An Interview with Composer & Sound Designer Mark Bennett

Sound Designer Mark Bennett has been a consistent presence at the Huntington in recent seasons. Whether composing music for Dead End and The Seagull or composing and designing sound for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, he wants his work to explore, develop, and amplify the themes of the production. Before rehearsals began, he spoke to dramaturg Charles Haugland about his approach to A Confederacy of Dunces.

What attracted you to designing for A Confederacy of Dunces?

First of all, any time [director] David Esbjornson calls, it is excitingto me. Our history spans from working with Edward Albee to Arthur Miller. We always clicked in terms of finding combinations of original music and source material to make soundscapes that tell a story. Then of course, there is the book itself, which I had not read before. The book is like a magic trick; suddenly at the end of the story I found myself rooting for this character who, in the first 75 to 100 pages, I just wanted to get away from. When you put the tapestry of New Orleans behind it, the project becomes irresistible.

How do sound and music figure into the production?

The challenge with any story that is structured episodically is that you have many transitions. One of the requirements of my work is figuring out how to use those transitions as ways to drive the story forward. There has to be a constant ebb and flow between music rising to the forefront to sweep you into the next location and then dropping underneath, sometimes as underscoring. The idea of keeping music going throughout is an important point to both David and me, because you experience that in New Orleans. Even when you shut your window,the music is going to bleed through.

How is the culture of New Orleans music inherent to or tied up in A Confederacy of Dunces for you?

The wonderful thing about the cast of characters from John Kennedy Toole’s story is that each has their own generational experience of New Orleans. When you talk about what is the culture of New Orleans music, you also have to ask yourself when. You have older characters whose experience of New Orleans is an older style of music. You have characters whose main experience may be Dixieland or even pop music. When you think of New Orleans, the mistake is to think only of Pete Fountain on clarinet with a back-up band that featured a banjo; even listening just through the anthology of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, you hear the change that occurred over time in that music. In both the novel and Jeffrey Hatcher’s magnificent adaptation, the world is a kaleidoscope. You refract one frame of light from the story, and it is one style of music. It is one set of characters. Refract another frame, and it is a whole other set.

What was your experience workshopping the play in New Orleans?

It was incredibly exciting to be able to walk the streets of New Orleans at any time of the day or night, because the city gives you a constantly shifting musical environment. The production team spent a fair amount of time down by Fisherman Street at clubs like the Spotted Cat. You go from one club to the next, and you quickly hear a swath of different kinds of New Orleans music. On top of that, all these clubs are within a 200-foot radius of each other. So the minute you go out into the street, you get the sense of different music coming at you at the same time, which I hope to recreate in some way on stage. You’re hearing blues, solo piano, and zydeco from three different clubs and it all ends up like a blender when you’re in the middle of the street. The style of music is so varied that you cannot help but get saturated in the magnificent collision of it all.

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