The Performance Theory of Music-Theatre

a performance composition by Zachàr Laskewicz

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In the paper below, the whole issue of performance art and the movement in new music-theatre is discussed, concluding with a description of the performance art composition India Song.


The Performance Theory of Music-Theatre

by Zachar Laskewicz


Throughout history artists of all types (including painters, writers and composers) have been exploring different methods of representation, in order to express truth or reality in their work.  A whole language of terms now exists that is derived from different forms of representation.  To name just a few: imitation, mimicry, simulation, onomatopoeia, parody, metaphor, metonymy, parable, allegory, naturalism etc.[1]  Many of these terms have been adopted by a number of contrasting artistic types, and are now accepted into the everyday terminology used by practitioners.  This construction of truth is very important to all these forms, and poses questions as to the function of art - to represent and transform reality.  Representation in performance art, which is a relatively new genre, is very important to the existence of the form.  However, representation through performance is not something new, and has been used in forms of Eastern theatre for many centuries.  Complex systems of symbolic codification have developed in forms such as the Peking Opera of China or the Kathakali theatre of India.  These systems are based on hundreds of years of tradition and convention and present reality/truth in a beautiful and artistic way.  Similarly, forms of Ritual performance attempt to discover "truth", and is used in the context of social drama.  Performances are presented which probe a community's weaknesses, becoming a means to ascribe meaning to "social-dramatic" events.[2]  The world of performance in the eyes of theorists continues to expand, and has largely been accepted into the structure of modern thought.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find any point to distinguish between theatre and real-life experiences, including forms such as street theatre, African ritual, workshops and therapy.  The expanding performance world sees the breaking down of barriers set-up through many years of tradition in other forms of art, especially in forms of music and musical thought.  My own performance theory is based on the breaking of these barriers in music, and how musical forms, styles and structures can now be re-defined in terms of performance in the post-modern world.  In this essay I will be looking at the work of important composers and musical theorists of the twentieth century and how they have expanded the musical world to include theatrical processes.  I will also be looking at the development of my own work in composition and observe how the development has been towards a new language in performance.

More frequently and forcibly than in the past, composers reflect problems in their works which are extra-musical in origin.  Music can reflect aspects of general social questions.  Music has a diversity of meanings: it has relevance as an expression of every social praxis;  it has significance as a cultural componentof every ethnology.  It is precisely this diversity which encourages today's composers to regard his activity in a more multi-facetted way than in the past.[4]  From a musical perspective, the construction of "truth" can be seen in the attitudes to Neo-Classicism, Romanticism (modernism) and Post-Modernism.  Neo-Classicism paces an authority in "truth" greater than the artist.  Modernism holds that the artist is the "truth" (hence the concept of individual genius).  Post-Modernism is cynical of all truths, arguing that there can be no such thing as truthsince all truths are constructions based on an ideology.  Hence the existence of multiple truths and multiple theories.  This is not necessarily about eclecticism, as music by its very nature is eclectic in structure (as represented throughout history).  Composers throughout history have attempted to create truth through music, by ascribing meaning to musical structures.  However, Post-Modernism in music is an open acknowledgement of the sensory/experiential side to music, as well as that related to concept, structure, and meaning.  It claims that no one theoretical disciplineis able to cope with the realities of life: its contradictions, gaps and inconsistencies.  In announcing the "meaninglessness" of signs it is at the the same time mixed with a "search for meaningfulness", it does not reject the meaning and truth of experience.[1]

The work of American new composer and music theorist John Cage, is considered to be an important representative of Post-Modernism in music.  Indeterminacy is often a cardinal factor in Cage's music; the elements (music and movement) are given, but their ordering is not determined and must be planned by certain guidelines within a given time-span.  These guidelines are rarely set forcefully and are usually open to interpretation.  His Theatre Piece (1960) may be performed by from one to eight performers.  Actions are to be made within certain time periods, the actions being chosen from a range of twenty nouns or verbs.  The result is a display of unassociated actions and situations, an assault on the senses of incoherent and inconsequential material which must be observed impartially and dispassionately.[3]  His music is about the pleasure of the moment.  Meanings which are found are purely there because the listener has found them, given meaning to events.[1]  

Cage's music, like his writings, does not necessarily go anywhere; it can exist without meaning; it can be sound, and it can be silence.  John Cage, in making the terms music and sound interchangeble (any music is sound and any sound is music), revolutionized the musical world.  Therefore, all sounds are legitimate and admissible, whether conventionally musical or otherwise.  For Cage, music is action.  A player's body, gestures, speech and actions are an extension of his instrument, an enlargement of its personality.  Cage's music can therefore involve players in speech, movement, and gestures, in theatricalisms which are quite alien to the almost impersonal "white tie and tails" tradition of formal music.  He is one of the first composers to so openly include theatrical elements in his music.

The visual dimension of music is no new phenomenon.  Since early civilization, music has been a part of ritual - in religious celebrations and pageantry; music, action, and audience participation have been closely bound together.  It is therefore logical to extend contemporary ;music through visual interest, and to try to evoke audience response of a more direct nature.  The old concept of concerts performed in comparatively stiff immobility, with a completely passive audience, is regarded as obsolete.  As we have already observed in the music of John Cage, music can be action.  If at some point, instrumental performers speak, there need byno surprise if we take this as an integral part of the sound patterns.[3]

Other composers (such as Mauricio Kagel and Karlheinz Stockhausen, of the European school) have followed similar paths in expanding the world of music to include theatrical processes.  Indeed, there has been a considerable degree of development and change in musical thought, and there now exists a school of composition and research based around an entirely new genre - Music-Theatre.  With regard to current developments in new music, one fundamental feature can be observed.  The breaking up of traditional boundaries of genres and typologies, the clearest case being in the development of the new Music-Theatre.  The various brances of traditional theatre (stage-play, melodrama, opera, ballet) have increasingly dissolved out of their rigid divisions into a continuous scale of scenic representation.  Music-Theatre is not a stylistically fixed form of theatre existing along-side others, but rather the application of musical thought to the elements of theatre.  Music-Theatre scores can comprise of conventional notation, coupled with instructions for movements, but more generally they comprise instructions for gestures, speech, movement and free sounds.  Essential aspects of performance are lighting effects and the inclusion of films, slides, sounds or tape.  If words are used (although it is often wordless) they may be abstract meaningless or occasionally of a protest or semi-political nature.[3]  Music-Theatre does not necessarily have a continuous plot in order to make the scenic representation convincing since musical completeness can be conveyed with the residue of a plot.[4]

As a composer, my primary interest is in exploring the boundaries that exist between musical and theatrical performance, and the different ways they can be united in the new form of Music-Theatre.  I'd like to discuss this term by defining exactly what music and theatre are.  Music is very difficult to define, however, in simple terms: music can be said to be a "desired" sonic event.  This sonic event can involve pitch, duration, timbre, frequency and rhythm.  The word theatre has many references, coming from the latin "theatrum", meaning a place where people watched a drama (action, something happening).  This brings us to interesting contradictions presented by the term Music-Theatre.  If theatre origianlly meant a place where spectators watched something happening, how can this have anything to do with music, which is a sonic event.  Of course, theatre is not just about seeing (as any blind person will tell you), just as John Cage defines music in terms of action.[5]  An excellent opportunity for constructing clearer communication is offered by the radio-play, a genre that is neither purely literary or musical but acoustical, and of indeterminate context.  This special radio form fundamentally depends on a particular kind of clarity whereby the listener senses no need for the things that he hears to be made visible.[4]  Music is also not just about hearing - if it was, why do people want to see an orchestra or ensemble play?  Stravinsky said that any performance of music is automatically a piece of theatre by its sheer presence.[5]  Traditional styles of music and theatre exist in a specific format that have been considered the norm for these mediums.  For music, notes are written on paper (as part of a score) which is brought to life by musicians).  This music was usually based on a strict tonal system.  In theatre, words are written on paper (as part of a play) and brought to life by actors.  These plays are restricted by the fact that they have to use language.  Both are held in tight and constricting systems of convention and tradition.  Perhaps the function of Music-Theatre is to break these traditions, particularly as they exist in relation to one another.

Working on stage and for radio and learning instrumental music greatly influenced my concept of performers and performing, although I could not reconcile the difference between dramatic and instrumental performance.  I was drawn to the stage because of the freedom in self-expression it provided through dramatic improvisation.  Studying contemporary literature and theatre coupled with my own view of the problems of communication through words, helped me to realize that language should not be regarded as the most important means of communication and that there were many things I wanted to express that I could not communicate through language.  I soon discovered that acting was not a satisying creative medium, nust as musical performance was restricted by tradition and form.  When I began composing, I didn't really understand why.  Now I know that it was the beginning of my search for a successful formula for combining my interest in theatrical and musical performance.  It soon became imperative for me to find new ways to incorporate theatre techniques into my composition.  My first venture into this area was in an early composition called Night Shades.  Initially, I began composing the work using musical structures, but it soon gained a theatrical level when I decided that one of the instrumental parts was going to be taken by a voice.  The example taken from the score (pictured below) shows a climactic poit in the piece.  The vocalist enters earlier on in the score providing sudden contrast, but performs a primarily musical function during the development of the work.  As the piece starts to reach this climax, the voice starts to take on a dramatic function, and exits after the hysterical shrieks pictured below.  This composition was the first to truly explore the liminal zone that exists between theatre and drama.  The presence of the singer suggests a dramatic function, although the vocalist does not sing words and performs largely musical tasks.  The composition has a spatial and theatrical element that was not present in earlier works.

[score example, Night Shades, Hysterical shrieks]

I began searching for new methods in composition that would take me away from the formalities of using an instrumental score.  My next important theatre work was composed because I was trying to represent Byron's famous poem Darkness in a form that would be pertinent to a contemporary audience.  The poem is of a horrific nature, using bold and frightening imagery, and reflects a rather pessimistic view of the future of humanity.  In my composition, I wanted to depict an intensely theatrical post-holocaust soundscape.  The work uses a deck of prepared cards (read by five people who sit around a small table) and a group of instrumentalists.  It uses five short but important excerpts taken from Byron's poem.  The cards are altrnately whispered and read out loud by the readers according to instructions on the cards.  These cars have instructions for levels of dramatic intensity, which increase as the readers work through the deck (morbid tone, mournful, with a hint of fear, approaching madness, totally hysterical and so on).  The deck also contains four solo speeches that divide the composition into sections.  They are important not only because of their relationship to the structure of the poem, but also because they afect what the instrumentalists play.  Examples of the cards are pictured below.

[cards taken from Darkness]

The instrumental parts are sparsely scored and are mostly patterns to improvise around.  The solo speeches signify to the instrumentalists that the composition has entered a new section, and a new pattern of improvisation begins.  During the performance, the readers sit behind a semi-transparent screen and the lights are gradually dimmed.  The table with the cards is lit by candles.  As the work develops, the text literally drowns in its own enthusiasm.  The readers begin to lose control as the dramatic intensity increases.  The words of th text (which have been constantly repeated) now have a new dramatic function as they can no longer be understood.  The instrumental parts, although largely extemporised, are intimately related to the development of the text, and give the work a feeling of musical progression and space (it is suggsted in the programme notes that the instrumentalists surround the audience).  The work is concluded by a scream and the extinguishing of the candles, leaving the performance space in Darkness.

My attitude to the use of language in performance has largely affected much of y early work, first forcing me to use language in an alternative format (abstracting it from any literal meaning) and then to reject language entirely and work with other forms of communication.  After completing Darkness, I became interested in literature involve in experimentation with language.  This was the primary influence behind my work which uses a text by graphic artist Edward Gorey - called The Object Lesson.  The text is basically a series of humorous clichés that sound as though they should make sense, but in fact don't.  In performance, instrumentalists alternately read sections of the text and play from the score, so that a single constant stream of text emerges above a pool of instrumental sound.  The text has been divided into thirty-four parts, and each player has a series of excerpts which only he/she recites.  After a reading of the complete text, the excerpts are mixed and read in a totally new order.  The sense of the text moving around the instrumentalists in a cycle is broken.  After this the combinations of text starts making less and less sense and it moves into absurdity while the instrumental sound envelops it.  The joke in this piece was that the text was developed in a musical form, and the music developed with theatrical styles (the instrumentalists had to read text).  This work has an obvious comic element, but it also reflects absurdist drama - the disintegration through mixing the repetitions stoops the text of meaning, questioning the purpose of the language.  The works also sets up tension by projecting two performance systems at the same time.  This work was clearly exploring areas of music and theatre, leading towards the discoveryof a new performance language.

An important theatre work that followed soon after the experimentation in language of The Object Lesson, was a composition that entirely rejected language as a form of communication.  The title was taken from the first line of a poem that I wrote after completion of the work, and is called From a Gable Window.  Its primary attribute, as well as rejecting language, was in rejecting the use of visual images.  It worked with an important area in the acoustical worlds of music and theatre: Radio-Drama.  The composition does not use language, but it has a very strong narrative or programme that uses musical gestures a s a form of expression.  It is a tape composition involving the manipulation of recorded sound, and to obtain the full effect the work should be played in darkness and at the loudest possible volume.  The wordless cries of pain and terror shuld emerge from the darkness and be a positive affront to the listener.  The work is basically the editing together of four musical scenes, with the addition of some special effects to unite the scenes in the planned scenario.  Three of the scenes were recorded in a large hall with stone floors, and one of the scenes was recorded in a smaller acoustic space to provide contrast for a climactic build.  Thirty-two local performers and technicians gathered late at night at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in May last year.  All performances were improvisations under the direction of the composer, using simple hand signals and conducting techniques.  The scenes were planned in detail before performance, but because of the improvised format the performers required no prior knowledge of the structure of the piece.  The work also uses montage effects which were achieved by multi-tracking in the studio using the recorded scenes and the special effects.  The composition is recorded in stereo which gives a wider space in sound that where it was recorded so an awesome and ominous soundscape is provided.  The poem below summarises the atmosphere and action (narrative) within the composition.

From a Gable Window

The Ghastly howl of the Viol

Rends the night air

Answering an exquisitely distant note

From the darkness;

Spectral strains

Played with sinister intent

Can attract nightmare forces

From the blackness of space illimitable.

Studying contemporary performance theory has excited me in many ways, helping me to discover more points of connection between music and theatre, and to find a theoretical basis for more research into this area of composition.  A work recently composed for a production of the play India Song by Marguerite Duras explores new areas of Music-Theatre.  Her use of memory as a fallible form of representation evoked my interest, as did the largely musical structure of te text, existing always on the boundaries of music and theatre.  It is narrated by four unseen and ethereal voices who try and recapture a tragic love story that occued in the distant past.  The composition India Song Overture and Piano Blues was composed to introduce the theatre piece, although sections of this work are recalled throughout the performance and are used by voices as connections with the past.  The compositional process for the work and its function in relatin to the theatre piece itself is ncuded in the introduction and programme notes for the full score.  What is of primary interest to us is the function of the overture at the beginning of theplay.  In her script, it says that music is played "to cover the time - always long - that it takes the auience to emerge from the ordinary world they are in when the performance begins." then she asks for it to be layed again, "farther away, at its usual rhythm - blues."  Duras is attempting to bring the audience out of the space they exist in when they enter the teatre, and into the space of the theatre peice - the antiquity of the past.  The teatre work exists in a constant state of ambiguity as to what is in the past and what is the present, and questions the concept of space in music and theatre.

In addition to performing its role as an 'overture' at the beginning of Duras' play, as well as structurally during the work, my composition India Song Overture and Piano Blues has also been worked into a piece of performance art, exploring space and time in music and theatre.  A description of this performance work is included below.  This work is to be performed in front of an audience.  It should be performed in the evening, and the performance space should be set-up to allow for a state of total darkness at certain points during the work.  A good stereo sound system is required so that pre-recorded music will be allowed its maximum effect.  The stage is set-up as follows.  A vase of fresh roses sits on a large pillar, stage mid-right.  A group of instrumentalists are set up to perform a musical piece (positioned mid-left).  They have their instruments out and are seated around music stands.  They are very still and look distantly in different directions, never at each other.  Once is comfortably seated (after maybe a couple of minutes confused silence) a distant and detached improvisation begins.  After about three minutes, the tape begins to play, and the pre-recorded music gradually overtakes the live sound.  At this stage, the lighting starts to gradually decrease.  The performance space becomes filled with this sound.  The purpose of the pre-recorded sound gradually enveloping the live improvisation is to set up an ambiguity as to what is live and that is recorded, and therefore what is in the past and what is in the present.  While the music develops, the instrumentalists move quietly off stage in the darkness.  The music now totally fills the theatre space and follows its course of gradual development.  Over about a twenty minute time-span, the piece moves from detached long-note music gestures to a piano piece in the blues style.  Fragments of melodies are heard in different transformation. These fragments are united in the third section of the composition, and the formation of the blues piano pice moves the audience into the past (the distorting world of memory).  When the composition reaches its third section, a gradual introduction of the piano blues, a spotlight gradually begis to highlight the illar and vase of flowers.  The music gradually moves into the distance and the piece comes to an end.  During the darkness, the instrumentalists have moved behind a screen, positioned midway between the pillar an the music stands, although a little further downstage.  Petals have been scattered around the base of the pillar to suggest that time has passed.  The lighting now highlights the flowers both because of their representation of antiquity, and the fact that the instrumentalists have now become a product of the past and are no longer represented on stage.

Performance has become an important tool in my compositional repertoire, expanding my scope to include theoretical concepts and representational forms I have never considered as part of my work.  However, in this essay I have discovered the extent to which my earlier compositions have been influenced by these concepts, and I have now found a voice for the representation of these new concepts in my work.  In the future, I hope to work more with the performance and theory of that ambiguous genre New Music-Theatre.


[1]  Richard Vella, Music and Representation, New Music Articles 8, 1990, NMA Publications.

[2]  Marco De Marinis, From Ritual to Theatre.

[3]  Reginald Smith Brindle, The New Music, Oxford University Press, 1975.

[4]  Mauricio Kagel, On the Artist's self-understanding and tasks, New Music Articles 1, 1982, NMA Publications.

[5]  Richard Vella, Music/theatre as a Theatre of Ideas, New Music Articles 8, 1990, NMA Publications.

Details of Compositions Discussed

Theatre Piece (1960)

for one to eight performers

by John Cage

Night Shades (1988)

2 flutes, soprano and piano

by Zachar Laskewicz

Darkness (1989)

for one to eight performers

by Zachar Laskewicz

The Object Lesson (1989)

Text by Edward Gorey

Word play for wind instruments and piano

by Zachar Laskewicz

From a Gable Window (1990)

Gothic Horror Tape Work

by Zachar Laskewicz

India Song Overture and Piano Blues (1991)

for Voice, 2 flutes, alto-flute, 'cello, synthesizer and piano

by Zachar Laskewicz






May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings