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Inside New Noise: New Southern Hymnal

Editor's Note:  One year ago, local theater ensemble NEW NOISE debuted "Runnin’ Down the Mountain," an original performance that kicked off a trilogy titled "New Southern Hymnal." The group performed in New Orleans and took the show on tour, using people's homes as venues, almost like the itinerary of a traveling punk band. Now the company is back to work on the second piece of the trilogy, Oxblood. NEW NOISE members Phil Cramer and Bear Hebert tell us more. 

A man stands in all black, huddled at the edge of a dimly lit stage. Arrayed before him are a series of tape decks, guitar pedals, loop boxes and a crate full of cassettes. Knobs and faders lined up like toy soldiers. Wires are everywhere -- they snake and hang in great loops and twists off his small table that seems to strain under the weight. He picks up a tape, slides it into the four-track, and presses play.

Phil Cramer

Phil Cramer credit: Melisa Cardona

You can hear the whir and hum of tiny reels spinning. The pop and hiss of the recording. And then the sounds of crickets chirping, cicadas rattling, and a soft rain tapping on the leaves: it is nighttime in the mountains. After a few moments, you can almost smell the oak logs burning -- their hardwood scent drifting over the hills. And a woman’s voice begins speaking, clear and direct:

(“Daddy would always gather our hands up into his. And no matter what was going on out there, all the crying and fussing and carrying on, all the troubles of the world, would stop…”)

We call Runnin’ Down the Mountain -- the original performance that NEW NOISE debuted in New Orleans in January of 2013 -- an Appalachian Sound Play. The piece follows the story of a brother and sister, Margaret and Everett Riddle, who live alone on their family’s land in rural North Carolina. But rather than tell the tale of their rich Appalachian cultural heritage through the traditional structure of naturalistic dialogue, we attempted to do so through a lushly layered soundscape, all of which was produced live during each performance.

Roots07

Lisa Shattuck and Sean LaRocca credit: Melisa Cardona

Sound designer and engineer Adam Tourek hovers visibly at the side of the stage throughout the piece. The siblings sing out their family history in original songs written by the ensemble and arranged by Sean Larocca; a live band accompanies them from the back of the set. At dinner time, the tension between the two protagonists is conveyed by the fast, tight rhythms they tap out with forks and knives. Their conversations verge towards the surreal, with the characters speaking some lines into microphones facing the audience for emphasis -- a sort of aural caps-lock.

The Anthem, as performed at Alternate ROOTS in August 2013.

Runnin’ Down the Mountain premiered as an evening-length piece. When we got ready to take it out on the road, we knew that it needed to be reinvented. During a mid-August residency just off the Appalachian Trail in rural New Jersey, we whittled the full-length show into a 35-minute “house party” version. Maintaining the characters, story and spirit of the original, we took the best sections and remixed them alongside new song lyrics, revised scenes and a cleaner arc. After our week in the woods, we held performances in backyards and barns across Philadelphia, Kentucky and North Carolina. There were mishaps, triumphs, and even pie. Runnin’: The House Party had arrived.

After our tour, NEW NOISE returned home for two sold-out performances of Runnin’: The House Party during the 2013 New Orleans Fringe Festival. We enlisted the talents of filmmaker Claire Bangser to film those shows and to help spread our story. The documentary short she produced, titled the A-Side and the B-Side, offers a glimpse into the world of Runnin’ Down the Mountain and explains how we used sound as a primary element in the storytelling.

The A-Side and the B-Side:

Runnin’ Down the Mountain is the first piece in a trilogy that we call "New Southern Hymnal." Through this series, NEW NOISE is taking a nuanced look at our cultural inheritance in the American South -- specifically asking what we’ve lost in the last century of intense, widespread migration and the triumph of modern industry over agriculture.

In the past few months, we have re-entered the studio to begin work on Oxblood, the second piece in the trilogy. Set on a farm in South Georgia, Oxblood is a dance theater performance about the growing divide between land and labor in the South. Just as sound was the primary medium in Runnin’, with Oxblood it is movement that tells the story and transports the audience. Over the next year, we’ll be returning to NolaVie to give you a glimpse into the creative process for Oxblood -- sharing the moments of inspiration and struggle as we unearth this new story and as we develop challenging, unexpected new ways to tell it. We hope you’ll join us on the journey.