An Interview with Jeffrey Song, Sound Designer/Composer/Music Director

What drew you to Vietgone?

Several things drew me to Vietgone. First, I was delighted with—and grateful for—the opportunity to work with Natsu, again.

Second, the challenge to completely reimagine the music from a specific historical/cultural lens (USA in 1975) was too great to pass up. There was a lot of amazing popular music (rock, pop, country, r&b, and funk) that came out of the early and mid-70s. Underground music genres were also proliferating - hip-hop (the term not yet coined) was just being born in the Bronx in 1973, psychedelic blues and rock was finding an audience outside of Haight-Ashbury, and the godfathers and godmothers of modern punk were stirring things up. There was an incredible diversity of artists represented on any given mainstream pop radio station - they played anything and everything. So there was a significant variety of source materials from which to be inspired, as a songwriter.

I’m also interested in stories about identity development, ethnicity and race, and themes of belonging (dynamic tensions between Insider vs. Outsider experiences). How do we define Home? And how do we push back against those who would try to define this—and anything—for us? I’m an American-born child of Asian immigrants (I was born in Arkansas and raised in Iowa). My Korean parents met in the US in the 1950s, and had their own struggles making a home in this country. Like most children of Asian immigrants, I experienced challenges trying to figure out how and where I fit in. Being born here doesn’t inoculate one against assumptions that one is a foreigner.

You've worked with director Natsu Onoda Power multiple times. How would you describe your collaboration?

Natsu has a uniquely vibrant signature style and approach. Vietgone will be our third project together. My observation is that Natsu does her best to pull together her dream team of “experts” and then lets everyone do their best work in service of the larger shared goal. Which is not to say she doesn’t have her own strong and clear vision. I think the clarity of her vision guides her to select appropriate team members and good collaborators. She’s a very open and generous collaborator, herself, and one of the many things I love about working with her is that she trusts me to do my work to serve the storytelling. With this production of Vietgone, I would say she’s given me complete creative control to shepherd the composition process. The trust goes both ways. I rely on her to tell me if something is working or not. I can think that a musical idea or concept is really solid, but I trust Natsu to let me know if it’s really playing correctly to the Audience.

We also share a deep appreciation for comics—comic books, graphic novels, etc.—and the power and effectiveness of that art form to tell stories, to entertain, and to reveal truths and absurdities. There are ways that we can bring certain two-dimensional comic book conventions to life through movement, speech, props, lighting, projection, sound and music.

The original production of Vietgone was infused with hip-hop and rap, but you've written brand new, original music for the Studio production. How did you approach the creation process, and how would you describe the style and influences of your work?

I started by asking myself the question: What kinds of music would I hear around me—and where would it come from - if I were a new immigrant to the US in 1975? Popular music would be in the ether (radio), coming from cars, restaurants, bars, garages, offices, homes. What was popular on mainstream radio that year? According to the Billboard Top 100 for 1975, there was quite a spectrum of artists and styles ranging from hard rock (Bad Company, Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, Queen) to funk and r&b (Stevie

Wonder, Average White Band, Al Green, Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire) to country-rock (Eagles, America, John Denver, Doobie Brothers, Glen Campbell) to both hip and cheesy pop (David Bowie, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, The Carpenters Janis Ian, Captain & Tennille). And then it could take a while before one discovers underground music - under the radar, not on mainstream radio. So, I considered mainstream pop/rock/funk from the mid-70s as a starting point. Then I did research into underground artists and genres that were active and vital – proto-punk and punk artists (Iggy Pop & The Stooges, New York Dolls, Patti Smith), psychedelic rock and blues (Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd).

My guiding principle was to use mainstream pop/rock buckets to represent the immediacy of the immigrant experience (what one might experience on the surface after being displaced). I wanted the underground music buckets to represent deeper feelings under the surface, that might come with time. And I wanted the funk and R&B buckets to represent sex, desire and lust.

I had to look at each of the rap songs in the original script, try to understand the meaning (and function in the story), make choices about which mainstream or underground artists to use as a model, then deconstruct the lyrics and reconstruct them in a way that fit a mid-70s song form without losing the meaning and intention of the original. I have been very fortunate to work with amazing collaborators – Andy Santospago and Jonathan Hawkins - on this songwriting project. Keith Butler, Jr. is a collaborator and co-composer of the instrumental and transitional music that you’ll hear throughout the show.

In addition to serving as sound designer/composer, you're also the music director. With all of these roles and responsibilities, what are you most looking forward to about the rehearsal process?

I am really looking forward to getting out of my own head and finally being in the same room with Natsu, the rest of the creative team, the Studio Theatre staff and crew, and all the actors and musicians. I’m excited to hear how all of these new songs will sound in real life. The delta between theory and practice is no less real in this situation, than any other, and it’s likely that some of the songs will need to be adjusted and optimized once we see how they will function in the storytelling. Also, the process of composing all of the instrumental and transitional music has been waiting until we begin the rehearsal process. The strategy is for the band (Jonathan and Keith and I) to improvise all of these musical moments during the rehearsal process, see what does and doesn’t work, and then lock down and formalize these instrumental compositions. I’ve mapped out all of the transitions and montages, and once we’re all in the same room we can start experimenting with different ideas. The other fun part of this show is that the band will be responsible for all of the sound effects, which we’ll perform live, using our voices as well as any and all instruments we have on hand. I’m thrilled to be a part of this unique presentation of Vietgone, and I can’t wait to see all of the theater elements come together.