A note on the sound and music in Picnic at Hanging Rock

1 March 2016

Photo / Pia Johnson

J. David Franzke & Ash Gibson Grieg on the chilling musical composition of Picnic at Hanging Rock

J. David Franzke / Sound Designer

No matter how abstract the final design it is always best practice to have a solid foundation of material with which to begin.

Two days and nights at Hanging Rock provided us with plenty of field recording material to create the various scenes in this production. Monash University placement Matt Alden assisted me throughout the process, working as Foley artist and human microphone rig: I placed microphones all over him and made him walk around in the bracken up on the Rock.Many more hours of daytime and night recording, along with hydrophone recording in the dams near the Rock and a very abstract recording of tree branches brushing against an old botanical glass house in the wind provided us with a great sonic palate with which to work from. As material began to emerge from Ash it became clear that another layer of material would need to be generated by manipulating the sound beyond recognition, yet retaining its original core or essence.Within the second week of the process we had begun to develop a strong and purposeful workflow creating a strong sense of space and place throughout many of the scenes.I consider the sound world of this production to be a strong character in its own right, taking its cues from the text, and carrying us away at times to some other place.

Ash Gibson Grieg / Composer

The music and sound of Picnic are inextricably linked. For most of the play they are woven together, one informing the other. This allows specific moments when only one comes to the fore – to be more poignant.

There are two elements in the concept of the music score to Picnic at Hanging Rock:

The first was to determine one instrument that represented the characteristics of the Rock – the menace, power, and mystery of it. We decided that the double bass had the resonance, rawness and range to do this job. Through a series of recordings, we explored an increasingly weird and wonderful array of strange playing techniques on the double bass. This became a palate for myriad manipulations from the two of us. Much of the sound you hear was generated in this way, though it would be almost unrecognisable when compared to its original source. The ideas in the play of time stopping, of past present and future intermingling, were always in our minds.

The second element is based on a simple idea: five sung notes, one per actor. The notes – B, C, D, Eb, F# – have been subjected to many permutations in the score. In their simplest form, they are heard as a dissonant chord like a chant, set to the sounds of the name Miranda – M, I, RA, N, DA. These five notes are also the genesis of the haunting vocal melody you hear at the beginning of the show – each of the four phrases is a different permutation of these notes. The slow ascending string harmonies you hear in parts of the show are also based on these notes, as is the unstable chord heard in the final ascent. Their most unexpected transformations occur in two Classical tracks heard in the background of two scenes. The String Trio is in rondo form (A-B-A-C-A-D-A), again representing the idea of time repeating. The A section’s first and fifth bars are based on the chords of the ascending string harmony (from the five notes), while the B, C, and D sections are all based on embellishments of different phrases of the original vocal melody. Similarly, the Piano Sonata’s melody is a Mozartian take on the original vocal melody. However, this track slowly glitches and degrades as the psychological presence of the rock becomes more apparent.