Think of a genre in film. Ignore the visual elements that come to mind and focus on sound, the key sonic components that made those movies memorable. For action films, there’s gunshots, explosions, creaking tires during car chases, glass breaking, buildings collapsing, and so on. In horror’s goriest moments you may see bones breaking, heads getting bashed, or perhaps a supernatural creature growling, but just as you reassure yourself that none of what you see it is real, surely the sounds aren’t real either. Cinema relies on illusion, and while the debate between practical effects and CGI is often engaging, there is always more to discuss: sound.
Foley artists are the experts of sound effects who complete the illusion created visually on the screen. Dating back to the 1920s to the appearance of sound in film, the term carries the name of Jack Foley, who was hired by Universal due to his experience in radio to create a single audio track with all the necessary sound effects besides dialogue. The methods used by Foley and his team remain the basis of sound design in post-production today, and are one of the most mind-blowingly creative aspects of filmmaking. Last week, Foley artist Julie Rose Bower brought her show Foley Explosion to the Byre Theatre, infusing the stage with an impressive complex of performance and sound.
There is a lot going on in Foley Explosion: part spy thriller, part travel memoir, and part satire, it engages with topical issues such as fake news, dis- and misinformation, and corruption. Bower performed solo in the studio on the top floor in the Byre, a small, enclosed space that increased the intimacy between her and her audience. That proximity was key to understanding her show as she left her equipment in plain sight, allowing for her viewers to curiously explore the props and devices that would later play a role in the plot. Magicians may never reveal the secrets to their tricks, but Bower confidently turned this saying on its head as she stood in full command of the space around her. Lit from multiple angles with LED RGB lights from below, the colours initially changed to the rhythm of her speech, projecting eerie shadows on the tall black curtains behind her while she waltzed between two microphones to recount her experiences in Russia. Soon it became evident that this would not be an everyday travel memoir: as Grigori Rasputin and Alexander Litvinenko made an appearance, the plot caught flight together with Bower’s plane to Russia, inviting the audience for a committed sensory engagement and most importantly, a film projection in their minds, completely built on the impulses generated by Bower with her sounds and visuals.
Personally, I got so immersed in the show that I found myself hypnotised by an ASMR-like experience. The show was so impressively composed and coordinated that I couldn’t help but marvel at the many surprising ways Bower incorporated her props in the narrative. From the stunning bass of fingertips tapping on a balloon through high heels knocking on a headboard to the suspenseful echoes of Bower’s voice created on her loop station, there was a wide range of sounds to incorporate into our inner film projections, and this got all the more exciting when Bower occasionally made small changes to her costume. As one of many examples, the silver glitter on her dark cardigan was an interesting visual element in the all-encompassing Cold War spy thriller-vibe of her narrative. As if a paraphrase to the whole fake news-fever dominating social media nowadays, the story concluded with a hilarious account on Bower’s journalistic experience involving the alleged discovery of the fattest cat in the world in Siberia, and the immense success of that fake story.
The morning after, Bower held a 3-hour seminar in the same studio along with Dr. Lucy Donaldson from the Department of Film Studies. Visitors were divided in two groups and tasked to create their own sounds as an accompaniment to a short, muted clip from the 1955 noir Kiss Me Deadly. Besides the entertaining practical exercise, Bower and Dr. Donaldson also discussed misconceptions of the genderedness of sound design, dating back to WWII when women were employed in creative jobs of the sort while men were at war.
Foley Explosion was one of the most exciting projects I have seen through my three years in St Andrews and cannot recommend it enough. A University of Oxford linguist and a Lecoq-trained theatremaker, Bower is set to start a practice-based research PhD exploring feminism and sound design, and you can catch her on tour in the UK in the coming months. For more info, visit her website at julierose-bower.squarespace.com.