Interview by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Peter Albrechtsen & Tilde Bay
Wen you find a great collaborator, someone who understands and encourages your ideas, you stick with them. Sound designer/re-recording mixer Peter Albrechtsen and director/photographer Sun Hee Engelstoft have only been working together for a little over a year, but in that time they’ve collaborated on so many projects together.
First, there was Engelstoft’s feature-length documentary Forget Me Not, about three unmarried young South Korean women who have to make the most difficult decision of their lives — whether or not to keep their babies or give them up for adoption.
While working on the documentary, Albrechtsen and Engelstoft collaborated on a sound installation called Falling for the Roskilde Festival 2019. It’s an abstract soundscape of falling frequencies — created from a mixture of classical instruments, synths, and sound effects — that was used as a buffer to help keep the sound from one stage from spilling over into another.
They’ve also collaborated on sound installations for the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at the Glyptoteket museum in Copenhagen, which consists for three soundscapes for Bonnard’s paintings The Dining Room, The Studio with Mimosas, and Lunch in the Garden.
Albrechtsen and Engelstoft have also done soundscapes for Glyptoteket’s Palmyra exhibition, in which they use sound and musical textures to reconstruct the history of this ancient multicultural metropolis.
In addition, they’ve started work on Engelstoft’s upcoming narrative feature film.
Here, Albrechtsen and Engelstoft discuss their approach to sound on their five collaborations so far, and talk about their new partnership called SeeSound, which will be the springboard for many more future collaborations.
For the Forget Me Not documentary, how did you use sound to help enhance the tone and emotion of this story?
Peter Albrechtsen (PA): Forget Me Not is about three pregnant unmarried young women at the institution Aeshuwon on the South Korean island called Jeju. There are several institutions like this in South Korea, as being pregnant outside marriage is totally taboo in South Korea and women are hiding away because of this.
So the places are, of course, very secretive and Sun Hee was the first filmmaker to ever get access. This means that the only way of getting sounds and ambiences from this kind of place was having Sun Hee record a lot of sounds there. She brought one of these small handy recorders which are incredibly helpful in these situations — I think it was a Zoom H4 — and pretty much all the sonic material she gathered is in the film.
The trailer for ‘Forget Me Not’
Sun Hee Engelstoft (SHE): Forget Me Not was shot in South Korea, the country of my origin but not the place where I grew up. So returning to this place gave me an instant urge to record so many details that were completely new to me. It was like being a child and wanting to investigate everything — people, faces, clothing, way of living, smells, food — but also the sounds of my encounter with the language, noise, rivers, traffic, silence, supermarkets, etc.
It was all so magically different from my life growing up in a really small town in the countryside of Denmark. The surprise was that I felt connected to it all. I felt a sense of belonging and that gave my investigations and the recordings a different feeling to it. Although I was very enthusiastic, there was this sense of longing and this strong emotion of getting in contact with a world that I never knew and had access to. The film is about the forced separation of mothers and their babies and “longing” plays a big part in that. And I think that sets the tone and emotion of this story.
PA: We also had a local sound recordist, Kyusik Chang, who recorded a lot of the exotic ambiences on Jeju Island, with a lot of crazy insects and interesting birds, so we suddenly had a lot of wonderful, unique sounds for the film and we were able to create a very rich, detailed soundscape.
The whole institution really came to life through sound. My invaluable assistant Mikkel Nielsen, who also cut a lot of sound effects on the film, had recorded several babies for another film we did a few years ago. With the help of different reverbs and EQs, the crying babies became a thematic sound in the film, echoing through the corridors. The film is very much about motherhood and sound really enhances that.
I knew that it wasn’t a particularly easy film to do, but I sensed that Peter wasn’t afraid of working with a film that deals heavily with emotion all the way through
SHE: This film is my debut feature length documentary and it was also my first encounter with Peter and I remember that I was extremely nervous about this very heavy subject and worried that he wouldn’t understand. I was also afraid that we would sit and be depressed for the entire period working on it. But luckily, the opposite happened. It requires so much trust to go into these collaborations and I knew that it wasn’t a particularly easy film to do, but I sensed that Peter wasn’t afraid of working with a film that deals heavily with emotion all the way through.
So that was the first important step and we could build our work on this film on that.
As a director, I really enjoyed leaning into this world of sound, building up an emotional journey through that.
Can you tell me about the role of Foley in this soundtrack? What did Foley contribute to this story that cutting in hard effects couldn’t?
PA: Foley had a very, very important role in Forget Me Not. When you hear the final film you hopefully won’t think of how much Foley there is, but it’s everywhere!
Once again, I collaborated with Finnish Foley artist, Heikki Kossi, who I work with on all my projects. He’s a genius and a wonderful creative collaborator.
The dialogue sound recordings were very rough and especially after being cleaned up there really wasn’t anything left besides the spoken words. This meant that apart from all the usual things like steps and props, Heikki had to create all the very important intimate sounds in the film — all the small touches, all the delicate movements, the tiny squeaks, all the things that make you feel like you’re close to the characters.
Forget Me Not is a very sensitive film and Heikki really understood what kind of feel the Foley needed to blend in and to shine at the same time. That kind of delicacy and musicality you can’t get from just cutting in sound effects from an archive. It needs to feel right! Heikki is like an actor with sound and his performance is a deeply integrated part of the film.
SHE: Heikki Kossi is my personal hero and I was extremely lucky to have him working on this film. To me, Foley is first of all about getting close to the main characters in the film, like the sound of fingers through hair or the faint notion of someone’s breath. Foley could give us something very intimate and a feeling of getting closer to a world that, from a western standpoint, is very far away. We wanted a familiarity, so that anybody in the world could relate to this film. I think Foley really played a very big part in doing that.
What was your biggest challenge in terms of sound on this documentary?
SHE: The silence! Or, the feeling of silence and pause and holding your breath as an audience.
I think we really worked with the dynamics in the film through the soundscape and this was where our creative collaboration really intensified. The beginning of the film is almost silent and the absolute emotional peak of the film is completely silent.
Usually soundscapes intensify up to and through a film’s high point with effects and music, but we tried so many things and in the end we had the idea of using silence and it was the strongest feeling. I think that’s the moment where we really found out what worked for the film — sort of what it needed the most.
PA: Forget Me Not is the kind of film that you could ruin totally by adding a lot of syrupy string music and smoothing out all the rawness of the sound. So we tried to do the opposite.
‘Forget Me Not’ is the kind of film that you could ruin totally by adding a lot of syrupy string music and smoothing out all the rawness of the sound. So we tried to do the opposite
Sun Hee worked very closely with the composer Karsten Fundal on the minimal piano score and most of the cues were done so early in the process that it was used for the picture editing and some of the drones he also did I integrated totally into my sound design.
I’m generally very inspired by the scores of the movies I work on and Karsten’s small electronic manipulations inspired me to work with these textural elements in the sound design. In several key sequences, I’m using abstract sounds and reverbs to create subtle poetic abstractions that gave the film its own quiet dynamics.
Generally, it’s one of the quietest films I’ve ever done and, as Sun Hee mentioned, in the most intense and affecting scene we pull out all sound and have total silence for almost a minute. It worked very well. At the screenings I’ve been attending, the audience has been weeping pretty much throughout the film but this silent moment has stood out as the most intense. You feel the whole room holding its breath. Sound is extremely powerful, but silence can be even stronger.
For the Bonnard exhibition, what was unique about the soundtrack for each painting?
PA: We created three soundscapes for the central paintings in the exhibition: The Dining Room, The Studio with Mimosas, and Lunch in the Garden. We tried to bring the selected works to life through sound compositions that guide the eye around the complex surfaces of the paintings and their concealed motifs.
The paintings have different level of abstractions and that’s reflected in the sound. Lunch in the Garden is the most naturalistic and classically beautiful while the sounds for The Studio with Mimosas are almost psychedelic with lots of abstract elements, reversed reverbs, and weird echoes.
From the Bonnard exhibition
From some of my international contacts, we got these really wonderful atmospheric sounds of nature recorded in the parts of France where Bonnard lived. French sound designer Cedric Denooz, who provided lots of these sounds, even did the voice of Bonnard which is also a part of all three soundscapes.
SHE: I worked with still photography before becoming a film director and I’ve also been working a lot with curating other photographers’ work and designing both their exhibitions and books. It’s like a parallel work to making films. What I like the most about this is the sequencing of still images. It’s creating a story through abstract components and perhaps that is really not very far from working with sound over all.
PA: The soundscapes were two minutes long and repeated twice as they needed to be both in Danish and English. In the exhibition space, the sound was played through stereo speakers next to the paintings as the organizers at the museum really insisted that this should be a proper part of the exhibition and not just something you would hear on headphones. They really believed in sound being a major storyteller!
There’s an eight minute break with silence and then these four minutes of sound come in, so the audience could also experience the paintings without sound.
I brought along Pro Tools on my laptop and we spent quite a long time fine tuning the sound in the actual rooms to make the sound work properly in the very reverberant exhibition spaces. The extensive exhibition is spread across three floors, and there’s a sound installation on each floor.
What was that process like, creating sound for a still image?
PA: It was a truly eye-opening experience. We converted the still images of the paintings to videos and imported these into Pro Tools so we could see the giant images on the big screen in my studio and then did the sound while looking at those.
It was amazing how the eye suddenly noticed certain details in the paintings when we added a sound for it
It was amazing how the eye suddenly noticed certain details in the paintings when we added a sound for it — a cat, a dog, a book. They were all small and in a way quite ordinary sounds but it made the exquisite details of the paintings stand out in amazing ways.
I’ve known this for years but when doing sound for these paintings it became really clear — the ear truly guides the eye.
Sun Hee and I also went to Tate in London to see the exhibition before it came over to Copenhagen and seeing the paintings in the proper way was also extremely inspiring.
Bonnard’s very creative way of framing his images and using impressionistic colors is very imaginative and evocative and actually feels a bit like something that could be in a movie — a very beautiful movie.
SHE: The fun thing about working with the colourful Bonnard paintings was that we could really play with realism in the soundscapes and turn it into a much more abstract environment within a few minutes. We could direct the gaze of the viewer and draw attention to certain parts of the motif very specifically like a glass of water, a squeaking staircase or a church bell in the distance and even add voices to the figures.
But it was really when the sound turned abstract that everything changed into something much more sensitive and playful, and therefore interesting. Pierre Bonnard was a painter who painted from memory and both Peter and I absolutely loved that. He is considered a post impressionist painter and we wanted to reflect and celebrate that in the soundscapes for the three paintings that we did for Glyptoteket.
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What did sound contribute to the experience of these paintings?
PA: It was really about enhancing the atmosphere and the mood of the paintings, making you look at the paintings in new ways. We had such a great collaboration with the people at the Glyptoteket museum. It’s one of the oldest and most iconic museums in Copenhagen. They really wanted us to push what could be done with sound in a setting like this.
All of the soundscapes included some voiceover that talked a bit about Bonnard’s methods. But we tried to make the words feel more like a poem than any kind of standard descriptions and the voices were treated with different effects to make them even more ethereal — like cutting up words and using different voice reverbs in the left and right speakers.
We had such a great collaboration with the people at the Glyptoteket museum. It’s one of the oldest and most iconic museums in Copenhagen. They really wanted us to push what could be done with sound in a setting like this
I love the Radiohead track “Everything In Its Right Place,” which utilizes Thom Yorke’s vocals in a very abstract way. That was one of the inspirations for me.
In many ways, Sun Hee and I expanded on the poetic sound collage style that we used in moments of Forget Me Not, with sound effects being used almost like music with lots of varying textures and rhythmic elements. It’s quite rare that sound is used this way in a museum. It was a lot of fun to do.
For the Falling sound installation at the Roskilde Festival, what were some considerations/parameters you were dealing with when planning and designing this track?
PA: The whole thing started when the Danish music festival Roskilde Festival — one of the largest in Europe — contacted me about doing a sound installation. Last year, Meyer Sound started a close collaboration with the festival so the festival has Meyer speakers on all the stages and lots of people from Meyer are all over the festival site monitoring everything, experimenting with speaker setups and what you can do with live sound. I already knew Meyer Sound from their cinema speaker setups and working at Skywalker Ranch a couple of times where Meyer Speakers are everywhere. They’re amazing.
‘Falling’ from Roskilde Festival 2019
At big rock festivals there’s always issues with sound spilling in from other stages so Meyer’s idea was to block this somehow and they wanted a sound installation which would show how this can be done. They built these so called “crystals” which stopped different frequencies and then they needed a sound piece played on a Meyer speaker system which really explored the full frequency spectrum of sound.
How did you design this exhibit? What were the elements and tools that were integral to this design process?
PA: The idea actually originated from Sun Hee. One of the first times we met for Forget Me Not, Sun Hee told me she had this idea of creating a soundscape of falling frequencies, of sounds falling through the air in a way. So I immediately thought of this when Roskilde Festival reached out to me.
Sun Hee and I then collected a lot of different sounds; we recorded a small modern classical ensemble called We Like We, where they just improvised a lot of falling tones and musical sequences. Then we got a composer I know, Flemming Nordkrog, to record different instruments, which we manipulated and pitched. And then we took a lot of sounds from my vast sound library and made falling textures out of those.
The brilliant Nathan Moody mastered the composition and he wrote me that when the piece was playing, his cats thought the world ended
I used a graphic pitch shifter to create long sequences of falling sound elements. The result is a very special mix of music, sound effects and abstract noise. The brilliant Nathan Moody mastered the composition and he wrote me that when the piece was playing, his cats thought the world ended.
Overall, how did you want this experience to affect listeners? What did you want them to take away from this sound installation?
SHE: Falling is a true sound experiment, a conceptual piece that was so fortunate to be part of the Roskilde Festival 2019. I’m quite sure that we have only discovered parts of how this sound installation can be perceived and experienced because this installation becomes so infused with the character of the place where it’s played. So I would love to be able to try it out in an exhibition space where the surroundings are more controlled. It could also be really interesting to make a record out of it and make it into an object that can be experienced in someone’s living room.
The one thing that became clear to me about Falling is that it is quite a visceral experience and I don’t know if any of us were aware of that when we put it together. But I think it suits Falling to be physical. It’s like scanning your entire body and being one with sound. You become aware of the organs inside of you through those continuous falling tones and I like that it all started out with a quite intellectual idea and then ended up being this physical experience.
For the Palmyra exhibition, what was some of the research you did to discover how this place and time would sound? How did you use that information to reconstruct history as an aural experience?
PA: Both Sun Hee and I are used to doing a lot of research for our individual projects and it’s been fun diving deep into this ancient history together.
There’s an archaeologist at the museum who could tell us about the history of Palmyra and what was known about life in this Syrian desert city during ancient times. The oasis city was a natural center for the exchange of both goods and cultures between East and West and a vibrant meeting point for various cultures. So we wanted the exhibition to have a very rich and dynamic sonic identity.
From the Palmyra exhibition
At the same time, one of the most important and iconic persons from Palmyra is the legendary queen, Zenobia, who ruled the city during its heyday and this female perspective was very important for us to highlight. We recorded a wonderful opera singer who can create all kinds of things with her voice and we used this both as music, of course, but also as a sound design element. For instance, we have different vocal textures melt together with a sand storm in one of the rooms of the exhibition.
Since this was an ancient multicultural society, what did you do about languages? How did you build the voices of this exhibit?
SHE: In ancient Palmyra, Aramaic was the main language and it turned out that in Denmark there was actually a church where there are services in this otherwise almost extinct language. We recorded one of these services but also a couple of people reading aloud in this extraordinary language. It’s this language Jesus is speaking in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
But ancient Palmyra was a multicultural place so we also made recordings of Ancient Greek readings and even old Persian poems. One of the rooms at the exhibition is about the languages of ancient times and we made a collage of all these different languages. The voices were in a way morphed into exotic instruments.
In addition to people, what other sounds were important to this exhibit? What are some sounds that the people in Palmyra would have experienced?
PA: We’re both very much into mixing music and sound design so one of the first things we did during our process was to record this amazing Qanun which is a traditional Middle Eastern stringed instrument. It has a very long history.
It’s amazing how the sound of one iconic instrument immediately places you in a geographical location. As soon as you hear the very characteristic harmonics of the Qanun it feels like you’re in another world. Music is magic
We recorded different musical pieces but we also just recorded a lot of tonal elements which we’ve been able to play with afterwards as sound design elements.
It’s amazing how the sound of one iconic instrument immediately places you in a geographical location. As soon as you hear the very characteristic harmonics of the Qanun it feels like you’re in another world. Music is magic.
What are some of the challenges you had in constructing the soundscapes for this exhibit?
PA: We’re still working on this exhibition as we speak. It’s this balancing act of supporting the story of the exhibition and making it inviting and inspiring at the same time. Sound is a very powerful storyteller, no matter which context you use it in, and it’s amazing how much it sets the mood in these museum locations. So we’re constantly refining the sounds to make them work in the best possible way.
During the final days, we will mix the sounds on my portable Pro Tools system in the actual rooms at the museum as they have quite special and often very reverberant acoustics.
How collaboration takes sound for documentaries, film, exhibitions & installations to a new level:
Sun Hee, for your upcoming narrative film, what are the plans for sound in this early stage? Why is it important to start thinking about the film’s post sound work in the pre-production phase?
SHE: I’m really glad you asked this question because it’s such an obvious answer. It’s very simple — sound has such a big role in film so why shouldn’t it be a much bigger part of the creative development from the beginning?
Besides that, it’s one of the most effective tools of storytelling, alongside scripts and cinematography, so as a director I feel that I would be neglecting a vital part of the language of a film by not working with this.
PA: I’ve become more and more interested in pushing the creative process on a film. Why are almost all movies made the same way? I think it’s amazing to be part of a film very early and Sun Hee and I would like to really use sound as an integrated part of the storytelling from the beginning. Writing sound into the script isn’t just something you do to make the sound designer happy; it can be incredibly inspiring to for cinematographers, editors and actors… well, to everyone!
SHE: So we decided to go on a research trip together. I would do cinematography and still images and Peter would record sound. We went on a road trip to California and drove around for two weeks. We had some destinations in mind but there was also time to discover locations and places that we would never have thought of. That’s what I really appreciate about creating a different approach in filmmaking. It’s necessary for me to challenge the way of working in order to find a way that feels natural to that particular film.
In any good partnership, both sides learn something from the other. How has this collaboration helped you to grow creatively/artistically/technically?
SHE: My meeting and collaboration with Peter comes down to one thing only and that is trust. I feel safe. I feel I can share my ideas and once in a while there is a good one — and then he picks up on that.
I think that his sensitivity is his secret super power and that is very much at play when we work together and that makes me feel like I can trust my own sensitivity
I enjoy his creative choices and I feel that we can challenge each other in a very constructive way. I think that his sensitivity is his secret super power and that is very much at play when we work together and that makes me feel like I can trust my own sensitivity. This space creates a very specific work environment that feels very free and then anything can happen; that’s the excitement!
Somehow technique always comes later and we develop that too and challenge that too, but it’s never the core of any of the projects that we have done so far.
PA: It’s really hard to talk and communicate about sound so it feels truly extraordinary to meet someone who totally shares and understands your creative language. Sun Hee and I have only worked together for a little more than a year, but we have a very deep understanding of each other and when we work together, we often don’t even need to talk because we can feel what the other is thinking without saying anything.
It’s really hard to talk and communicate about sound so it feels truly extraordinary to meet someone who totally shares and understands your creative language
Sound is incredibly emotional and subjective and having a mutual trust and confidence is so important in the process. When you have a strong collaboration like this, you’re less afraid; you become bolder, more adventurous. Mistakes and failures are an important part of any great creative process as they can actually be very inspiring. But if you don’t trust your collaborator then you’re afraid of making mistakes and you go for the safe choices all the time. It limits your creativity and is ultimately not very inspiring.
On the contrary, I think the collaboration between Sun Hee and I will keep on evolving for years to come and that’s also why we’ve now started a new partnership together called SeeSound. Sound is an adventure and so is this ongoing collaboration.
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