Lucy Peckham — a sound engineer, sound designer and composer — turns to the variety of natural sounds available to her in Alaska in her work. She seeks to create a community of fellow technical artists to help promote and preserve theater. She named her business Both Ears Live Sound as a nod to her father and his quote “one ear is not enough. If you really care, you will use both of them.”
Bring It Home: Inviting Alaskans into the Field of Sound
Wander into the hall at the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau. It’s standing room only. In the back of the room, a raised platform edged by tables filled with sound equipment faces center stage. A few folks stand on the platform in the dark. One of them is Lucy Peckham.
You may recognize her silver braids. She wears a T-shirt with cutoff sleeves, as she does no matter the weather outside, along with her Utilikilt, a heavy canvas pleated skirt with lots of useful pockets. She listens as she watches. Based on the song, the instrumentation, the mood, the crowd, she adjusts the sound, tuning the live music. Most people won’t notice she’s there.
Yet her artistic skill, equipment and technique are essential to making this favorite annual event sound rich and full. Whether it’s a raucous finale or a pin-drop moment, Peckham and her team are there paying attention so the rest of us can just let the sound wash over.
Peckham is a live sound engineer, a sound designer and a composer of original music for the theater. She spends her creative life listening and responding to sound, and collaborating with musicians, actors and directors to bring auditory experiences to life.
Peckham says that part of the magic and challenge of live sound is that no one notices if it’s done well. Live sound, she says, “is where my feet are deeply rooted.” She explains that she finds art in “the relationship between what I am amplifying, what I am presenting aurally and what I feel coming back from the audience. When I’m mixing an ensemble … my goal is to be transparent to the extent that their music passes through me and through my gear. I try not to make everything sound like Lucy mixed it. I want each group to sound like them, like they want to sound, as transparently as possible.”
When Peckham creates a sound design for a staged play, her work is done in advance. She might create original music, record live sounds — like a door closing, the particular buzz of a piece of antique machinery, or the sound of rain falling through spruce branches — and engineer the perfect timing and mood for the play. In a musical, she’s there each night, mixing the show. Through musicals, she says, “I learned to shape the emotional moments. It’s all about heightened emotion. The arc of the levels and the mixing, the musical lines that lead us from one [scene to the next]. The transitions are so important.” Peckham says, “Audiences think about the songs. They don’t realize that the purity and beauty that they recognized in that song was … delivered in such a way that they felt it because it was led to by the preceding [musical] moments.”
When Peckham was younger, her dad, a musician would mention the expression “lend me an ear,” saying something like “one ear is not enough. If you really care, you will use both of them.” As a nod to her father, she named her business Both Ears Live Sound. Her ears are her most precious tool. And like an athlete would care for her muscles, Peckham takes good care to protect her ears. Even before grinding coffee in the morning, she reaches up and grabs a pair of heavy plastic safety earmuffs — the kind you would use for shooting practice. “When you listen with both ears,” she says, “it demonstrates a level of caring.”
When asked what’s different about doing her work in Alaska, she laughs and says “Without question, the natural environment. Going out and being able to be in a place where it’s quiet, where I can actually hear everything in the natural world around me without the sound of traffic … I collect and record, then edit and create sound effects based on our natural environment and that is not something that is available to everyone. And so I love living here for that reason.”
Peckham has worked as a live sound engineer and theatrical sound designer for years, but in Alaska, she says, she lacks a professional community. “There’s no one else who does what I do in the state. And there has to be.” She seeks community not only for herself, but for the future of her art in Alaska, where she wants to preserve and promote theater. “And in order to do that, we also need not just actors and directors and spaces, but we need all of the technical [artists] with a level of competence to be able to support quality theater productions.”
To create the community she craves, and to feed her own artistic need for new skills, she spent her Rasmuson Foundation grant year seeking advanced training and mentorship in the tools of sound design. “I keep thinking about how much of creativity is about learning tool usage … There’s just so much that’s technical that goes into being creative. I’m so happy that I have the creativity and the art, the desire and the ears.”
She traveled extensively to conferences and sought out theater experiences. She shadowed theatrical sound designers in order to gain exposure to new tools and ideas. “I hope there will be [people] with the interest and enthusiasm to follow me into sound while still making Alaska their home.” So, throughout her studies, she has had a personal mantra of “bring it home.”
Making that happen means sharing the skills she’s learning with fellow theater artists. Peckham hosted a training in Anchorage for QLab, one of the major pieces of software used in theatrical sound design. Twenty-four participants attended from large and small theaters and venues all around the state. She’s encouraged by the enthusiasm she saw. “I truly believe that theater is not competitive. Good theater begets more good theater.”
“I’m hungry for opportunities to create. And that is a challenge for me because I’m a collaborator … I’d like to do more musicals. And I would like to do more original sound design, including composition.” Peckham says the only way that’s possible within Alaska is “to nurture relationships.” She’ll continue connecting within and outside Alaska to amplify those opportunities. If she succeeds, if her community succeeds, she can blend in, like one line in a rich melodic score.
Listen to “It’s True,” a composition by Peckham with Nathan Levine on bass, Adam Bartlett on guitar and Karl Pasch on clarinet.
Amy O'Neill Houck is communications director for 49 Writers, and co-publisher of Edible Alaska magazine. Amy has a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's a teaching artist with the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
Image credits - Artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Gallery images 1-3 and 6 are courtesy of the artist. Image 3 shows her creating sounds with metal. Image 4 is by Julie Coppens. Image 5 is courtesy of Perseverance Theatre from the play "An Iliad," in which Lucy Peckham composed original music and played it on stage. Image 6 shows Peckham with her equipment at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Image 7 is by the writer and shows Lucy in her studio.