Podcast Transcript for the episode “ICHNEUTAI by Sophocles – the invention of (theatre) music?” of the podcast STAGING SOUND: REFLECTING THEATRE MUSIC AND SOUND DESIGN


00:00:23 Introduction

David Roesner:

Welcome to another episode of Staging Sound, our podcast on all things to do with sound and music and technology and theatre, obviously, and performance, and all those kind of things.

Today, I am very happy to welcome Konstantinos Thomaidis, who has also been on the previous episode, from which you will remember him. He is going to tell us a bit more about a project he has recently done, which was a combination of research and practice really. And that will take us very ‘meta’: it will tell us all about theatre about theatre music and music and sound and all matter of things, and I am very happy for him to explain.

Just as a reminder, Konstantinos is a Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre & Performance at the University of Exeter in the UK. He has published widely on all matters to do with voice and performance, and performer training as well, for example, Voice Studies: Critical Approaches to Process, Performance and Experience, which was in 2015. Also, the wonderfully concise Theatre & Voice from 2017. He is also one of the editors of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies, which you may want to ask your library to subscribe to.

With me today, as my co-host and another interested person to ask Konstantinos questions or to find out more about his project, is Millie Taylor. Millie Taylor has also been on the podcast before. She is the Joop van den Ende Chair of the Musical at the University of Amsterdam. Again, also being a practitioner for many, many years, she has toured Britain and Europe as a freelance musical director in musical theatre, and she has published widely on the musical. But also, she has published recently Theatre Music and Sound at the RSC: Macbeth to Matilda, a book from 2018 that is very much at the heart of the theme of our podcasts.

Welcome both of you.

Well, Konstantinos, I know you’ve got plenty to tell us, give us an insight into your project, which is about a Sophocles play. Tell us more about that.

00:02:33 On Sophocles’s Satyr Play Trackers (Plot Summary)

Konstantinos Thomaidis:

Thank you, David, for the kind introduction. Thank you, Millie.

The play is called in Greek Ichneuctai; in English has been translated as Trackers and in German as Sniffing Hounds1. It is quite an interesting play because it hasn’t had a very long performance history—and that’s because it is a fragment. For centuries, it has been missing, and we only had something like two or three lines from Hellenistic or Byzantine commentators talking about the play—so, all we knew was that it was a satyr play written by Sophocles.

And then, about 100–110 years ago, between 1908 and 1912, an excavation took place in a town in Egypt, Oxyrhynchus. In there, they found papyri. And there was this big archaeological discovery, which was: in one of the papyri, we had 400 lines from the play: the opening of the play, almost 2/3 of the play. In a way, this is a play that’s also, for us, a document of what a satyr play looked like, because we only have another satyr play surviving, by Euripides, and that’s the only one and most complete fragment we have.

This [Ichneutai] is a play that dramatizes for us, and stages for us, the invention of music, at least according to Greek mythology. Essentially, it is one of the first plays of the European, or Western, canon that stages for us how music was created and how this first music was received by its listeners.

If I were to summarize the plot of the play, what happens is:

We are at the top of the mountain Cyllene, which is in Peloponnese, in Greece, or the mythical Arcadia, nowadays Corinth. God Apollo comes in really upset—because it is a satyr play, the gods are sort of between comedy and tragedy, so still of course very godlike and stately but at the same time we see him a little bit dishevelled. And, he sort of says, ‘I’ve been running throughout Greece, I have this big problem’. Which is: Apollo was the god of cattle, and his cattle has been stolen and he’s running around Greece asking: ‘What happened? Did somebody use magic? Where are my cattle?’ And he proclaims that whoever helps him to find the cattle is going to win a lot from him.

And here comes Silenus, who is the old leader of the satyrs, saying: ‘OK, I heard something about the prize, who was calling?’ And Apollo says again, ‘I have this issue’ and he [Silenus] says ‘I’m gonna find it for you. And what’s the prize exactly?’ And, very interestingly, Apollo says: ‘it’s gold and liberty, freedom’—so whoever brings me my cattle back is going to win these two things. And Silenus says to us ‘OK, I have a whole troop of my kids and followers, the satyrs, and they’re going to come and help’.

Enter the satyrs, the chorus of satyrs, and they start searching. The first, I don’t know, I would say 100 or 150 lines of the play are them trying to figure out where the cattle is. They are sniffing and working on all fours, trying to find where they are, in all sorts of comedic manners because they get really confused. They follow the traces on the ground and, at a certain point, they start getting really, really puzzled, because the feet seem to have been walking backwards, and they [the satyrs] don’t know what’s happening. (As an Athenian audience, you know from the myth that the god Hermes did that to the cattle).

They arrive at the entrance of a cave at Mount Killini, Cyllene in English. And what happens there is: as they search for the cattle, they hear a sound that they’ve never had before, and they all get so frozen, they’re, like, so scared. They are in awe. They cannot move.

Silenus, who follows them, does not hear the sound. He’s like, ‘why have you stopped? Why are you frozen?’ and ‘we have a job to do. There is gold and freedom waiting for us’, and all that. But the satyrs are sort of ‘Father, there’s this sound. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve never heard it before’. He [Silenus]… there is a whole comedic speech that he does against them, saying ‘oh you’re such cowards, did this and that in my youth and you‘re afraid of a sound, I’m going to follow you.’ By the end of the speech, they start searching again.

And we hear the sound for a second time. Silenus goes ‘OK, that’s something I’ve never had before. I’m really scared. You go and find it. I don’t care about gold and freedom. Bye’—and he disappears.

So, then the satyrs go: ‘We hear the sound coming from underneath the earth. We’re going to start stomping and dancing until we scare whomever makes the sound out, and they come up’. And they do that, there is a whole scene where they stomp and dance.

Who comes out is the nymph of the mountain, Mount Cyllene. The important thing is, in ancient Greek imagination, this is not a goddess that resides in the mountain, it’s actually animism: it is the mountain that comes out in female / god / nymph form and talks to us. She basically says: ‘Oh you really disrupted what I was doing underneath. What do you want? Why did you make all this fuss? What was all this sound?’ (Already you can see that the dramaturgy is [along the lines of] ‘What is this sound? Who said this? Who said that? Can you define this sound for me?’)

So, she comes out, and because she knows the satyrs from before, she sort of confides in them.

What has been going on is: Zeus had an affair with another nymph – as he always did—and out of this affair Maia gave birth to a new god, Hermes. And Maia, the mother, got sick after birth. So, the nymph Cyllene has been looking after the child, she has been the nurse. And they are hiding that child in the cave because they don’t want Hera, Zeus’s wife to find out about this affair.

Then the satyrs ask, ‘OK, what’s this sound? Because we’ve been hearing a sound and we don’t know what that is.’ And again, the nymph, after a long discussion, confides in them that the child, because they’re a god, within six days grew up, grew really intelligent, and invented something new, a new machine –and that machine is an instrument. (For the Greeks, that’s the invention of the lyre, an ancient string instrument.) And everybody’s like, ‘oh, what’s this machine? What is the animal?’

There follows a whole riddle scene, because what Cyllene says is that animal did not have a voice when it was alive but now when it’s dead, it has a voice. She describes the instrument built out of an animal as having a voice that the animal did not have beforehand. And as she describes how the instrument was built, she says… There is a whole game with the satyrs what ‘was the animal like, was this or that?’, and they end up with Cyllene saying to them that it was a tortoise and the child used it as the resonator and then used reeds and the entrails, the guts of sheep to create the first cords [strings] and he stabilized the resonator, to create the resonance, with skin from cattle.

She carries on talking about the instrument, but of course, the satyrs go ‘what?’ And then they realize that the little god escaped and stole his brother’s cattle, and that the cattle are underneath the earth, and of course, they accuse the little god as a thief. 

Cyllene goes: ‘How dare you accuse the son of a god?’ This is, roughly, where the fragment ends.

But we know the end of the play, from commentators and from a couple of other sources, for example, there is the Hymn to Hermes2. We know that in the end what happens is that Apollo returns on stage and the satyrs tell him, ‘this is who stole your cattle’ and that they found the cattle. Apollo gives them gold and freedom and there is a big ‘party’, dancing and music, etcetera.

Then the two brothers reconcile with each other. And what happens is: Apollo, who also hears the sound of the music, goes, ‘Oh, what’s that?’, so he decides to forgive his brother and also hand the cattle in to him (in Greek mythology, Hermes is the god of cattle, the leader of cattle), on the condition that Hermes gives him the lyre—and this is how Apollo becomes the god of music.

So, this is roughly the plot, and this is the end of the play.

00:11:53 On the Research for the Production by Mikhail Marmarinos

David Roesner:

Amazing. And great to have the whole context there because obviously, as you say, it’s hardly been done. It is not a familiar play. Some Greek plays we know very well, and they have been done also here in Germany a lot but this one I’m hardly aware of. Can you tell us a bit more about… So, you have mentioned already that that there is music and the invention of music and the invention of instruments, and also it sounds like the e-ffects and a-ffects of music are front and centre in this piece. You talk about the fear, you talk about how it’s the unknown, and Chion and others call it the acousmatic nature of that sound, that sound where we can’t detect the source. We can’t see where it’s coming from, and therefore we also don’t know what it is. That seems to be an almost anthropological constant that those kinds of sounds disorient us or make us curious in a positive way, and, in this case, to begin with it’s fear.

So, you have been involved in the production of that play and you have mentioned before to us that there was a long research period. Obviously, there’s some textual research, I assume, some looking into, you know, ‘what can we find?’ ‘What versions are there?’ ‘Where might fragments belong?’— etcetera, etcetera. But I’m sure you’ve also researched musicality of ancient Greek theatre and so forth. Tell us a bit about that, that background and that research.

00:13:14 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

This particular production was directed by Mikhail Marmarinos3. Mikhail Marmarinos is one of the most prominent Greek directors since the ’80s in Greece; in a way, he is the advocate of postmodernism, devised theatre, includes a lot of physicality and chorality in his plays, and over the years he has shifted also towards performance, and site-specificity, and what we would call here in Germany composed theatre4. The production, it was the first full staging of the play for one of the big festivals: in Epidaurus, in Greece. 

And for this, we were lucky enough to have an almost three-year period of research. What happened was: in 2019, when Mikhail Marmarinos decided to stage the play, we were co-teaching at a workshop at the ancient theatre of the Dodoni, on Greek drama and more particularly on sound and voice around Greek drama. He was teaching acting classes—and his approach is always very musical, or at least informed by music and sound—and I was doing the voice classes, but I was also his assistant in the acting classes, bringing in the element of voice and sound. So, the first thing we did was that we explored the text really deeply with the trainees regarding the plot and the characters, but also the moments when music occurs. My job, by the end of this—because I brought in my researcher self as well—was to create what I call a ‘sound map’ of the text5. Because I studied a little bit of philology before (my second degree was philology before I left for the UK), I went in[to the text] and I studied all the words for their meaning in terms of the Greek context, especially words that had to do something with language and sound and music—what they meant in context—and sort of traced the trajectory of how people perceive sound or how sound appears in the play. That became the basis of a second phase of research the following year, in 2020. The play was commissioned by the Athens and Epidaurus Festival for 2020, but then the pandemic came. And what we did with the company was that we spent about three months online, researching the play further, starting rehearsals. Then the production was staged in 2021 in Epidaurus. It had a small tour. There were two performances in Epidaurus. Then, importantly, the production a month later was performed at Mount Ziria, which is Cyllene, it was site-specific, next to the Cave of Hermes. This was the very first production of ancient theatre that happened in that place. And then it [the production] ended up in in Athens, in the Odeon of Herodus Atticus, very close to the theatre of Dionysus, under the Acropolis.

00:16:12: Some Findings

In that period of research, yes, we worked around ancient Greek music and sounds, and some of the findings are quite interesting6. So, if we look at the text, the first things that became obvious out of this mapping, this sonic mapping of the play, is that the play sonically begins by the usual sort of rhetoric and text-based sonicity of ancient Greek drama. When Apollo comes on stage, he uses words like ‘I proclaim’ or ‘whoever listens, this is the text like that I swear by’, etcetera. Then, when Silenus and the satyrs come, we have a slight shift to quality of voice, not necessarily text: they say, ‘I heard your passionate voice, and I thought you were upset. Do you need my help?’ And then, as we keep progressing, as the satyrs start listening to that first sound, the language becomes a little bit confusing, because they don’t have vocabulary. They keep shifting between terms. And the terms they use are a lot of the time φωνήphone, which means voice, or φθέγμαphthegma, which means ‘word’ or ‘text coming either by an animal or a human or an inanimate source’. They don’t know the source, as you said, for them it’s very acousmatic. And there is this whole middle part where there is linguistic confusion that reflects their state of reception. 

Then, when Cyllene appears and they talk about it [the sound], then we start having really precise terms. The satyrs start saying: ‘Oh, I hear this vibration coming through the earth.’ Then they say, ‘oh, this vibration which comes from a string’. Διαχαράσσω. So: they start realizing that the source has to do something with a string, and then, ‘this is vibration-from-a-string that comes through scratching’. So they have then another word. They realize that it’s, you know, tactile and there is a human involved, sort of a hand involved behind it. And as they talk, Cyllene says to them: at the beginning this sound was made, this voice was made; and then the first sound; and then what she calls aiolisma, which is what we would call melismatic sound, a little bit more differentiated; and then she calls it melos xymphonon, which means melody that goes up and down and creates, you know, symphonic, which means harmonic, sound. Essentially, we hear that, first, we have a physical movement that produces a certain kind of sound; then a sound that gets more varied; a sound that acquires melodic features; and in the end, a sound that acquires harmonic features. 

So, Cyllene and the satyrs, when they talk about it, not only do they try to deal with this new sound, but they give us also a map towards understanding music. They say to us: you can hear at first the sound, and then, if you have to decipher it, you can hear to sound individually, then sound together as melody, and then sound together as harmony. For me, there are two interpretations: either, as they hear little Hermes playing ‘downstairs’, under the earth, Hermes becomes a little bit more skilled, and the music develops. Or, Hermes, because he is a god, already is very skilled, but the listeners—the satyrs and Cyllene—become more skilled listeners and, as they hear, they listen to this music a little bit better or in a more complex and sophisticated way.

00:19:50 How to Name Sounds?

Millie Taylor:

But I think there’s something really interesting there about the fact that they have to name it. And so they’ve got to use language, but particularly they’ve got to use voice in order to name it. And so the whole premise of the play is actually founded on something quite bizarre. Because actually you’re using voices, you’re in chorus, and you’re talking about sound. And they’re dancing as well, the dancing is both rhythmic and musical. So, in a funny sort of way, they already had all these tools, they just hadn’t named them. So, is this actually a play about naming these things or is it about the discovery of an instrument?

00:20:35 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

I think it is—and actually in the chapter I talk about this aspect of the play quite at length—I think it’s two things at the same time. 

One is precisely, as we say, that music [in this case] comes to our language, to our terms, to our understanding. So, there is a codification of it taking place, and voice has this very interesting role in the play in that it becomes an anchor for the music, a comment. If you go to a gallery and you see a painting, you have the explanatory note, the text beside it, which Barthes called anchorage or anchoring7—I think that’s what the voice does for us, tells the audience how to listen to this sound. They [Cyllene and the satyrs] sort of frame it. Also, it becomes, interestingly for our contemporary sonic imagination, the background of that music. Because a lot of time in contemporary music- or sound-based theatre, music is the sounds out of which voice comes (e.g. song we break into)—song becomes the foreground sound. But in this play, we have all these voices singing and talking to each other, and music becomes the foreground sound.

But another aspect that’s quite important, the second aspect, is that if you listen to the language, you are right, we are in a world that is full of music. But I think it’s a little bit more free-flowing, and I would call it a world of musicality. They had music, they had dance, they had rhythm. And very interestingly, in this play, we have no humans. The satyrs are half animals. There is a nymph. There are two gods, there are cattle. So, it is a play about a world that’s full of music, that is now coming to human ears, who codify it as music. It’s a play that says that music has to do with what we would call anthropo-listening—sort of centering the anthropos, the humans, around the notion of music—and, at the same time, sort of tongue-in-cheek telling us: ‘but we had it all the way before you came to it.’ And that’s a basic operating principle of the universe.

00:22:46 Early Listening to Theatre Music 

David Roesner:

I wanted to pick up on the question of listening, because when you were talking about how sort of the listening develops and it kind of comes from a very basic understanding of ‘there are vibrations’ to an appreciation of melodic differentiation essentially, it’s interesting if you look at some of the more recent theories on listening or philosophies. I am just thinking about Chion again, with his three modes of listening8. It’s almost the opposite. 

It’s almost like there is semantic listening first and foremost, because that dominates our day. We, as you, dear listener, are doing right now—you are listening to this particularly with an interest in what we are saying or what the meaning is. And then there’s a second layer which is about sort of ‘where does this come from?’, which also features in the play. (Where is this underground? We need to stomp to find out what this is). And then and only then, sort of almost as a kind of archaeological discovery where you dig deeper, then you get to the sound itself. What is the sound itself? What are the vibrations? How could you describe it?

And the same goes for language. How do you describe it? So sometimes they talk about what the sound sounds like. Sometimes they talk about how it may be produced, so they fantasize about what could create that sound. And then at some point they probably also think about what it means, what its function is, etcetera, etcetera. And that’s quite fascinating, because it’s really a number of ways in which we engage with theatre music, or theatre sound as well, that sometimes it’s predominantly there to guide our attention, to structure a play, also to obviously create emotions, atmospheres etcetera. So, it kind of covers that range in a very early example, although I am just curious what kind of research or what kind of sort of knowledge basis was there to talk quite sophisticatedly about the role of music and sound in theatre at this early stage already?

00:24:44 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

That’s a very interesting question. The first thing to say is, for me, the play does quite the opposite of Chion’s or Schaeffer’s tactics9. It sort of says that sound might be meaningless—which is close to the reduced mode of listening by Chion—but it is never contextless. It always either indexes identity or has effects on people. In my understanding of Chion’s project, it’s [this] sort of late ’80s, ’90s, Northern European strategy, or even American earlier on in the ’70s, of trying to work against codified appreciations of music, and trying to re-find what sound in itself was, and creating the project of sound studies. But in this play, we have a desire to keep it [sound] in context. It is always about something. About gods, about animals, about our connections, about our affect in the theatre.

When it comes to music and appreciation, again it’s quite interesting, because by that point—we’re talking late 5th century BCE in Greece; most of the contemporary philologists place the play around 430 or 420, that decade—by that point in classical Athens, pedagogy has been codified, solidified, that it is around music and sports. So everyone in Athens has had some sort of basic training in music, and the lyre, the instrument that the play talks about, was the first version of a string instrument that trainees used in their education. So pretty much everybody in Athens, pretty much every free citizen in Athens, would have had training in it. There is this basic level of [musical] appreciation.

00:26:42: Sophocles and (His) Instruments

Now in terms of that, I find that Sophocles is also a little bit ‘meta’—because he was a trained kitharodos, which means player of the kithara (which is the advanced version of the lyre, it has more strings, it’s wooden and it’s not by a tortoise etcetera)—for a couple of reasons.

The first one is: in ancient Greek drama, the instrument that was accompanying the chorus next to the themeli, or sometimes behind the scene, was the instrument of god Dionysus, which was the aulos10, the 2-reed ‘flute’ [oboe]. So, there are a couple of hypotheses around how the play was staged. The first one, really basic one, that I’m not sure holds too much truth but it’s worth entertaining, is that as per convention, the instrument playing throughout the production was aulos and everybody in the play sort of said ‘what’s that sound? Oh, lyre!’ We hear the sound of the wind instrument and, because we talk about it, we name it as the sound of a lyre, it goes ‘oh, that’s a sound that I haven’t heard before.’ The second option is that we hear aulos throughout the production, but then there are moments when we hear the lyre. So again, there is a juxtaposition against convention, [according to] what the play needs. The third option is that we hear the kithara, the advanced version. Because I would think in, and a lot of archaeologists would think, nobody would play the lyre in a big sort of politicized and open, public space, because it’s quite basic for Greeks. They would play the kithara, which they played for poetry competitions. So again, there is this ‘meta’ level, where somebody plays the guitar and people talk about it as the lyre, a different kind of string instrument. Or, it could be all of the above. So, there is already a sort of guiding of your [the audience’s] sonic imagination: in hearing the sound, there’s something else that it isn’t.

Now the second interesting thing about context there is that around the middle of the 5th century in classical Athens, there was a big public debate around the role of music, which is, later on, reflected in the writings of Plato. What happened was that there was this competition of music and poetry, Panathinaia, and in 446, I want to say, a kitharodos, a guitar player from Mytilene, another city, won, in Athens11. He was also the inventor of a kithara version with extra strings and the inventor of not pure tones but melismas, in-between tones and melismatic melody. And there were the hardcore people, conservatives that said, ‘that’s not music’ and ‘what’s happening there?’ And of course the public went crazy with the new sound. The whole debate was around the new guitar sound, νέα κιθαρωδία (nea kitharodia). So, it was a very prominent discourse in Greece. I think Sophocles, who was also a trained kitharodos, was commenting on New Music—as if you have people that know classical harmony and suddenly, dodecaphony comes about—and the play talks about that.

00:30:09 (Musical) Comedy and Narrative in Different Productions

Millie Taylor:

There’s two fascinating strands opening up. One is that what we are really talking about is comedy, and meta-narratives, and that play with the idea that there is no instrument when there is an instrument, and what we are believing in a play. So that whole sense of the way a play is constructed is being explored here in a really interesting way, and one that perhaps we haven’t ever discussed in relation to Greek theatre. So I wonder, perhaps, if we could talk a bit about that. And from then move to, then, how on earth do you deal with that in the present?

00:30:33 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

Another two fascinating questions, so fascinating. The first one is yes, this play, in a way, has become one of the primary sources that we now use to sort of trigger our acoustic imagination into listening back to theatre and what it could achieve sonically and aurally and acoustically, especially in combination with other sources. For me, it’s actually more engaging to talk about what we did with that play in the contemporary day, which is, you know, the history of the music of the production nowadays. I’ll give you a few examples.

The play was first staged in Germany, in Halle, by a German philologist /archaeologist, Carl Robert, who reconstructed the play, filling the gaps from the other sources, with students, and the only sound he used was the lyre, very scarcely in the play12.

Millie Taylor: And voices.

Konstantinos Thomaidis: Yes, and voices, of course—yes, I’m talking about music—the voices of the students.

Then, what happens Théodore Reinach, German-French, he was researching ancient Greek music, created a new translation that was picked up by a French composer, Albert Roussel, and the second staging is actually an opera. So that opera, called La Naissance de la Lyre, was performed in France in 192513. And it is—because he [Roussel] was a sort of affiliate/student of Debussy—very sort of expressionistic and Debussy-like and sort of pastoral—once again, a whole other universe.

The third very interesting production happens in Italy in the early ’30s by a Greekist archaeologist / philologist, Ettore Romagnoli, who performs it in an open theatre. As far as we know, the music was again the lyre, but he has this incredible idea, because it’s an open space, to introduce real cattle. So we know that in the production animals come on stage, and we hear the animals.

That’s pretty much what happened in the beginning of the 20th century. Then, there is a long gap in the history of productions of the play. And we must say that all these early productions come from people that are very interested in ancient Greek music as well and use the play to do their research and reimagine the acoustic past a little bit more. So, for example, Reinach writes a book on ancient Greek music a year after he stages the play, and he was also the person that 10 years earlier had decoded [transcribed to contemporary notation] the musical notation of the Apollo Paean in the Delphic inscriptions. Ettore Romagnoli is another very interesting case, because his listening-back and sort of vision of antiquity is also reflected—the context here is quite important as well—in the fact that he was a member of the party at the time of Mussolini. And I think that’s the reason why we have a big gap in the history of productions in the middle of the 20th century.

00:33:45: Tony Harrison’s Adaption in the 1980s

Skip to the 1980s when we have a renewed interest in the play. There are a couple of ‘half productions or choreo-drama productions in Greece. The most influential one comes from the UK. It’s by Tony Harrison. Tony Harrison writes an adaptation of the play, which is called the Trackers of Oxyrhynchus14. The middle section is basically a translation of the play, but what he does is, in the opening scene, the two British archaeologists that found the fragments, the papyri, in Egypt, Grenfell and Hunt, they have discussion about the role of archaeology: ‘And why we do [this]? What are we trying to find?’, etcetera, etcetera—and then they turn into the characters of the play. Then in the third section, which was first performed in the Ancient site [stadium] of Delphi in 1988, the satyrs they party, they have a big sort of ‘yes, we’re now free, etcetera’. And when he [Apollo] gives them the gold, he gives them big blocks of gold. And then as they unwrap them, the gold falls out, they become boomboxes. And there’s this sound of ’80s, very contemporary, and that all has to do with the ’80s and the Thatcher years in the UK and class. Then, at the closing of the play, they say to Apollo, ‘oh, we like the lyre. Can we play it?’ And Apollo says: ‘no, you are not worthy of this sound.’ So, there is the battle between the ‘upper’ music, aristocratic music, and the boomboxes. And what do they do? They [the satyrs] turn into 1980s hooligans that destroy the set, which is paper and fragments of the papyri, and they turn it into balls, and they play football, and they destroy the set. And [it’s as if] they say, ‘hey, our culture is boomboxes and football. And we didn’t care about this lofty high culture’.

When he restages, Tony Harrison, the play for the National Theatre in 1990 (across to 1992), in that final section, we still have the boomboxes and music comment but also the set becomes cardboard, because it was performed at the National Theatre, the ‘cardboard city’ back in the day, there were a lot of homeless people, so it becomes a comment about the people that are excluded from theatre and what is perceived as high culture. And what also Tony Harrison does very well in the play is the satyrs speak in a Northern accent, and also use boomboxes—and the dance that he uses, which was actually nominated for an Olivier Award for choreography, is clog dancing. All this ‘I’m gonna take everybody out of the cave’, they do [it in clog] dancing from the North. So it becomes a comment about the role of music in contemporary society, and I think now that has stayed with the play, and in some sort of way –I’m not quite sure whether Tony Harrison was aware of it, because it’s much later the research that we now know about nea kitharodia—is what Sophocles did back in the day as well.

00:36:51 Millie Taylor:

You mean he used regional accents and regional dance styles, or…?

00:36:54 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

He was commenting on music and the role of music and the difference between who’s included or excluded in the listening of music.

00:37:01 Politics in the Play – Through Music?

Millie Taylor:

Alright. OK. So, because I think there are two kinds of politics going on—aren’t there?—there’s one, one is that whole sort of class-based thing about what we think of as ‘music’, and then the other is just this idea of description and naming when you’re doing it already. And I think one is comic and the other is deeply political. And I think what’s interesting about what you’re talking about is, is this idea that you have both comedy and politics intertwined at this very, very early stage in Greek theatre.

00:37:47 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

And the satyr play, as far as… from what we know, it occupies this middle, in-between territory between tragedy and comedy. It doesn’t become a sort of…, it doesn’t have direct political commentary. In comedy, you have parabasis where everything stops and we address the audience or we use the names of contemporary politicians, but the satyr play uses some of the movement or, you know, linguistic conventions (not all of them) [of comedy] and, at the same time, the characters are gods and nymphs, and most of the linguistic landscape retains the sound of tragedy. It’s that in-between territory that says: ‘Or we are shifting into light relief while at the same time occupying this higher place in our imagination’.

00:38:23 Millie Taylor:

Well, not just in our imagination, but presumably in the theatre space.

Because it becomes almost as though voice and movement, and the sounds they produce, are not music, and only instrumental music is music, and I think that is a really interesting conversation, because of course that completely negates voice from the discussion of music. And, of course, then we have hundreds of years of symphonic music, or thousands in fact. So, you know, I think it’s really interesting, which is why I think you should talk about what you have done with it in the contemporary period.

00:38:58 Mikhail Marmarinos’s Production in 2021

Konstantinos Thomaidis:

In this particular production, what Mikhail Marmarinos did, and the team around him—actually more intuitively and instinctively and artistically, because that production was an artistic production; of course I was a member of the team that also had the research agenda, but, you know, the primary drive was artistic—it sort of returned us to voice15.

So, what happened was, after the first period of research, the final aesthetic is this: you are in Epidaurus in the orchestra, you have the big theatre of Epidaurus, and what we did was: in terms of the sound that was on stage, first of all, all the satyrs wore these cattle-identifying bells. Each one of them a different one, so you could hear them as different humanimals. And, also, we had a platform on one part of the stage, where you could stomp. There was wood, so you can make all the sounds of stomping and etcetera, but underneath it we had sensors and that sound got amplified. We could play with lots of sort of rhythmic ways that became really sort of vibrant and the audience could feel them. That was the sonic environment of the stage.

Now, for the first time—we had to go through a long process with the archaeological team of Epidaurus—we were allowed to also use the auditorium. We placed four musicians in different parts of the auditorium, and the music by Billy Bultheel, who composed the music/soundscape for the production sound design, was two tubas and two euphoniums, and they were spread across. And although it was music, this sort of signified the cattle, because we have two kinds of sounds: the cattle and then new music. In the sonic imagination of the piece, in the Sonic environment of the piece, it [the brass music] sort of became these two things.

And then, at the very top [of the auditorium]—this is a very large theatre—instead of being under the earth, was god Hermes, behind the audience. They don’t see him as they enter the space. Steve Katona, who was the German countertenor that performed Hermes, whenever the satyrs hear a sound, was performing really high-pitched, complex, almost extra-normal, operatic sounds. So that voice became the signifier of the ‘new music’16.


And when, at the very last part, Hermes appears on stage, he had to cross the audience singing, and then the musicians followed him because both the cattle and Hermes arrive on stage.

Then, when he talks to Apollo, another interesting sonic element was that he spoke quite in his singing register, it was a speech-song, so he retained that sort of almost recitativo-plus-singing voice. And he also spoke in an accent, which in Greek theatre, especially in Epidaurus, is a little bit, you know, not done very often. So, the new sound was a countertenor presenting himself as the new instrument, and German-inflected modern Greek in speech-song being the new sound of the god. 

The final lovely ‘touch’ by Mikhail in this production was the person that performed Silenus—the older leader and a very comic one—was Stamatis Kraounakis18. Stamatis Kraounakis is perhaps the most famous Greek composer. He has written a lot of… not pop music, he has written a lot of popular music but really quite advanced, he has discographed a lot—so everybody knows him. But he performs a spoken part, he never sings once in the play, so you have all these expectations of the audience expecting Stamatis Kraounakis to sing or have his own-sort-of-style music. And only in the end, when everybody leaves and he goes off, his final words are almost sung, like this promise of the composer we all know and love.

00:44:23 Music and Ethics?

David Roesner:

And that’s really fascinating point because it reminds us how much intertextuality, or, dare I say, intermusicality19, is almost always at play. Because you’re saying it’s… you don’t just listen to the music or the sound, but you also listen to what it references, the kind of context this comes from, the kind of connotations; you have talked about class, about high and low, what music do we associate with what. 

I was wondering to what degree—and this may be an irrelevant question—but from my scarce understanding of ancient Greek music there is not only an aesthetic debate that you’ve talked about earlier, but also an ethical debate. So, it used to be that certain modes would sort of be used in education to fortify your courage or make you a forthright person, etcetera etcetera—which is something slightly less perhaps common in I don’t know, in in Germanic or Anglophone music education. It’s all about aesthetics, and the notion of ‘playing in a certain key will make you a better person’ is a is a bit foreign to us. But does that play into this world and this place, that’s still something that people deal with consciously, or is that just in the past?

00:45:44 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

I could only make suppositions about it. And music in Ancient Greece is quite a complex subject and we all, and we know a lot about other sources. So the kind of debate that you are describing comes primarily from Plato, who is very suspicious of the arts in general –

00:46:01 David Roesner

 – particularly of theatre20 actually –

00:46:02 Konstantinos Thomaidis

Yes, particularly of theatre, because of the effects it has on people, and how it’s not about purity of ideas and influencing their [the audience’s] right-ful ethics. And of course, music plays a big part in it and how it’s staged and how it is perceived. Yes, there were certain modes that were assigned to good education and morale, and what I can say about that is it also has to do not [just] with a perceived ethics, but also function. In Ancient Greece, you had choric songs whose primary purpose was, you know, to sort of build community and create, you know, sort of mini versions of citizenship and unity. But you also had songs for war, songs for dancing, songs for symposiums, songs for theatre, music that was performed at festivals. So yes, you have different functions allocated to music because Plato tells us that he would like music to do this or that and affect people in certain ways. I’m not quite sure that this is what music did, or what some philosophers or music educators wanted it to do that, there’s a fine distinction there. I think there is an element of truth in that some people believed, you know, in its moral-building or morality-building as well in terms of ethics or functions, but at the same time, music performed itself in various, various ways.

00:47:23 Apollonian and Dionysian?

David Roesner:

I wondered—I am still thinking about the notion that Apollo becomes the god of music through this story—and then I am thinking, because you also described the almost feral ways of stomping and screaming and the cattle and so forth, and so there is that Apollo / Dionysus dichotomy there. Is that described in the play, is that something? Because it seems that this personification, allocating music to both to Dionysus and to Apollo in various ways, really speaks to those two tensions in the music, generally speaking: that it could have a sort of an educating and morally, sort of, nourishing and kind of orderly aspect to it, which would draw us to the Apollonian, and the sort of imbricating, control-losing nature, etcetera etcetera. I am saying this, of course, because German literature and particularly I am thinking of Thomas Mann and others obsessed with Apollo and Dionysus, and Nietzsche is of course as well. So, I don’t know to what degree that actually all goes back to Sophocles, and even this play, or is that just part of that universe of thinking.

00:48:37 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

Again, I can only make suppositions because I am sort of researching this play as a voice researcher, and my philology, even though I have trained in it, is at best a sort of informed amateur philology, but I have talked to a lot of people, and I have read quite a bit on the play. My sense is that this kind of clear dichotomy is sort of the way Europeans at a certain point in their own nation-building, and therefore culture-building, project projected on ancient Greece. And, I think, Greece of antiquity was not very fond of dichotomies.

To give the example here: you have Sophocles, who everybody knows as the rightful citizen, the very sort of serious and complex tragedist, here showing us that that such dichotomies do not necessarily exist –because he tells us that music was invented as an act of a very mischievous child that became a thief. And that, Apollo, who is the god of right-ful, ethical music, was second-hand god of music and he had to bargain to get to that role. And first we see him really, as I said, upset and dishevelled and the god of cattle. So his becoming the advocate, or sort of emblem, of a specific kind of music, is a project and it is a process that we sort of trace and follow throughout the play. And I think that is the comment that is been made here: that music is a wide spectrum, and even the gods that come to exemplify specific ends of the continua within which music operates came there as a process—therefore they’re sort of made, acculturated as these symbols.

00:50:29 Millie Taylor:

So, in terms of the sort of contemporary production of this, how is that continuum explored and what are the… Basically, I want you to describe a bit more what it what it sounds like this, this continuum. You’ve talked about the instruments and the sort of kinds of sounds they are making and the intermusical or intertextual associations, inter-creature associations, I guess, between humans and cattle or whatever. But what’s that sound world that we are listening to and how is that feeding into a potential atmospheric, intellectual understanding of this work?

00:51:14 Marmarinos’s Musicality

Konstantinos Thomaidis:

The first thing to say about this production—and that is very typical of Mikhail Marmarinos’s aesthetic—is that he works for months on end on the musicality of the text. I am not quite sure whether Mikhail would want me to say that… but I think he would: I overheard him in one rehearsal, leaning over to Stamatis Kraounakis, the composer, while the chorus was rehearsing, and saying to him: ‘I am convinced, even though I’m a theatre-maker, that everything is music’. So, his approach is very musical. If you listen to the text, it’s almost like a score in [terms of] its rhythm]—but not the old-school way (‘There is a meter and we take it very seriously’). It’s actually an intervention in pedestrian, everyday speech. One would speak the text in a specific way to make meaning out of it, and Mikhail breaks it down, changes the inflections, or changes where the tone goes, to create a multiplicity of meanings, or designate that this is theatre/musical speech rather than everyday speech.

So, there is now a tradition, after Mikhail and a couple of other directors, in Greece, in modern Greek theatre, that if you were to say, I don’t know, ‘What is this? This is a book.’—which is how it would make sense—it would be[come instead] ‘What? Is this? This iiiis… a book!’ So, there were different sort of breaks in the phrase, or marks and punctuations, that already musicalize the way the speech is delivered. 

Perhaps for and non-Greek-speaking audience, the closest we can get to that is … there is a Greek [film] director, Yorgos Lanthimos, who created Dogtooth or The Favorite, and the way his actors speak—because he comes from this tradition of Greek directors—if you hear the actors, they speak in this speech-song or musical tradition, which comes from Greek theatre, because he also worked in Greek theatre and he was very familiar with these directors. And for me, this a sort of transnational travel of musicality, of speech, that’s going on here in somebody like Rachel Weisz or Olivia Colman speaking almost in a Greek-theatre tradition kind of speech.

So, the entirety of the production [of Ichneutai], first and foremost is choric. You constantly listen to the satyrs, either when they speak or, also, they keep making background sounds. They are the entire sonic and vocal landscape of the piece. The music, the euphonium and tubas, are only heard at the beginning and the interventions of the cattle. Then, in the end, they create, they start… they end up playing almost like contemporary harmony—because by that point they would make dissonant sounds or almost soundscape / ‘punctums’21 in the sonic landscape—they almost create an ‘exit-band’ feeling. 


I think that has to do with something we never talked about in rehearsals but, I think, in the end, Mikhail created quite cleverly: when the satyrs are given their freedom and they have this party, the whole final section is them saying ‘yes, we are free’—and in ancient Greece they used to dance, Euoi Euan, there are cheers to Dionysus, and they celebrate. [In this production] We have this melancholy music, almost like an exit march playing, and the lights come down, and all the musicians and the cattle disappear, and they [the satyrs] are left on stage and their speech is like ‘[In melancholy/bland tone] Yay, let’s celebrate. Hey, we are free.’ 

So, I think, suddenly—we have seen them, you know, being so physical and loud etcetera—they are left out of words. They are left out of music. They are left out of voice. And they do not know what to do with their freedom. And I think that’s also what the production is showing: Freedom for what? Freedom towards what? And what do we do with it?

00:56:42 Can we Compare this to Other Forms?

Millie Taylor:

That’s a really interesting sonic dramaturgy, isn’t it? Something occurred to me as you were speaking: if… you’re talking about this this way of speaking and performing Greek text. To what extent might we make a comparison with other forms? So, I am thinking the diversity from Berio to London Road, you know. How would, how does this sit within those, and how is it notated for the performers? Because, of course, London Road famously was partially orally communicated.

00:57:06 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

The first thing to say is that, at least in Mikhail Marmarinos’s productions, it’s never notated. It is embodied and experimented with. Mikhail Marmarinos has a whole sort of system of working with instructions within which the performers improvise, and then he keeps the elements of aurality that stick with his sort of wider, broader vision. So, there is no [exact] notation that’s, that’s for sure. But all of the actors know by the end—because it’s been three years of research, etcetera—where, you know, there is an upper inflection, when there is a comma, when there is a pause, but it is an embodied understanding of this. It is rhythmical rather than notated. 

Now within that spectrum, from Berio to London Road, which is an interesting spectrum that doesn’t quite apply to the Greek context, is that… yes, there is a tradition of avant-garde music as well in Greece (and in the Italian context of Berio, there is also Demetrio Stratos23, who was one of the improvisers-vocalizers that participated into this creation of avant-garde vocality). There are just affinities with that, in the sense that Mikhail wants to explore sound for all the possibilities of its meaning. But what anchors differently his approach is that he always uses classical text that, in the end, somehow makes meaning, even though he breaks it, whereas other people would just use sounds or random words and all that. In terms of London Road, in Greece, we do not quite have a sonic landscape that reflects on class and regionality in the way that London Road does. We do have some dialects in specific regions, but it does not quite apply to intersectional sonicity of both class and regionality.

However, the way that Mikhail’s actors, and therefore the characters in his productions, speak has something to do with breaking established conventions of speaking. So, if we consider London Road an intervention into the voicescape of musical theatre and what this well-made, sort of structured, way of speaking and voicing and singing in musical theatre is, the only affinity is that he breaks what is [a] ‘proper’ speaking of the text in the context of both Greek drama and contemporary drama. And at the same time, it’s very well-researched and very ‘well done.’ It is not just experimental. You end up tuning into this new sort of way of speaking the text. And by the end of it, I’m not quite sure that everybody’s alienated by it, because it ends up being its own language. It is as if you are tuning into another way of speaking.

00:59:55 Millie Taylor:

But it does raise an issue. First of all, the piece is made on the performers and, therefore, they have some agency within it. But if this piece were performed again, are the performers therefore becoming effectively robots and even down to the phrasing and the intonation of their speech? Because that’s a charge that is sometimes levelled, not just at musical theatre, but also against some kinds of verbatim theatre.

01:00:22 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

I wouldn’t think that anybody would sort of reproduce or revive that production. We do not have a [systematic] tradition of revivals in Greece. It’s always a new production. So, I do not think—again, in the Greek context–that it would become a concern. Of course, there is the ownership of the actors. As I said, Mikhail in the ’80s was the advocate of devised theatre; it’s always ‘in collaboration with—’ 

And even in terms of the team around him: there was Mikhail, of course, that has a very musical way of creating and has his own system of training as well (that has been written extensively about). But there was Billy Bultheel, who wrote the music, and he also improvised a bit with Steve, the countertenor. So, the music in itself has Steve’s improvisations within it, and some of the musicians’, even though the tuba and euphonium parts have been written in the end. There’s the sound designer that amplifies the sound. Actually, the whole scene where they [the actors/satyrs] stomp on the platform and gets different rhythms was created by the actors and all of us chipping in—Mikhail wanted a specific sort of dramaturgy of the sound, and then Silenus, the composer Stamatis Kraounakis sort of saying ‘Oh yeah, perhaps we can try that sound,’ and I had played with a lot of the actors in terms of rhythmic training the first year of [training]. So, there is always this element of co-composition and embodied ownership by everybody.

01:01:47 Millie Taylor:

And yet, there is somebody called a ‘composer’ and somebody called a ‘director’.

01:01:52 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

Yes, of course. And I think that has to do with the fact that we are very much operating within a tradition of the auteur director. All of us contributed. All of us worked in different capacities. Even I started as a vocal archaeologist / assistant, and then sort of became, for example, the trainer of Steve Katona, of the countertenor, in Greek. So, we kept changing and shifting, sort of, trajectories within the production, but it was always in accordance with what Mikhail had in mind. Which was not ‘We’re aiming for this result.’ It was more: ‘Here is an area that’s of interest to me. Let’s all delve in and see what’s gonna come out [of it].’

01:02:33 Millie Taylor:

So, a joint exploration of the materials.

01:02:36 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

Yes, yes. So, it is very much, in a way, both collaborative and ‘authored’.

01:02:44 David Roesner:

Wonderful. I think, looking at the time, we should probably wrap this up, but I think that has been an absolutely fascinating insight into not only the play and its history and its performance history, but also contemporary staging practices in the context, really, of such a layered and complex history and so forth. So, thank you so much, Konstantinos for sharing that with us, and hope we will speak about some more productions in future episodes to come.

01:03:11 Konstantinos Thomaidis:

Thank you very much, David. Thank you very much, Millie.

01:03:13 David Roesner:

Thank you. Bye.


Barthes, Roland (1981), Camera Lucida, trans. R. Howard, New York: Hill and Wang.

Barthes, Roland (1977), ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Image – Music – Text, trans. S. Heath, London: Fontana Press, pp. 32-51.

Bungard, Christopher (2011), ‘Lies, lyres, and Laughter: Surplus Potential in the “Homeric Hymn to Hermes”’, Arethusa, 44:2: pp. 143–165.

Chion, Michel (1994 / 2019), Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, transl. C. Gorbman, Columbia University Press.

Corbier, Christophe (2008) ‘La Naissance de la Lyre d’Albert Roussel et de Théodore Reinach: des Satyres à l’Opéra’, inJean-Christophe Branger et Vincent Giroud (eds), Figuresde l’Antiquité dans l’Opéra Français: des Troyens de Berlioz à Œdipe d’Enesco, Publications de l’Université de Saint-Etienne, pp. 311-346.

D’Angour, Armand (2017), Rediscovering Ancient Greek Music

Ercoles, Marc (2020), ‘Music in Classical Greek Drama’, in T.A.C. Lynch and E. Rocconi (eds), A Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Music, Hoboken, Wiley: pp. 131-144.

Fletcher, Judith (2008), ‘A Trickster’s Oaths in the “Homeric Hymn to Hermes”’, The American Journal of Philology, 129: 1: pp. 19–46.

Hall, Edith (2002) ‘The Singing Actors of Antiquity,’ in P. Easterling and E. Hall (eds) Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-38

Harrison, Tony (1991), The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, London: Faber and Faber.

Hillgruber, Michael (2011), ‘„Ohne das Hinterteil kann der Pudel nicht laufen.“ Zur Aufführung der Spürhunde des Sophokles unter der Regie Carl Roberts im Goethe-Theater Bad Lauchstädt’, 57: 2, pp. 241-260.

T. Hourhoudi, M. Gourniezaki and V. Antonopoulou (eds) (1999), International Meeting on Music: Music and Ancient,Athens: Livanis.

Johnston, Sarah Iles (2002), ‘Myth, Festival, and Poet: The “Homeric Hymn to Hermes” and Its Performative Context’,Classical Philology, 97:2: pp. 109–132.

Kane, Brian (2014), Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice, New York: Oxford University Press.

Klavan, Spencer (2021), Music in Ancient Greece: Melody, Rhythm and Life, London: Bloomsbury.

Monson, Ingrid (1997), ‘Four: Intermusicality’, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 97-132.

Parkyn, Lottie (2022), ‘The Originality and Influence of Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus’, in Sandie Byrne (ed.), Tony Harrison and the Classics, Classical Presences, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 117-134.

Power, Timothy (2012), ‘Sophocles and Music’, in Andreas Markantonatos (ed.) Brill’s Companion to Sophocles, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, pp. 281-304.

Rebstock, Matthias, and Roesner, David (eds) (2012), Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes, Bristol, UK and Chicago, US: Intellect.

Ridout, Nicholas (2009), Theatre & Ethics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sophocles (2013), Trackers, trans. M. Griffith, in D. Grene and R. Lattimore (eds) Sophocles II, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, pp. 279-301.

Thomaidis, Konstantinos (2022), ‘Listening Back: Training as Vocal Archaeology’, Doctoral Plenary Day, Royal College of Music, London.

Thomaidis, Konstantinos (2021), ‘Training as Vocal Archaeology’, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Blog, Routledge:

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Thomaidis, Konstantinos (2023), ‘Trackers: A Conversation with Konstantinos Thomaidis’, Staging Sound: Reflecting Theatre Music and Sound Design (by David Roesner), at:

  1. A freely accessible translation of the play can be found here: []
  2. For further information on the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, refer to Johnston (2002), Fletcher (2008) and Bungard (2011). []
  3. For the production by Mikhail Marmarinos, please check the listing by the Athens and Epidaurus Festival (incl. photos and video trailer): []
  4. For the notion of ‘composed theatre’, please consult Rebstock and Roesner (2012). []
  5. For the methodology of vocal archaeology (part of which is tracing the sonic aspects of performance in the textual fragments), see Thomaidis (2021, 2022), and previous podcast on this series: []
  6. To start reading on music in Greek antiquity, including perspectives on theatre music, please refer to West (1992), Hourhoudi, Gourniezaki and Antonopoulou (1999), Hall (2002), D’Angour (2017) and Klavan (2021). []
  7. See Barthes (1977), p. 38 onwards. []
  8. For the tripartite division of modes of listening (causal, semantic, reduced) by Chion, check his book Audio-Vision (1994 / 2019). []
  9. On Pierre Schaeffer’s approach to acousmatic sounds, read the opening chapter in Kane (2014). []
  10. See Ercoles (2020). []
  11. On the cultural debate around new music in 5th-century-BCE Athens, see chapter by Timothy Power(2012): []
  12. For the first modern staging in Bad-Lauchstädt by Carl Robert, please read Hillgruber (2011). []
  13. For the 1925 French opera La Naissance de la Lyre, check the score on as it is available in the public domain: Read also the chapter by Corbier (2008). []
  14. For Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrynchus and itsproductions: See also the chapter by Parkyn (2022). []
  15. Regarding the members of the creative team and cast that collaborated on the sonic aspects of the production, you can source more information on the links below: Music by Billy Bultheel – his website: and snippets from Ichneutai; For the countertenor Steve Katona (who played the role of Hermes):; The director Mikhail Marmarinos’s website: []
  16. For a discussion of how voice can be used to stage impossible sound, see forthcoming chapter ‘Staging (Theatre) Music Reception: Voicing Unacoustics in Sophocles’ Trackers’ (Thomaidis 2024). []
  17. Source: Many thanks to Billy Bultheel for permissions to reproduce his music. []
  18. For further information, please visit: []
  19. See Monson (1997). []
  20. For a discussion of Plato’s anti-theatrical views, see opening chapter in Ridout (2009). []
  21. For the notion of punctum, in visual terms, see Barthes (1981). []
  22. The first version of this ‘exit-band’ music by the players/cattle/Silenus leaving can be heard on Billy Bultheel’s webpage, under the track ‘Sweet Sound’: The music developed quite significantly between this original composition and the performance, and one can get more accurate glimpses of how it sounded in the track used here, derived from the composer’s Instagram account: version was developed by Billy Bultheel for a concert version (Mount Analogue) in Paris (April 2023), under the new title ‘Slow Parade’—and this is what is heard in this podcast. This version is closer to the Epidaurus version but developed even further. Many thanks, again, to the composer for permissions. []
  23. See: []

Renate Plieseis: “[im]Puls – Ulrich Rasches Theatersemiotik in einer Inszenierung von Schillers Die Räuber” (2021)

[Diese Abschlussarbeit wird hier im Rahmen unserer Reihe “Groundwork” veröffentlicht – mehr Informationen dazu hier.]

Foto: Andreas Pohlmann

Die Räuber: Ulrich Rasches Inszenierung des Klassikers funktioniert – obwohl als Sprechtheater ausgewiesen – über eine ausgeprägte Musikalisierung ihrer theatralischen Zeichen. In der Spielzeit 2016/17 wurde die Produktion erstmals am Residenztheater München gezeigt, erlangte in weiterer Folge eine bemerkenswerte Medienpräsenz und wurde rege im Feuilleton kommentiert.

Der Fokus der vorliegenden Arbeit liegt nicht nur auf einer Analyse und Greifbarmachung der spezifischen Theatersemiotik dieser Inszenierung. Auch werden allgemeine Aspekte von Medialität und Performativität zur prägnanten Idiomatik von Rasches Bühnensprache ins Verhältnis gesetzt. So entsteht das Panorama eines plurimedialen Gefüges, das in der Wirkmacht seiner Stilistik wohl eine Sonderstellung einnimmt.

Die Wirkung von Rasches musikalisiertem Theater ist zu derjenigen von herkömmlichem Sprechtheater verschieden. Der Grund dafür ist ein Puls, der als zentrales Element dieser Theatersemiotik Sprache bzw. Sprachverwendung stark formt; die Stimmen der Räuber formieren sich bei Rasche zu einem Chor, der eine starke Rhythmisierung von Schillers an und für sich metrisch ungebundener Sprache deutlich macht. Jener Puls konstituiert aber auch weitere Parameter der Produktion – so ist die Bühnenmusik von Ari Benjamin Meyers im unmittelbaren Zusammenhang mit jenem metrischen Ostinato zu sehen. Seine repetitive und minimalistische Originalkomposition wird dadurch zum integralen Bestandteil der Aufführung. Zusammen mit der Sprache bildet sie ein untrennbares Amalgam, aus dem sich jedenfalls auch die Beschaffenheit der Bühne sowie die Bewegungsmuster der Darsteller:innen ableiten lassen – das unausgesetzte Gehen auf riesigen Laufbändern fügt sich mit der Art der Sprachverwendung und der ständig präsenten Musik zu einem Gesamteindruck, der deutlich vom Puls geformt ist.

Das kollektive Agieren der zum Chor formierten Darsteller:innen entfaltet in Rasches plurimedialem Setup eine Sogwirkung, der man sich als Zuseher:in kaum entziehen kann. Um die physiologische und psychologische Wirkweise der Inszenierung besser fassen zu können, wird in der vorliegenden Arbeit der Versuch unternommen, auf diesbezüglich passende neurowissenschaftliche Studien zu rekurrieren, um zu einer besseren wissenschaftlichen Fassbarkeit von Rezeptions(aus)wirkung im Theater zu gelangen. Oder anders gesagt – was bewirkt das agierende Kollektiv auf der Bühne beim rezipierenden/reagierenden Kollektiv im Zuschauerraum? Aus literaturwissenschaftlicher Perspektive wird schließlich untersucht, inwiefern die Veränderung des Dramentexts zugunsten der Bildung eines chorischen Kollektivs den Blick auf Schillers Original selbst verändert.

DIE RÄUBER von Friedrich Schiller Premiere am 23. September 2016 im Residenztheater Mit László Branko Breiding, Nora Buzalka, William Cooper, René Dumont, Marcel Heuperman, Leonard Hohm, Toni Jessen, Max Koch, Thomas Lettow, Franz Pätzold, Götz Schulte, Valery Tscheplanowa sowie Moritz Borrmann, Yasin Boynuince, Kjell Brutscheidt, Emery Escher, Max Krause, Bekim Latifi, Cyril Manusch Live-Musik Mariana Beleaeva, Martin Burgmair, Gustavo Castillo, Heiko Jung, Fabian Löbhard, Sandro Schmalzl, Jenny Scherling Regie + Bühne Ulrich Rasche Komposition Ari Benjamin Meyers Kostüme Heidi Hackl Chorleitung Alexander Weise Choreinstudierung Toni Jessen Mitarbeit Bühne Sabine Mäder Licht Gerrit Jurda Dramaturgie Sebastian Huber v.l. Ensemble.
Foto: Andreas Pohlmann

Carolin Müller-Dohle: “Say it with music” (2019)

[Diese Abschlussarbeit wird hier im Rahmen unserer Reihe “Groundwork” veröffentlicht – mehr Informationen dazu hier.]


In Christoph Marthalers inzwischen Kult gewordenem Abend Murx den Europäer […] sowie Clemens Sienknecht und Barbara Bürks Inszenierung von Effi Briest, nur mit anderem Text und anderer Musik wird – soviel ist schnell klar – mehr musiziert als repräsentiert, mehr gesungen als gesprochen. Die Musik hat sich, obwohl beide Produktionen als Sprechtheater klassifiziert sind und an namhaften Schauspielhäusern produziert wurden, vom Begleitmedium zum autarken erzählerischen Ausdrucksmittel emanzipiert.

Bereits hier zeigt sich, dass eine Zuordnung zu den gängigen Sparten wie Sprech-, Tanz- und Musiktheater irreführend ist und eine solche Festlegung der Arbeitsweise und dem künstlerischen Resultat beider Inszenierungen nicht gerecht werden kann. Vielmehr bewegen sie sich in einem Schwellenbereich, der wissenschaftlich bis auf wenige herausragende Ausnahmen immer noch wenig Beachtung findet – obwohl sich Theaterproduktionen solcher Art mehren und inzwischen fester Bestandteil der Spielpläne sind. Auch aus diesem Grund war die Zielsetzung vorliegender Arbeit, Mechanismen und Arbeitsweisen oben beschriebener Theaterpraxis zu untersuchen und deren Auswirkungen auf Dramaturgie und Rezeption zu reflektieren. 

Teil der Analyse beider Produktionen ist eine umfassende Diskussion der Performativität der beteiligten Darsteller*innen und Musiker*innen, die jenseits einer mimetischen Repräsentation einzuordnen ist. Reflektiert werden die sich daraus ergebenden Fragen u.a. mit Patrice Pavis’ Essay „Der zeitgenössische Schauspieler: Von der Rolle zur Partitur und Subpartitur“ sowie Philip Auslanders Forschungen zum Begriff der Musical Persona.

Weiterführend nimmt die Arbeit anhand der gewonnenen Erkenntnisse die gesamte Dramaturgie von Murx und Effi Briest in den Blick. Die musikalisch geprägte zeitliche Organisation respektive der Gesamtrhythmus beider Inszenierungen überschreitet das Erfüllen formaler Kriterien – vielmehr fallen Form und Erzählung ineinander. Somit kommt in diesen Fällen ein anderer Dramaturgiebegriff zum Tragen als im Theater psychologisch-narrativer Prägung. Dementsprechend muss auch die Rezeption unter diesem Blickwinkel neu beleuchtet werden, da die Offenheit des Materials, so die diskutierte These, ein prozesshaftes Sehen in Gang setzt. Mithilfe von Beiträgen aus der Musikwissenschaft soziologischer Prägung wie Simon Friths Performing Rites, wird auch der soziale Aspekt der ausgewählten und performten (Pop-)Musik untersucht. Anhand der Definition von Musik als sozialer Aktivität wird die Überlegung angestellt, dass das Wirken der Musikerdarsteller*innen in beiden Theateraufführungen individuelle Anknüpfungspunkte bieten und zugleich einen kollektiven Sehprozess auslösen kann.

Aufeinander hören. Wie Klangerzeugungstechniken in den kreativen Theaterprozess eingreifen

Ein Gastbeitrag von Dr. Katharina Rost (Universität Bayreuth)

Der Theatermusiker Alexander Dafov, verantwortlich z. B. für die Musik in Dimiter Gotscheffs „Der Mann ohne Vergangenheit“, verriet mir bei einem Gespräch, dass eine der zentralen und immer wieder gestellten Fragen Gotscheffs während der Probe lautete: „Hörst du da Musik?“ Die Frage verweist auf das – in diesem spezifischen, aber auch in vielen anderen Beispielen vorkommende – enge Verhältnis zwischen Regie und Theatermusik. Die Frage nach der Verbindung eines ‚Da’ mit Musik („Hörst du – da – Musik?“) verweist auf die potentielle Musikalität einer gerade probierten Situation bzw. eines szenischen Geschehens. Zugleich manifestiert sich in der Frage auch, dass nicht jede Situation, jede Szene der Musik bedarf. Ob und welche Musik erklingt, ist das Ergebnis der Aushandlung während der Proben, und diese Aushandlungsprozesse verlaufen auf sehr unterschiedliche Weisen.

Um mehr über den Arbeits- und Probenprozess zu erfahren, habe ich eine Reihe von Theatermusikern zu Einzelgesprächen getroffen und festgestellt, dass sie – zumindest die von mir Befragten – während der Proben aktiv in den Kreations- und Präsentationsprozess eingebunden sind.

An dieser Stelle sei aber erwähnt, dass für mich hier noch sehr viele methodologische Fragen offen sind, die sich auf das weitere Vorgehen bei dieser Probenforschung beziehen. [Eine Arbeitskonferenz zu diesem aufstrebenden Zweig in der Theaterwissenschaft zum Thema “Methodologische Diskurse der aktuellen Probenforschung” hat mittlerweile von 5. bis 6. April 2019 unter der Leitung von David Roesner und Tamara Yasmin Quick am Institut für Theaterwissenschaft der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München stattgefunden.] Bislang habe ich meine Fragen bei interviewartigen Gesprächen – mal audiotechnisch, mal durch handschriftliche Notationen festgehalten – und über einzelne noch nicht systematisierte Fragekataloge gestellt —

Diese Formen brachten zwar bestimmte Ergebnisse, doch habe ich auch den Eindruck gewonnen, dass sie teilweise an meinem eigentlichen Ziel vorbeiliefen. Zum einen muss ich die Art meiner Fragestellung überprüfen und modifizieren; zum anderen habe ich festgestellt, dass die Antworten so formuliert werden, dass mir kaum je eine zufriedenstellende, weil präzise oder klare oder ausführliche Erläuterung gegeben wird – damit meine ich keineswegs, dass die Theatermusiker sich nicht professionell über ihre Arbeit mitteilen konnten. Doch häufiger vorkommende Formulierungen wie z. B. – „Wir verstehen uns da häufig einfach.“ (D. Murena), „ja – man merkt sofort ob etwas gut und sinnvoll ist oder nicht.“ (B. Wrede), „I just play it, it is like normal rehearsal.“ (R. Jansen) oder „Dadurch, dass wir uns auch gut kennen, weiß ich auch ungefähr, hier bräuchte er [Th. Ostermeier] das, oder hier würde das gut funktionieren.“ (N. Ostendorf) – deuten an, dass unter Theatermusiker*innen ein stillschweigendes und kaum irgendwann explizit artikuliertes Verständnis bestimmter Prozesse vorliegt, das die intendierte Wirkung und die Prozesse zu ihrer Erreichung umfasst. Das Wissen, wann etwas gut oder passend ist, und das Sich-Verstehen zwischen Regisseur*innen und Theatermusiker*innen spielt sich zwischen ihnen durch Gespräche, kurze verbale Kommentare oder Aufforderungen und über Blicke und gestische Zeichen, aber kaum über verschriftlichte Auseinandersetzungen ab. Diese ereignishaften, dynamischen, situativ bedingten Prozesse primär nonverbaler Kommunikation während der Proben herausarbeiten zu wollen, macht andere Methoden (auch hier sei nochmal auf die Münchner Arbeitskonferenz verwiesen) erforderlich, als ein Fragebogen oder ein Interview – teilnehmende Beobachtung während eines Probenprozesses über einen längeren Zeitraum hat sich mittlerweile als ein praktikabler Weg herauskristallisiert, an diese Prozesse näher heranzukommen. Eine solche Teilnahme habe ich bislang allerdings nicht durchgeführt – bis auf einen eintägigen Probenbesuch bei Jette Steckel und Mark Badur am DT bei der Arbeit zu „Die zehn Gebote“ und einer längeren künstlerischen Assistenz bei Deborah Hay, während derer ich auch die Zusammenarbeit der Choreographin mit dem Sound Designer Mattef Kuhlmey verfolgen konnte.

Bislang greife ich also auf die Gespräche zurück und lese aus ihnen die verschiedenen Kriterien der musikalischen Arbeit und des Zusammenspiels mit den anderen beteiligten Künstler*innen ab. Die Präsentationen der Musiker*innen während der Theaterproben können sowohl als Performances als auch als funktionale Darbietungen im Kontext einer – mehr oder weniger – zielgerichteten künstlerischen Aushandlung aufgefasst werden. Auf der einen Seite handelt es sich um einen ästhetisch-künstlerischen Findungsprozess der Lautlichkeit einer Aufführung, auf der anderen Seite besitzen die Laute im Kontext der Proben zugleich pragmatische Funktionen, wie z. B. die Schauspielenden zu motivieren, zu inspirieren oder zu strukturieren.

Ich gehe davon aus, dass die Lautgestaltung von zentraler Bedeutung für den Kreationsprozess von Theateraufführungen ist und sich im Probenprozess wie auch während der Aufführungen durch ihre

  1. performative, b. räumliche, c. zeitliche, d. affektive, e. evokative Dimensionen niederschlägt.

Die befragten Theatermusiker sind bei den frühen Konzeptionstreffen dabei und in die Vorbesprechungen zu Bühnenbild und Regie-Ansatz involviert. Bei diesem oder einem weiteren, manchmal nur zwischen Regie und Theatermusik stattfindenden Treffen stellen sie dann auf der Basis der Vorgespräche erste Ideen vor. Bei diesen handelt es sich zumeist noch um fragmentarische Sequenzen, die jeweils als möglicher „Grundsound“ (Nils Ostendorf) der gesamten Inszenierung vorgeschlagen werden. Ist dann die Richtung der angestrebten Lautlichkeit gefunden, beginnt die weitere Kompositions-, Produktions- und Bearbeitungsphase meist mit den Proben. Während das Bühnenbild auf der Probebühne zumeist noch nicht gegeben ist, treten auf diese Weise Sounds, Popsongs, Melodiesequenzen oder Geräusche bereits in eine direkte Beziehung zum entwickelten szenischen Geschehen. Dabei gehen die einzelnen Theatermusiker*innen auf relativ unterschiedliche Weisen vor, was einerseits vom jeweiligen institutionellen Kontext, von der ästhetischen Zielsetzung und der Organisation des gesamten künstlerischen Teams sowie andererseits von der individuell je unterschiedlichen Arbeitsweise der Musikerin oder des Musikers abhängt. Das Ausmaß und die Art der Interaktion zwischen Musiker*innen, Regisseur*innen und Schauspieler*innen variieren, es gibt Unterschiede in der Organisation der Weiter- und Nachbearbeitung des lautlichen Materials; ob mit der Musik improvisiert wird oder nicht, hängt vom jeweiligen Fall ab. Das Erarbeitete wird verschieden fixiert.

Es gibt aber – unter den von mir Befragten – einige grundlegend übereinstimmende Faktoren im Probenprozess. So spielen sie einzelne musikalische Sequenzen, eigene digitale Produktionen oder Live-Musik an Instrumenten, Soundeffekte oder bestehende Popsongs ein und stehen im ständigen Austausch mit Regie und Schauspiel. Sie interagieren mit den Schauspieler*innen, indem sie Impulse geben für die Szene, die probiert wird. So war in den Gesprächen die Rede davon, die Probensituation zu entkrampfen, die Schauspielenden zu aktivieren und durch das Geben akustischer Atmosphären zu stimmen, also in eine emotionale Gestimmtheit zu versetzen und sie auf diese Weise vielleicht noch stärker in ihre Figur zu bringen.

In dieser Hinsicht äußert sich Nils Ostendorf folgendermaßen:


Mark Badur benutzt diesbezüglich die Metapher des Surfens, um zu verdeutlichen, inwiefern die Schauspielenden die eingespielten Klänge für ihr Spiel nutzten: „Sie surfen darauf“.
Aber es geht auch andersherum – wie mir Nils Ostendorf sagte, beeinflussen auch die Schauspielenden und das szenische Geschehen wiederum seinen Kompositions- und Produktionsprozess:

Zudem äußerten sich die befragten Theatermusiker auch dazu, dass sie während dieser Prozesse immer auch auf die Gesamtdynamik der Szene achteten. Dies deutet daraufhin, dass während der entsprechenden Proben eine Idealvorstellung der erwünschten Spannung oder Aufgeladenheit mitschwingt, an deren Hervorbringung die Musik – zumindest im Probenprozess und dann häufig aber auch in der Aufführung – einen gewichtigen Anteil besitzt. Während der Proben gehe es oft um das Austarieren dieser Spannung; eine Veränderung der Lautstärke, des Rhythmus, der Tonhöhe und des Timbres der gehörten Laute kann diesen Prozess maßgeblich beeinflussen. In Ostendorfs Worten:

Der Begriff der Temperatur eines szenischen Geschehens tauchte in den Gesprächen häufiger auf; und auch die räumliche Bedeutung der Musik wurde von vielen Theatermusikern betont. So spricht Matthias Grübel, der u.a. für Falk Richters PROTECT ME Sound Design machte, davon, in den Proben mit Sounds „Räume aufzumachen, die nicht da sind und in denen eine gemeinsame Idee entfaltet werden kann, die ohne Musik keinen Raum hätte“.
Aus dem Vorangehenden schlussfolgere ich, dass die für die Aufführung kreierte Lautlichkeit auf eine sehr grundlegende Weise mit der entstehenden Arbeit verflochten ist. Über eine konzeptionelle Dimension hinaus wirken sich die Aktivitäten in den Bereichen der Lautgestaltung, der Regie und des Schauspiels im Probenprozess so intensiv aufeinander aus, dass sie nicht getrennt voneinander zu analysieren sind. Insgesamt wirken die Theatermusiker*innen dabei auf eine so intensive Weise an der Produktion der Inszenierung mit, dass in gewissen Fällen gar von einer – ich zitiere Richard Jansen, Sound Designer für Susanne Kennedy – „Tondramaturgie“ ausgegangen werden könnte.

Häufig resultieren aus der intensiven Zusammenarbeit dauerhafte Kooperationen – wie z. B. zwischen Thomas Ostermeier und Nils Ostendorf, zwischen Michael Thalheimer und Bert Wrede, zwischen Jette Steckel und Mark Badur oder auch zwischen Herbert Fritsch und Ingo Günther, die mit den bekannten Paarbildungen zwischen Regisseur*innen und Bühnenbildner*innen vergleichbar, doch bei weitem nicht in gleichem Maße bekannt und theaterwissenschaftlich aufgearbeitet sind.

Ich gehe davon aus, dass im Verlauf der Proben verschiedene Wissensformen angewandt und konstituiert werden, die bislang von der Theaterwissenschaft nicht systematisch festgehalten und analysiert worden sind und die sich einem solchen Zugriff auch entgegensetzen, da sie aufgrund ihrer Performativität, Körperlichkeit und Dynamik nur schwer zu verschriftlichen sind. Es handelt sich um verschiedene Formen eines impliziten Wissens, das mit dem Körperwissen verwandt ist, aber sich doch auch noch als ein Wissen um Situationen und um Spannungen manifestiert. Hierzu zählen:

– Techniken zur Hervorbringung von Klangräumen/Atmosphären/ einer Art akustischer Szenografie (im wortwörtlichen Sinne: eines akustischen Bühnenbilds mit räumlicher Ausdehnung, Schichtung, Härte, Tiefe etc.)

– Techniken der Steuerung von „Klangenergie“ (affektive und körperlich-leibliche Intensität)

– Techniken des Austarierens von Lautstärken, der Rhythmisierung, der Dynamisierung

– Praktiken der Awareness und des „Listening“ (nonverbale Kommunikation im Sinne eines Aufeinander-Lauschens; Dynamiken von energetischen Zuständen zwischen Ruhe und Unruhe; ein spezifisches Verständnis von ‚Resonanz’)

– ein Wissen zu szenischer Empathie (nicht primär als Einfühlen in eine Figur, sondern vielmehr in eine ganze Szenerie)

– Techniken des Memorisierens, Notierens, Vermittelns und Archivierens von nicht-objekthaften Prozessen der Klanglichkeit, Bewegung, Energie, Aufmerksamkeit

Diese Techniken, Praktiken und Wissensformen sind nicht speziell und ausschließlich für Lautgestaltende im Theater relevant, sondern sie erleben eine verstärkte Aufmerksamkeit in einer Kultur, die beginnt, sich neben dem bisher – und weiterhin – dominanten Visualitätsprimat noch für andere Formen des Wahrnehmens, Erlebens und Sich-Ausdrückens zu interessieren, da die mediale und gesellschaftliche Entwicklung eine solche Erweiterung notwendig macht. Im Kontext einer Kultur, in der Teilhabe, Partizipation, Engagement und Verantwortung als Werte verstärkt Beachtung finden und der geisteswissenschaftliche Fokus zunehmend auf das ‚Zwischengeschehen’ – z. B. zwischen Subjekt und Objekt – gerichtet wird, erlangt die Erkundung des spezifischen Wissens in der Lautgestaltung eine größere Bedeutung.
Ich nehme an, dass im professionellen Umgang mit Sounds, Musik, Geräuschen und Stille ein implizites und spezifisches Wissen über energetische, affektive, zeitstrukturierende Prozesse generiert wird, das nicht nur für den künstlerischen Kreationsprozess von Bedeutung ist. Zusammenfassend ist darauf zu schließen, dass Lautgestaltende als Experten des Auslotens von energetischen, ephemeren, fluiden Dynamiken eingeschätzt und befragt werden können.

Auf der Suche nach der Musikalität des szenischen Materials –

„Hörst du da Musik?“

Von Katharina Rost 


(Dieser Beitrag wurde als Vortrag bei der GTW Tagung 2018 in Düsseldorf erstmals veröffentlicht.)

Notes on Incidental Music: Musiturgy of Initial Conditions

A Guest Blog Entry by David Megarrity


A rich practice as a theatre composer is likely to involve gigs that range across a spectrum: from projects in which music or songs are central drivers (or work alongside other artforms to shape meaning in process and product) to more traditional formulations of music’s role in western theatre. I prefer the former, but the latter is much more common.

Unfortunately mainstream theatre often follows cinema in its use of music, in that it’s ubiquitous, but apparently not integral to proceedings. In mainstage, western drama it’s standard practice for the script, director and other production elements to instruct composers who work separately from the creative team, and for music to be incorporated late in the process, ensuring its status as an end-stage add-on, “a kind of sonorous sticking plaster” (Cook 1998, vi). Many theatre productions utilise music under, or interstitially between scenes, echoing the entwined encoding of music and film, which Cohen (2012, 3) describes as being like “…an invisible orchestra transmitting music from some place other than the world the characters inhabit, they are, for all purposes, incorporeal.” Michel Chion (in Herzog, 2010, 6) calls this ‘pit-music’.

While there are exceptions, music in movie is most often typecast in this supporting role, “…composed with the understanding that it will not be consciously attended to” (Cohen in Juslin 2001, 249). A similar backgrounding is standard practice in mainstream theatre, where music“…tends to serve the visual arrangement, or the design. (Kendrick, L and Roesner, D [eds] (2011, xi). However, Theatre’s tendency to evoke, rather than emulate reality means there’s more room for musical experimentation, even within these constraints.

Examining how composition begins rather than how it ends up, this piece includes practical examples from projects in which music is central, and others in which music may ostensibly have been commanded to ‘go play in the corner’, yet still makes a significant contribution to the overall work in performance. To some extent the roles of composer and sound designer are often conflated – with implications for employment conditions. However, the sound design discussed here is more conceptual than technical. 

Seeking dictionary definitions of the word ‘incidental’ will reveal phrases such as ‘not the main focus’ – ‘a minor accompaniment’ –‘likely to ensue as chance or minor consequence’ – ‘happening in connection with something of major importance’. Though I prefer my theater music front and centre, this piece explores incidental music, and how it may be enriched.


Incidental music may well seem secondary, and serve quite practical functions such as covering real or fictional changes of location, just as music in lifts is intended to ease artificial transitions between floors. It assists an audience to structure their experience of a segmented performance.

We all know that music is played in shops to offer a sonic branding and bring about an environment conducive to purchase, or simply to add human energy to the dead-eared halls and walls of commerce. Here, music performs like household hardware – not the kind of thing you’d usually notice unless it wasn’t there or was broken. Theatre sometimes uses music to provide energy that it does not have the resources to provide itself.

Incidental music could be used as sonic bookends to support stories or hinges to connect and articulate chunks of action. It can be used as a kind of ‘grouting’ to not only fill little gaps between segments, but also sonically ‘seal off’ the performance from real life, making its fiction watertight as if to say ‘these are the sounds of this world’.

Designed to be hidden, music as underscore or atmosphere in theatre performs as a paint primer: a first coat applied to prepare a surface for the final coat of perception, something that disguises and bonds a rough surface.

Sometimes incidental music is like a sign on a toilet door. It’s simply functional. It serves a particular purpose, offering information that orients the listener in a space, and signals without language where they’re likely to be going later in the evening.

All of these analogies for incidental music are deliberately mundane. Incidental music may seem to be predetermined as a wallflower at the theatrical dance, but the application of concept and craft, experimentation and exploration can result in a kind of enrichment by stealth.

It’s been my experience working as a composer in both theatre and film that the more music is ordered around, and cut to fit the hard corners of the overall work, the less useful it becomes. Its essential power (the reason why you’d have music in theatre in the first place) is attenuated every time it’s trimmed or squeezed into an existing structure, and it begins to resemble the ‘walk-on part’ it plays in television.

Sometimes the obvious choices that present themselves for any given musical solution must be considered. Cinema, television and advertisers in any form define this territory for us very well, and have entrained the ears of artists and audiences to be ready for the cliché or quick fix of ‘production music’, which is written and recorded specifically for synchronisation with audiovisual works. These are intertextual short cuts, relying on known tropes to evoke a set of ideas or actions unrealized onstage. Here, music performs as emotional lubricant.

Theatre audiences arrive with ears full of pre-conceived ideas about the role music usually plays in gluing together narrative chunks. Is a human interest story shifting location? Play marimbas in fifths over a sped-up shot of the city. Movie trailers are filled with deep booms and bangs, horns of doom, backwards cymbals, strategic silences and selections of pop and rock, with sound and music drafted in to build significance, add energy and cover for a lack of story. Imagine them without it. Imagine Seinfeld without that awful synthesized bass playing in-between scenes, and even between lines of standup monologue. It’s hard to believe that each of these riffs is carefully composed by Jonathan Wolff to respond to the show (as he says) ‘designed not to interfere’ but nevertheless highly identifiable as a brand.

There’s a real art to servicing style and genre-driven composition, production music demands, but why hire a composer if you can simply download something suitable for your scene and pay for the rights? Even basic video and slideshow editing software often has options to include computer-generated music that “adds humor, excitement and drama.” Hopefully, even if a new production wants music to play a conventional role, they want it to be bespoke: something that belongs solely to the performance.

But what happens first? The descriptors, experiments, exemplars and reference points exchanged in early creative negotiations will form the crucible for composition, and therefore greatly influence process and product.

However ‘incidental’, the music must have its own life force in order for it to converse in a stimulating way with the other elements of the performance. Incidental music can become integral. If the initial conditions that launch its creation are carefully attended to. I’m now going to focus my attention on selected projects I’ve composed for, and how they started.


I like to provide my directors with demos of potential works. I don’t read or write staff notation so that’s how I compose anyway – by playing and recording music. These experiments are put together quickly, sometimes in response to briefs, sometimes there’s a freer play involved. This small body of work opens up discussion, and allows the music to settle in, being free-range, rather than battery-hen in how it may service the emerging show.

The cutting room floor often ends up crowded. Approaches discussed, but not explored, as well as discarded experiments, and other inaudible compromises form an essential component of the final product.

These samples need to be named. Sometimes these denominations might relate to the sequence they’re intended to soundtrack. Sometimes I’ll lift a title from the text of the piece, so it sounds more like it could belong. Once it inhabits a performance, it will be homed and nameless but you have to call it something in the first place, a title that offers a potential placement or flavor for the wordless music, and enables you and the team to talk about the music.

Tom Oliver plays crockery in The Empty City (2013)


Sometimes non-musical creatives will have a sense of the kind of music they’d like as they’re dreaming up a performance, and these early discussions fundamentally influence the process of composing incidental music.

There’s a relationship between the director and composer that leads to the aurealising of a work. I just made that word up. David Fenton, director of The Empty City (2013) had presented me with general ideas as to the ‘feel’ of the music that might inhabit the work. His suggestion of Mark Mothersbaugh’s ‘Let Me Tell you about My Boat’ from The Life Aquatic (2004) led me to compose The Busy City, a piece with a similar optimistic rush and simple harmonized climbs and falls. His enjoyment of this piece acted as confirmation of a compositional approach. I knew I was on the right track, and this riff became a motif in the final work. Music became a very active player in the process of creative development.

Notably, when it came time to release the soundtrack as music alone, many pieces of incidental music were removed – they simply didn’t stand up when separated from their theatrical context.


Brian Lucas in De Profundis, 2015 (Image Dylan Evans)


When it came to a performance adaptation of the mountainous DeProfundis, this same director was up-front in saying he ‘couldn’t hear the work’. This laid down a challenge. Naturally he was focused on the demands of reinventing Oscar Wilde’s radical text. It was clear the emerging production concept was going to be post-dramatic; not a ‘staged bio-pic’ but rather a performance that knew it was a performance. Obviously standard musical conventions would not suffice. My initial thought was to create ‘beds upon which the text could toss, turn and luxuriate’.

As well as reading the original text, I researched around the work, looking into what music Wilde himself liked, or wrote about, and in what form he may have listened to it. With an awareness of his place in history I had a hunch that he was writing around the advent of recorded music.

Within De Profundis, Wilde made reference to a particular ‘aesthetic quality [he was striving for] – the ‘cry of Marsysas’Marsysas was a mythical figure who essentially challenged Apollo to a musical duel, reached the point where he had ‘no more song’ and was vanquished, then punished horrifically. It is this mysterious ‘cry’, Wilde says that he senses in much (for him) ‘modern art’ – Verlaine, Baudelaire, and “the deferred resolutions of Chopin’s music.” (2015, 57) I felt no need to prove these ideas musically, but considered it a key source of inspiration in a process of turning concepts into composition.

In addition to being a kind of music-focussed dramaturgical research, this is a kind of compositional algebra, with a number of unknowns, including my own ability to play music like this. I wanted to push my own limits and find the sounds rather than design and execute them. Here the indeterminacy is deliberate: what kind of music do you make when you have no more music left in you? This led me towards the unfamiliar piano as an instrument, and an idea that I’d explore with unresolved music through improvisation. I also experimented with looping fragments of Chopin as part of the process. I visited a local decommissioned jail built around the same time as the prison that held Wilde, to get a sense of the place, and its reverberant qualities. I even considered recording there, but budget didn’t allow so decided to conduct my initial experiments in a church hall, limiting my instrumental and technological palette to sounds I could fit in the boot of a car.



For a much earlier piece called ‘Scribble’ (2004), a non-verbal work for children which contrasted industrial and organic approaches to creativity, part of the brief was about the ‘gaps’ between these two worlds. The job of the music was to assist in the creation of the environment as well as to structure the experience narratively. The sonic palette was of contrasting crude rural instruments such as banjos with early domestic synthesizers. Part of the design and narrative involved a fiddler, who played violin while floating around the set in a self-propelled boat. My job was clear. I needed to provide an underscore of musical ‘sea’ for the fiddler’s white caps of melody to crest. These ‘wefts’ are often the most maddeningly subtle part of a composer’s work. It feels like blowing glass – subtle differences in sonic components result in a wildly different texture.

Jan Van Dijk and Jonathon Oxlade in Scribble (2004)

As the work emerged a new recurring sequence became a feature: the sending of messages between worlds. This performed a gap, not only between rural and urban, but between narrative segments. This idea of suspension I played with through layers of high tensile slide guitar, pizzicato uke, banjo and toy glockenspiel in a simple chord progression. Once we got in the theatre, witnessing the low-tech design solution of a two-dimensional miniature aeroplane, wobbling on a wire, as the music played, the tune seemed absolutely right for the moment, and was remixed several times to support each recurring action.

The flimsy cardboard plane, squeaking on its pulley, given lift by the visible wire and the music I’d created, under the gaze of the actors and audience, encapsulated the idea of incidental music as messenger.

To some extent the ideas in each of these instances emerges from the musical materials, a kind of ‘thinking with your hands’. Your sonic palette is determined not only by the initial conditions of the theatre work, but also the resources available to the composer. I composed the soundtrack to Scribble on acoustic instruments and toy keyboards in a laundry-strewn spare room during my (then toddler) son’s nap-times. I was lucky the ‘cardboard-and sticky-tape’ sound, as I called it then, well-suited the design world of the theatre show it supported.



Sometimes these initial demos have no substance. They’re dull genre-play, in which only the expected is to be expected, or they’re not fully coherent within themselves. These are left behind. Others seem to pulse with their own life, lifting out of the circumstances of their creation into their own power. These seem like songs without words that are too vibrant and individualistic to be pulled back into line and collected into a suite of incidental music designed to serve an overarching purpose. Others seem to respond to the emerging world of the place they may end up belonging, or speak to their companion pieces in an interesting way. They’re interesting to listen to, but seem like they could be part of something else. Those are the ones you chase.

I’ve coined a couple of words here, and though you’ll find them elsewhere, they don’t describe the same ideas I’m trying to capture, and I’m interested to know how they sit with other theoreticians and practitioners. To me, the aurealisation of a piece of theatre represents the various processes a composer, sound designer, and other creatives engage with to work out what a performance is going to sound like. This may involve a very specific kind of praxis – musiturgy, by which I mean theoretical, conceptual, compositional and practical dramaturgy with a specifically musical lens. This is the heartland (and headland) of a theatre composer given a level of free rein to create original incidental music.

There are a complex set of decisions to be made in terms of what kind of musical language the performance is going to speak, and how these sounds, signs and symbols may be interpreted by its audience.

Deciding what makes a piece of music theatrical is entirely subjective. Your compositions must encounter the other elements of the production before this multivalent quality can be determined. Everyday usage of the word ‘theatrical’ (in English, at least) in relation to a person supposes a flamboyance – a quality of drawing attention to oneself that is unlikely to benefit incidental music. Sometimes as a composer you’re highly conceptual, turning symbols into sound. Sometimes you’re instinctive, thinking with your hands, just as a designer might pick up a pen and take a line for a walk.

For one student production (Australian Drama, 2015) which I wrote and directed, I tuned a transistor radio to an AM station and arranged it to be placed onstage and switched on and off to cover shifts of timeframes and scenes, playing whatever happened to be broadcasting at the time, in real time.


Nominally the radio belonged to ‘an unseen cleaner’ whose sounds filled the empty space, and therefore could be considered quasi diegetic. Less incidental than coincidental music, it was fascinating to note the number of connections one could infr between a relatively random selection of interstitial music and sound (songs, advertisements and announcement) with the dramatic action that surrounded it.

Perhaps context is all, but even when there’s no actual composition, there’s always an element of curation. The retro ‘hits and memories’ format offered by this station I chose enabled the play to be soundtracked by Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkel and advertisements for armchairs and automotive dealers. A Classical music station would have offered a completely different set of coincidences.

The root of the word curation is ‘cura’ – to show concern and care, take responsibility for – this is the role of the composer in creating and placing incidental music. Though it may be as mundane as music in a shop or lift, or dull as hardware like hinges or grouting, uninteresting surfaces such as paint or carpet (even a sign on a toilet door) you mightn’t appreciate their derivation, craft, function or beauty, because they’re designed not to command your attention. Yet you wouldn’t be without them.

Indeed without that sign on the toilet door you could end up in very much the wrong place.



David Megarrity is an Australian writer, composer, musician, performer and academic creating at the intersection of music, performance and projected image.





The Empty City

De Profundis


Casting Wide- experiments in soundtracking Theatre



The Empty City (Megarrity, D 2013)

De Profundis (Wilde, adapted Fenton, D Lucas, B 2015)

Scribble (Oxlande, J, Baumann, T 2004)

Australian Drama (Megarrity, 2015)



Cohen, Thomas F. 2012. Playing to the camera: Musicians and musical performance in documentary cinema. London; New York: Wallflower Press.

Cook, Nicholas. 1998. Analysing musical multimedia. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Juslin, Patrick N. and John A. Sloboda. 2001. Music and emotion: Theory and research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kendrick, Lynne and David Roesner, eds. 2011. Theatre noise: The sound of performance. Newcastle upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Herzog, Amy. 2010. Dreams of difference, songs of the same: The musical moment in film. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.

Wilde, Oscar. 2015, De Profundis, Open Road Media, Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [25 February 2019].



As attributed or as below

Transistor radio CC Jo Haupt

Male toilet symbol – toilet door sign CC

Hinge Fernando de Sousa CC