From the Disembedded Musical Score

to the Multimedial Performance Text:

The Quest of the New Music-Theatre Movement



Form of notation where the practitioner is free to interpret the symbols as he or she feels fit based on a set of agreed upon conventions present as part of the notation at the beginning of the score.

LASKEWICZ, Zachar (1992) Het Loket An Anti-Opera, Ghent: Stichting Logos.


It has been suggested that during the Middle-Ages, the development of literacy in occidental culture was influenced by the complex process of the troping of Latin texts to make them more understandable. These symbols, initially used for musical purposes, were eventually divested of musical meaning becoming mere punctuation marks to observe in linguistic statements. At the same time the musical notation system that is generally accepted today developed from the same source, helping to explain why we have attitudes to textuality which are so obsessed with the ‘written’ literary object and the meaning it contains, uniting hermeneutics, linguistics and musicology.  By extension ‘performance’ texts of the theatre and the music-hall are also based on literary concepts and possibilities for the notation of extra-verbal events on stage are rather limited. This complex set of attitudes towards textuality is inextricably linked with these notions of literacy, values connected to the ability to be able to read and also the very fact that the set of symbols that combine to make up the semiotic system we call language (the alphabet and punctuation marks) are in every sense ‘abstract’ in that they have no meaning outside their representation as symbols in the Saussurean sense.  It has been a very long process of ‘textual disembedding’, but an important one nonetheless; one we at the beginning of the 21st century are still struggling to divest ourselves of in a pluralistic world of hypertext and multimedia in which the static and closed Ricoeurian Oeuvre can no longer exist unquestioned.  Throughout the twentieth century forces have been leading us in this direction; sources as diverse as anthropology, literary studies, game design and the radical avant-garde to name a few –  have searched for new types of textuality where their interactivity and plurality is allowed far more freedom for expression.  In this paper, the intention is to take a look at some of these major textual breakthroughs, particularly in the field of the new music-theatre, a movement in avant-garde music popular particularly in the sixties and seventies and represented perhaps in its most extreme form in the work of Mauricio Kagel, Luciano Berio and Peter Maxwell-Davies.  The many different types of ‘performative textual systems’ invented by these composers to express their musical and theatrical goals is immense and fascinating, and has largely been unexplored from the perspective of extra-musical fields such as performance studies.


The example above, demonstrating how the movement of performer’s on stage is notated, is taken from a recent                    new music-theatre composition by Laskewicz..

LASKEWICZ, Zachar (1993) ZAUM new music-theatre in 3 acts, Ghent: Victoria Theatre.


Our performance texts are generally seen as poor excuses for the real thing: most of us prefer to see theatre scripts enacted in real time on stage rather than reading them on our own at home. Still we have developed a commitment to the potential of the ‘disembedded’ Text, especially when it comes to music.  Very often we base our analysis of a culture on our understanding of their ‘texts’. As Kapferer observes, however, “the way a text reaches its audience is no less an important dimension of the structure” (1986: 192).  He considers that ‘performance’ constitutes a unity of text and enactment, neither being reducible to the other.  In this paper, the power of text in terms of its enactment is explored, an important example being speech as performative action, which is extended to include music.  In order to demonstrate this, after the theoretical discussion involving the development of the fixed structural disembedded musical episteme, we take a look at a wide variety of contrasting types of performance texts spreading from the radical experiments of Cage and the Fluxus movement, Balinese lontar, role-playing game textuality, hypermedia and the ground-breaking experiments of the new music-theatre composers mentioned above.  This includes a thorough demonstration of some of the methods explored in the Night Shades music-theatre notation system which I teach as part of the course-work I give to both theatre practitioners and composers who wish to extend their creative work into the complementary field.

Musical composition based entirely on a card game which has a cyclical structure.  The contents of the ‘text’ depend on how the players interpret the sounds described on the cards. The idea of the game is to find matching pairs.

LASKEWICZ, Zachar (1989) Vociphony a card-game ritual for 4, 6 or 8 players, Perth: Alexander Library.


Illustration 4: Phonophonie

Important work by Kagel which combines sound, image and movement in a complex fashion.

KAGEL, Mauricio (1963/4) PHONOPHONIE vier Melodramen für zwei Stimmen und andere Schallquellen, Universal Editions.


The impetus to create new systems in a multidisciplinary fashion was part of a general philosophical development away from segregation of the arts and towards the holistic, multimedial approach we are now more familiar with.  Theoretically, this quest became expressed in the work of Barthes as part of the Parisian Tel Quel school which argued for a non-closed, plural Text.  Barthes’ notion of the Text stood against the static Ricoeurian Work which has dominated 19th and 20th century thought and continues to influence the way we perpetuate textuality in occidental culture.  In the latter half of the 20th century our highly ‘literate’ approach to texts has been gradually eroded by anthropological studies which demonstrated that in other cultures ‘texts’ are considered to be highly dynamic forms of knowledge storage, transferral and perpetuation, where sounds, images, smells and other sensual information are included as part of the complex levels of multisensual discourse.  It is no longer possible to make the clean distinction between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ cultures and the contrasting almost dichotomous way they treat the iconic nature of language. Also in these cases such distinctions are soon revealed not to ring true.  The Tamil culture, for example, may be entirely ‘literate’ in that their language is stored on paper; but the whole notion of Tamil Nadu (‘the Tamil Three’; name of the language) is wrapped up with its expression as not only words, but also sound and images.  The text on its own is never enough; buried behind it is a strong tradition which is passed on orally. It is clear that our restricted approach to textuality has limited us in many ways, and will continue to do so until we fully appreciate the ways that these discourses stretch into the lives of the people who perform complex and dynamic contextualisation in the realisation of given cultural ‘texts’. 


Understanding and questioning structuralist linguistic theory, prefigured in the structuralism of de Saussure and his school, forms an important part of the argument.  This is another signifier of the importance of linguistic concepts at the basis of the occidental episteme. Since in our culture linguistic, hermeneutic and musicological theory are so closely related, it is only natural that contemporary musicology would be embedded in such a structuralist discourse.  Thanks to generations of societal elitism and general misunderstanding about what is and what is not music, Boulez and his select school has been able to build a strong foundational tower to protect and perpetuate disembedded and structuralist conceptions of music, an approach that I will also attempt to question through the discussion of new music-theatre scores which clearly stand against a homogenised, structuralist musicology.  Having their own freedom, composers in the new music-theatre genre have developed a wide-range of new ‘texts’ which obey a totally different set of rules providing an alternative to existing models. 


In this paper, by exploring the possibilities open for multimedial textual expression in new music-theatre notation we’ll be looking at ways to transcend the episteme which harvests and perpetuates our rather literary approach to performance texts.



Illustration 5: cyclical flow

A non-closed illustration representing direction of flow and the position of the performers.  Taken from a contemporary ritual theatre performance text for Javanese gamelan where the players follow a cyclical conception of time which is reflected in the notation system.

LASKEWICZ, Zachar (1992) Transmigration-2: Ritual-Theatre for seven performers, Perth: Alexander Library.







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