The descriptions of Ear Films in the promotional materials for it were kind of ambiguous: it sounded like story-telling more through the use of soundscapes than traditional narrative. It turns out that it’s really just an overproduced and audio drama with a mediocre, under-developed story where the audience is asked to wear a blindfold, which was really the only novel thing about the presentation.
With the exception of a live narrator, all of the dialog, sound effects, and music were recorded. Along with the narrator, all accents were RP English and all performances were pretty solid. The room was rather dark, which doesn’t matter much given that we were blindfolded, and the audience was surrounded by speakers to our front, sides, and even above us. I ended up on the far right-side of the second row, which may not have been the best perspective, but I did get a good sense of the directionality of the sound. It seemed somewhat that, although there were enough speakers for super-detailed directionality, the sound was mostly across five channels – front, back, left, right, and above – so it seemed to me that you’d get pretty close to the same experience no matter where you sat, with the possible exception of the narrator, whose voice was amplified, I believe, roughly from where he was sitting in front of the center of the audience.
The story was a rather weakly conceived dystopia in which creativity and dreaming are suppressed by a tyrannical government — called the Rhinegold Corporation, or something along those lines, which I read as a reference to the source of the ring of power in the Wagner’s Ring Cycle — in the name of protecting the remaining vestiges of civilization from the results of a massive environmental catastrophe. Interestingly, at no point do the free folks seem to exhibit any sort of creativity, although dreaming is a big thing. A lot was left unsaid and undescribed about the world and the events in it. Ostensibly, this was to allow our imaginations to fill in the gaps. However, the sound design and story pacing didn’t really allow me that much room for us to fill in anything beyond the imagery as it never let up.
Without giving anything specific away, the ending itself was left open in a way that felt like the playwright had written himself into a corner and couldn’t come up with a decent ending on his own. While many authors do make open-endings work, they usually leave you with something to think about, e.g. what would I want the character to do and what does it say about me or the situation, &c. This, however, was pretty devoid of any meaning to think about: there is a resolution reached in the story but the impact of that resolution is left empty. To believe that the efforts of the protagonist causes everyone to wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette means little more than to believe that he becomes a messiah-like character who can bring people to a new and beautiful utopia. A big part of this is probably the complete lack of character development. The rest was just the general problems you get from sloppy writing.
The sound design was over-bearing. The designer, unfortunately, didn’t understand the value of silence and rarely gave us a moment of it. Quieter parts had a lot of wind sounds or about three times the amount of sound that you’d hear on a raft in the middle of the ocean (and only the annoying ones, not the relaxing ones). It was rather odd, given that part of the dystopic vision that they created is that people weren’t ever given a quiet moment to think about anything. Much like the lack of creative activity among the free-folks, the creators of the work completely forgot to provide any form of meaningful contrast. Overall, it felt like a gimmick that was being used to hide the weak script.
I think that the biggest problem with the Sound Films production team was their belief that they were doing something truly novel. In a Q&A after the show that they didn’t give us a chance to opt out of, someone asked them why Sound Films was different than an audio drama and they said that it was in the sound design. They didn’t seem to realize that stereo and surround-sound audio dramas have been around for a very long time. A number of them are available for free online, some of them dating back to before anyone involved in this company were born. It felt a little like if Postmodern Jukebox genuinely believed that they were inventing all of the music genres to which they adapt contemporary pop songs. Artistic experimentation is a lot like scientific experimentation: the experimenter needs to have a good grasp of their field before their investigations are likely to produce anything truly of value.
It seems that “To Sleep To Dream” is the first story that they’ve produced and that they’re working on producing works by other writers. As someone who loves story-telling and audio dramas, I might actually attend a future production if the specific stories look good or one of the writers involved with it piques my interest. Even though it was overproduced, there was definitely enough talent in the performance that, were the main creative input to come from another source, they could put on a show that’s worth the time to hear.
Don’t forget to check out the Atlanta Classical Music Calendar!