What does an existential debate sound like?

A good question – and one that only sound designer Dan Roach can answer! He shared with the Geva staff this great story about the journey he took to arrive at the sound design for Geva’s production of Freud’s Last Session, directed by Skip Greer. The rest of this blog post is Dan’s story.

I began – as any sound designer would – by reading the playing and marking the points that sound was indicated in the script. Of course September 3, 1939 in England was a particularly interesting day: that day Great Britain declared war on Germany and was thrust into WWII. I knew from the date and the script that we would need vintage plane sounds, an air raid siren, music, and BBC announcers as well as two historical speeches.

The speeches that were broadcast that day were:

Radio Address by Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister, September 3, 1939. At 11:15 a.m., Chamberlain addressed the nation by radio, confirming that England was now at war with Germany.

The King’s Speech which George VI broadcast to his people in Britain and throughout the Empire, immediately after Britain’s Declaration of War against Germany on September 3, 1939.

Looking at the first speech I readily found several versions of different lengths, but they didn’t match what was in the script, so I came to the conclusion that the speech in the script must be a condensed version of the original. I found the original recording and downloaded the mp3 so I could type out the full text:

“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10, Downing Street.
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 0′clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.
Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland. But Hitler would not have it. He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened, and although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.
The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us, and, though they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them, but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier. His action shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.
We and France are today, in fulfillment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack upon her people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace, but a situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe had become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part with calmness and courage.
As such a moment as this the assurances of support that we have received from the Empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.
…Now may God bless you all and may He defend the right. For it is evil things that we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution. And against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”

The green text is the only text from this speech used in the play. I edited the actual recording of Chamberlain,  so that it is as authentic as possible. Will people know it is really Chamberlain? Perhaps. Do they know the whole speech? Unlikely as online there are many edits and it took a little time to find the whole speech.

It was at this point that I became curious about what was actually played on the radio that day. I did some initial research online and only found that there were a few people that had a tune or two they thought were broadcast that day but were not sure. Not knowing if the information was true or not, I went to the BBC website and asked. I explained I was a sound designer and was looking for the playlist between the hours of 9:00 am and 2:00 pm on September 3, 1939 by the Home Service as the radio became known that day.

I received an email back referring me to an archives there for the BBC, I posed my question again and within a few weeks time I received an answer. An employee at the BBC Written Archives had located the documents for that day between 9 am and 2 pm and mailed a copy of them to my home in the USA, for free, and I now knew every single piece of music that was played, what time the news was, when the speeches were aired, commercial slots, etc. Sometimes it is amazing what you find when you ask the right person the right questions! The important thing is to ask.

I used this list as a basis for some of my choices. My job isn’t to recreate the exact sounds of that day, but to create the mood and sounds of a place we want to take the audience member to, influenced by our research.

I had gone into designing the play thinking that we know what happened to England in the years to come. Would they play music of their greatest composers on the day that everything changed? I wanted to collect these composers and see how their music could be used in the pre-show and the short clips we hear on the radio for a few seconds, but more importantly for the music on the radio that we hear at the end of the play. I think the music that I found fits very well, and the world we create for this show is the result of our search and research of the period.

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