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A CurtainUp Review
An Interview with Donald Dinicola

Ed. Note: This interview was prompted by Mr. Dinicola's curation of The Wooster Group-sponsored Performing Garage Visiting Artists Series entitled "American Originals, a festival of music by contemporary NY composer/musicians", March 15-31, 2001 at the Performing Garage in Soho. More details on the presentations can be found at the end of the interview. --E.S.

Donald Dinicola's name may not be all that familiar to CurtainUp readers, but anyone who pays careful attention would surely have noticed it. He's done sound and/or original music for a gaggle of shows, ranging from Betrayal on Broadway to Eric Bogosian's last show, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee; we've reviewed his work at the Public, the Roundabout, the Vineyard, the Atlantic. Most recently, he did sound design for Albee's The Play About the Baby. We've heard his work as far north as Shakespeare & Co. in the Berkshires, and as far south as Arena Stage in Washington DC. He has also done projects for TV and film. (A current example: the film Collectors, which is now running on the Sundance Channel). Not surprisingly, he is also a musician, and soon he'll have a CD we can buy.

Why don't we pay him more heed? He has a very simple answer. When I sat down with Don in his office/studio in Chelsea (a room filled with guitars, keyboards and electronic equipment), I asked him what distinguishes good sound in the theater from bad. "For me, sound is best when it is not noticed, when it doesn't draw attention to itself." His clients -- the playwrights, producers and directors who work with him -- seem to agree. Leave it to Mr. Albee (with whom Dinicola says, not surprisingly, it was "an honor" to work), to say it best: "I like sound," Albee told him; "as long as I can't hear it.".

Unlike some people, who got into theater for the sheer love of it, Dinicola's involvement began almost by accident. A classically-trained musician who also always played the guitar ("like everyone else, I wanted to be a rock star "), he was approached by a friend of his then-wife who was putting on a play. (He was still living in Boston at the time.) The friend wanted to put a guitar player on stage, and asked him if he would do it. "I did it -- me, my guitar, a pancho and a sombrero. I got it immediately. My eyes got big and I saw this is a great opportunity to get my music heard, to experiment, and it's live. Unlike a recording, in a theater I can even adjust how the sound is heard: I can put the sound behind the audience if I want, I can turn the speakers forward and create one sound, or turn them around, and that changes what the audiences hears." After that, Dinicola studied music more in Boston.  "People were beginning to play with electronic sound -- Stockhausen and Ussachevsky -- which lead to the beginnings of sampling." After that, his development as a sound designer and composer of original music for the theater flowed naturally. (A decade ago, Dinicola even tried his hand at a full-length work: an opera based on Ubu Roi.)

"Sound design at its most basic can consist of just spec-ing and placing the equipment for a show. It can include arranging music that's actually called for in a script, or accenting the show with music -- introducing scenes or providing some music between scenes. That can be original music or previously-recorded sources. With me, because I am both a sound designer and a composer," Dinicola adds, smiling as if he wishes it could be otherwise, "the producer gets two for the price of one" Then there's sound effects. In The Play About the Baby, there's not really any music, but there are sounds: we hear a baby cry, as an example. In other productions, like much of the work at The Wooster Group (where Dinicola had a hand in last year's North Atlantic), nothing is off-limits: "There, we find multimedia sound: taken apart, modified and put back together: amplified, altered, broadcast, sampled. I was always familiar with equipment -- so the reproduction of sound in theaters was not a big step for me. Sometimes, that's all the work that's involved, like in a musical where it's all about equipment and microphones. Normally, my goal is to make sound natural: the audience has to hear it but hopefully, in my ears at least, it should not sound like it is broadcast. Of course, there are times that just the opposite is called for."

What, I wondered, is the process through which these sorts of decisions are made? "It varies, of course, from job to job, but let me use Second Stage's revival of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart [on which Dinicola is excited to be working currently] as an example. I received a call from my agent saying they were looking for a sound designer and original music composer. I sent a demo tape of my work to the director, Garry Hynes. They got back to us saying she loved what she heard. We talked, and I signed on. Rehearsals start soon, and I'm familiar with the play, I've read the script, and I'll go and work with the director and the actors to see what she has in mind. Then I'll go to work. I'll attend rehearsals, and once the show gets on its feet, we'll make adjustments as we need. This play is set in a part of the South, and I'm very familiar with the music that goes along with that."

As a quick review of Dinicola's work makes clear, he's not locked into a particular style. "I have a classical background, so of course I am able to employ that. But my strongest interest is in American "roots" music -- I'm known for my interest in country. One of the pluses and minuses in New York is that there are so many people working, we all tend to get thought of as having our specialties, and that's mine. I'm very fascinated by earlier American music, going back to minstrel shows, working my way forward through Vaudeville and so on."

This goes far in explaining the logic of Dinicola's involvement in the creation of the "American Originals" series at The Performing Garage. "I wanted to expose the range of American music, the kinds of things I would use as source material for the work I do." The resulting mix indeed covers a broad swath of American music:
  • The series starts with a jazz musician, Phillip Johnston, who has worked in theater, film and the concert hall. "I met Phil while working on Wolf Lullaby written by his wife Hilary Bell at the Atlantic Theatre Co. We discovered we had friends in common and exchanged CDs. His stuff is fabulous. His take on jazz is a breath of fresh air."
  • The second program combines two artists, Scott Johnson, a post-modern composer who hasn't been exposed much in the theater, and Julia Wolfe, whose work combines physicality, theater art forms and pop music energy. Johnson will perform on his electric guitar with his electric ensemble. His work is noted for incorporating rock-derived instrumentation into traditionally scored compositions. "Scott has been a friend for several years. I've been a fan since 'John Somebody' [which will be performed as a part of the program] and when I heard a concert at Lincoln Center last summer I thought the sound was terrible. I said 'wouldn't it be great to do a show where we could have control over the sound and do it right'. He said yes and here we are." The performance of Wolfe's compositions will feature the string quartet Ethel and the a capella voices of early music virtuosos Lionheart. "I worked with Julia on Anna Deveare Smith's House Arrest at The Public, where she impressed me, and she gave me her CD, Arsenal of Democracy. I was blown away by the intesity and immediacy of the music. I was thrilled when she agreed to be part of the series."
  • The third program takes us to true roots music, as John Cohen, a musician and musicologist and a member of the original New Lost City Ramblers, brings us a concert of traditional American string music. "I'm looking forward to sitting in and playing my guitar with John and his fellow musicians. I've been aware of John's contribution to American Roots music since the late 60's. His contributions are so many and so large that I wanted to create a venue for him to share his music pictures and stories. "
  • Finally, there is Carl Hancock Rux. "I couldn't put together a program of American music without including the enormous influence of black music, so I asked Rux to grace us with a one-man show. When I saw Carl perform I was stunned by the originality and freshness of his multifacited performance. I think he is truly a new voice of great magnitude in the pantheon of American originals. " His work crosses the disciplines of poetry, music, dance and theater. New York Times Magazine has anointed Rux as "one of the thirty artists under the age of thirty most likely to influence culture over the next thirty years".

<(C)Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer,
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