Steve Brown at Cuckmere Haven (2008) Photo © Yseult Nash, all rights reserved
It was curiosity that initially led Steve into wandering into the Theatre Royal Brighton, and picking up work as a casual, without many qualifications from school, going on to perfecting the craft and becoming an internationally respected practitioner and advocate of it. He was over the moon when he eventually picked up an Honorary Degree from Rose Bruford.
For Steve, sound was a much broader thing – before all of that happened, in the early 80’s he’d been a drummer in a moderately successful band, ‘C-Saim’; he still had his drumsticks. He was fascinated by all aspects of sound, and his mind went much further than what was technically required by a theatre production – from which, as we know, he demanded technical perfection, each instrument as good as it could be, each element placed in exactly the right position – any set designer incapable of designing from an acoustic point of view for the Royal Exchange Theatre, would be the subject of a lively rant. Even yesterday, the director Michael Buffong told me that to replace Steve for a forthcoming revival was unthinkable, such was Steve’s sensibilities in discovering and embodying the exact sounds in Michael’s imagination.
The opportunities brought by PQ03 of teaching in Europe & USA, involvement in OISTAT, and from 2007, by being variously project leader and curator at PQ and WSD, brought Steve the opportunity to keep questioning and developing his understanding and creative involvement in the function of sound – not only in theatre performance, but in other forms of sound art and ultimately in everyday life. Steve lapped up books on the theory and science of sound and music; the opportunities of the internet brought him unmediated contact with the international sound and music community, amongst whom he made countless friends; his audio diary – simple observations of life through sound, thousands of field recordings and compositional sketches, had a substantial following, literally receiving millions of hits. There’s another site, Radio Aporee, which uses Google Map to locate many of Steve’s field recordings.
Steve’s honesty, openness and warm enthusiasm had a knack of turning online conversations into proper friendships and solid commissions. The moment when a CD would arrive in the post from a musician from another country was a moment of pure delight. Steve was the member of many internet sound and music groups & communities.John Leonard says that to get up to date with what else was happening in the broader world of sound, he just had to go to Steve’s website. The fact that as an industry, sound in theatre considered itself separate from the rest of the sound and music world, was a frustration to Steve, appearing to him conservative. He was delighted by any commissions which came in for other types of sound projects. That one of his accolades is that he was an innovator in sound is well-deserved.
A testament to this was Steve’s programming for PQ11, which he used as much as a platform for others, as to teach himself, and he was very open about this. A highlight was the opportunity to programme talks from globally renowned and experimental practitioners (Scanner, Tod Machover, Hans Peter Kuhn) none of them theatre-based, but all having some kind of relation to performance which fascinated Steve. Steve’s programming for WSD13 continues to demonstrate his philosophy and others’ enthusiasm to come to Cardiff to work with him from as far as New Zealand. It’s by no accident that at PQ11, Steve had championed sound to the extent that a Special Award for Sound & Lighting Design was created and awarded to 2 sound designers within the UK exhibit – a triumph considering the fact that the UK curator had chosen not to include more extensive examples of sound design as Steve had been passionately advocating.
As someone who achieved so much and was self-taught, overcoming dyslexia, Steve was very particular about whom he trained up at the Royal Exchange – as he put it “I want to help the lads (who started off ) like me”; he was immensely proud of his team. He was absolutely a socialist, in favour of a level playing field and creative freedom. The conservatism of theatre, both in the sense of the industry tendency to keep the discipline of sound design discrete, and any professional cliques who got in the way of making work, was to be lampooned.
2011-2 in particular, were important years for Steve as he had come to a point where he was considering taking a huge step in his creative and professional life, and considering what that step would be. Offers, some very big – a professorship at Purdue University in Indiana – were starting to arrive. At the same time he was becoming ill and increasingly fatigued; Steve, a workaholic anyway, was working to capacity and travelling constantly (‘always somewhere’, as his tagline had it), whether to other countries either to teach or explore what the next step might be, or between his pied à terre apartments in Manchester and Brighton. I was left in no doubt that the next chapter of Steven Brown was to have been a very exciting one. He told me he was offered his ‘dream job’ for theatre in 2013.
What else can I tell you? Stories about being tipped to be a professional footballer when he was a boy, his frustration in that not happening, a love of foreign language films, Paris & Barcelona, a pride in his Breton family roots, an enduring love affair with the sea, not a great lover of domestic life, but loved by a great many people with a set of wonderful friends in Brighton who were to care for him in the final months, a robust Scrabble addict, lately a fan of Owen Jones, a life long Spurs fan, a lover of dogs, and in particular, puppies, and not least and last of all, my dog Reg. The sound of Reg eating breadsticks at his bedside a few weeks ago was one of the last field recordings Steve made.
I came to know Steve because I was commissioning sound pieces from a range of artists from different fields in music for my Listening Shell project and I was looking for someone in theatre. The designer Kate Burnett recommended Steve; we hit it off so well that the eventual piece “Lost At Sea” became a love poem in sound. Long after the demands of life had pulled us once again in our individual directions, Steve remained my confidant and ally, and vice-versa, in both life and work.
He had a huge effect on the course of my own life. Twice when I was making huge changes in it, an embodiment and confidence of a creative idealism embraced by our relationship, was something for which I could mentally leave the solidity of the thing that wasn’t working, and walk towards. To some extent it took the support of a colleague like Steve to give me the confidence to eventually walk away from the structures of theatre I was working within. When Steve told me he was going to be the Sound Commissioner in Prague, I was determined to go too. At PQ11, Steve literally put me on a platform along with other sound practitioners, and gave me a credence, a connection with other artists, who similarly encouraged me to pursue my own path. For me, it ultimately led to a complete immersion in art and a sense of theatre seen from art and not the other way around. There was a whole network of people drawn together by Steve, sharing a passion for life and art; many of us will be brought together once again by WSD13.
In 2011 Steve entrusted the rewriting of his CV to me. Steve was always part of my personal map, and I always bore in mind where he was in the placing of myself in my continuing evolutions in life and as an artist. The final set of conversations were bringing us into closer orbit. If Plan A had to be abandoned through ill health, then there was most certainly going to be a Plan B, and Plan B was going to be pretty wonderful too. Certainly a new dog for Steve and also, according to sound artist Joseph Hyde, perhaps a centre for sound in Brighton.
For most of the time I knew Steve, I was also looking after people with serious illnesses, so in an unusual way, our friendship continued as normal, and we would play very challenging games of online scrabble throughout the dark hours of the night. I’m fortunate that he left while we were in close orbit with each other; his signal faded far too early, but in the most beautiful way, surrounded by a huge amount of love which you heard clearly in his voice, a brightness and positivity for life. He remains one of my most dearest friends, his physical absence is the immense loss I wake up to daily.
With special thanks for Heather Cairncross.