The Sound of Silence

Gregory Scharpen has turned a love of sound into a career.

Gregory Scharpen loves sound. He’s loved it since he was a little kid, listening to the creaky wheels on his banana-shaped scooter and flooring his teacher by replicating every word and sound on a Walt Disney recording of The Headless Horseman for show and tell. When other kids were hiding under the blanket with a flashlight and a book, Scharpen was hiding under the blanket trying out different funny noises. So while he admits that he still isn’t sure what he plans to be when he grows up, it’s unsurprising that he is increasingly in demand as a sound designer who can pick and choose his projects.

Scharpen, who grew up in suburban Cupertino yet resembles no one so much as Rasputin’s kinder, gentler twin with his hooded blue eyes, long seaweedy beard, and crumpled tan fedora, is best known under his own name as the resident sound designer for Central Works. It’s a far cry (or click, or moan, or squeak) from his Berkeley double major in film and cognitive science; although he was involved in theater while he was in school, it was largely as an actor. He got his professional break when Central Works codirector and Berkeley lecturer Gary Graves pulled him to do video work on Sarajevo at Berkeley, and then sound for Roux with Central Works. Scharpen names Graves as one of his influences, and speaks highly of his experience with Central Works and their collaborative creative process — especially when Graves is tossing out interesting challenges. In the stage directions for one show, Graves wrote that he wanted the sound of an asteroid hitting the Earth. “I know he wrote that and sat back and laughed for five minutes,” Scharpen says.

It’s the sort of thing that has kept Scharpen with Central Works ever since. “The boring stuff is trying to make a doorbell or a toilet flush,” he says. “It’s much more fun if you have something that challenges you dramatically.” He has also done sound design for Theatre FIRST, Wilde Irish, Theater Rhinoceros, and the Barely Human Dance Theatre. His work can currently be heard in the Shotgun Players production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, his first show with that company, and a chance to use real recordings of Dada founder Tristan Tzara’s voice — run backward and forward on a reel-to-reel.

But Scharpen is well known under another name as well. His voice is familiar to KALX listeners as that of Carnacki, the Tuesday 9-to-midnight DJ responsible for “Scandinavian folk classical ghost stories and cod surrealism.” During the day, he is an editor with Clarity Films, where he has been working on Have You Heard from Johannesburg, Connie Field’s documentary series about South Africa, for seven years (Field also made Freedom on My Mind and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter).

As a sound designer, Scharpen is responsible for both scoring and underscoring a theatrical work with music and sound. He finds things that others had no idea existed, such as a piece of music for Central Works’ Lionheart that had actually been written by King Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century. And what he can’t find, he builds, armed with a minidisc recorder, Pro Tools software, and everything from duck quacks to a coffee grinder to his own voice. Which, he admits, he uses a lot: “My voice is probably in a lot more of my sound design than people expect.”

Off the top of his head, Scharpen can’t think of anything musical he can’t find. Between the Internet, his music-obsessed peers at KALX, and visits to Berkeley’s Amoeba Music — where he says he spends almost as much time as an actual employee, most of it in the International section he’s pretty much set. He also has his own growing library to draw from, of both music (while he started out collecting punk, he has some of just about everything now, including a cassette from the German outfit Doc Wör Mirran that came packaged in a pair of socks) and sounds that have been folded, spindled, and mutilated beyond recognition. So while he admits that he’s looking for “tons of stuff,” mostly old punk releases from the mid-’80s, much of it is things he wants just for a sense of completion. “I’m not even sure I’d like the music now,” he laughs.

Scharpen delights in getting sounds from unlikely sources and turning them into something else. Chris Herold’s ramping up to insanity as the put-upon protagonist in Central Works’ The Mysterious Mr. Looney, for example, was underscored by an altered recording of a freight train running through Point Richmond. The sounds of lava steaming and popping in Hell for another project were actually a fizzing cup of Dr. Pepper Scharpen smuggled into the studio from Fat Slice, slowed down and amplified. The “time slip” effect in Travesties is the sound of his nails tapping a metal ledge at the Fantasy building, squeezed, stretched, and played forward and back. He always goes for the field recording first, preferring to manipulate “real” sounds into new shapes rather than generating them from scratch on a computer.

Scharpen, who draws much of his inspiration from artists as diverse as the painters Leonora Carrington and Remedios Vario, Surrealist writers (especially the women), science fiction, and films from such directors as Herzog, Tarkovsky, and Gilliam, also is moved by pauses and plain old silence. He notes that “When a sound stops, it’s more interesting than when the sound starts,” and marvels that “you can amplify nothing until you get patterns.”

Everywhere he goes, Scharpen hears patterns so intensely that you start to feel it yourself, and he is keenly aware of missed opportunities. Flying to South Africa in October to screen a version of the Fields doc, Scharpen realized he’d forgotten to bring a microphone for his minidisc recorder. While he couldn’t capture the sound of Table Bay beating against the ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, or the “peculiar soundscape” of the island itself, with the “strange ambient tones within the concrete cells,” he can sure describe them. Like Alcatraz, Robben Island is no longer a prison but a tourist site, and the guides are former prisoners. Scharpen describes how one waited until the group was in a cell, and then slammed the door, hard. “That’s what it was like,” the guide said of the shocking sound. Scharpen was struck by the contrast, “from a heart-rending door slam to a bunch of penguins frolicking around on the rocks outside.”

Next up for Scharpen is Central Works’ Enemy Combatant, which opens in February. Based very loosely on the story of John Walker Lindh, Enemy Combatant offers a glimpse into the Central Works process. At first, everyone in the ensemble works as a dramaturge, and then once there’s a text, they split off to work on their separate bits. Scharpen is still amazed at what he gets to do, and references his childhood habit of making sounds after lights out. “I go into a little room, without the blanket, and make goofy noises, and people have to listen to them. I’m actually really surprised by some of the things I get away with.”

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