September 2013

R.I.P Steve Brown - July 7th 2013

It seems that I’m only blogging bad stuff - sorry, I’ll try and lighten the mood next time, but this one’s also important, because someone who was an old friend has gone far too soon and at the height of his powers.

My friend and colleague Steven Brown died yesterday at the ridiculously young age of - well, to tell the truth, I have no idea how old he was as he never seemed to age and I always think of him as being ageless. Perhaps it was his can-do attitude to projects that inspired him, perhaps it was his boundless energy in promoting and disseminating theatre sound design and sound art generally, not only to his immediate circle, but to the world in general with a singleness of purpose that saw sound being included in the World Stage Design conferences, thanks largely to his efforts.

We met properly on a not-too-happy production, where one actor in particular was being difficult about anything technical and who never lost an opportunity to snipe when things didn't go right first time. I was the sound designer on the show and I wanted to throttle this person: Steve was my operator who, inevitable cigarette in mouth, calmly got on with sorting out the problems and talked me down from a probable charge of grievous bodily harm. The actor concerned has long faded into obscurity, but Steve's dedication and tenacity - his determination to beat my almost certainly far-too-complex sound design into submission - struck a major chord with me and we remained friends and working colleagues for the next thirty or so years.

I saw him last a couple of weeks ago, just before I left for a short visit to the USA: Steve was ensconced in his tiny apartment in Brighton, a stone's throw from the sea, but pretty much confined to quarters as the pain from the spreading cancer grew. He didn't want to admit that he was ill; he hated going to the doctor and he hated the attendant fuss that inevitably surrounds someone with a serious illness, so he maintained his usual routine of commenting, tweeting and emailing with only a slight slackening of pace and reassurances to all and sundry that he'd soon be back on his feet and in the thick of things again. With Sean Crowley and Ian Evans at The Welsh College Of Music & Drama, he was deeply involved with the sound design content of the World Stage Design 2013 expo almost up until the day he passed away and, aside from his day job as Head of Sound for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, he was Head of The Sound Design Working Group for Organisation Internationale des Scénographes, Techniciens et Architectes de Théâtre (OISTAT), Sound Design Curator for the 2011 Prague Quadrennial and designed and curated the sound design section of Collaborators: Design for Performance exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. In 2007 he was lead for all the Sound Design projects for the Scenofest section of the Prague Quadrennial.

Steve was also a great believer in people over machines: he hated the gradual erosion of the sound operator's role into that of button-pusher and maintained that a decent operator was worth any amount of fancy gadgets or automation. He trained and maintained an excellent team in his department at Manchester and was briefly furious when many of them were poached by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the re-opening of The Festival Theatre in Stratford. But being Steve, he found and encouraged a new bunch of talented staff who will no doubt carry on his work there.

He wasn't always easy going: his strong left-leaning political views often brought him into conflict with those around him and his forthright manner in expressing those and other strongly-held beliefs could make him unpopular with some, especially on-line. I remember a tweet (Steve was a whole-hearted embracer of the social network) where he wrote something like "Every time I tweet about Macs or religion, I lose followers." It's in his Twitter archive somewhere, along with almost six and a half thousand wise comments, controversial statements, angry complaints, rails against injustice, great links, fascinating sounds and exhortations to do something creative.

I think he sometimes saw himself as something of an outsider, an autodidact in an industry that seems increasingly to be obsessed with academic achievement at the expense of practical experience and I know he was immensely proud when he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in recognition of his teaching and mentoring of students there, but regardless of any academic achievement, his influence on the way theatre sound design is considered world-wide has been huge and his eclectic and esoteric tastes in music and sound, and his bold and innovative working methods have lead many of those with whom he came into contact down pathways that they would never otherwise have explored.

A traditionalist in many ways, with a healthy respect for the pioneers of the industry in which he worked, and an iconoclast in many other ways, with an equally healthy disregard for those who he saw as slavish followers of fashion, he was by turns engaging, inspiring, infuriating and argumentative, but never, ever boring or predictable. He was my good friend, wise colleague, occasional sparring partner and a naturally brilliant and insightful artist. I shall miss him.

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