arts and design

Whispers to thunderstorms: the world of sound designer Max Pappenheim


Max Pappenheim’s journey into sound design comprises a series of happy accidents. Music – and especially organ music – was his first love. He spent a year as a cathedral organist and it was only his predilection for experimentation and finding “the weirdest corners of the repertoire” that stopped him from pursuing a professional career in liturgical music.

Instead, he went to Cambridge University, read classics and began teaching at a school in the Midlands. There, he was asked to direct a musical, Sweeney Todd, and it was then the ground began to shift beneath his feet.

“There was something about the staging – bringing together the music, the visuals and getting the feel of it right – that was the key to it. Something about that really got me, as did the amazing experience of collaborating with kids who were up for anything. What I fell for in theatre was the collaboration – there is no theatre without it.”

Born and raised near Reading, Pappenheim was taken to the theatre by his mother. As a child, it was spectacle he loved; now, he says, he is drawn to stories – in particular, strong narratives with a sense of urgency.

Max Pappenheim, right, at work on Assembly for the Donmar Warehouse, London.
Pappenheim, right, at work on Assembly for the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

Aged 26, he took a leap of faith. He left teaching and moved to London, hoping to break into directing.

“I started out as an intern at the Finborough theatre. My first job was mopping the floors. It was a wonderful time of discovery. I did everything from counting the cash from the box office to working behind the bar.”

He directed a few plays but again, quite by accident, he found himself doubling up as a sound designer in Kafka v Kafka, the show he was co-directing at the Jack Studio theatre in south London. “We couldn’t find a sound designer, so I thought I would give it a go. The critical thing was that I knew the show inside out. I was in rehearsals adding sounds every day, so there was a lot of opportunity to experiment.”

That first “sound” gig was nominated for an Offie award in 2012. “It was wonderful to be recognised, and there was a natural progression towards sound after that. I never really made a choice. It just happened organically and I took to it.”

Since then, he has been nominated for more awards, created the most innovative soundscapes for plays, opera and radio, and worked with acclaimed writers and directors, including Alice Birch, Katie Mitchell, Richard Bean and Lucy Kirkwood.

Sound, for Pappenheim, is vital in setting the mood of a production. “In almost every show, sound is the first thing that strikes you,” he says. “And that’s a great responsibility because, if something isn’t quite right, it can wrongfoot audience and cast.”

Krapp’s Last Tape, part of a Beckett triple bill at the Jermyn Street theatre, for which Pappenheim devised the sound design.
Krapp’s Last Tape, part of a Beckett triple bill at the Jermyn Street theatre, for which Pappenheim devised the sound design. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It is also elemental in its non-verbal effects: “There is so much subtlety in sound. I really believe that, if you walk into a room and somebody says ‘Hello’, you get more from their voice than the look on their face. With the voice, it’s visceral and that’s why I don’t get bored of sound – there’s so much to tease out.”

The most challenging sound designs are not always the loudest or most melodramatic, he says. However, some shows require it, such as Beth Steel’s globetrotting drama, Labyrinth (about Latin America’s debt crisis of the 80s), on which he worked as composer and sound designer. “It was wonderful to be evoking this huge financial system as an abstract thing. I don’t think you could tell the story without sound that was emphatic.”

But more often, the shows that present the greatest problems are those where sound is least noticeable. For example, The Night of the Iguana, starring Clive Owen and directed by James MacDonald, was staged at a big West End theatre, and Pappenheim’s sound design required great subtlety. “There’s a very slow build to a thunderstorm at the interval and you first got a breath of wind in the leaves, then the grass started to hiss slightly, then the birds went quiet. The audience had to hear everything from those breaths of wind to the first drops of rain.” Similarly, Trevor Nunn’s Beckett triple bill at the Jermyn Street theatre, London, required intimacy and precision, with extra speakers rigged so the sound could be “clear but not loud”.

The pandemic brought a hiatus to his career and he worked as a supermarket delivery driver to pay the bills. “I felt very lucky to get the job. I know a lot of people who were looking for such work and weren’t able to find it.”

He has since worked on numerous plays on screen and recently returned to work inside a theatre with Outside at the Orange Tree, London. He will work on the Silent Opera and British Youth Opera’s Hansel and Gretel this summer, along with Dragons and Mythical Beasts at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, London.

Looking back over his decade in sound design, Pappenheim feels grateful for those who have given him a big break: “Many times I’ve felt that I’ve been given a chance and I’ve done my best to rise to meet it.”

Macbeth at Chichester Festival theatre. Pappenheim was sound designer and composer.
Macbeth at Chichester Festival theatre. Pappenheim was sound designer and composer. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

From the CV

2021: Barnes’ People, Original Theatre Company online, sound designer and composer

2020: 15 Heroines, Jermyn Street theatre online, sound designer

2020: Beckett Triple Bill, Jermyn Street theatre, London, sound designer

2019: The Night of the Iguana, Noël Coward theatre, London, sound designer

2019: Macbeth, Chichester Festival theatre, sound designer and composer

2017: The Children, Royal Court theatre, London/Broadway, sound designer

2016: Fleabag, Soho theatre, London, associate sound designer

2016: Labyrinth, Hampstead theatre, London, sound designer and composer

2015-16: Ophelias Zimmer, Schaubühne, Berlin/Royal Court, London, sound designer and composer

2015-16: My Eyes Went Dark, Finborough theatre, London/Traverse, Edinburgh/59E59 theatres, New York, sound designer, 2015-2016



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