A Guest Blog Entry by David Megarrity
A rich practice as a theatre composer is likely to involve gigs that range across a spectrum: from projects in which music or songs are central drivers (or work alongside other artforms to shape meaning in process and product) to more traditional formulations of music’s role in western theatre. I prefer the former, but the latter is much more common.
Unfortunately mainstream theatre often follows cinema in its use of music, in that it’s ubiquitous, but apparently not integral to proceedings. In mainstage, western drama it’s standard practice for the script, director and other production elements to instruct composers who work separately from the creative team, and for music to be incorporated late in the process, ensuring its status as an end-stage add-on, “a kind of sonorous sticking plaster” (Cook 1998, vi). Many theatre productions utilise music under, or interstitially between scenes, echoing the entwined encoding of music and film, which Cohen (2012, 3) describes as being like “…an invisible orchestra transmitting music from some place other than the world the characters inhabit, they are, for all purposes, incorporeal.” Michel Chion (in Herzog, 2010, 6) calls this ‘pit-music’.
While there are exceptions, music in movie is most often typecast in this supporting role, “…composed with the understanding that it will not be consciously attended to” (Cohen in Juslin 2001, 249). A similar backgrounding is standard practice in mainstream theatre, where music“…tends to serve the visual arrangement, or the design. (Kendrick, L and Roesner, D [eds] (2011, xi). However, Theatre’s tendency to evoke, rather than emulate reality means there’s more room for musical experimentation, even within these constraints.
Examining how composition begins rather than how it ends up, this piece includes practical examples from projects in which music is central, and others in which music may ostensibly have been commanded to ‘go play in the corner’, yet still makes a significant contribution to the overall work in performance. To some extent the roles of composer and sound designer are often conflated – with implications for employment conditions. However, the sound design discussed here is more conceptual than technical.
Seeking dictionary definitions of the word ‘incidental’ will reveal phrases such as ‘not the main focus’ – ‘a minor accompaniment’ –‘likely to ensue as chance or minor consequence’ – ‘happening in connection with something of major importance’. Though I prefer my theater music front and centre, this piece explores incidental music, and how it may be enriched.
HARDWARE AND SIGNAGE
Incidental music may well seem secondary, and serve quite practical functions such as covering real or fictional changes of location, just as music in lifts is intended to ease artificial transitions between floors. It assists an audience to structure their experience of a segmented performance.
We all know that music is played in shops to offer a sonic branding and bring about an environment conducive to purchase, or simply to add human energy to the dead-eared halls and walls of commerce. Here, music performs like household hardware – not the kind of thing you’d usually notice unless it wasn’t there or was broken. Theatre sometimes uses music to provide energy that it does not have the resources to provide itself.
Incidental music could be used as sonic bookends to support stories or hinges to connect and articulate chunks of action. It can be used as a kind of ‘grouting’ to not only fill little gaps between segments, but also sonically ‘seal off’ the performance from real life, making its fiction watertight as if to say ‘these are the sounds of this world’.
Designed to be hidden, music as underscore or atmosphere in theatre performs as a paint primer: a first coat applied to prepare a surface for the final coat of perception, something that disguises and bonds a rough surface.
Sometimes incidental music is like a sign on a toilet door. It’s simply functional. It serves a particular purpose, offering information that orients the listener in a space, and signals without language where they’re likely to be going later in the evening.
All of these analogies for incidental music are deliberately mundane. Incidental music may seem to be predetermined as a wallflower at the theatrical dance, but the application of concept and craft, experimentation and exploration can result in a kind of enrichment by stealth.
It’s been my experience working as a composer in both theatre and film that the more music is ordered around, and cut to fit the hard corners of the overall work, the less useful it becomes. Its essential power (the reason why you’d have music in theatre in the first place) is attenuated every time it’s trimmed or squeezed into an existing structure, and it begins to resemble the ‘walk-on part’ it plays in television.
Sometimes the obvious choices that present themselves for any given musical solution must be considered. Cinema, television and advertisers in any form define this territory for us very well, and have entrained the ears of artists and audiences to be ready for the cliché or quick fix of ‘production music’, which is written and recorded specifically for synchronisation with audiovisual works. These are intertextual short cuts, relying on known tropes to evoke a set of ideas or actions unrealized onstage. Here, music performs as emotional lubricant.
Theatre audiences arrive with ears full of pre-conceived ideas about the role music usually plays in gluing together narrative chunks. Is a human interest story shifting location? Play marimbas in fifths over a sped-up shot of the city. Movie trailers are filled with deep booms and bangs, horns of doom, backwards cymbals, strategic silences and selections of pop and rock, with sound and music drafted in to build significance, add energy and cover for a lack of story. Imagine them without it. Imagine Seinfeld without that awful synthesized bass playing in-between scenes, and even between lines of standup monologue. It’s hard to believe that each of these riffs is carefully composed by Jonathan Wolff to respond to the show (as he says) ‘designed not to interfere’ but nevertheless highly identifiable as a brand.
There’s a real art to servicing style and genre-driven composition, production music demands, but why hire a composer if you can simply download something suitable for your scene and pay for the rights? Even basic video and slideshow editing software often has options to include computer-generated music that “adds humor, excitement and drama.” Hopefully, even if a new production wants music to play a conventional role, they want it to be bespoke: something that belongs solely to the performance.
But what happens first? The descriptors, experiments, exemplars and reference points exchanged in early creative negotiations will form the crucible for composition, and therefore greatly influence process and product.
However ‘incidental’, the music must have its own life force in order for it to converse in a stimulating way with the other elements of the performance. Incidental music can become integral. If the initial conditions that launch its creation are carefully attended to. I’m now going to focus my attention on selected projects I’ve composed for, and how they started.
I like to provide my directors with demos of potential works. I don’t read or write staff notation so that’s how I compose anyway – by playing and recording music. These experiments are put together quickly, sometimes in response to briefs, sometimes there’s a freer play involved. This small body of work opens up discussion, and allows the music to settle in, being free-range, rather than battery-hen in how it may service the emerging show.
The cutting room floor often ends up crowded. Approaches discussed, but not explored, as well as discarded experiments, and other inaudible compromises form an essential component of the final product.
These samples need to be named. Sometimes these denominations might relate to the sequence they’re intended to soundtrack. Sometimes I’ll lift a title from the text of the piece, so it sounds more like it could belong. Once it inhabits a performance, it will be homed and nameless but you have to call it something in the first place, a title that offers a potential placement or flavor for the wordless music, and enables you and the team to talk about the music.
AUREALISATION AND INITIAL OFFERS: THE EMPTY CITY (2013)
Sometimes non-musical creatives will have a sense of the kind of music they’d like as they’re dreaming up a performance, and these early discussions fundamentally influence the process of composing incidental music.
There’s a relationship between the director and composer that leads to the aurealising of a work. I just made that word up. David Fenton, director of The Empty City (2013) had presented me with general ideas as to the ‘feel’ of the music that might inhabit the work. His suggestion of Mark Mothersbaugh’s ‘Let Me Tell you about My Boat’ from The Life Aquatic (2004) led me to compose The Busy City, a piece with a similar optimistic rush and simple harmonized climbs and falls. His enjoyment of this piece acted as confirmation of a compositional approach. I knew I was on the right track, and this riff became a motif in the final work. Music became a very active player in the process of creative development.
Notably, when it came time to release the soundtrack as music alone, many pieces of incidental music were removed – they simply didn’t stand up when separated from their theatrical context.
RESEARCH AND COMPOSITIONAL CONCEPTUALIZATION: DE PROFUNDIS (2015)
When it came to a performance adaptation of the mountainous DeProfundis, this same director was up-front in saying he ‘couldn’t hear the work’. This laid down a challenge. Naturally he was focused on the demands of reinventing Oscar Wilde’s radical text. It was clear the emerging production concept was going to be post-dramatic; not a ‘staged bio-pic’ but rather a performance that knew it was a performance. Obviously standard musical conventions would not suffice. My initial thought was to create ‘beds upon which the text could toss, turn and luxuriate’.
As well as reading the original text, I researched around the work, looking into what music Wilde himself liked, or wrote about, and in what form he may have listened to it. With an awareness of his place in history I had a hunch that he was writing around the advent of recorded music.
Within De Profundis, Wilde made reference to a particular ‘aesthetic quality [he was striving for] – the ‘cry of Marsysas’. Marsysas was a mythical figure who essentially challenged Apollo to a musical duel, reached the point where he had ‘no more song’ and was vanquished, then punished horrifically. It is this mysterious ‘cry’, Wilde says that he senses in much (for him) ‘modern art’ – Verlaine, Baudelaire, and “the deferred resolutions of Chopin’s music.” (2015, 57) I felt no need to prove these ideas musically, but considered it a key source of inspiration in a process of turning concepts into composition.
In addition to being a kind of music-focussed dramaturgical research, this is a kind of compositional algebra, with a number of unknowns, including my own ability to play music like this. I wanted to push my own limits and find the sounds rather than design and execute them. Here the indeterminacy is deliberate: what kind of music do you make when you have no more music left in you? This led me towards the unfamiliar piano as an instrument, and an idea that I’d explore with unresolved music through improvisation. I also experimented with looping fragments of Chopin as part of the process. I visited a local decommissioned jail built around the same time as the prison that held Wilde, to get a sense of the place, and its reverberant qualities. I even considered recording there, but budget didn’t allow so decided to conduct my initial experiments in a church hall, limiting my instrumental and technological palette to sounds I could fit in the boot of a car.
THINKING WITH YOUR HANDS: CREATING DEMOS FOR SCRIBBLE (2004)
For a much earlier piece called ‘Scribble’ (2004), a non-verbal work for children which contrasted industrial and organic approaches to creativity, part of the brief was about the ‘gaps’ between these two worlds. The job of the music was to assist in the creation of the environment as well as to structure the experience narratively. The sonic palette was of contrasting crude rural instruments such as banjos with early domestic synthesizers. Part of the design and narrative involved a fiddler, who played violin while floating around the set in a self-propelled boat. My job was clear. I needed to provide an underscore of musical ‘sea’ for the fiddler’s white caps of melody to crest. These ‘wefts’ are often the most maddeningly subtle part of a composer’s work. It feels like blowing glass – subtle differences in sonic components result in a wildly different texture.
As the work emerged a new recurring sequence became a feature: the sending of messages between worlds. This performed a gap, not only between rural and urban, but between narrative segments. This idea of suspension I played with through layers of high tensile slide guitar, pizzicato uke, banjo and toy glockenspiel in a simple chord progression. Once we got in the theatre, witnessing the low-tech design solution of a two-dimensional miniature aeroplane, wobbling on a wire, as the music played, the tune seemed absolutely right for the moment, and was remixed several times to support each recurring action.
The flimsy cardboard plane, squeaking on its pulley, given lift by the visible wire and the music I’d created, under the gaze of the actors and audience, encapsulated the idea of incidental music as messenger.
To some extent the ideas in each of these instances emerges from the musical materials, a kind of ‘thinking with your hands’. Your sonic palette is determined not only by the initial conditions of the theatre work, but also the resources available to the composer. I composed the soundtrack to Scribble on acoustic instruments and toy keyboards in a laundry-strewn spare room during my (then toddler) son’s nap-times. I was lucky the ‘cardboard-and sticky-tape’ sound, as I called it then, well-suited the design world of the theatre show it supported.
WHAT MAKES IT THEATRICAL?
Sometimes these initial demos have no substance. They’re dull genre-play, in which only the expected is to be expected, or they’re not fully coherent within themselves. These are left behind. Others seem to pulse with their own life, lifting out of the circumstances of their creation into their own power. These seem like songs without words that are too vibrant and individualistic to be pulled back into line and collected into a suite of incidental music designed to serve an overarching purpose. Others seem to respond to the emerging world of the place they may end up belonging, or speak to their companion pieces in an interesting way. They’re interesting to listen to, but seem like they could be part of something else. Those are the ones you chase.
I’ve coined a couple of words here, and though you’ll find them elsewhere, they don’t describe the same ideas I’m trying to capture, and I’m interested to know how they sit with other theoreticians and practitioners. To me, the aurealisation of a piece of theatre represents the various processes a composer, sound designer, and other creatives engage with to work out what a performance is going to sound like. This may involve a very specific kind of praxis – musiturgy, by which I mean theoretical, conceptual, compositional and practical dramaturgy with a specifically musical lens. This is the heartland (and headland) of a theatre composer given a level of free rein to create original incidental music.
There are a complex set of decisions to be made in terms of what kind of musical language the performance is going to speak, and how these sounds, signs and symbols may be interpreted by its audience.
Deciding what makes a piece of music theatrical is entirely subjective. Your compositions must encounter the other elements of the production before this multivalent quality can be determined. Everyday usage of the word ‘theatrical’ (in English, at least) in relation to a person supposes a flamboyance – a quality of drawing attention to oneself that is unlikely to benefit incidental music. Sometimes as a composer you’re highly conceptual, turning symbols into sound. Sometimes you’re instinctive, thinking with your hands, just as a designer might pick up a pen and take a line for a walk.
For one student production (Australian Drama, 2015) which I wrote and directed, I tuned a transistor radio to an AM station and arranged it to be placed onstage and switched on and off to cover shifts of timeframes and scenes, playing whatever happened to be broadcasting at the time, in real time.
Nominally the radio belonged to ‘an unseen cleaner’ whose sounds filled the empty space, and therefore could be considered quasi diegetic. Less incidental than coincidental music, it was fascinating to note the number of connections one could infr between a relatively random selection of interstitial music and sound (songs, advertisements and announcement) with the dramatic action that surrounded it.
Perhaps context is all, but even when there’s no actual composition, there’s always an element of curation. The retro ‘hits and memories’ format offered by this station I chose enabled the play to be soundtracked by Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkel and advertisements for armchairs and automotive dealers. A Classical music station would have offered a completely different set of coincidences.
The root of the word curation is ‘cura’ – to show concern and care, take responsibility for – this is the role of the composer in creating and placing incidental music. Though it may be as mundane as music in a shop or lift, or dull as hardware like hinges or grouting, uninteresting surfaces such as paint or carpet (even a sign on a toilet door) you mightn’t appreciate their derivation, craft, function or beauty, because they’re designed not to command your attention. Yet you wouldn’t be without them.
Indeed without that sign on the toilet door you could end up in very much the wrong place.
David Megarrity is an Australian writer, composer, musician, performer and academic creating at the intersection of music, performance and projected image. https://staff.qut.edu.au/staff/d.megarrity
COMPOSITIONS REFERENCED: SOUNDCLOUD PLAYLIST
ASSOCIATED BLOG POSTS
The Empty City (Megarrity, D 2013)
De Profundis (Wilde, adapted Fenton, D Lucas, B 2015)
Scribble (Oxlande, J, Baumann, T 2004)
Australian Drama (Megarrity, 2015)
Cohen, Thomas F. 2012. Playing to the camera: Musicians and musical performance in documentary cinema. London; New York: Wallflower Press.
Cook, Nicholas. 1998. Analysing musical multimedia. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Juslin, Patrick N. and John A. Sloboda. 2001. Music and emotion: Theory and research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kendrick, Lynne and David Roesner, eds. 2011. Theatre noise: The sound of performance. Newcastle upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Herzog, Amy. 2010. Dreams of difference, songs of the same: The musical moment in film. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.
Wilde, Oscar. 2015, De Profundis, Open Road Media, Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [25 February 2019].
As attributed or as below
Transistor radio CC Jo Haupt
Male toilet symbol – toilet door sign CC
Hinge Fernando de Sousa CC