in a sense it is rigid. But I could throw in a completely different piece of music and it would probably be interesting for actors, but I wouldn’t do it without rehearsing it. We have that kind of flexibility.

Nick Kaye: Are there any particular sources, artists or modes of work that are influential on your work?

Dan Dobson: Well, I have noticed that video game design is very much like the way we work. It is really music that is there to support - and it grows interestingly through the course of a game. The guy who has done that - Amon Tobin, who I guess is from Canada – I have always been interested in his music and influenced heavily by his work. He is a sample junky. I did a lot of that in this show - just sampling myself playing an instrument, but then making that not sound like an instrument. He did a video game score – The Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory - a Tom Clancy game. It is like a spy game. I think I read somewhere that he said it was a crazy amount of work – but really very interesting and works in the same way that we think of music with something else going on top of it. The music has to change and so he built a series of loops - and if you do something then it is going to revert to this loop, if you do something else it will go in another direction. He had to build all these different feels. The technology around it is quite interesting, I think.

Nick Kaye: In the performance how much are you playing off the performers themselves?

Dan Dobson: I could make things, except for the fact that, you know, it will change their timings. Over the course of watching them I can do a little something right there on that word - or something like that, so I do play it with them lightly. That makes it that much more interesting.

----- (August 2006) since our interview everyone has gotten very comfortable with their score and now subtleties have been developed in my running the show with the actors’ performances. Its fun working on these little things that are not so blatant but work really well in the overall flow of the piece. ------

The process for me really is just trying to make things that are fun and interesting and seeing what works and it just means making a lot of media and drawing it out. When you are starting that first part of the process it is just very painful. And it has been the same through all of the shows. That is just the way that we work. The thing is that it works, and so this time I was fully prepared for that pain.

Nick Kaye: Do you think of your work as engaging directly with this exchange between the media and the live presences?

Dan Dobson: Well it informs the way I make stuff, because I make stuff that somebody can talk over. I am not going to take up the space. It’s like jamming with the band - that give and take. There is always the idea of true interactivity - having an actor wave their hand and pass it through a light beam and make a sound out of it. But for the purposes of theatrical entertainment where someone sits in a seat and watches the show, that just doesn’t work. That kind of interactivity between the performers and the technology, as far as the sound goes – just becomes much more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, having a soundscape that can shift with them is enough interactivity.


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