Listening to theatre music(ians)

Paper for the Working Group Sound, Voice and Music, TaPRA Exeter 2019, 4 Sept 2019

David Roesner, LMU Munich

There are many taxonomies of listening out there – and worryingly they often come in „threes“: from Roland Barthes’ three modes of listening via Michel Chion to Barry Truax’s three modes.

These are all useful first orientations and distinctions in trying to structure the complex phenomenology of the process of directing one’s aural attention to theatre, music or indeed the world, but far too crude. They have thus invited critique  such as George Home-Cook’s caveat, that listening should – with reference to P. Sven Arvidson – be considered a much more dynamic process, a process also in a sphere of attention that is not separate from our visual attention, and a process that is embodied. Katharina Rost  has, with a similar interest in phenomenology of sound in performance, additionally pointed out, that most taxonomies of listening usually map out normative forms of reception with an ideal recipient in mind, but often fail to capture the plethora of modes of attention actually at play in live performance.[1] Here, auditory attention is, as Rost puts it, “plural, diverse, differentiated, incoherent and paradoxical” (2014, 393).

I’d like to shift the attention a little within this short paper towards another aspect: I will address listening not as a phenomenological entity but as a discourse threads. In other words, I will look at how people talk about their auditory attention, conceptualize it, and describe it. The reason is simple: In the past three years I have spent a lot of time listening to a particular community of musical practice (Kenny). These roughly 20 people have in common that they all compose, produce, record, perform and design theatre music, which has long outgrown its former name “incidental music” in my opinion. Both historically and currently they are, as Millie Taylor and Leah Broad have very helpfully pointed out, marginalised by academia and critics alike and it is time to listen to their music and also to what they have to say.

To begin with their occupation already provides an interesting listening dispositive, not quite alike that of other composers/musicians:

  • Their music may be instrumental during rehearsals but not make it into the performance
  • Even in performance their music is often not (consciously) heard
  • They develop their music in a constant feedback loop of listening to: the actors’ lines, the noise (Kendrick and Roesner) of the performance, the instructions of directors, the advice (or sometimes rejections) of sound technicians, the acoustics of the performance space and the potential of its sound system
  • They listen to their own music again and again when mixing and producing it
  • They often negotiate between listening to their own unique voice as composers and to the wealth of available music for inspiration or as a direct quotation to form part of the intermusicality (rather than: intertextuality) of theatre music
  • Today, their music often never exists in a final definite form: it often is a QLab or Ableton software file, which hold many tracks and instructions, but may well play differently at each performance.
  • Also: the music may not exist in a format that can listened to anywhere else than in the performance venue, since theatre musicians often use multi-channel setups and produce neither written scores nor stereo mixes which would allow for readers or listeners outside of the theatre to have access to it.

All this fascinated me and I have thus conducted a range of semi-structured interviews with about 20 theatre musicians and composers, which will come out as a book in October 2019:

For this paper I have revisited the material to see how and when “listening” gets mentioned, what place it occupies in their discourse and how this accentuates different aspects of auditory attention. Rather than hoping to form yet another taxonomy, however, my focus will be on using the differentiation of “listenings” to learn more about theatre musicianship and the unique aesthetics of their music and sounds (a distinction that is very blurry particularly in this field).

One final brief preface: as you may know the German language works with many pre- and suffixes to words and the word “hören“ is no exception! So on occasion that brings concepts into play that might not be this obvious in English. Here is an indicative list for orientation – no worries, we won’t go through them all, but I will come back to some. From the interviews I have picked five different aspects from within the discusive thread

Listening as analysis and associaton (Heraushören)

Here are three statements which point in the direction of a form of listening which is both analytic but also associative:

Nils Ostendorf: I read the play and see what it triggers in me. The first impression is often a starting point for the music. It is a kind of sound basis, which I hear, or a musical idea of the director, which we agree upon.

Octavia Crummenerl Gloggengießer: The first table read is an important moment, as it is the first time I hear how the play sounds and get a sense for whether my impresssion of its rhythm while reading it is confirmed.

Lars Wittershagen: I buy many new albums, listen and dissect them and file them under particular playlists on my computer.

In all these instances, theatre musicians are both listening intently for something yet to be determined by the material but also act in reaction to what they hear. This resonates with Home-Cook’s idea of „(aural) attention as creative response“ (which is in itself his response to Bernhard Waldenfels) 2015, pp. 48-49). It also is a form of listening which is intentional and directed on the one hand and intuitively hovering on the other. It is being attentive for what might grab one’s attention. It is sometimes pre-verbal: A certain actor’s voice pattern may lead to an association, to an instrument, a rhythm, a melodic interval without any detour via language. In other cases, like in the instance of labeling playlist to prepare and collect material one might play with or draw inspiration from, it uses labels although these often are shorthands, which may capture only a certain superficial quality as a reference point like „brass“ or „fast“ or „retro“.

Osmotic hearing (Nebenbei hören, Durchhören)

From preparation to full rehearsals I came across this interesting notion, that in German-speaking theatres, theatre musicians are now often almost continuously present during the rehearsal process, both due to the lack of a job distinction of composer and sound designer, but also, because the current dramaturgies and performance styles develop in such close partnership with the music – be it live of pre-produced (a distinction that is also increasingly blurry).

Asked where and when she works, Julia Klomfaß responded:

A lot happens during rehearsals and I’m just there and listen when the actors read or do anything and then I develop something or search for sounds. That’s always quite exciting, I find, when you have the actors’ tone of voice around you, and you take that on board, into the key, in which you works, or into that which acts as a counterpoint or into the small sounds that you suddenly find in a Logic-File and then work on.[2]

Thomas Seher reports a similar mode of working:

Improvising in my case means that I work with headphones on while the director communicates with the actors next to me. It seems to be important, that I don’t do this at home, but that the music develops at the place where it happens. I absorb particular atmospheres or irritations and find a stylistic pathway which helps me and embeds me into the piece.[3]

I call this ‚osmotic hearing‘, since the theatre musician seems to form a kind of selectively permeable membrane (by means of cognitive directing of attention or by technical means like a set of headphones), which allows for enough of the acoustic environment to leak in to imprint itself on the compositions, but equally the musician frequently leaks his/her music into the rehearsal space to leave an imprint on the dialogue, gestures, movements, atmospheres even if – eventually – any direct traces of either may no longer be detectable in the final result to an outside eye and ear.

To render audible / intelligible (hörbar machen)

Another notion that came up in a few instances, was the question when a piece of music is actually aubible or rather „listenable“ enough for it to able to be merited within the creative process. „Hörbar“ here does not mean audible in the sense of loud enough to register, but something that is realized or accomplished to the extent that it can communicate what it aims to (to a non-musical) creative team in rehearsals?

While many directors are, for example, well versed in understanding a costume from a drawing or a piece of stage design from a model to scale, many struggle with a piano version or a basic MIDI rendering of an ensemble piece of music. Jörg Gollasch reports, that he sometimes spends a lot of time to simulate a certain listening experience, particularly when a theatre piece hinges on a compositions, which he has written, but for which the musicians may only come in to play it late in the rehearsal process. „ I can’t say to Karin Beier for her opening production as the new artistic director of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg: ‘there will be a 20 Minute piece of music at the beginning which you will hear first time at the dress rehearsals’!“

Conversely, he and others also express frustration, when actors or directors don’t have the the patience to allow for the necessary rehearsal time to develop and shape a piece to a point when its Gestalt becomes tangible enough to appreciate its merits for the piece. There is a threshold of becoming „listenable“, before which ideas can be dismissed too hastily. Directors are trained to ignore rudimentary stage or costume design in early rehearsals, or actors who aren’t off script, but may lack the ability to listen imaginatively and completingly („sich zurechthören“) to early stages of the music.

Listening habits (Hörgewohnheiten)

It was noteworthy that many of my interview partners referred to listening situations outside of rehearsals and performances as formative influences on their work. Their own listening habits and musical enculturations were often cited and referred to, but also their intentions towards the presumed listening habits of their audiences. There were two broad tendencies, I found: On the one hand, a quest for the unheard sound, the blank sonic canvas (Malte Beckenbach e.g. speaks of trying to develop music which is beyond the listening habits of the audience, so that they have to find their bearings and figure out, where they are, creating „narrative moments which feel new to both the performer on stage and the audience“). On the other hand an interest in referential sounds, in the quality of a pop song as a capsule of time, space, zeitgeist, etc., which forms an intermusical shorthand, like this one:

Within a few minutes of music and sound (even without the visuals), one is transported to a very specific time and place and a rich context of personal and social history, politics and Zeitgeist is evoked. The German pop theorist Diedrich Diederichsen describes this phenomenon as follows:

Music is a piece of world, just like architecture, but which, in contrast to architecture, one can expand and extend much further via quotation and imitation. Music starts as a world, as a quotation, as an acoustic photograph and is then transformed into something else, a painting. Most music of today, particularly pop music, is both: world and tapestry, inanimate object and yet rendered alive, reducible to broken intentions and weird passions and fetishes. From there, one could lead it into theatre and then somewhere else altogether. Start with a familiar function then grant this purely functional music autonomy.[4]

In this context it is not just important, what musicians listen to – current or historic mainstream to be familiar with listening hegemonies then and now or, experimental fringe material to expand one’s palate and pallette and surprise mainstream audiences or appeal to niche target groups. It is significant how they listen: on vinyl or spotify, on iPhone speakers or high end monitor speakers („Abhörer“), which dancing, jogging or commuting. All these instances of listening as musicking – to use Christopher Small’s ever-useful coinage – become nodes in a continuously expanding web of intermusical references, both personal and shared.

To sound like xy (Sich anhören, wie xy)

Finally, given the somewhat conflicted role of theatre music between both autonomous contribution and utilitarian background, theatre musicians have to negotiate between being at service and recognisable, using and imitating styles or musical worlds and developing one’s own signature sound, being heard or unheard (with a nod to Claudia Gorbman’s seminal book on film music, Unheard melodies). In German „sich anhören wie“ includes the notion of listening but means „to sound like…“. So this concern about the recipient’s listening, is embedded in this discourse: Beckenbach puts it like this:

When someone asks me to create something that sounds „pleasant“, some of my colleagues would be offended. I try to see this as a challenge to focus on this notion and try to achieve this effect in a way that is still interesting and artistically valid and ideally to still make it sound like a Malte Beckenbach track.

Lars Wittershagen, who also works a lot with adapting existing songs or styles puts it this way: Despite having to a great variety of musical idioms he has a signature sound based on the selection of sounds and timbres, an atmosphere of melancholy at the heart of his arrangements, which makes him recognizable. Whether it is football chants, brass band, Bossa nova or Dubstep – it all has to „go through his computer“, he says.[5]

Theatre musicians thus marry their own listening habits, preferences and personal style to the kind of auditory experience they and the creative team feel the theatre piece and performance concept in question call for and the kind of musical attention they aim to achieve by their audience.


What this brief list of instances and processes of listening indicates, is how theatre production and performance are pervaded at each and every stage with processes of aural attention which are layered and multi-directional. For theatre musicians there are multiple interesting tensions to navigate, to consider and to thrive upon as composers, musicians and performers:

  • Between listening to the sound world of the text and ones inner sonic imagination in response
  • Between listening to the actors’ utterances, gestures and noises and making them listen to one’s own musical utterances, gestures and noises
  • Between one’s own listening habits and those imagined to be the audience’s.
  • Between the necessity to work with musical mock ups and imperfect renditions and the risk of one’s idea not (yet) being heard
  • Between stylistic malleability and maintaining one’s own stylistic signature

I have thus tried to sketch out a listening dispositive which is different to that of an audience member, and to explore how this is manifest in a small sample of discourse fragments and positions from a relatively neglected creative force in theatre making.

[1] See e.g. Rost who critiques the underlying normative ideals of listening, which are fundamental for the handbooks: concentrated listening (e.g. in speech perception), structural listening (e.g. in music reception) and listening-to-signals (e.g. in noticing significant sounds and noises) (2014, 103; 192; 290). These notions privilege forms of listening based on an awake and investigative focus with an aim of understanding over the many ways in which our auditory attention is distracted, drifting, unconscious and unfocused.

[2] „Viel passiert auf der Probe. Ich bin einfach oft da und höre zu, wenn die Schauspieler*innen lesen oder irgendwas tun, und dann entwickle ich zumindest schon mal etwas oder suche nach Sounds. Das ist immer ganz spannend, finde ich, wenn man die Stimmlagen von allen Schauspieler*innen neben sich hat, dann nimmt man das tatsächlich schon auch mit, finde ich, in der Tonart, in der man sich bewegt oder in dem, was dagegen steht, oder in kleinen Klängen, die man plötzlich in einem Logic-Album findet und dann bearbeitet.“

[3] „Das Improvisieren sieht bei mir so aus, dass ich unter Kopfhörern arbeite, während der/die Regisseur*in neben mir Gespräche mit den Schauspieler*innen führt. Das scheint wichtig zu sein, dass ich das eben nicht zu Hause mache, sondern dass die Musik an dem Ort, wo es passiert, entsteht. Ich nehme bestimmte Stimmungen und Irritationen auf und komme stilistisch irgendwie auf eine Spur, die mir hilft und die mich auch in das Stück einbettet.“

[4] Der vom Theater längst geahnte Umstand, dass Musik nicht einfach eine weitere, eventuell korrespondierende Kunst ist, hat sich mittlerweile herumgesprochen. Musik ist ein Stück Welt, genauso wie Architektur, das man aber, im Gegensatz zur Architektur, über Zitat und Nachbildung hinaus noch wesentlich weiter ausbauen kann. Musik beginnt als Welt, als Zitat, als akustische Fotographie und verwandelt sich dann in etwas anderes, ein Gemälde. Die meiste Musik der Gegenwart, zumal die Pop-Musik, ist beides, Welt, Tapete, unbelebtes Objekt, und dennoch hervorgebracht, rückführbar zu kaputten Intentionen und seltsamen Leidenschaften und Fetischismen. Von da aus könnte man sie hereinführen ins Theater und dann ganz woanders hin. Mit einer vertrauten Funktion beginnen und dann dieser rein funktionalen Musik Autonomie verleihen. (Diederichsen, Diedrich: »Fülle des Wohllauts. Ein guter Popsong bleibt auch im Theater immer er selbst – von der Rolle der Musik bei Thalheimer, Christoph Marthaler, Alain Platel, Frank Castorf und manch anderem«, in: Theater heute 10 (2003): S. 18 – 25, hier: S. 24.)

[5] LW: „Ich glaube, was von mir gefordert wird, ist teilweise extrem unterschiedlich. Mal sind es Live-Chöre, mal Einspielungen, verschiedene Stilistiken und so dachte ich lange von mir, dass ich gar keine eigene Handschrift habe, weil ich eben in so unterschiedlichen Feldern arbeite. Oder höchstens, dass die Handschrift darin besteht, dass ich so flexibel bin. Aber mittlerweile denke ich das nicht mehr: Ich glaube, es ist zum einen der melancholische Charakter, von dem ich vorhin gesprochen habe, und eine bestimmte Auswahl an Sounds und Klangfarben, sowie der elektronische Charakter meiner Kompositionen, die einen Wiedererkennungseffekt haben.

DR: Ich kann da bei dir auch nicht den Finger drauflegen: Es gibt einerseits eine enorm große Palette von Idiomen, mit denen du spielst – von Blaskapelle über Fußballchöre bis zu Bossa-Nova und Dubstep …

LW: aber alles muss einmal durch meinen Computer [lacht]. “

Dieser Eintrag wurde veröffentlicht in In English, Vortrag von David Roesner. Permanenter Link des Eintrags.

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.

Ein Gedanke zu „Listening to theatre music(ians)

  1. Dear Hypotheses blogger,
    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on the and slider.
    Best regards,
    The Hypotheses team

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.