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Composing a Family

Sound Designer and Composer Stephen Gawrit

Greetings! I’m Stephen Gawrit, a sound designer and composer for theater in the Chicagoland area. I’ve been a theatre artist for most of life, starting my professional training at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in 2000. I spent the early years of my career working primarily as an actor, and during that time, found I had an innate ability to hear the melody of the play. After I wrote my first musical in 2010, I started digging into composing incidental music and general sound design for theater; it was a natural fit. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to sound design over thirty plays.

Before I begin the composition, I like to collect a variety of pieces from other artists and provide a palette for the director to choose from. This palette offers a shared language between artists, painting a soundscape of tonal qualities, instrumentation, tempo, and composition. If you’re interested, here is a link to an ever-growing playlist of inspirational tracks on Spotify. After sharing this list with Jason, he seemed most drawn to the work of Jon Brion, a personal favorite of mine, which served as a launching point for my process.

Once we’ve established a sense of the auditory aesthetic, I then look toward the play itself. When working on Luckiest People, as with most plays I write music for, my next step was to identify the tone of the piece. Luckiest People tackles a variety of themes from “what is family” to “generational divides” and navigating, “growing up” (contemporarily known as “adulting”). Given that this play centers around the Hoffman family, I wanted each of the Hoffman characters to contain complimentary arrangements and renditions of theme and mood. The tone and dialogue of this piece offer a dynamic pairing of contrast: while the play deals with tragedy and loss, it is also genuinely funny. With all of this in mind, I was drawn to keeping the music in a whimsical 3/4 time signature while also pushing against all the internal subtextual upheaval each character is experiencing.

Instrumentation for all of these tracks includes guitar (electric and acoustic), bass (upright and electric), flute, fiddle, violin, toy piano, music box, piano.

Please keep in mind that all of the pieces below are in various states, and are not complete.

Starting with the Hoffman Family Theme, I wanted to create a palette which encompasses each member of the family and establishes both tone and instrumentation- in this case, a waltz. When listening to a waltz one cannot help but bob along to the regimented signature. This particular piece lulls you in via a whimsical, jovial tone, only to take a very sharp turn that underlines the conflict of the play around 40 seconds into the theme.

After working on the family theme, I immediately wanted to break away to the non-Hoffman character onstage, David. David’s Theme is the only piece not in 3/4 time; however, as David is Richard’s partner, I wanted to keep the instrumentation the same as he is very much a part of the Hoffman world.

As I write for a play, the music often hits me at the most inopportune times- generally when I am just about to fall asleep, which was the case with Laura’s Theme. When initially listening to Laura’s theme it comes across as very predictable and maternal. However, when the piece shifts into chaos, I wanted to illustrate the part of Laura that is angry, spontaneous, and craving change.

Oscar’s Theme, while very rigid, has a softness and broken quality, as the character has just lost the anchor in his world: his wife. With this, the piece then speaks to Oscar’s role as the surviving head of the family.

By contrast, Richard’s Theme is a direct counterpoint to Oscar’s. The melody of the two tracks share a lot of similarities; however, with Richard, from the first couple of measures, the listener hears an even more direct and rigid tone. Richard’s journey throughout the play includes both uncertainty and measurable growth, with one foot in the past and the future—though this often occurs at the expense of what is happening around him. The theme’s predictability and regularity underscores the predictability and regularity to which the character clings.


Hear Stephen's work at The Luckiest People, currently running at the Athenaeum Theatre. Click here for tickets!

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