Music/theatre as a theatre of ideas

Richard Vella

This article first appeared in NMA 8 magazine.

The purpose of this lecture [1] 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 sonic event.

The word theatre has many references, it being a mixing of terms from the words metathesis , to transpose; theme , from thesis; hypothesis , a suggested basis; theory ( theoros ), something examined; theasthai , a spectator. The actual word theatre †comes directly from the latin theatrum †meaning a place where people watched a drama (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 sixties.

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 ( theasthai ) 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:

  1. music as action (eg.the concert hall where we go to listen to ( view ) 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)
  2. music with other actions (eg. film, ballet, videos, plays, opera, etc)
  3. combination of the above
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 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 thesis †(an argument). And it is this argument in the music which is of crucial significance to our discussion. How is the music being constructed 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 ( thesis , theoria )?

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:

  1. does the music have a separate function in relation to the other elements and what message does this communicate?
  2. does the music when combined with the other elements create a new `meaning' [2] independent to the music when heard on its own?
  3. 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 texere , to weave. Textum †came to mean the tissue or web of a thing which is woven. The texture 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. Its thesis . 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 practice.

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?
(From Layer on Layer , by David Chesworth)

Music and Space

Remembering that the word theatrum means a `space' in which a spectator observes an action, i.e. drama , 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 century.

"To a far greater extent than has hitherto been recognised, the Western musical enterprise has been characterised by an effort to understand musical sounds, not merely to manipulate them - to comprehend †`nature', as much as to `conquer' her - and thus to illuminate 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 theory and theatre derive from the same etymological root - the Greek word theasmai - which was used (I am told) by Homer and Herodotus to mean `to gaze at or behold with wonder.' " [3]


  1. This and the following lecture was originally presented in a fourth year composition class at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, 1989. return

  2. 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. return

  3. James Tenney, "A History of Consonance and Dissonance", Excelsior Music Publishing Company, N.Y. p.103.

© 2003 NMA Publications and Richard Vella. Back to NMA magazine index.