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)