New Vistas for the Performing Arts
written for the Juilliard InterArts Program.
by William Osborne
It might be useful for the students of the Juilliard InterArts Program, if we briefly discuss some of the concerns that have occupied our eighteen years of work developing chamber music theater. It was our dissatisfaction with the newest attempts to integrate music and theater, such as Happenings and Performance Art, that led to our efforts. We wanted to create a more complete integration of theater and music than these genres seem to allow. We wanted music and theater to coexist equally in a single work of art.
We began by spending seven years analyzing, setting, and performing the works of Samuel Beckett. No other modern writer has written a body of work with such musical language, and in formats suitable for small theaters. The latter aspect was important for us, because it allowed us to put music theater in a test tube and explore how its constituent parts might be combined into a unified whole. This experimentation cannot be done with opera, because its size, expense, and established techniques make it extremely inflexible and unwieldy. The technical characteristics of opera also make a genuine integration of music and theater very difficult, if not impossible.
Through Beckett’s work we developed theories and techniques for the creation of texts suitable for music theater. Briefly stated, these techniques draw upon rhetorical methods such as alliteration and carefully planned syllabic cadences, coordinated into sentences with phrase patterns that intimate a poetic symmetry while maintaining the character of prose. These sentences are often given a “periodic structure”, i.e. the key and most dramatic words come as late as possible in each sentence so that its tension is held to the very end. The same periodic structure is applied to the paragraphs, the most dramatic point being held in suspense to the latest possible point. This refined form of prose creates texts ideal for the true integration of music and theater, because it creates a language which is both theatrical and musical, while allowing for authentic characters devoid of libretto-like poesy. This also allows for a music theater in which all the words can be heard and understood, and whose meaning is essential to the appreciation of the work.
We were also drawn to Beckett’s works because of his precise use of stage directions. The gestures, images, and objects notated in his scripts share a semiotic importance equal to the spoken text. We learned to create texts with the notation of gesture and movement so precisely planned that their musical accompaniment could become an integral part of our scores. This allows the score to serve not only as a form of musical notation, but also as a method of theatrical production.
Beckett’s works were also useful models because of their refined character portrayal. Character development is ideally suited to the genuine integration of music and theater. When the subjective emotionality and visceral levels of music are genuinely integrated with the objective nature of theater, a -Gestalt- is formed that reveals a wide spectrum of human consciousness. The true combination of music and theater thus allows for a very intense and in-depth form of character development that is seldom found in less integrated genres. Due to this simultaneous focus on the mental, visceral, and emotional levels of human identity, almost all of our works study a single person, and our works are generally named after them. (This might follow in the tradition of operas named after their principle figures. Orfeo, Lenore, Tosca, Siegfried, Salome, Elektra, Madam Butterfly, Wozzeck, Lulu, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd are but a few examples.)
We have also followed Beckett’s lead by attempting to reduce time, place and character in our works to a single unified whole. This allows the identity of the characters to flow directly out of the images we use to present them. This concept is clearly illustrated by “Winnie” from Beckett’s _Happy Days_. The nature of her being is defined by the fact that she is buried in the earth up to her waist and is sinking. The work presents only two days in her life. Time, place, and character are reduced to a unified whole reflected in the single image we see on the stage. Our work _Miriam_ is also a realization of this ideal. A woman is strapped in a chair in an insane asylum, where she is trying to write a piece she can perform for a shortly expected visit from her children. A forceful unity is created because the character’s identity flows directly from the spatial and temporal context created by the single image on the stage.
From a more pragmatic perspective, this reduction has allowed us to realize another aspect of our aesthetic ideals. We want to create music theater that can be integrated into the community. Our society does not have the penchant for building opera houses that Europeans do, and it never will. If we are going to have music theater as a part of our lives, it will need to be something of our own, something more direct and less cumbersome than opera, and something that deals with themes that are truly a part of our society. (We have lived in Europe for the last eighteen years, and can tell you from experience that many Germans attend Bayreuth to celebrate their national identity with almost religious zeal through musical rituals based on romanticized Norse myths. And we have seen that many Italians attend Verdi or Puccini with the same kind of earthy enthusiasm you might find at one of their soccer matches. But most cultured Americans do not have such an immediate connection to these forms. In addition to the standard repertoire, Americans need music theater in their own language with texts they can understand, and which explore themes that are a part of their own cultural identity. And why shouldn’t they?) The adaptability of our productions, and the themes we treat, have allowed us to take our work to over sixty cities in the USA during the last five years. This has also allowed us to test many of our theories.
We structure our texts around a technique we refer to as “Anticipation, Event, and Reflection”. (We derived this idea from a theoretical analysis of the work of Sartre by Frederic Jameson.) Simply stated, we create a sense of anticipation (sometimes quite vague) of something about to happen, that event then takes place, and then the character reflects upon her action. This sounds simple, but its existential and ontological implications are enormous. We use these three elements to create a series of units, or “theatrical beats”, which connect together to from the larger structure of the work. Each “theatrical beat” is usually consists of five to eight sentences reflecting the rhetorical principles and “periodic structure” I have discussed.
The larger overall structure of our works are also based on three sections corresponding to “Anticipation, Event, and Reflection.” For example, the “Mad Soprano” you will see tonight is anticipating an audition she has at the Met, she prepares for it, then reflects on what the whole process means. The techniques of anticipation, event, and reflection allow us to maintain a consistent pattern of tension and release that holds the attention of the audience, even when we are dealing with relatively complex music materials and abstract textual meanings.
It has also been necessary for us to develop many new performance practices in order to realize the aesthetic ideals reflected in our multi-disciplinary works. To Abbie’s abilities as a highly advanced instrumentalist, we have added skills as a singer and actress, as well as skills in mask work, movement, and pantomime. She has raised the -combination and integration- of these disciplines to levels rarely found among performers. This wider spectrum of training allows artists to more fully realize their talents, and to more completely explore and express their identity as humans. Such training also provides enormous insights even for those who wish to focus on single fields, such as music or theater, because no art really stands alone. Theater and music always walk hand in hand, and the more we understand about one, the more we understand about the other.
I will mention only one salient point regarding the composition of our works. All of our works are based on three note “cells” which can form combinatorial hexachords, i.e. six notes which when transposed at a certain interval produce all twelve notes of the octave. We discovered that there are four basic cells of three notes which can form combinatorial hexachords, and that each basic cells has eighteen permutations which are also “combinatorial”. Each of our characters is based on only one of the basic cells and its eighteen permutations. The basic cell thus functions almost like the genetic DNA of the character, and unifies all of the musical manifestations of her being (or the “theatrical beats”), something like an individual’s DNA unifies all the organs of his or her body. Regardless of what form the character’s music takes, these cells unify the material and create a continuity being.
Our inter-disciplinary work has also allowed us to take advantage of recent technological developments in the performing arts. One example is the use of scores involving electronic music and surround sound. This led to interesting questions about human perception. How do you resolve the visual focus of the proscenium arch with sounds implying theater-in-the-round? We began to study the subtle ways the eyes, with their limited field of vision, tend to imply a proscenium arch, while the ears always hear in all directions at once. We found that the brain organizes this conflicting spatial information in very specific ways, and that our works had to be based on the same principles in order to be comprehensible.
This example might illustrate that an intimate and -comprehensive- understanding of new technological methods are essential to young artists working to create the forms toward which music theater is evolving. These are no longer disciplines which can simply be referred to stage technicians. Young people, for example, must be taught the art of what Stockhausen refers to as “Klangregie” (Sound Directing), which is the precise use of sound systems to create magical sonic environments. They must learn how to use video as a genre in itself, or as an element of live performance (to say nothing of how it is used to create demos of their work). They must learn how to use light so precisely and economically that it can come close to serving as their set. These disciplines require a knowledge of new technologies, and more importantly, the development of an aesthetic understanding that allows them to think of sound and light in terms of semiotic meaning even from the initial conceptualization of their works.
It is essential that the skills reviewed here (and numerous others) be designed into a curriculum for composers, actors, dancers, singers and instrumentalists. We have inherited a historical trend toward stage works as a form of -Gesamtkunst- in which a single voice is responsible for a work’s major elements, particularly in regard to the text, music and concepts of production. This trend has been established by composers such as Wagner, Berg, and Menotti, and even more in the newer forms of stage works such as “happenings” and “performance art”. And yet it is notable that there is not a single school in the world where one can obtain a well thought out and complete plan of studies designed to train one in the literary, musical, and theatrical skills necessary to create serious music theater, or other forms of inter-disciplinary art works.
The desire to integrate music and theater represents a long tradition in western music, and even though this has never been fully achieved, the attempts have often led to some of the most important advances in western music. The techniques and aesthetic philosophies developed by the music theater of the Florentine Camerata, Montiverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Weber, Wagner, and Berg almost outline the evolution of our musical heritage, and this historical trend continues to this day.
The mastery of the new skills of music theater, both interdisciplinary and technological, are essential to the future of the performing arts. It is no secret that the digitalization of music has decimated the ranks of commercial musicians, because so much of the work done earlier by groups of performers can now be accomplished by a single artist using a computer and various peripheral devices. Similar tendencies are evolving in “classical” music as well. If live performance is to maintain its position in our culture, it will depend on artists developing composite skills which more completely reveal the inimitable aspects of a human presence on the stage. Seen from this perspective, the new possibilities of inter-disciplinary performance and technology, which allow us a greater freedom, mobility and economy, are the doorway to many new vistas, and the continuation of a long tradition in which the integration of music and theater has led to discovery and innovation.