I research historical sound, more specifically the work of sound effects designers from late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theatre. These designers worked with acoustic materials and simple mechanisms to create everyday sounds, such as wind, rain, and thunder. A lot of my PhD work so far has focused on recreating a historical design, a theatre wind machine, following instructions left in the writings of sound effects designers. But these designers haven’t only left behind specific instructions for particular effects; they also advise the reader to experiment with their designs and develop their work further, to investigate new materials and grow an individual sound effect making practice.

I came to the MLab as a visiting researcher to spend a month working with the team on Prototyping the Past, and to try to figure out how their approach to prototyping might work for sound making using historical methods. Working on and through various problems via prototyping got me thinking more clearly about the most relevant parts of historical theatre sound texts in terms of developing skills, rather than just following design instructions correctly. I started prototyping my own “noisemaker” designs using tin cans, and this led to an introductory workshop at UVic.

The workshop was held right at the end of my research placement and was hosted by CFUV’s Women’s Radio Collective. It was useful to put some of my learning over the month into practice and see what people made of my approach in practice. I made a zine for the workshop, and we made quite a bit of noise.

I’ve learned that prototyping sound with materials is indeed a gateway to sound making more broadly and that, given the chance, people will take a basic design and improvise with it to develop something more complex. The most important bit, and my biggest takeaway from this month in general, is that you need to give them the space to experiment in the first place.

Many thanks to the White Rose College in the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH), who fund my PhD research and also supported this placement. Thanks to CFUV’s WRC for hosting all the noises, and to Miyoko for the podcast fun. Finally, thanks to all at MLab for being so welcoming and supportive all month, and especially to Teddie for all of her work getting the workshop and press set up!

Post by Fiona Keenan, attached to the PrototypingThePast and Makerspace projects, with the news tag. Featured image for this post care of Fiona Keenan and Teddie Brock. Download the zine for Fiona’s workshop as a ready-to-print-and-assemble PDF.


More about Fiona Keenan

Visiting Researcher, MLab | PhD Candidate, Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media, York, UK