Music/theatre as a theatre of ideas
This article first appeared in
The purpose of this lecture
is to broaden the narrow definition of the term music theatre. In a sense this
paper will take the term music theatre and turn it on its head to mean a
theatre of music.
When discussing a music theatre it is important to acknowledge that the term
consists of two words: music and theatre. A definition of music is very
difficult requiring a historical survey of the various applications of the
term. However in very simple terms, music can be said to be a `desired' sonic
event. This sonic event can involve pitch, duration, timbre, frequency, rhythm,
etc. Of course this simple definition makes no differentiation between the word
`music' and the word `sound'. This is intended as it is important to understand
that I consider a music theatre to be concerned with the construction and
application of a sound or music and its relation to other elements. These
other elements can be visual, verbal, gestural, literary or another
has many references, it being a mixing of terms from the words
, to transpose;
, from thesis;
, a suggested basis;
), something examined;
, a spectator. The actual word
†comes directly from the latin
†meaning a place where people watched a
(action, something happening). In other words a viewing space. It is
unfortunate that the word theatre has come to be associated with a particular
type of theatrical style involving plots, dramatic realism, actors, and the
written word (the play) just as much as the term music theatre has come to be
associated with the performance events and happenings which took place in the
However by going back to the derivations of the word theatre, interesting
contradictions arise. If theatre originally meant a viewing place where a
spectator watches something happening, how do we come to terms with the obvious
contradiction in the term music theatre?†Music is a sonic event, and theatre is
supposedly an observed event. (Although radio plays dispel the notion that
theatre is about seeing, as any blind person will tell us. Opera on radio is
another one). Theatre can really only be satisfactorily addressed by the
presence of a spectator (
) being aware of an event happening. In other words theatre is about action,
and it is in the many constructions and applications (via specific
technological process) of this word `action' which defines theatrical genre.
Hence the term music theatre can mean:
The implications of what I have explained automatically call into question the
validity of the term music theatre, as defintions 1, 2 and 3 can include
anything. Consequently if everything can be perceived as a music theatre how
can we begin to discuss it?
music as action (eg.the concert hall where we go to listen to (
) music). Remember also Stravinsky's statement that any performance of music is
automatically a piece of theatre by its sheer presence. Something which many
people have misunderstood by thinking that†a music theatre is an overt visual
gesture with music (eg:†musicians wearing funny noses, or an opera production
that is all dressed up with nowhere to go, i.e. massive design budgets)
music with other actions (eg. film, ballet, videos, plays, opera, etc)
combination of the above
Music theatre as a theatre of the ear
Music theatre is concerned with a theatre of music. A theatre of the ear. Why
do we call a concerto dramatic? Because it is about action between a soloist
and an orchestra and that is its theatre. It is no coincidence that Mozart, as
well being considered a master of the operatic form, was also a master of the
classical concerto form.
Music theatre is also music with a
†(an argument). And it is this argument in the music which is of crucial
significance to our discussion. How is the music being
to have a point of view or for that matter differing points of view? What is
its relationship to other elements, be it words, film, dance, images etc?
What relationships are being set up within itself via the various use of the
musical parameters (pitch, rhythm, timbre, register, etc.) in order to create
the musical argument (
Having hopefully thrown out the door the superficial understanding of the term
music theatre let us now outline a method in order to discuss it properly. How
is it even possible to discuss a music theatre today in the age of the mass
media? Are there different questions involved or are they the same ones in
different guises due to the different technologies involved? It seems naive to
separate the film music genre from the opera genre due to its technology when
clearly film music has continually referred to opera throughout its history. I
am not saying that opera is more important than film music but rather, we now
live in a time where similar musical arguments show themselves across many
genres whether they be radio, film, theatre, orchestral music, etc.
In order to discuss these musical arguments and their relationship to other
elements it is important to ask:
does the music have a separate function in relation to the other elements and
what message does this communicate?
does the music when combined with the other elements create a new `meaning'
independent to the music when heard on its own?
is the music irrelevant to the message communicated, being merely† background
material (i.e. a tautology)?
Music's relationshp to a text. Which text?
However what of music in relation to itself; its own parameters? How is it
possible to discuss music itself as a music theatre when the above three
questions are referring to works of an interdisciplinary nature? A possible
answer lies in the original meaning of the word `text'. Text does not mean
words but rather the word text comes from the latin
, to weave.
†came to mean the tissue or web of a thing which is woven. The
is then anything that is woven, the quality of the weave. In other words the
text is the weaving together of all the elements into a shape, fabric, form. In
music this came to mean texture. The text of a book or essay is the weaving
together of all the various arguments via words. In film and opera the text is
the weaving of the sonic and visual via their respective technologies.
Texture is the fabric, text is the argument.
The setting of words to music is not simply text and music but rather the text
is the overall weaving of the literary text with the musical texture. The text
is the `meaning' (argument) the composer wants to communicate via all these
elements. Even in a work without words the `text' of the piece is its argument.
. And this is what a music theatre is essentially about: the viewing
(perceiving) of a thesis, theory, metathesis via music (action in sound) and
its relationship to the text (the overall web).
However, the `text' in a piece of music can also include the instrument that
the work is played on, in other words the repertoire of the instrument or the
historical/cultural assumptions that are associated with a particular
instrument. The development of repertoire, like the above statement referring
to genre, is about the musical arguments challenging the existing repertoire
resulting in a development of the repertoire. And this also is the site for a
music theatre. (Consider Cage's Prepared Piano pieces). When discussing the
relationship between the music and the text, the composer has to understand
which text he/she is dealing with. It may be the larger complicated fabric
involving gesture, voice, words image etc (eg film, opera) or a canon of works
which the composer is referring to.
The text can also include the instruments upon which a music is played (eg.
Beethoven piano sonatas). And so the above three questions are really asking:
What is the text and what is the music's relationship to the text? By asking
what is the text, we are able to outline a method for articulating a
musictheatre. Music theatre is not about a musician wearing funny noses
playing a trumpet into a piano, although if faced with such a situation the
question to ask is why such an event is taking place. Is it crucial or
irrelevant to the overall text of the piece. How is the text of the music, the
text of the performer's body, and the visual appearance combining to create a
larger text? Music theatre is the site of the collision between a theory and a
Are you depending on the words
Or are you depending on the music?
Each one is at the mercy of the other.
Conveying thought or feelings?
What is the message?
To sing is to only half say something,
For where does the message lie?
When the words avoid it and the melody serves it?
Layer on Layer
, by David Chesworth)
Music and Space
Remembering that the word
means a `space' in which a spectator observes an action, i.e.
, it is essential to understand the concept of the word `space'. To put it
simply, there are two types of spaces: physical space and a more abstract one
called temporal space. The physical space can be a performing space, a stage, a
TV screen, a projected photographic slide, a shopping mall, a street etc. In
musical terms it is also the registral space of an instrument or group of
instruments, ie high, middle, low or the physical movement created in stereo
panning (eg. left to right) or phasing. It can also mean a harmonic space, i.e.
the intervallic distance between pitches. Examples of temporal spaces are
musical forms (the relationship between one space and another space) or
stylistic references (historical spaces). In order to fully understand a music
theatre (or music as a theatre) it is important to comprehend the relationship
between physical and temporal space in music. Conlon Nancarrow's Player Piano
Studies are a collision of two separate temporal spaces combined with the
physical space of register: i) the 19th century piano mechanised and ii) 20th
century rhythmic/temporal relationships. This is just as much an example of a
music theatre as are the Mozart Piano Concertos in which the physical and
temporal spaces of the soloist collide with the physical and temporal spaces
of the orchestra.
The theatre is in the listening as well as the viewing. Music theatre is the
listener's perception of actions in space and also for that matter spaces in
action. Finally I shall conclude with the following quote from James Tenney,
whose book ĚThe History of Consonance and Dissonanceú traces the history of
theoretical approaches to harmony from Antiquity to the early twentieth
"To a far greater extent than has hitherto been recognised, the Western musical
enterprise has been characterised by an effort to
musical sounds, not merely to manipulate them - to
†`nature', as much as to `conquer' her - and thus to
the musical experience rather than simply to impose upon it either a wilful
personal `vision' or a timid imitation of inherited conventions, habits,
assumptions, or `assertions'. In this enterprise, both composers and theorists
have participated, although in different, mutually complementary ways- the
former dealing with what might be called the `theatre' of music, as the latter
its theory. A conception of these as indeed mutually complementary aspects of
one and the same thing is suggested by the fact that both
derive from the same etymological root - the Greek word
- which was used (I am told) by Homer and Herodotus to mean `to gaze at or
behold with wonder.' "
This and the following lecture was originally presented in a fourth year
composition class at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, 1989.
I use the word `meaning' with caution as it touches on a huge area involving
representation, hermeneutics, myth and information theory. This is discussed in
the following lecture.
James Tenney, "A History of Consonance and Dissonance", Excelsior Music
Publishing Company, N.Y. p.103.
© 2003 NMA Publications and Richard Vella.
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