Music As Performance Art (Part 2 of 2)

Music As Performance Art (Part 2 of 2)

As a composer, one of my goals is to follow the lead of generations of rock stars towards considering musical performance as an inherently theatrical art form.

Written By

David Smooke

[The following is a continuation of a thread that I began last week.]

Let’s say you’re talking to people you have just met and you tell them that you’re going to the opera that night. Unless they are classical musicians themselves, chances are fairly good that their heads will immediately be filled with cartoonish imagery of women in Viking hats screeching high notes in foreign languages. In short, their vision will be of something cold and incomprehensible, the most arcane of the fine arts.

The origins of modern opera lie in late 16th-century Florence, where a group of men attempted to revive and update authentic ancient Greek theatrical traditions. In these new versions of old dramatic forms, everything would be sung, and the great stories could be performed for contemporary audiences. This new hybrid genre enjoyed great success as popular entertainment. Patrons would eat dinner, play cards, and otherwise amuse themselves with the operatic performance as backdrop, much in the way that people today might watch television. Often, the audience members would attend the same show for several consecutive nights, with the performance functioning as the accompaniment to their more important social activities. In 19th-century Italy, opera ruled as the most popular of all forms of entertainment. Gondoliers in Venice sing operatic arias today, because those were the most well known songs at the time that their traditions became ossified as part of the tourist trade.

In large part, the great popularity of opera derived from its function as spectacle. Elaborate productions involving specially designed machinery served to enchant and entertain. When combined with archetypical (proven over time? clichéd?) plots and beautiful music, the experience could be transfixing and transformative. As opera’s popularity increased, a scenic arms race of sorts took hold that rivaled the rise in computer effects in today’s Hollywood movies, necessitating ever more special stage machinations in order to astonish the more technically sophisticated audiences.

Rock and roll has always been spectacle as well. The appeal of Elvis was in part due to his sound and in part due to his look and unique dancing style. As amplification technology improved and bands began playing to stadiums and larger audiences, they developed new lighting technology and multi-million dollar stage sets. Very quickly, bands like The Who realized that their performances were walking a very narrow line, allowing them to release Tommy as a “rock opera.” While artists like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa continued this rock opera tradition, others, including Queen and Parliament, were creating stage shows with characters and plots, elaborate machinery, and many of the other hallmarks of the grand operatic tradition but without reference to their performances as opera. These musicians understood that the concert experience is equal parts aural and visual for those immersed in the experience.

More and more, experimental music performances are applying these concepts in order to create strong concert experiences. Ensembles are bringing this music into club spaces, incorporating video projection into their shows, and are even staging the movement of standard repertoire pieces. For two generations, composers have added staging directions to their scores, whether as simple as Crumb’s call for half masks and blue lighting for his Vox Balaenae or as complex as the movement directions in Harrison Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre. These staging elements can provide an additional abstract layer of interest that works to focus attention on the stage, to hold audience members’ attention but without providing specific semantic meaning outside of the musical argument. In so doing, staging elements can heighten the concert experience and augment the emotional impact of the music.

As a composer, one of my goals is to follow the lead of generations of rock stars towards considering musical performance as an inherently theatrical art form. From a compositional standpoint, this can function subtly through scoring for specific ensembles and playing techniques that require changing the relationship between the performer’s body and the instrument. This can also function clearly through scores that specify directions for movements, stage setup, and multimedia elements.

While this performance art owes a great debt to opera, it’s not truly a continuation of the operatic tradition. These pieces might use vocalists, but while embracing the abstract expression of wordless texts that can explore the full gamut of possible human sounds. Instead of linear—or even nonlinear—plots, the dramatic throughline can arise directly from the musical one. This blurring of the boundaries between musical performance and theatrical performance can create a new paradigm for dramatic performances without recourse to specific meaning, where the musical meaning itself creates the drama. By so doing, it can enhance new music’s capacity for expressiveness and allow experimental music to reach towards those interested listeners who grew up loving the great rock stage shows.