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Behind the scenes, he uses sound to dramatic effect

CAMBRIDGE -- In the dark, before "A Girl's War" actually starts, this is what you hear: an explosion, the rapid staccato of a camera shutter, screams, and the faint cry of a baby. Then the lights come up on a New York fashion shoot.

If you saw Joyce Van Dyke's play about life, love, and death in Karabakh, which is running at the New Repertory Theatre in Newton, chances are you didn't take in all those sounds. Maybe you just felt uneasy. That's fine. In fact, that's great.

Haddon Kime, who put together this little sound package -- designed to conjure both the New York fashion scene and the conflicted world of Karabakh, where most of the action takes place -- thinks the best compliment you could pay his work is to not notice it.

"Berklee [College of Music] taught us you probably won't get that much press," the sound designer and composer said in his Cambridge apartment. "But if the people don't notice the music, that means it's successfully part of the emotional content of the film or theater piece."

In the last two years, Kime has been the man behind the sounds for about 30 shows in the Boston area and elsewhere. And between now and May he'll do six more -- five world premieres and one musical. Not bad for a 27-year-old who graduated from Berklee in 2001.

There's something golden retrieverish about Kime. He's red-haired, bouncing with enthusiasm, and eager to please. In some lights he has a chiseled handsomeness, in others the geekiness of someone listening to the sounds of creation going on inside his head.

A friend described him as being able to "read" the objects in a room musically. When asked to describe how that happens, he stops and thinks.

"I can pull music out of something I look at," he says, finally, looking a little embarrassed at how this may sound. "If something is inspiring, say, that tree, with the wind gently rustling the leaves -- if I were to take that vision of serenity and transfer it to the piano, it would be that I was a conduit for the tree."

He adds, "You could say it's a switch I'm able to turn on and off. I'll be walking down the street and see something and hear a melody in my head."

For the shows he's been doing, he's transferred what's in his head into the audience members' heads. As sound designer, he's one of those invisible, usually unsung technicians who create the aural atmosphere for a dramatic production. That involves such things as "pulling" sound effects and music from archives and CDs, or recording new ones, and placing them into the show.

For the hit "Bat Boy: The Musical," which ran at the Boston Center for the Arts, Kime pulled bat cries, thunderclaps, and cows mooing. For "The Weir," at Gloucester Stage Company, he used recordings of Irish wind in numerous ways to create the feel of an Irish bar in a high wind.

Kime broke into the field because he saw a need for local theater companies to have sound designers who also compose. But he thinks of himself more as a composer, and in many of his shows he's done both.

Adam Zahler, producing associate at New Rep, says that company was the first to start using Kime, after their box office manager, who was also his former girlfriend, sang his praises as a composer. The company used him for "Kindertransport," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," and "Stonewall Jackson's House," among others, before choosing him for "A Girl's War." With "Stonewall Jackson's House," Zahler, the director, says, "I gave him something impossible to do. I asked him to give me something that sounded like `Dixie' as if Philip Glass had composed it."

What he delivered, Zahler says, was "world music that was minimalist at the same time, and it was also `Dixie.' It was close to perfect when he played it for me."

New Rep's producing artistic director Rick Lombardo directed "Jerusalem," which took place in New York, Wisconsin, and Jerusalem. "I was interested in a score that found ways to weave Middle Eastern and spiritual music, ancient instruments with a kind of hip New York feel," he says, "so you could feel the culture clash that's in the play in the music.

"By the end, all these different influences came together in a cohesive piece of beautiful, spiritual music that mirrored the characters' journey in the play."

Even with this almost constant work and professional praise, Kime lives the life of a semi-poverty-stricken 20-something. He shares an apartment on noisy Cambridge Street with two roommates and works two day jobs. He provides computer projection and sets up mikes for art history professors at Harvard. And he composes music for POPstick.com, a Fenway company that makes flash ads for Fortune 500 companies. His tiny bedroom, which doubles as his studio, bristles with an array of equipment. He's also got a portable set he can lug around. "A Girl's War" is the first show for which he's had all his equipment on site at the theater, and he says he spent one entire night on the set writing all the music.

"This way I could get the sound I wanted with the speakers at the theater, instead of doing it at home."

A musical childhood Kime was named after his paternal grandfather, who was named after a fiery 19th-century preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The boy grew up in Tucson, playing melodies and songs at 6, thanks to a piano provided by his maternal grandmother, who used to play piano for silent films. After he saw "Amadeus," the 1984 film about Mozart and Salieri, when he was 8, he says, "I figured out how to go to the piano and play by ear."

In high school Kime played in rock bands with his peers and salsa bands with 40-year-old guys. He also adapted, and wrote book and lyrics for, "A Christmas Carol."

He got his first professional gig while in high school, as the composer for the Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest." In it, he wrote separate themes for Cecily, Algernon, and Lady Bracknell.

"I love writing music and songs," Kime says, "but what's great fun is when you write a song from the character's perspective. You have to keep the arc of the story line going, and the characters have to get from here to there."

After high school, he took time off and made a CD of his own songs, "Haddon S. Kime." When Berklee called offering a scholarship, he leapt. Richard Davis, associate professor of film scoring, said Kime's knowledge of film composers, such as Danny Elfman and John Williams, surpassed his own. "He was really into how people applied music to drama."

His next assignment, "Haymarket," a new play by Zayd Dohrn about the Haymarket bombing in Chicago, will open soon at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. While he's just starting his research, Kime has come up with some rudimentary musical ideas. "Violins would definitely be there," he says. "So would blues, African rhythm stuff. There wasn't a lot of bombastic orchestral music being composed then."

On his website, haddon.kime

.com, are MP3 samples of the music or sound design for each of his shows -- handy for showcasing his work. But he also adds his notes on putting the designs together. Some are so specific a budding sound designer could learn the ropes from reading them. And that's the point, he says.

"I never took a sound design class," he says. "I learned everything from productions. There are many kids at Berklee who are great composers who could also be great sound designers, and a lot of companies who need them."

Catherine Foster can be reached at foster@globe.com.

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