Arshan is a Boston based sound designer and composer whose studies ranged from electrical engineering and psychoacoustics at MIT to classical saxophone studies with Ken Radnofsky and Philipp Stäudlin! He was recently awarded the 2016 IRNE Award for Best Sound Design (Small Theater) for his design of appropriate for the SpeakEasy Stage Company. He was also a member of the Elliot Norton Award winning design teams for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Company One, 2012) and Twelfth Night (Actor’s Shakespeare Project, 2011). In addition to his work in theater, Arshan composes music and designs sound for independent video games in the Boston area and internationally. He teaches at Emerson College on the Performing Arts Design/Tech Faculty and is the Resident Sound Designer for Emerson Stage.
What are you working on at the moment?
Recently my main focus has been on Mala, a new script by Melinda Lopez that we workshopped earlier in the summer and which will be produced by Arts Emerson in Boston this fall.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born just outside Boston, grew up in Somerville, MA, went to college at MIT, and now live in Brookline, MA. While I’ve been connected to the Boston area in one way or another through the years, I’ve travelled quite a bit. My mom grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, so as a child we visited there quite regularly.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
I worked on a production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity with Company One in Boston. The collaboration across director, design team, and actors always felt very strong. What really sticks with me, though, is how clearly the collaboration shone through in the end effect. A big part of the design goal was to make a small black box feel plausibly like the first few rows of a pro wrestling arena, and it worked beautifully when everything was put together. Just looking at a light cue or just listening to a sound cue felt like just that – a cue we were playing back. But after taking the time to carefully coordinate and sync everything across departments, the feeling of transformation of the space was viscerally powerful.
Who or what makes up your support structure?
Definitely my family – my wife, my parents, and my brother. They are all wonderful support for when things feel difficult, and also a great resource for me to bounce ideas off of when I’m looking for another perspective.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
“Favorite” doesn’t feel like something I could answer. Instead, here are some different pieces of music that jump to mind right now:
I recently heard Shaker Loops by John Adams for the first time. I was really struck by the textural variety and depth. I also love how he creates the overall arc to the piece from these blocks of texture.
I’ve been listening to Regina Spektor quite a bit recently. One song that jumps to mind is All the Rowboats. I love how many different influences you can hear in her work and how organically she mixes different vocal and musical delivery and technique. It seems she goes with whatever feels right for the moment, which I find inspiring.
Some other composers/musicians/music that have struck me: Astor Piazolla, Django Reinhardt, Gogol Bordello, Björk (especially Vespertine), Mozart’s Requiem Mass.
Name a pet production peeve.
When changes are made (especially last minute ones) that other departments don’t realize I would really like to know about. The most glaring version of this that jumps to mind is walking in to the space for quiet time and discovering a wall was moved in front of a speaker position. But there are all sorts of more subtle versions of this as well.
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
I usually want some kind of comfort food. For me, that is typically Thai (eg. Pad Kee Mao or any of the curries) or Indian (eg. Chana Masala, Saag Paneer, etc.), but it also depends on my mood at the moment.
Do you play an instrument?
My main instrumental training is in classical saxophone. I also play a bit of piano. In so much of my work, I’d say the computer is really a key instrument – whether that’s virtual instruments and more traditional composition technique, or musical editing of sounds, or Max/MSP etc.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
It’s a bit hard to say. I’ve been into music for as long as I can remember, and into theater (I did some acting when I was younger through college) for just about as long. I wrote music for a play (that I also acted in) in high school and then did music and sound for a show in college. After college I worked for a season as the house engineer for the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion where I think I got more of a sense of what professional theatrical sound design was like in practice. And shortly after that I got my first professional design gig. So I guess it feels more like an evolution of different interests over time rather than a moment when something clicked.
Does your family understand what you do?
Yes, which I guess I always took for granted until I’ve recently discovered how non-universal this is!
My wife used to work in theater (where we met, actually), my mom is a musician who also has interests in theater as well as math and science, my dad is an electrical engineer who also has interests in the arts, and my brother is a mathematician who is also into music and DJs.
So, much of what I do they understand quiet well, and any specific technique, workflow, or process questions are usually fairly easy to explain to them when necessary.
Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?
I’ve had various teachers over the years in music and engineering and there are some designers who have been a big help to me over the years when I’ve had questions about logistical or business practices as a designer (Dave Remedios and Ben Emerson to name two).
But in terms of my own artistic practices and approaches as a theatrical sound designer and composer, I developed them through doing the work.
I hardly ever served as an assistant or associate designer. I’d actually still be interested in doing this now if the opportunity was there. Part of what I love about the way my work developed was the idea that there are always new things to try and new ways to look at things. Therefore, I would be very interested to experience how others approach their work!
Where do you find inspiration?
A big source of inspiration for me is interacting with the other collaborators in the process. This could be in-person design or production meetings, going to rehearsals and watching and hearing the actors work, or working with an engineer on system planning. I always walk away from those meetings energized and with a mind full of ideas.
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
Evernote and Chrome (with too many tabs open, probably) are almost never not open on my computer. When I’m working, you’d probably see Logic and maybe Max/MSP.
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
Maybe some kind of visual art. I sometimes feel jealous of work that doesn’t involve so much keyboard, mouse, and screen time.
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
For me personally, I’m very excited about TSDCA as a source of community and feeling more connected to other sound designers and composers working in theater.
In general, I think TSDCA can be a great tool for building awareness (both inside and outside the artistic community) about what our work is about.