Sounds of the Civil War

November 16, 2011

By Christopher Colucci, Sound Designer for The Whipping Man

If I were, for some strange reason, asked the question “do you think there is a possibility that you will ever attend a Civil War reenactment in your lifetime?” I would have surely answered emphatically NO. I also never thought that I would have a reason to buy and to play an Autoharp; an instrument which I associated primarily with elementary school music classrooms. And I never imagined that my summer reading list would include books about African-Americans living in Richmond, Virginia in 1865; who happened to be both former slaves and Jewish. My work as the Sound Designer for the Arden Theater’s production of The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez (running through December 18th) gave me the opportunity to do all of these things.

One of my favorite parts about working in the theater is the opportunity it gives me to explore new ideas, new stories, and even new sounds that I might otherwise never get to experience; and so soon as I knew that I would be working on The Whipping Man I began to look for information that would help me to better understand the world of the play. In a script note, playwright Matthew Lopez recommends a book that influenced him in his writing; 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik; which I bought, and in it read that according to ear-witnesses (a sound designer’s favorite kind!) to the battle of Richmond, where an estimated 100,000 shells were fired, the war sounded like “a flock of blackbirds with blazing tails beating out in a gale” and “a metallic storm.” An earsplitting roar to be sure. These details suggested to me that it might be interesting to begin our story with some of the terrifying sounds which precede Caleb’s entrance at the beginning of the play.

It occurred to me, too, that the impact of this battle cacophony might be stronger if it was preceded by a serene Civil War-era song. I discovered a recording of “All Quiet on the Potomac Tonight” (Click here to listen) which was originally published as a poem in Harper’s Weekly in 1861. The gentle, almost pastoral music belies the tragic story in the lyric, whose first verse ends with a beautifully melodic phrase about the death rattle of a soldier dying in the field. Terrifying battle sounds juxtaposed with peaceful music seemed like the perfect way to begin.

But how was I going to get the authentic Civil War battle sounds that were needed for the play? There are many, multi-terabyte sound effect libraries available to the film and theater designer which cover a mind-boggling diversity of sound needs – but none of them were able to give me the authenticity and specificity that I felt we needed. My solution came by surprise on a beautiful summer day in August; I just happened to be biking in the New Hope area when I came upon a sign saying that there would be a Civil War battle reenactment across the river in Lambertville, New Jersey that very afternoon.

Here’s a little sound designer secret – we always carry a recorder wherever we go. I had mine that day, and as a result in one afternoon I was able to gather all the artillery shots, all the cannon explosions, all the battlefield music and chatter; in short, all the authentic atmosphere I could have ever dreamed of. I also was able to take lots of pictures of the event which were then shared with the rest of the design team (at the bottom of this post) Thanks to all the men and women who participated in that Civil War Living History Weekend – you made our show that much better!

The Whipping Man has a number of scene transitions where different set pieces are added, taken away, or simply moved around on the set. This sometimes takes time; music and sound is a good way to help move things along, support the story, and to keep an audience fully engaged. I was looking for a music that would evoke the diverse cultures and identities that exist alongside one another in such a unique way in the world of this play. For example, there is a significant tradition of Civil War-era “folk” music; as well as the themes of African-American and Jewish cultural identity in conflict and in concert with each other. I was interested in making music that would, subtlety, conjure each of these threads in the play. So, for our design I chose to include the folky sound of an Autoharp, the deep and beautifully resonant voice of local actor, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, to add a touch of the traditional Spiritual, and to complete the trio, a clarinet. How and where we used these elements changed many times over the course of making this production, but what remains for the audience, I hope, is a sense of the unity and coherence of both the themes in the play and of our design choices.

Working on The Whipping Man gave me the opportunity to enlarge my understanding of world, as well as to deepen my empathy for my fellow human beings. Come to the Arden and have an experience for yourself! We hope you enjoy The Whipping Man.

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