Q&A with Calculating Kindness Sound Designer & Composer, Nick Rothwell

Nick Rothwell (Sound Designer and Composer for Calculating Kindness) writes and uses software to generate algorithmic sound and visuals for arts and performance projects, usually working in collaboration with choreographers, performers, directors and artists in other disciplines.

Tell us about what you found interesting in the process of making Calculating Kindness?

Actually, I was a little apprehensive about working on the project when I was first approached about it! While I've done a lot of work with choreographers and composed dozens of scores for dance, theatre is a very different medium, with a distinct and much less abstract structure, so I wasn't sure my experience and working process would mesh with the project. But it soon became clear that the play would be set, in a sense, partly within George Price's mind, so the kinds of abstract patterning I use in dance could work here. And it also became clear that Laura wanted to work in an agile devising process, which is more familiar territory. This is really my first deep exposure to the construction of a play rather than a choreographic work, and working alongside actors rather than dancers: it's been fascinating to participate in a shaping process revolving around words rather than movement.

How has it differed to other processes you've been involved in?

Most obviously, it's script-based, and while dance works with cues, it tends not to have a canonical reference script in the same sense. In a play, cues tend to run from stage to score, while in dance it generally goes the other way - so the software tools I generally use to set up scenes, loops, layers and transitions in music had to be drastically reprogrammed. I also had to turn the volume down! In dance you want to mask the sound on stage, while in theatre it's rather important to be able to hear it.

Differences aside, many of the processes I'd use in making a sound score for dance - for shaping ambient textures, for example - crossed over into this project fairly smoothly. Rhythmic material was a bit trickier, since the cadences of spoken word aren't the same as the physics of movement.

How have you mixed treated the crossovers between science and art?

I'm actually a mathematician by (very early, mostly forgotten) training, and got a Ph.D. in Computer Science before working in music and visuals, so I've been crossing over in some sense for a while. I think there's a tendency (in the arts funding scene, specifically) to fabricate an artificial distinction between the disciplines before making a big deal of connecting them again. Having said that, mathematics and science are rather different: mathematics is about patterning (and a lot of my music is built from generative patterns), while science is a process of formulating and testing hypotheses. Mathematics and music (and visual art) fit together neatly; science and art connect most interestingly, I think, in the intuitive leaps which constitute progress.

What musical influences have you taken for the music/sound design?

I tend not to work according to deliberate influences, but whenever I assemble a set of tools for a new project some subconscious selection takes place - and often it's a bit of an arbitrary selection from scratch, to kick things off in a unique direction. It wasn't my original intention to use a sample library of a Mellotron (a 1960s magnetic tape-based keyboard), but I had one to hand, and it worked perfectly as the core of one scene. Similarly, another scene is a processed field recording of a 3D printer, because there was one printing on my desk while I was mapping out some musical structures. I have to admit that one strong influence crept in at the last minute: there's an obvious late-1970s Klaus Schulze-style melody line somewhere in the score if you listen closely.

How have you related the Price equation to your design/compositions?

Well, several tracks assembled early in the rehearsal phase were deemed not to have enough fitness traits to survive into the final soundtrack...! But many years ago I built an evolving soundscape installation fed from an artificial life simulation (complete with genetic mutation and competition for resources), so I'm now wondering about coding up the Price Equation to see whether it could be used to steer a compositional process.