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:

West, Martin (1992), Ancient Greek Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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: []

Launching: The Podcast!

As part of a new research project supported by the Center for Advanced Studies at the LMU Munich, I have just launched (or is is: dropped?) a new podcast. This will every few weeks introduce conversations and presentations around sound and theatre – including voice, acoustics, listening, technology, creative practice and much more. While the project is called “The Sound of Theatre. Musical and Acoustemological Approaches to Contemporary Performance Practice in an International Context” the accompanying podcast has a catchier title: „Staging Sound“.

new research project with the support of the Center for Advanced Studies at the LMU Munich, which is very much an extension to our work so far.

It can be found here:

An also via the usual podcatchers such as



Apple Podcasts:


Google Podcasts:

And probably on most other podcast platforms.

And if you have comments, leave them below or send an email to:

Please subscribe – and enjoy listening!

Hello – and Goodbye!

At the launch event for “The Sound of Theatre”. Adrian Curtin, Millie Taylor, Pieter Verstraete, David Roesner. Photo by Martin Nangle

This post marks a moment of change for this Blog: The DFG project “Theater music today as a cultural practice” has official come to its close on 31 October 2022. There will be a few thoughts about its achievement and findings soon, but at this point I wanted to already announce an immediate successor: from October 2022–September 2023, I will lead a new research project with the support of the Center for Advanced Studies at the LMU Munich, which is very much an extension to our work so far.

The CAS Reseach Group has a fancy title – “The Sound of Theatre. Musical and Acoustemological Approaches to Contemporary Performance Practice in an International Context” – and it allows us to widen the perspective we pursued to far quite substantially in two ways:

Firstly, we will edit a book with input by our esteemed ten fellows as well as additional authors, which will offer a much more international perspective (which is also why this blog will continue in English from here on). With a focus on European theatre, we will be able to collocate case studies from Austria, Belgium, Czech Republik, France, Germany, Greece, Kurdistan, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, and the UK. Despite a number of groundbreaking publications in this field – notably from many of the fellows themselves – it is still very much an emerging field of study. 

The second broadening of our perspective is to do with the topic itself: while theatre music still sometimes functions like much of contemporary film music – a clearly separate sonic level in addition to dialogue, sound effects and ambient sound – the separation of these elements becomes increasingly problematic. They all work together to what we might call “The Sound of Theatre”. We hypothesise that theatre ensembles or directorial teams often develop a distinct sound, not unlike the sound of a rock band. We recognise a band, a singer, a saxophone player or a drummer by their sound, which acts like a signature. Can we apply this idea to a theatre collective? When and where does it manifest? In the acoustics of their venue? Their vocal styles and casting choices? Their use of instrument and musical material? Their technologies of production, amplification and distribution? Do theatres have a ‘sound’?

Despite a gradually growing interest in this sonic side of theatre performances, our experience of theatre (its aurality) and its ways of capturing meaning and knowledge (its acoustemology), the ‘sound’ of theatre remains largely unrecognized by audiences and is still insufficiently researched by theatre scholars or musicologists. 

With this in mind I suggested three points of focus for this new project:

1) Sounding and listening practices in contemprary theatre practice(s)

2) Sounding and listening practices in contemprary theatre audiences: 

3) The acoustic ecology of theatres: which sounds, musics, voices can be heard?

To discuss and develop these ideas, CAS allowed me to assemble an illustrious group of experts, who will spend time with me and with each other, in Munich and on Zoom. The edited volume mentioned above is one of our planned outputs, a conference in June 2023 another. And finally, there will be a podcast to accompany our journey – more on that in the next post.

Let me finally introduce, very briefly, the fellows of this project: 

Prof. Dr. Ross Brown is a composer, musician and sound designer and Emeritus Professor of Sound at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He is the author of Sound. A Reader (2010) and “Sound Effect. The Theatre We Hear” (2020).

Dr Anna R. Burzyńska is an adjunct professor of theatre in the faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and works as an academic, critic and dramaturg. She has published widely on radio art and theatre makers such as Heiner Goebbels, Christoph Marthaler, and Marta Górnicka.

Prof Dr Adrian Curtin is Associate Professor at University of Exeter. His research is wide ranging from modernism to contemporary orchestral theatre. In 2014 he published Avant-Garde Theatre Sound: Staging Sonic Modernity. He also works as a theatre musician.

Dr Lynne Kendrick works at the  Royal Central School of Speech and Drama as Reader for New Theatre Practices. In 2011 she co-edited a book entitled Theatre Noise. The Sound of Performance. In 2017 she published Theatre Aurality – a core text on audiences experience of sound-based theatre. She has also founded and directed theatre companies such as Camden People’s Theatre.

Prof. Dr. Ursula Kramer is a musicologist at the University of Mainz with a particular research expertise on Schauspielmusik, which led to one of the very few German publications in this area: her edited volume Theater mit Musik. 400 Jahre Schauspielmusik im europäischen Theater from 2014.

Tamara Yasmin Quick is Senior Lecturer at the University of Bayreuth, having just finished her work on the DFG Project “Theatre music today as a cultural practice“ at the LMU Munich. She is in the process of finishing her PhD entitled Musical Embodiment – Live-Musicking on the contemporary theatre stage. Corporeal processes of performative identity formation. She also works as a dramaturg.

Dr Duška Radosavjlević is an academic, critic, dramaturg with Serbian roots, a long presence in the UK and currently based in Lund. She has worked on Ensemble Theatre(s) and most recently published an extensive website and subsequent monograph on Aural / Oral Dramaturgies. Theatre in the Digital Age (2022).

Dr. Julia H. Schröder is a musicologist specialising in contemporary art music, sound art, sound studies, music and dance as well as sound and theatre. Her DFG postdoc project explores “theatre sounds” (Theatergeräusche) at Technical University Berlin. In 2015 she edited a book on sound/music in theatre focusing on Hans Peter Kuhn’s work for Robert Wilson and on Leigh Landy’s work for Heiner Müller.

Prof Dr Millie Taylor holds the Van den Ende Chair of the Musical at the University of Amsterdam. For almost 20 years she toured Britain and Europe as a freelance musical director in Musical theatre. I constantly use her and Dominic Symonds book Studying Musical Theatre (2014) in my course. More recently she has published Theatre Music and Sound at the RSC: Macbeth to Matilda (2018).

Dr Konstantinos Thomaidis is Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre & Performance at the University of Exeter, UK. His publications include Voice Studies: Critical Approaches to Process, Performance and Experience” (2015), Theatre & Voice (2017) and Time and Performer Training (2019). He is also a practitioner and  has worked as actor, director and musician.

Dr Pieter Verstraete is Assistant Professor at University of Groningen and Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at Free University Berlin. He published his first book on “Auditory Distress and Aurality in Contemporary Music Theatre (2009), later co-edited a collection on “Cathy Berberian: Pioneer of Contemporary Vocality” (Routledge, 2014). Having worked extensively in Turkey, he also focuses on post-migrant theatre, artists in exile, and has a book forthcoming on “Theatre, Performance and Commemoration: Staging Crisis, Memory and Nationhood”

At the launch event for “The Sound of Theatre”. Adrian Curtin, Millie Taylor, Pieter Verstraete. Photo by Martin Nangle
Poster for the launch event

Making of…

In previous posts and guest entries, we have already reflected on the value of “making of” or “how to” contributions to the field of theatre music: insights into the working processes and thoughts behind creating and performing compositions for theatre. Sometimes, these take the form of handbooks (e.g. Bruce 2016), academic studies (e.g. Taylor 2018; Roesner 2019) or public talks (e.g. with Benjamin Kwasi Burrell or Paul Clark).

In addition, some theatre musicians / composers are making the effort to produce making ofs and/or tutorials to demonstrate what it is they do, how they work and reflect about their process and their aesthetics and to lift the curtain on some of their “tricks of the trade”: technologies they use, tools they have found useful etc.

A great example (with many thanks to Kornelius Paede for recommending this to me!), are two videos by Berlin-based composer Hainbach, in which he documents and demonstrates his process for creating music tracks for the theatre. They are a fascinating watch for composers, theatre directors and academics alike, I would suggest.

Hainbach: Composing Music for Theatre: Acoustic Instruments, Synthesizers and Tape (2018)

Hainbach: Composing On The Modular Synthesizer: Theatre Soundtrack

In the spirit of making this blog an accessible and useful hub for thoughts and information on theatre music, please feel encouraged to suggest further videos / talks / articles / making ofs in the comments, which shed light on this arts and its crafts, which are too often not appreciated enough or understood sufficiently.

Adjacent fields

It frequently occurs to me how much our “object” of study – contemporary theatre music – overlaps or blurs with other objects, disciplines and projects. Sometimes this is due to aesthetic similarities that occur across quite different genres – the relationship of music, space and movement may be similar in a dance piece, a music-theatre project and a devised theatre performance, sometimes there are cross-pollinations on the levels of processes, venues or people. Paul Clark, e.g. writes music for theatre productions of Katie Mitchell (there is a great conversation about their collaboration on YouTube) and is co-director of Clod Ensemble, whose productions defy genres, but fall under the wider bracket of dance.

And finally, there are adjacent research areas, disciplines, methodologies and projects, which more or less immediately impact on the ways in which can seek to analyze and understand theatre music as a creative relational practice.

One such project is the fascinating ongoing study “Aural/Oral Dramaturgies: Post-Verbatim, Amplified Storytelling and Gig Theatre in the Digital Age”. This is funded as an AHRC Leadership Fellowship held by Duška Radosavljević at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London and warrants flagging up in this blog as there are many shared interests.

So much so, that Duška invited me to contribute to the podcast series “Lend me your ears”, that is a crucial part of the project’s outcomes. For the so-called “Salon” strand, Katharina Rost and I had a very rich conversation with director, musician and artistic co-director of the Zurich Theatre Nicolas Stemann, which is now published on the website.

Moving to the beat of its own drum – Contemporary theatre music in relation to gesture and space

Presentation by David Roesner at the symposium “Music as an Experimental Field for Movement“, from 14–16 September 2020 in Strobl am Wolfgangsee, concept and organisation: PD Dr. Stephanie Schroedter with assistance from Lisa Konnerth


To contextualize this presentation, I will first quote the conference booklet by Stephanie Schroedter, which outlines the aims and objective of her symposium, which forms an integral part of her DFG-funded project “Körper und Klänge in Bewegung. Modelle einer musikchoreographischen Inszenierungs- und klangperformativen Aufführungsanalyse”:

Responding to the latest developments in contemporary music/dance theater and music/dance performances, this symposium will analyze interrelations between music/sounds and (body) movements (that is, audio-visual-kinaesthetic sensations also beyond straightforward narrative stories). How are music/sound and (body) movements/dance related in artistic processes, including rehearsal processes? What models can be determined in this regard, and to which aesthetics of effect do they correspond? And: What are the consequences for their perception, the hearing and seeing of movements, as well as for their description and analysis?

Starting from such questions, a broad spectrum of performances will be up for debate, drawn from a wide variety of areas, genres and styles, including productions that dissolve the boundaries of the stage, such as installations or video productions. The aim is to investigate relationships between music and bodies, but also the physicality of music itself, as well as the interweaving of music and movement (as implicit/invisible but audible movement, or on the basis of explications such as choreographed/physical movements).

At the same time, questions should be raised as to whether and to what extent these models can be traced back to the achievements of avant-garde artists since the early 20th century. Which interrelations can be determined within the context of earlier/pioneering works that, regardless of their specific characteristics, have comparable basic structures or arrangements?

Speakers may present source or philologically oriented studies, staging or performance analysis-led studies, or a combination of these approaches. The objective is a critically stimulating, multi-perspective discussion about music/sound in relation to bodies/physicality and movement on stage, which opens up inter-/ trans- disciplinary horizons – without having to abandon one’s own artistic/disciplinary “center”

(Schroedter 2020)
Presentation, Part 1
Presentation, Part 2
Presentation, Part 3

Case Studies:

Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III (Schaubühne Berlin 2015), Felix Rothenhäusler’s Nichts von euch auf Erden (Münchner Kammerspiele 2015) and Christopher Rüping’s Dionysos Stadt (Münchner Kammerspiele 2018).

Presentation, Part 4
Presentation, Part 5
Presentation, Part 6
Presentation, Part 7
Presentation, Part 8
Presentation, Part 9

A long version of this presentation in written form is scheduled to be published in 2021 in an edited volume on the symposium topic by Stephanie Schroedter.

In the meantime, some of the topics mentioned in the talk have been explored already in:

Quick, Tamara Yasmin. 2020. “Die Qualität im Relationalen. Herausforderungen in der Analyse theatermusikalischer Interpretationen.” In Analyse und Interpretation, edited by Bernd Asmus. Stuttgart: Schott (forthcoming).

Roesner, David. 2020. “‘Gequietsche, Gewaber oder Gewummer’. Methodische Herausforderungen bei der Analyse von Theatermusik“.” In Methoden der Theaterwissenschaft, edited by Christopher Balme and Berenika Szymanski-Düll, 169–186. Tübingen: Narr.

Buchvorschau “Theatermusik. Analysen und Gespräche”. Teil 9: Paul Clark

Ein kurzer Auszug aus dem im Oktober 2019 erscheinenden Buch Theatermusik. Analysen und Gespräche (Roesner, Theater der Zeit 2019):

DR: Do you predominantly respond to the text with your music?

Paul Clark: It will be the text and a conversation with the director. But you’d be amazed how sketchy that is at that point! With Katie [Mitchell], if it is a naturalistic play, we might have an hour-long conversation and I might say: »I’ve read the text and I’m interested in one particular angle – ›looking‹«. I’m not too worried at this stage about whether the audience will find it legible. It’s just a way in. A way of finding musical games. I might write material for, say, clarinet and piano and pursue the idea, that the clarinet ›finds‹ the piano over the course of the piece – I’m just making this up, of course – but something like that might spark off an idea and then I write lots and lots of music, some of which uses electronic processes to further explore the idea.

Clearly the main reason I can write music before I have actually seen anything of one of Katie’s productions is because I have seen so much of her work and I know how ›high‹ it is going to be, how to pace things, what problems are likely to arise that I might be able to help solve. I also look at how much text there is on a page. If it is one of her live-cinema[i] productions, there sometimes isn’t so much text, which means that the music can be more detailed and even literally have more notes! Also, I look whether there is a pattern to the passages with fewer words that I can use. What I noticed when I was a young musician was that whenever I saw a film where I thought the music was amazing, and I waited for the credit, it was always ›found‹ music …

… so the music pre-existed and had its own logic like your music for theatre? …

PC: Exactly, and so that’s what I do! Also, and this is going to sound crazy, I don’t think the composer is always the best person to choose the music. At least for plays and movies where the structure of the piece is not a musical structure. I think the composer is the best person to write the music! I am happy to write music and let someone else decide where they think it works best. I can still react to that and if they are always using Track 3, I will then write some variations on it, so it develops during the piece and creates a satisfying journey. But I always know I am content with the raw material. Whereas if I try to fit it in and tailor the music during rehearsals, I have to essentially collaborate on writing the music with the director, which is possible but very hard and they have a lot of other things to worry about. I like to say: pick the things you like, I’ll give you a lot of choice. And I know that I’m happy with every piece of music that might end up in the show and that there is a strong family sound. There was no compromise when you wrote it. And you are free when you are writing! That’s my process and I try to talk people into letting me do that, whenever I can.

[i] See Janis Jefferies and Elena Papadaki: “Katie Mitchell: Intimate Technologies in Multimedia Performance” (2012).

Listening to theatre music(ians)

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

David Roesner, LMU Munich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening as analysis and associaton (Heraushören)

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

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

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

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

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

Osmotic hearing (Nebenbei hören, Durchhören)

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

Asked where and when she works, Julia Klomfaß responded:

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

Thomas Seher reports a similar mode of working:

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

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

To render audible / intelligible (hörbar machen)

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

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

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

Listening habits (Hörgewohnheiten)

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

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

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

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

To sound like xy (Sich anhören, wie xy)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genetics of ‘Incidental’ Music

by David Roesner

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

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

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

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

Theatre Music and genetic research

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

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

Tilly No-Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full show can be seen here:

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

A Virtual Genesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Materialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Great minds…

…think alike”, is a saying in English (and is always used with a bit of self-deprecating irony, when used to include oneself!). And so I recently discovered a blog entry by musicologist Dr Leah Broad from the University of Oxford, which succinctly raises and eloquently discusses some of the very questions and themes that we seek to tackle in our DFG research project. In fact, the parallels between her observations – even though focussing on 19th century incidental music – and the introduction to my forthcoming book on contemporary theatre music are striking. 

Broad is also puzzled by the mismatch between the “sheer volume of incidental music written in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries” and the lack of scholarly and artistic interest in this wealth of material: “Why”, she asks, “[has] incidental music received so little attention until now?”

She gives some very plausible answers to this question. In the tradition of musicology and classical concert programming a number of factors work against an appreciation of theatre music: the myths of the autonomy of music and the cult of the “solo genius”, the particularly strong dependence of theatre music on its context, and the challenges it presents to publishing and performance. All this she develops in more detail and I highly recommend reading it in her blog entry “Why incidental music?” directly.

She summarizes (and I couldn’t agree more):

Prioritising incidental music means questioning many of the values and assumptions that have labelled it as uninteresting, unexciting, and unworthy. It doesn’t just give us new music. It gives us a new way of looking at the music that we already know, of hearing it afresh, and listening to theatre history with new ears. (Leah Broad)

The only thing to add would be to say: an appreciation of theatre music not only opens our ears afresh for theatre history, but equally for the theatre of the present and the future.

I look forward to discussing our mutual interest further at this year’s meeting of the working group Sound, Voice and Music at the TaPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association) conference in Exeter.

Voices from Down Under

An interview with the Sydney-based composers, (theatre-)musicians and sound artists Alister Spence, Mary Rapp, Alexandra Spence and director Michelle St Anne (The Living Room Theatre).

In January 2018, I was involved in the making of a Michelle St Anne’s piece  Lola Stayed Too Long (The Living Room Theatre, Sydney), for which she collaborated with Alex Spence. In anticipation of this premiere, Alex gave a concert together with her father, pianist Alister Spence, and singer and bassist Mary Rapp, using sounds and music from this an other theatre performance as the foundation for two exciting sets of improvised music.

I used the opportunity to talk to all three of them about their experiences with making music for theatre productions. In addition, Michelle offered her perspective on collaborating with musicians. Here are some of their answers:

Given that pathways into theatre music tend to be unexpected, unplanned and often curious, I asked all three about how they got into creating music and sounds for theatre.

Alister on his background
Alex on her background
Mary on her background

Alister also plays extensively in a variety of ensembles and in a range of styles. I wondered how his work for theatre related to this.


Mary also performs and records a lot outside the theatre and describes some of the frustrations she sometimes has when working in the theatre context.


Theatre music often negotiates the boundaries between music and sound. As was evident in their concert, all three artists traveled between vocal and instrumental music, extended techniques of playing, prepared instruments, recorded sounds and electronics. I asked them to talk about how they considered the relationship of these ingredients and how they made choices.

Alex and Alister

Technology is always a central topic in conversations about theatre music – I was curious to find out what role it played for my interview partners.


Given the context of our conversation I asked the musicians and Michelle about the specific nature of their collaboration and their process of creating (which includes some strict rules on use of iPod playlists, as it turned out!).


I was also interested in how the process translated into the performances: how fixed, how improvised, how live do these tend to be?


In rehearsals, I also noticed that Michelle uses pre-recorded music extensively. She explained why.


Most of the work Alister, Alex, Mary and Michelle have done, has been outside of traditional theatre contexts and institution where the relationships between scene and sound, visual and audio, acting and musicking if often relatively predetermined by convention. I asked them about how they thought about these relationships in their work.


What is good sound in theatre?

Last weekend, I gave a talk at the annual conference of the British Association of Aesthetics in Oxford in a stimulating panel curated by Prof. James Hamilton (thanks!) with Lynne Kendrick and Bence Nanay.

The talk focused on my conversations with theatre musicians regarding their relationship to sound and sounds and featured answers by theatre musicans and composers such as:

Jörg Gollasch, who started out as part of the creative team at the Baracke/Schaubühne Berlin with Thomas Ostermeier, now works most notably with director Karin Beier and is particularly interested in complex rhythms and extended harmonic structures, which he applies to electric and orchestral instruments, electronics and live singers/choirs. Ingo Günther and Malte Preuß, whom I interviewed together by coincidence, but who have separate careers: Günther’s primary collaborative partner is director Herbert Fritsch, with whom he creates expressionistic, entertaining, and highly successful productions, often adapted from the dramatic canon. Preuß works with a wider range of directors, amongst them Christoph Frick, Albrecht Hirche or Alexander Nerlich in a variety of styles, combining his instrumental skills as a guitarist with a keen interest for electronic music. Julia Klomfaß, who splits her time between composing and performing for the theatre as well as with different bands, has worked with many different directors, amongst them Andrea Bleikamp, Huseyin Michael Cirpici and Katie Mitchell. She is a multi-instrumentalist and singer. Thomas Kürstner and Sebastian Vogel, who, unusually, always compose as a team and have worked particularly with directors Nikolas Stemann and Armin Petras using a wide palette from electronics to full orchestral settings.

You can listen to the entire talk below (approx. 30mins). It is based on a paper I published in 2016 entitled:

Sound decisions: the contemporary praxis of theatre music

Key headings for both the talk and the paper were:

At approx. 20mins there is a music example by Kürstner and Vogel, for which they have provided an instructive description:

“A good example of this kind of interplay between real and virtual or acoustic and electronic is this audio track by Kürstner and Vogel, which they describe as quite representative for their way of working: “The noise at the beginning is from a noise module (see image). It produces white and coloured noise. By means of an envelope (ADSR = Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release), a spring reverb, a filter and a VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) this slowly turns into a “bass drum”, which is only generated from the noise. After that, eleven strings play a harmonic texture on top of this. Electronics thus almost turn into an acoustic sound element interwoven with the strings into an atmospheric sonic texture. A typical piece of theatre music, for us”.

(Personal email to the author on 3 May 2016).

Theatermusik – in concert

This post will be in English for the benefit of our (potentially) international audience and the artists featured here.

In January 2018 I collaborated with the Living Room Theatre in Sydney, Australia on a project called When Lola stayed too long. Its director, Michelle St. Anne, has a unique way to integrate images, movement and sound and has collaborated with great composers and musicians to arrive at the unique theatrical creations that are the result of her directorial language. In the lead-up to the performance of Lola three of her musical collaborator, Alister Spence, Mary Rapp and Alexandra Spence gave a concert – based on and inspired by music devised for Michelle’s theatre shows. While concerts with film scores are common place now, it is rare to hear incidental music, created for theatrical performances, in a concert setting. Given that the event was beautifully documented, here is an opportunity to see such a concert.

There is also a mid-show conversation (from 29’10”-59’40”) between Killian Quigely, Michelle St Anne and myself, about the nature of her work and the role of sound and music. I also conducted a pre-show interview with the three musicians, which I hope to publish in a future Blog entry.

Here are the official programme notes of the event and the video:

What Lola Heard: Theatrical Sounds from Climate Change Performance

11 January 2018, Soundlounge – Seymour Centre, Sydney

This event brought together internationally acclaimed improvising musicians in conversation with Professor David Roesner, and Michelle
St Anne, who discussed the theatrical lens of Composed Theatre, and how the approach could lend itself to theatrical knowledge translation.

The concert component of the event provided the audience with a glimpse into St Anne’s collaborations with musicians, which portray the musical embodiment of climate instability and climate knowledge. It featured the field recordings from the community engagement workshops, recorded by the SEI team, which composer Alexandra Spence manipulated live on stage to create a sound tapestry.

‘…where improvisational music scrambled my senses, rendering me thrillingly aware of the power of unexpected arrangements of sound to reorganise my world.’

– Killian Quigely, Sydney Environment Institute

Michelle St Anne, David Roesner, Killian Quigley and Lian Loke (MC)

Alister Spence
Prepared piano and samples

Mary Rapp
Cello, double bass and voice

Alexandra Spence
Field recordings, tapes and amplified objects

(from: The ‘Anastasia’ Project ― Representing Heat through performance. An Arts Issue by the Sydney Environment Institute, SEI Magazine 01/2018)