Recently I had an exchange of emails with a young composer, who is interested in the zone where music overlaps with theater. This is not to say Opera, or Musical Theater, which are defined genres with their own issues. No, this composer was interested in how musical and listening experiences are impacted by gesture, lighting, spatial considerations, etc., and was frustrated at how musicians dismissed such interests out of hand. This conversation follows some months with a student who was an opera singer, specializing in Baroque music, who felt that her work was increasingly culturally irrelevant and who was seeking new ways to use music and her voice in connection with media, in order to create original work that would explore many of the same issues of gesture, light, space. Time and again she felt that Music, as a discipline, had failed her.
So I have to say things haven’t changed much in the 40+ years since I was in college, trying to explore the space between music, the visual arts, and theater. At a recital I gave in 1975, that included a dancer, actors reciting texts, and musicians engaged in performing in ways that well beyond typical instrumental performance, I recall vividly the response. A faculty member from the Theater Department came up to me and said,” What you’re doing isn’t Theater, but I thought the music was wonderful.” As he walked away, a faculty member from the Music Department came up and said, “Well, I wouldn’t call what you’re doing Music, but the theater was wonderful.” I had a vision then of what my future career would be like, officially dismissed by both Music and Theater professionals for wanting to explore (in ways other than just the foolish) the interplay of music and theater.
I mention the foolish because all the musicians I encountered were fine with the idea of Theater as a joke. If it was meant to be laughed at, it was fine. Theater was OK if all you were doing is fucking around. But as something serious? No. It always seemed to come back to this tautology. Music is sound. Sound is something you can’t see. If you create a work in which part of the experience is something visual, then how can it be music? I was always asked, would the music be the same if you couldn’t see the piece? and I would restrain myself from saying, “Of course not, you annoying fuck, that’s the whole point!” I recall a faculty member from the Theater Department who complained (whined, actually) that musicians were never on time for rehearsals, and knew nothing, absolutely NOTHING, about lighting. It was hard to argue with him on either point. I have been known to say that my career as a composer would have been much simpler if I didn’t have to deal with musicians.
But people like me are still out there. The young composer Andrew Norman, who has begun getting some serious attention and will probably start winning major awards soon, is in fact as intrigued by gesture as he is by sound. He asks performers to change positions on stage for different sections of a work. As his work evolves, this might expand into full-fledged theatrical forms. But I think serious change in classical music may have to come from pressure in the realm of pop music. The British pop musician and composer Imogene Heap, for example, has been using technology built into gloves that allow her to shape sounds in realm time through gesture and movement around the stage. Some of this technology has been in use (or development at least) by avant-garde musicians like Laetitia Sonami and Pamela Z for over a decade now. But seeing these things enter the realm of pop music will put a new pressure on music and musicans to accept the idea of a musician moving around, using gestures - using her body - to make sounds. And is it the same if you can’t see it? someone will certainly ask. To the many people buying her CDs, that may be a moot question. Finally.