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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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?


Playlists, Loops und Presets – Theatermusik im Zeichen ihrer Digitalisierung

Auszüge aus einem Vortrag von David Roesner im Rahmen des Panels „Sounds, Klicks, Loops. Szenen des (Maschinen-)Klangs“ bei der Tagung Theater und Technik (Gesellschaft für Theaterwissenschaft, Düsseldorf, 8.-11. November 2018)

Intro

Ein Bereich des Theaters, auf den sich die technischen Entwicklungen der letzten Jahre – unter anderem in Form der Digitalisierung – besonders signifikant ausgewirkt haben, ist die Schauspiel- oder Theatermusik. Ohnehin ist dieses Gewerke zu einem kreativen Motor von Dramaturgien, Ästhetiken und Spielformen zeitgenössischen Theaters geworden, wird aber nach wie vor von Kritik, Publikum und der Wissenschaft wenig beachtet. Auf der Basis von ca. 20 Interviews mit Theatermusiker*innen, die zurzeit inder deutschsprachigen Theaterlandschaft arbeiten, möchte ich die Frage stellen, wie Theatermusiker*innen die Rolle von Technologie für ihre Arbeit reflektieren. Methodisch greife ich dabei zum einen auf Formen von Diskursanalyse zurück, besonders aber auf die in den Sozialwissenschaften und der Psychologie erprobte Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, die besonders für Leitfadeninterviews mit eher kleinen Gruppen geeignet ist.

 The aim of interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) is to explore in detail how participants are making sense of their personal and social world, and the main currency for an IPA study is the meanings particular experiences, events,states hold for participants. The approach is phenomenological […] in that it involves detailed examination of the participant’s life-world; it attempts to explore personal experience and is concerned with an individual’s personal perception or account of an object or event, as opposed to an attempt to produce an objective statement of the object or event itself.[1]

Es wird niemanden überraschen, dass das zentrale Thema dabei in fast allen Interviews die Digitalisierung von Musikproduktion und –präsentation ist. Dieser „game changer“, wie Paul Clark das nennt, hat die Theatermusik der jetzigen Generation nachhaltig beeinflusst und spielt für ihre Arbeitsrealität, ihr künstlerisches Selbstverständnis und ihre Ästhetik eine zentrale Rolle.

Wenn man nun analysiert, wie die Musiker*innen über ihre Arbeit sprechen, scheint es sinnvoll, die Begriffe „Technik“ oder„Technologie“ durch den alten griechischen Terminus der „Techne“ zu ersetzen, der die auch im Titel der Konferenz angedeutete Dichotomie unterläuft. Techne wird eben im Allgemeinen als Verbindung zwischen künstlerischem und technischem Tun verstanden, denkt Ästhetik und Handwerk zusammen. Und der Begriff der Techne beschreibt zudem eine teleologische, d.h. auf einen Gegenstand ausgerichtete Kunstanstrengung, was eben auch Theatermusik von rein selbstbezüglicher Kunstmusik (mitunter als „absolute Musik“ (Carl Dahlhaus) oder als „music alone“ (Peter Kivy) bezeichnet) unterscheidet. (Ich würde nebenbei den oft verwendeten Begriff der ‚Gebrauchsmusik’ auch dringend streichen und stattdessen Harry Lehmanns Idee einer „relationalen Musik“ ins Feld führen – aber das ist eine andere Geschichte).

Die Techne der Theatermusik ist dabei komplex und beinhaltet traditionelle musikalische Fertigkeiten, wie Instrumentalspiel, Komposition,Notation oder Einstudierung und eben heute eine umfassende Beherrschung sogenannter DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) für die Produktion und das Arrangement von Sounds, das Aufnehmen und Bearbeiten von Klängen, das Abmischen und Mastern von tracks, die Toneinrichtung, Mikrophonierung und ggfs. Live-Wiedergabe und Mischung der Klangwelt einer Inszenierung.

Ich werde die wichtigsten Themenschwerpunkte überschriftartig zusammenfassen und versuchen am Ende ein kurzes Fazit daraus zu ziehen.

Themen

a.     Die Rolle des Computers

In den letzten Jahren ist der Computer zu einem professionellen Tonstudio avanciert und zum wichtigsten Instrument vielerTheatermusiker*innen geworden. Die Beziehung zu diesem Gerät wird dabei unterschiedlich artikuliert: einerseits wird der Computer als Speichermedium und Tonarchiv verstanden, durch das sich die Vielfalt und Zugänglichkeit von Klängen förmlich explodiert ist, zum anderen als Aufschreibesystem für musikalische Ideen und Klangvorstellungen (Jörg Gollasch spricht vom „verlängerten Arm”), häufig aber als Partner, der weder vollständig beherrschbar ist nochdessen Ziel es ist, natürliche Klänge oder Spielweisen zu imitieren. Ingo Günther: „Wenn ich überhaupt mit Computer arbeite, dann möchte ich auch, dass er etwas macht, was nur ein Computer kann.“ (Er gibt dabei ein Beispiel aus seiner Musik zum Eingebildeten Kranken.  Hier spielt der Computer bei Tempo 2000 ein präpariertes Cembalo, dass dann nur noch weißes Rauschen erzeugt). Malte Beckenbach spricht vom Computer als „Black Box“, die ihn aus musikalischen Gewohnheiten am Klavier befreit und für Gollasch schafft er anhand bestimmter graphischer Interfaces eine Möglichkeit sich überraschen zu lassen; Neues zu generieren, das man nichtvollständig antizipieren konnte, das aber gleichzeitig nicht beliebig ist. Für Lars Wittershagen macht die persönliche DAW sogar einen Teil des Personalstils aus: Er arbeitet zwar stilistisch sehr heterogen, von Blaskapelle über Fußballchörebis zu Bossa-Nova und Dubstep, aber alles muss, wie er sagt, einmal durch seinen Computer durch. Durch die dort getroffenen Voreinstellungen, Software-Konstellationen, Klangbibliotheken, sowie die erworbenen handwerklichen Gewohnheiten im Umgang damit, entsteht eine eigene künstlerische Handschrift.

b.     Identität: „Seasoning the presets“

Die künstlerische Identität, die gerade in der so oft als rein dienende Kunst missverstandene Theatermusik immer wieder Thema ist, besteht auch darin, dass die Musiker eine kritische Distanz zu den Produktionsmitteln artikulieren. Es sei, sagen zum Beispiel Peer Baierlein oder Paul Clark, zu einfach geworden, mit der am Hobbyraum-Poproduzenten orientierten Software, mal schnell ein paar Tracks und Loops zu erzeugen. Die Vor- und Nachteile digitaler Musikproduktion abwägend, sagt Clark: „The bad aspect of this is that it is possible to be lazy, to be a copy & paste composer.“ Beckenbach ergänzt:

 Oft ist die technische Entwicklung aber auch der Tod der Inspiration, denn wenn es zu einfach wird, dann wird es auch schnell wieder beliebig. Zum Teil beschränkt man sich dann auch mal absichtlich selbst [lacht], und an dem Punkt setzt dann auch die eigene künstlerische Persönlichkeit ein, die man als Theatermusiker braucht.

Als rote Fäden ziehen sich daher zwei Themen durch die Interviews: der Umgang mit sogenannten presets – damit sind hier voreingestellte Sounds und virtuelle Instrumente gemeint – und das Bedürfnis nach einer eigenen Sound-Library. Günther verwendet eine interessante Metapher in Bezug auf presets: Man müsse sie „zum Leben erwecken […] indem man sie nochmal durcharbeitet.“ Das sei wie Kochen: „Es gibt ja so fertige Mahlzeiten mit allen Zutaten, aber da will man ja auch noch mal nachwürzen. Man will das persönlich kriegen.“ Ein zweite Techne, die einige Musiker beschreiben, ist es, durch systematisches Aufnehmen von Alltags-Klängen oder instrumentalen Clips und deren Zurichtung als Samples, d.h. komponierbare Einheiten, die in Echtzeit verwandelt werden können, sich eine eigene Klangpalette zu schaffen. Die persönliche „Library“ gehört hier auch konstitutiv zur eigenen Handschrift und zur Identität innerhalb der community of practice. Zur Techne von Theaterkomponisten gehört also nicht nur das Erfinden von Melodien und Harmonien, sondern von Instrumenten, Aufnahmeverfahren und Formen der Verräumlichung von Musik.

c.    Ästhetische Spannung zwischen Analog und Digital

Bei aller Faszination und intensiver Beschäftigung mit den digitalen Möglichkeiten der Musikproduktion artikulieren viele meiner Interviewpartner*innen eine Sehnsucht nach analogen bzw. akustischen Klängen bzw. nach prä-digitalen Technologien. Viele der Musiker mischen bewusst digitale und akustische Klänge.

Und in Bezug auf digitale vs. analoge Technologie erklärt Günther:

Das Absurde ist ja: Je weiter sich der Computer entwickelt, desto analoger will er klingen. […] Das ist aber auch irgendwie eine Verarsche, denn Digitalität kann eines nicht, was analoge Medien können: Sie kann keine Patina bekommen, sie kann nicht altern. Wir kennen das bei einem Buch: Ein altes Buch von meiner Oma, das schlage ich auf und das riecht! Oder alte Fotos von früher: Da sehe ich genau, ob das jetzt ein Agfa oder ein Kodak-Film war, je nachdem, wie es vergilbt ist. Wir Menschen stehen ja auf dieses Altern. Die Digitalität versucht uns den Wunsch des Unsterblichen zu verkaufen. Dateien können nicht altern. Und ich hoffe, dass es noch so eine Sehnsucht gibt, dass man an diesem Altern noch Spaß hat. Ich glaube auch, dass die Wahrnehmung sich nicht so schnell verarschen lässt: Als ich noch ein richtiges Klavier hatte, konnte ich ohne Probleme zwei Stunden daran herum klimpern, obwohl es relativ schlecht war und verstimmt. Beim digitalen Klavier ist es so, dass man nach einer halben Stunde keine Lust mehr hat.

Ein dritter Aspekt ist, dass auch in der Ästhetik insgesamt im Bartheschen Sinne ein Bedürfnis nach etwas „Grain“ beschreiben wird, also nach etwas Rauheit, Körnigkeit, oder im Sinne von Ross Brown nach etwas „Theatre Noise“. Fehler im Instrumentalspiel, glitches in der Computer-Technik, Nebengeräusche in der Aufnahme werden bewusst in Kauf genommen und als manchmal besonders produktiv für den Theaterzusammenhang gewertet: der Begriff, der hier regelmäßig fällt, ist der der „Liveness“.

d.     Liveness – Digitalität und die Musik als Mitspieler

Liveness ist auch die zentrale Kategorie, die beim Wechsel der Abspielsysteme von relativ statischen Apparaten – von der Bandmaschine bis zur CD – zur mittlerweile Standard gewordenen Software Ableton Live ins Feld geführt wird. Die Tatsache, dass auch eingespielte Musik nun nicht mehr statisch sein muss, sondern einzelne Stimmen eines Tracks zeitlich, räumlich, dynamisch flexibel abgefahren werden können, hat dazu geführt, dass auch bei Musik, die nach landläufiger Bezeichnung „vom Band“ kommt, die Vorstellung einer „Musik als ebenbürtigem Mitspieler“ zu einem gängigen Topos in den Interviews geworden ist. Weder müssen sich Schauspieler*innen Takte zählend nach festen Musikeinsätzen richten (auch wenn sich das Timing einer Szene in der zwanzigsten Aufführung vielleicht längst verändert hat), noch muss die Musik so dienend zurückhaltend gedacht werden, dass sie der Szene nicht ins Gehege kommt. Ob durch live präsente Musiker*innen – die immer häufiger die Inszenierungen bevölkern – oder durch Ableton: Musik wird, das betonen die Interviewpartner*innen, viel dialogischer gedacht. Viele Theatermusiker*innen verweisen hierbei auch die frühe Präsenz auf Proben: Auch hier spielt die Techne eine wesentliche Rolle dafür, dass während der Probe oder nach einer kurzen Mittagspause die Musik bereits wieder auf die jüngsten szenischen Entwicklungen unmittelbar reagieren kann, bzw. überhaupt erst wesentliche Impulse setzen kann, wo sie sonst viel später und tendenziell illustrierender hinzugefügt wurde.

e.    Institutionelle Konsequenzen

Die Veränderung der Techne der Theatermusik geht einher mit institutionellen und ökonomische Faktoren: Theater leisten sich viel seltener soganannte Hausmusiker*innen, die wie ein Hausdramaturg*in viele Produktionen gleichzeitig betreuen und auf Zuruf und stilistisch vielseitig Übergangsmusiken oder mal ein Lied beisteuern können. Musiker*innen gehören nicht selten fest zum gastierenden Regieteam und bestimmen dessen Probenmethoden und Aufführungsästhetik maßgeblich mit. Das ist nur durch den Computer und die Mobilität und Erschwinglichkeit der Produktionsmittel möglich geworden, hat zum Teil aber auch den Verlust einer verteilten Expertise zur Folge: Während früher u.U. ein/e Komponist*in, Arrangeur*in, Dirigent*in, Musiker*in und Tontechniker*in gemeinsam die Theatermusik verantworteten, fallen heute all diese Aufagben häufig bei einer Person zusammen. Die Tontechniker*innen des Hauses wiederum spielen nicht mehr das Vogelzwitschern ein, sondern fahren zum Teil extrem komplexe musikalische Raummusiken inklusive Live-Mikrophonierungen.

Außerdem ist eine enorme Beschleunigung des Entstehungs-Prozesses von Theatermusik zu verzeichnen, gekoppelt mit hohen Erwartungen an die unmittelbare Verfügbarkeit perfekterErgebnisse.

The technology is a gamechanger. It means that directors can ask for something sophisticated from asound designer and get it. If they had asked 20 years ago, someone wouldhave had to sit in a workshop for two weeks, messing around with tapes totry and get something that probably didn’t sounded as good as what someone cannow do over a lunch break (Paul Clark).  

In anderen Bereichen wiederum sind die Beharrungskräfte des Theater groß. So berichten die Interviewpartner*innen, dass wenn es um Probenzeiten für Toneinrichtung, Ausstattung von Probebühnen oder auch die Bezahlung von Theatermusiker*innen geht, scheint die Institution noch so zu denken, als bringe jemand für die Endprobenwoche ein paar Schallplatten für die Umbauten mit.

Zwischenfazit

Digitalisierung führt in der community of practice der Theatermusiker*innen, so ein Zwischenfazit, zu einer Reihe vonsignifikanten Veränderungen: Sie beschleunigt und ökonomisiert Produktionsverfahren radikal, schließt die Konzeption, Komposition und Produktion von Musik in vielen Fällen kurz und legt die dazu nötigen Produktionsmittel alle in die Hand des Theatermusikers. Sie macht Formen der Notation häufig unnötig und sie erlaubt eine ungleich größere Flexibilität, eine ‚fertige’ Musik auch im Aufführungsprozess anpassungsfähig zu halten – was die Idee eines Werkcharakters als auch einer Analyse von Theatermusik herausgelöst aus ihrem Aufführungskontext ad absurdum führt. Die Digitalisierung erlaubt außerdem die unmittelbare technische Verschaltung gestischer, bildlicher und klanglicher Prozesse durch Trigger-Technologien und die Echtzeitbearbeitung oder Generierung von Klang. Damit gehen Veränderungen in der Ästhetik von Theatermusik, ihrem Stellenwert für Spielweise und Dramaturgie einher, die wir in den nächsten Jahren in unserem DFG Projekt „Theatermusik heute als kulturelle Praxis“ noch viel genauer beobachten und beschreiben wollen.

David Roesner


[1] Smith, Jonathan A. und Osborn, Mike: »Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis«, in: Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods. 2nd edition, hrsg. v. Jonathan A. Smith, London 2007, S. 53 – 80, hier: S. 53.

[2] Zu Fragen der Digitalisierung und der Veränderungen im Bezug auf Sound design und Musikästhetik gibt es eine Reihe relevanter Schriften. Zu den wichtigsten zählen dabei – im Hinblick auf Musik und Sound – die Arbeiten von Jonathan Sterne (The Sound Studies Reader, New York 2012), Jörg Becker (Die Digitalisierung von Medien und Kultur, Wiesbaden 2013), Johannes Kreidler (Musik, Ästhetik, Digitalisierung: Eine Kontroverse, Hofheim 2010) und Harry Lehmann (Die digitale Revolution der Musik: Eine Musikphilosophie, Mainz 2013). Mit ihren Betrachtungen zu den Veränderungen von Produktionsweisen, Materialästhetik, sozialen und psychologischen Aspekten im Umgang mit digitalen Klängen und Klangträgern liefern sie einen wesentlichen Kontext, vor dessen Hintergrund die tiefgreifenden ästhetischen und produktionstechnischen Umwälzungen im Bereich der Theatermusik zu evaluieren sind.


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).