Genetics of ‘Incidental’ Music

by David Roesner

(Based on a presentation at the international conference “Tracing Creation”, Antwerp, 9-11 March 2016)

Abstract: In 2010, I collaborated with the actor and writer Bella Merlin (UC Riverside, California) and director Miles Anderson as the composer and sound designer of Merlin’s one-woman show Tilly No-Body. Catastrophes of Love. The project was an episodic portrayal of the famous Austrian actor Tilly Wedekind (1886-1970) and her troubled marriage to playwright Frank Wedekind, whose muse and leading lady she became at the expense of other engagements as an artist. In this post, I will reflect on the slightly unusual creation process of this highly musical piece of theatre across two continents and a range of technologies. Using concrete examples from the production process, I want to analyze the different kinds of dialogic relationship between music/sound and acting/writing/directing and will seek to tease out some wider implications for the relationship of theatre and music in theatre-making processes.

One of my current interests is to investigate processes and aesthetics of contemporary incidental music, theatre music or sound design (see my comments on the distinction between those terms in Roesner 2018), particularly in European theatre practices. This is an often marginalized area in both theatre and performance studies and musicology – the former tends to feel it lacks the specific competence for analysis, the latter often dismisses it as mere “Gebrauchsmusik” or “utilitarian music” without sufficient musical merit. (A colleague, who writes and performs incidental music very successfully in Germany, Ingo Günther, made a very pithy comment about the notion of utilitarian music: he asked, so what is utilitarian acting, utilitarian directing or utilitarian stage design, then? (Helmig 2015)

In 2008, a special issue of Theatre Research International entitled “Genetics of Performance” was published, which introduced this term to highlight an increasing interest by theatre and performance scholars in rehearsal practices, development processes and the nature of creative work in their field of research. From such a perspective, the music written or adapted for theatrical performances is an interesting case in point, not least because as a discipline/field of work it has seen particularly drastic technological and aesthetic developments in the past two to three decades and has started to leave a wealth of digital traces. So before discussing a case study of a particular sound design I worked on a few years ago, I’d like to sketch out some of these developments.

Theatre Music and genetic research

  1. Incidental Music or Theatre Music, as I prefer to call it (since ‘incidental’ already seems to suggest a marginal role), has become much more neatly fitted to the individual production and much more closely intertwined with its processes of creation. While historically, theatre music was either was a frame (with an opening overture, entr’actes, which separated acts and/or scene changes, and a finale), which had no or merely a passing relationship to the play at hand, or a score produced in relation to a particular play (but not necessarily a particular production) – Beethovens Music for Goethes Egmont [1809], or Mendelssohn’s Music for Shakespeares Midsummer Night’s Dream [1826/43] are famous examples –, today’s theatre composers tend to generate music which is tailored to a specific production and is an integral part of its structure, aesthetics and conceptual design.
  2. Since music production is often (but not always) digital nowadays, creating a score for a show often produces many successive files in sound editing software such as Logic Pro, Cubase or Ableton Live. Like edits in the dramatic text or devised script, these layers of drafts document changes in the dramaturgy, the timing of scenes, the developing aesthetics of performance. They also may give us access to rehearsal strategies, as many directors – from Meyerhold to more contemporary examples – use music in developing scenes, atmospheres, characters and subtexts, while the music itself may well no longer be present in the final performance.
  3. Many theatre musicians nowadays are present throughout the rehearsal period and often even earlier, which means that they no longer primarily re-act to a largely finished product (like most film-composers do), but influence the dramaturgical development and the conceptual ‘reading’ of the material throughout the creative process significantly. This may manifest itself in strong musical assertions, such as musician Bert Wrede and director Michael Thalheimer’s decision to use the film theme of Won Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love, for almost the entire production of Emila Galotti at the Deutsches Theater Berlin in 2001.
  4. In a post-modern world, theatre music has increasingly become intertextual (again, the clip we have just seen demonstrates this) and with its web of references and citation thus also often documents what films, composers, rock artists etc. were influential points of references for the creation process and left traces on the theatrical imagination.
  5. In terms of performance genetics, theatre music is also interesting due to the complex materiality and mediality of its traces and the related forms of communication. It is a mixture of metaphors (how else to describe music) and very concrete, quantitative data (length or volume of a track), a paradox of the immaterial nature of music and the very tangible means of production and reproduction of instruments, recording and amplification devices, interactive sound design set-ups, etc.

Now I’d like to turn to the case study in question, in which I was involved as a sound designer with the aim to examine our process in relation to its outcome.

Tilly No-Body

Tilly No-Body (Davis, CA, 2010) was written by Bella Merlin who – after playing Lulu as a young actress in London – became fascinated by the first actress to play this part, Frank Wedekind’s much younger wife and muse, Tilly. Tilly had a troubled marriage with Frank and a roller-coaster career on the Weimar stage.

Bella Merlin with a photograph of Frank and Tilly Wedekind. Photo: Barry Schwartz

Bella researched and wrote the script, often using Tilly and Frank’s original texts from plays, letters and Tilly’s autobiography: Lulu – Die Rolle meines Lebens [Lulu The Role of My Life].

It was consciously designed as a one-woman-show with a distinct circus-aesthetic, a range of ‘attractions’ (see show programme below), which cast snapshots on key aspects of this relationship.

A core theme was the question of identity: Bella writes in her blog: “Who are we as actors? What lies beneath the mask? How do we peel away our social, professional, personal, domestic masks to prepare a blank canvas for creating a role? In fact, once we do peel away the masks, does anything lie beneath?” As Tilly was forced by Frank to be exclusively acting in his plays, she was limited to speaking his lines, becoming a mere voice/mouthpiece to his thoughts. The theme of a complex and ‘composed’ personality and its conflicting layers was reflected in the idea of sloughing skins like a snake. Bella wore five costumes underneath each other, shedding them one by one as the performance progressed.

On of Tilly’s many iterations. Directed by Miles Anderson, costumes by Maggie Morgan, stage design by John Iacovelli, lighting by Thomas J. Munn. Photo: Barry Schwartz

Music was already a major feature of the project from its planning stages: Bella herself is a singer-songwriter and had written a number of original songs for the play. She also had very clear ideas about musical moods and sounds for a soundtrack that would help set the scenes in this fast-paced kaleidoscope of locations and interactions. For some of the songs she accompanied herself on a lute (see below), on others, I prepared a backing track for her. Soundscapes, non-diegetic music, live and recorded accompaniment were often neatly interwoven.

Bella Merlin singing her original songs to words/themes from Tilly Wedekind’s life. Photo: Barry Schwartz

The full show can be seen here:

The unusual element of our collaboration, however, was the geographic distance during our collaboration and the need to work together almost entirely virtually.

A Virtual Genesis

With the exception of a first meeting in person a couple of months before rehearsals started, Bella and I had to collaborate across 8 time zones or 5000 miles, since she was working in Davis, California and I was in Exeter, United Kingdom. We only met again for the final week of dress rehearsals and tech runs in Davis. At our first meeting, Bella already had a pretty clear sense of where she felt the show would need music and she had already written four original songs for the piece (inspired not least by Wedekind’s own proclivity for cabaret style couplets), which I later underscored, but also used as a melodic and harmonic basis for most of the scenes.

Contrary to the more wide-spread practice of developing and adding music in reaction to rehearsed scenes, I started developing the music ahead of any rehearsals and had in fact devised most of it by the time rehearsals started. What this meant was that quite against my dearly held convictions about the necessity of an early presence of the theatre musicians at rehearsals and a close co-development of the music with other elements of the mise en scène. I didn’t spent any time in rehearsals, but instead had to rely on Bella’s descriptions via email, filmed excerpts on YouTube and a good dollop of intuition.

For a researcher of the genesis of performances, who in Josette Feral’s words tries to “facilitate the preparation of pertinent and well-informed analyses of the production, studies that take the creative process into account by linking it to the final product presented onstage” (2008, 226) this might lead to a number of reasonable assumptions regarding the relationship of music and theatre in this production. On the one hand, the music preceded the production, but it closely followed the text and its implicit staging, which Bella in her multiples roles as writer, dramaturg and prospective actor had exceptionally clear ideas about. It would be fair to assume this context would lead to a certain compositional coherence, structural clarity and for the music to play an integral role in the subsequent staging.

In contrast, the relative absence from the process and the modelling of pieces of music to filmic snippets as well as in reaction to email instructions, however articulate, would suggest the music might have been more a servant, a filmic underscoring, an afterthought, at worst at kind of illustration or ‘mood enhancement’ to the piece.

I would, however, argue that despite a genetic process that did suggest otherwise, the music was in fact notably closely integrated and interwoven with the performance and in constant flux between following and leading the action and the continuous construction of character that was so central to the piece’s theme. It also was often deliberately contrapuntal. Bella Merlin reflects this:

David often works against the dramatic texture of the scene: if the scene is already melancholic, then he finds a pulse or a key that counterpoints that to add to the audience’s emotional journey. If the scene is frenetic, he finds an atmospheric cranking up of tension in a different time signature from the written text. In this way, he weaves a whole new thread into the fabric of the production. There are times when the sound acts as a partner to the actor: Frank Wedekind’s spirit is often conjured up by the soundscape. Other times, Tilly’s inner state is revealed. Some of the melodies that I have written for the cabaret songs are reconfigured in motifs within the music. Sound effects are given a life that renders them more than just a ticking clock or a tram screeching or a train bell clanging.

Merlin’s production blog for the production of Tilly No-Body, 2010

What a focus on the genesis would also reveal (not least because many exchanges happened in writing) is that due to the time difference and distance certain musical structures and ideas actually prevailed, as we couldn’t change them instantly there and then in the rehearsal room to fit the performance. So by the time I could have made edits and change the length of a piece of the timing of a cue within it, Bella had found an acting solution to match her performance to the score.

And finally, the music was certainly quite eclectic (see examples below) and despite casting a reasonably careful net of motifs and melodic throughlines, it was also characterized by a certain playfulness and ‘ad-hoc-ness’ rather than coherently through-composed. This was not just in response to the dramaturgy of “attractions”, which Bella had developed for the script (see programme notes above), but also due to the material circumstances of the music production. This perhaps suggests another angle on the genesis: a cultural materialist account on creation.

Tilly dances. Music: David Roesner
Backing track to “Girl on an elastic rope”. Music: David Roesner
Tilly as puppet. Music: David Roesner

Cultural Materialism

This approach would suggest that all art is born out of a set of material conditions which leave a mark on their process and result: Theatre music is, more than I wanted to acknowledge, subject to the ‘means of production’ (in Marxist parlance) available at any given time. These became, if I am honest, quite an important sideshow in my process and remind me that even if I tend to give meaning to all artistic choices as expressions of theatrical purpose, performative coherence, dramaturgical structure etc. when writing about practical processes or analyzing performances, there were other drivers at play, too:

One of my concerns was (and is) that given my restrictions of time, equipment and experience I was limited to using readily available software and audio and would fail to make the result sound ‘professional’. I was acutely aware of the material limits and abilities at my disposal and one creative impulse that was entirely external to the show and its theme or dramaturgy, was how to sound ‘good’ (see also: Curtin and Roesner 2016). But where does this notion ‘sounding good and professional’ come from and what does it entail?

In theory, I embrace each and every discourse about the imperfect, the ready made, the ‘cheap but sexy’, the appeal of the trashy, the amateur as a quality etc. etc. Indeed, reference points that occasionally came up between Bella and me due to the cabaret and circus metaphors of the misé en scence were artists like Tom Waits or the Tiger Lillies, who would each run a mile and then some from sounding ‘good and professional’ on the face of it. (Needless to say, a great deal of care goes into their respective sonic scruffiness.)

I did rediscover that ‘finding a sound’ is essential in theatre music, arguably more than any harmonic or melodic considerations: In the digital age, ‘orchestration’ is still important, but it has shifted towards technology, which is at the same time liberating (as it put the means of production into the hands of the creative worker), but at the same time limits them to the choices made available by the affordable software packages. I fell in love with some of the sounds available through Garage Band such as the Glockenspiel (much to the amusement of the creative team), and detested others, mostly brass instruments, still using them as they were called for by the piece.

My other limit and chip on my shoulder that I felt I had to overcome is that I don’t play the piano – which is a real handicap. Luckily, I had a midi pickup for my guitar, which allowed me to play some of the virtual instruments (such as the double-bass and others) with some degree of musicianship. But this means that the music is influenced by my specific instrumental sensibilities and by a number of quirks that happen when you play a virtual saxophone through an electric guitar. (Here, ‘incidental music’ as a term makes sense again due to the accidents and incidents that may shape the final result.)

I guess what I am trying to say here, and what a cultural materialist’s awareness would highlight, is that a great deal of my creative choices were an inextricable mixture of musico-dramaturgical ideas and concepts, music-technological limitations and opportunities and some largely extra-musical anxieties born perhaps out of my dual professional personality as an academic and artist, with an emerging heavy imbalance towards the academy. The latter, however, would probably remain largely invisible to the cultural materialist unless he/she was able to offer a thick description and was privy to insights also into some of the immaterial factors going into artistic processes.

So, the point I am trying to make with my perhaps rather narcissistic account, is that there are some rather interesting and unusual factors to consider in genetic research and that theatre music is a particularly interesting prism though which to look at these processes:

  • Theatre music occupies an intersection between temporal and spatial dramaturgies;
  • It is related to structure, atmospheres and characters alike;
  • It is both immaterial and highly technical;
  • It is influenced by considerations of concepts, abilities, and material conditions;
  • It follows a good deal of intuition and taste
  • It negotiates the coherence of the performance with a musical coherence.


I will pause and finish on this last point: Creating theatre music and sound design is perhaps a more intuitive process than I wanted to admit: it is determined by body memory (in relation to instruments) and habits with the various interfaces one uses – usually the computer. Despite many conceptual and dramaturgical considerations (many of which fell by the wayside eventually), a musical ‘instinct’ often takes over, which I find difficult to attribute meaning to, when wearing my academic hat.

The process or “genesis” is then characterized by emergent dramaturgies and processes. Jeffrey Goldstein defines “emergence” as follows: “The arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems” (Goldstein 1999). Theatre music could thus be regarded the result of a process between human and non-human agents, by which structures, relationships, motifs, sounds etc. come to the fore and fall into place; a process which couldn’t have been thought of or determined in advance, and also could probably not have been fully articulated at the time. But how, then, as researchers do we frame and analyze the serendipitous, emergent, playful, intuitive and arbitrary? Any comments or suggestions?

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Über David Roesner

David Roesner ist Professor für Theaterwissenschaft mit Schwerpunkt Musiktheater an der LMU München. Er forschte und lehrte bisher an den Universitäten Hildesheim, Exeter und Kent. 2003 erschien seine Dissertation Theater als Musik, 2007 wurde er mit dem Thurnauer Preis für Musiktheaterwissenschaft ausgezeichnet. Zuletzt publizierte er die Monographie Musicality in Theatre (Ashgate, 2014) und arbeitet jetzt an einem Buch zur zeitgenössischen Theatermusik.

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