The Mother of Fishes is a new opera in which young people play a major role: They create electronic sounds and perform with professionals. The opera is based on a popular Valencian story about love, adventure and magic. For every performance of the opera, we engage young people to create and perform electronic sounds as well as to sing in the opera chorus and dance. For our most recent performance, we used Audacity extensively and worked with students from the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) 6-12 School.
I wrote the opera with Jorge Sastre and produced our new English translation in Pittsburgh with conductor Federico Garcia-De Castro and director Seamus Ricci. This post describes our experience, including our goals, some techniques, and some example sounds.
We originally wrote the opera as a showcase for Soundcool (more about that later), so we made a lot of room for electronic sounds. We put in everything from simple sound effects, like a horse approaching the house of the witch, to an extended scene where our hero fights a dragon to the death. Although we use a sizeable traditional orchestra (harp, strings, winds, percussion), the electronics add a new sonic dimension – we especially love using them in scenes with magic.
Another priority for us is engagement with the community, and we always enlist young people to develop electronic sounds and sing in the chorus. This means teaching some basics of recording, electronic sound, editing, processing, and live performance. We were fortunate to find a partner in CAPA 6-12, a Pittsburgh Public School with a very supportive administration and faculty as well as a beautiful theater with stage, lights, and orchestra pit – arguably the best small venue for opera in Pittsburgh.
We have two approaches to “performing” sounds in the opera. One is to produce sounds as fixed recordings in sound files and simply play the sounds on cue. This is simple and reliable, and we were assisted by Jesse Stiles, an experienced composer/sound designer. The other possibility is to perform sounds live by cueing and mixing complex sounds interactively, following the conductor, orchestra and singers. This is more difficult and riskier, but enables us to quickly adapt to timing and sound levels in rehearsals and performances. Even this case relies mostly on prefabricated sounds that are triggered and manipulated live. For both approaches, Audacity plays a central role in editing and refining sounds.
Sound Design with Audacity
Beginning in the fall of 2019, I worked with Antithesis, which is the high school new music ensemble at CAPA. Some of these students have done some music and audio production on their own, but many are instrumentalists who don’t have digital audio experience. We talked about sound design and listened to some examples from movies such as WALL · E and experimental electronic music. I soon found that trying to record sound effects was not very effective in the classroom, so we turned to online sound effects as source material. Our primary source was freesound.org, a great source for all kinds of sounds.
Students were tasked with developing sounds for different scenes of the opera: the fisherman who encounters the magical Mother of Fishes, the 7-headed dragon, the evil witch, and so on. Students began by searching for and downloading sounds they thought would work, and between classes, I would listen to all the material, select what seemed promising, and make notes on what was missing or how the sounds could be modified.
This led to sessions where students would load sounds into Audacity and learn about envelopes to shape the amplitude, multiple tracks to mix sounds, time stretching to achieve the desired timing, pitch shifting for radical changes, and other effects. After each class, I would collect all the Audacity projects, listen, make notes, and come back with critiques, suggestions, and new requirements. I also provided mock-ups of the orchestra and singing parts to give a better idea of what the final product would sound like.
For example, here is the Audacity project for a scene where the ghost of the witch is overpowered by magic, along with an MP3 file of the sound:
Soundcool and Live Performance
As mentioned earlier, The Mother of Fishes was intended to be a showcase for Soundcool, a modular system for live sound performance. Soundcool uses tablet or phone touchscreens as live controllers for sound processing that runs on a “host” laptop or desktop. For this opera performance, we limited our use to 4 of Soundcool’s Sampler objects, each controlled by one student who could start and stop a selection of 10 sound files, with real-time volume control. Here is “Team Soundcool” at the back of the theater with their phones, which connect by WiFi to the main Soundcool computer:
And here is what the controller for a Sampler looks like on one of the phones:
Here is a photo and an audio mock-up from a scene using Soundcool where the witch turns our hero into stone (the crackling stone sounds are actually a processed recording of celery from freesound.org!):
What We Learned
Audacity, combined with sound libraries like freesound.org and live performance tools like Soundcool (also free and open source), offers a great introduction to creative sound exploration. A class of high school students can produce very professional work with the right guidance, and the audience was completely thrilled that students contributed to a professional production and performed sounds live along with our orchestra and soloists.
It was interesting, as an Audacity developer, to see Audacity used “in the field” by beginners who picked up basic concepts quickly, assisted by Audacity’s simple interface. I cannot imagine students accomplishing as much with expensive digital audio workstation software where there is just so much to learn. On the other hand, even some aspects of Audacity’s interface are confusing, and working with students is a good reminder of how important it is to keep things as simple as possible. (The good news is that the Audacity team talks about usability all the time.)
I want to thank the Pittsburgh Public Schools along with the talented students at CAPA 6-12, their great teachers, and everyone who contributes to Audacity for making this project possible.