IN CONCERT: Ensemble’s Composer John Zalewski on bringing sound to ‘Metamorphoses’

Sound designer John Zalewski
Sound designer John Zalewski

When “Metamorphoses” opens this weekend, one of the stars behind the scenes is its composer, John Zalewski. It’s not often that the Ensemble Theatre Company has such an element in their plays — there’s been music in between scenes and in intermissions, and sometimes music has been used very sparingly to accentuate moods and such, but bringing in Mr. Zalewski is something new.

The Los Angeles composer came to the attention of Ensemble Executive Artistic Director Jonathan Fox through set designer Francois-Pierre Couture. After some email exchanges, the two set to work.

Early in his life, Mr. Zalewski wanted to be a studio musician “like Peter Gabriel,” but after studying audio engineering he soon got bored with the recording studio environment. Too much equipment, not enough input, he says. A friend was working with experimental theater director Reza Abduh, and after seeing one of Mr. Abduh’s “aggressive theater” productions — a mix of music, sound bites, video, and more — Mr. Zalewski decided what he really wanted to do. “I fell in love with multi-media,” he says.

In the years since he’s scored and created sound for numerous plays in his Los Angeles base. His work on “Leopold and Loeb: A Goddam Laff Riot” got him jobs with Evidence Room and The Actor’s Gang. He’s received more than 15 Ovation Award nominations for his work.

“In L.A. things are done very quickly,” said Mr. Zalewski. “It’s table read-rehearsals-tech, and I enjoy how fast it can be. I’ve adapted.” So the ability to spend a little bit more time on this production is a luxury.

The score that Mr. Zalewski has provided features two kinds of sound designs, “a simple electronic texture based on sine waves, simple building blocks that can be made complex. And I’ve been using more classical timbres, like bowed piano that sounds like strings. We’re still discovering and playing under the actors.”

Mr. Fox says 75 percent of the play is underscored, with transitions to come.

The biggest change in recent years is the portability of everything. It used to be that the composer would watch rehearsals, then return home and work.

“I shape it in the space as much as I can,” Mr. Zalewski says. “Especially when lights and sounds and props come in. I used to drive home and at the end of the night render a CD to bring to the theater. … Now my studio is the rehearsal room or the theater itself. I still need to ‘go away’ sometimes to work out things, but once I’m in tech I get to massage things live.”

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