Is Anyone Listening? (from The New Music Theater)

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The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body by Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

The following chapter is reprinted with permission from the authors and the publisher from The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body by Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 360-375).

  • PLUS: Read a conversation with New Music Theater co-author Eric Salzman.

    If it goes on like that I will get tinnitus!
    an elderly lady overheard during the intermission of a contemporary music concert


    Who is the audience?

    Looking at photographs taken at performances we can sometimes catch a glimpse of the audience. Happenings, performances in galleries or on streets, on canals, and in natural settings often show performers mixing with the audience, creating a special form of street theater. Galleries that host performances are typically rather small so the public ends up standing or sitting on the fl oor with the performer or performers in the middle. Sometimes it is not easy to differentiate performers from audience purely by dress, but in other cases the distinction is clear. The audience photographed during an “action” by Yves Klein in 1960 Paris shows elegantly dressed members of society watching two nudes covered with blue color dragging themselves around on paper.

    A picture that shows the grand staircase during intermission at the New York Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s gives us a good idea of the dress code of the day. In contrast, more recent audiences, dressed informally, have been willing, even anxious, to get involved as participants or at the very least as documentarians of public performances.

    In the traditional theater, the audience completely disappears into the black of the auditorium as the theater lights go down and stage lights come up and seal the distinction between the performers and the performed-to. The proscenium arch, the “missing fourth wall” of realistic theater, the bright lights of the stage, and the unreal costumes all create a picture—a picture in motion to be sure—that stands out in opposition to the invisibility of the audience, huddled and immobilized in the auditorium.

    At another extreme, we might have a work in which the performers disappear into the audience. In Dick Raijmaakers’ The Fall of Mussolini, the audience is put on a scaffold or catwalk above and around the performance space. Many new theaters today have multipurpose or modular stages in which the floor or parts of it can be moved so that the audience/performance relationship can be changed as needed. Ironically, these once-utopian possibilities are more widely available but much less used or appreciated than they once were. The Italian architect and librettist Valerio Ferrari1 presented a concept for an opera house in which audiences would be placed alongside a stage in the form of a huge descending spiral. Stockhausen had a truly utopian vision for a hall with the public suspended in midair and the music diffused in 360 degrees and three dimensions. Audiences today seem to divide into those who prefer very conventional situations in the traditional proscenium theater and those who patronize the type of event that reinvents everything anew with each piece.

    Dealing with the audience in a new piece or production is not only a philosophical or ideological issue but also has its practical limitations. Fire laws or other security regulations apply in almost every theater in Western countries and this often becomes a subject of dispute between artist and producer. Switch off the emergency lights? Place objects in the emergency or fire lanes? Block the exits? Are there specific materials, actions, or sounds that could harm, injure, or discombobulate the audience? Break the law and the police or fire department may come and close down the theater!

    Some companies, like the Catalonian La Fura dels Baus, are specialized in performance actions for which the audience is actually warned to wear waterproof clothing. This is certainly one form of the breakdown between performance space and audience space. Blue Man Group sells certain seats with a warning attached and also issues protective gear against flying paint.2 More recently the audience has started to become part of the performance, both participating in and documenting the event on digital and mobile phone cameras. In general, however, the rules and regulations of public gatherings, intended to be protective of public security and wellbeing, are limiting. As everywhere, it is hard to say where security ends and overprotection starts. The problem is complicated by the enormous differences in audiences with respect to what they will tolerate. In some cases, a quiet whisper will evoke protests whereas thousands of people at pop concerts pass the time socializing, eating, drinking, screaming, and so forth. A case of serious injury at, say, an interactive performance could lead to major problems for the responsible producer or artist. It has happened at pop concerts with very negative aftereffects. There are no special art exemptions in civil law.

    All this has been said to demonstrate that a work of performance art of any kind does not exist in a vacuum. It takes place in a specific time and place. Although the piece itself might remain the same, a given performance in a certain place with a certain audience may totally change its reality.


    What brings audiences into the theater?

    Opera in its heyday was the top of the market, but nowadays opera houses, although still working with big budgets, have a lot of competition from cinema, pop concerts, dance clubs, and home media. The once-popular theater in the round and thrust stages were intended to give a more vivid immediacy to the performances—the updated version of the old bourgeois theater whose aim was to overwhelm rather than to partner with the public. Ironically, some once-progressive theater companies are now stuck with these thrust stages and no-longer fashionable theater-in-the-round theaters.

    In many—perhaps most—of those cases, the audience is treated as if it were something fl uid and easy to manipulate, easily timed and programmed, docile and willing to be led by the nose. But like the reality of the performance itself, the reality of audiences is actually complex, paradoxical, and constantly changing. In a series of performances of the same piece, it is a commonplace that different audiences react very differently.

    The group psychology of audiences is not very well understood. The public sometimes behaves as a “stupid mass” and sometimes as a distinct intelligent individual. Performers commonly talk about this after a show, noting whether the audience was noisy or quiet, in a good mood, responsive, inspiring or slow, heavy, and unresponsive. Sometimes they will even note specific individuals who behave in unexpected ways. “You have been a wonderful audience” is a common remark from pop performers that causes the audience to cheer and increases the public’s regard for the performer. Opera divas go even further than this, blowing kisses to their fans, bowing and kneeling, retrieving bouquets, and so forth. This is all part of the highly differentiated and complex art form of classical opera that also has a highly structured public and a set of rituals that controls the relationship between performer and audience. This begins when people buy their tickets (sometimes sleeping overnight in sleeping bags outside the opera house) and continues on the inside through the very structure of the opera house interior. Parquet, parterre, loges, ranks, and standing places all create a stratified temporary society inside the theater, inversely reflecting the society outside (the lower seats are the most expensive).

    Other elements of operatic ritual are the socializing at intermission; the applause, which is counted in curtain calls (or, in modern theaters without a curtain, by the number of times that the stage lights are brought down and up); and the post-performance stage door lineup for autographs and glimpses of the stars. The collecting of recordings, photos, souvenirs, and memorabilia also provides a way the public can participate in this performing arts culture.

    This traditional culture of theater and opera does not depend on specific works and seems naive and easily penetrable. Not surprisingly, there have been many attempts to change it, but the system has proved to be more resilient and audiences more adaptable than expected. In some cases, audiences have come to acknowledge and accept the challenge in a very passive way. As a result, a situation has developed in which an opera house will play an extremely difficult avant-garde piece in front of an accepting opera audience, which simply goes through its normal pre-programmed reactions. There is not only no scandal but all the components of audience behavior are now identical to those at any opera performance!

    As the costs of live performance go up and the public turns more and more to mass media, the situation for all the performance arts becomes more and more diffi cult. Unless there are big names involved, producers are willing to take fewer and fewer risks. The only questions that are asked are those that concern self-preservation, and in fact, the operatic system itself has become—with built-in redundancies and safeguards—a method for self-preservation.

    In music criticism and musicology, it has become a habit to speak about music as if it were some kind of product. But music, of all the arts, is the least like a product and the most like a social action based on a process of transmitting and giving something. It is only in the smaller and more flexible music theater that these questions can be asked openly: What is given and to whom? What does the creative artist have to offer?

    The historical past of music making shows a mixture of functionality (masses, cantatas) and entertainment (concertos, court opera, shows, pop music). One defi nition of a classical period in music would be a time when Mozart could write La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte almost simultaneously; in short, when usefulness, entertainment value, and artistic quality were in some kind of balance. In all cases, there is always an addressee, someone to whom the work or the performance is dedicated. It might be a god or a royal patron. It might be all of humanity or just the customers drinking at the bar before or after the performance.

    Who is watching whom? The audience is watching the performers but the performers are also watching the audience. Performers are always dealing with the public in ways that the creators or producers of the work they are performing do not necessarily appreciate or understand. What contact do performers have with their audience? In the archaic spectacles, described by Christopher Small in his book Musicking, the answer is, quite a lot. Small shows how strongly the audience in African culture is (or was) connected to the performers and musicians. Performances in most of the great ancient or traditional theaters may continue for many hours—even days—and take the form of a huge party in which everyone, even children, participate. In Indonesian and Balinese theater—at least before performances became tourist attractions—the line between public and participants was not always so well defined, and the inhabitants of entire villages may take part in certain events. John Cage used to note that in Bali there was no word for “art.” Another characteristic of this kind of “musicking” is that the repertoire can, has, and does change over time, a fact not always taken into account by musicological purists.

    Individualization and specialization in European theater has produced specific art forms for specific publics; at the same time, it has annihilated forms of expression without an audience and, on the flip side, it has not permitted or it has inhibited specific audiences to generate their own forms of expression. There are exceptions to this. One is children’s theater, which is mostly music theater, mostly educational, and likely to be funny and playful, reflecting the way adults imagine children’s minds. Unfortunately, children nowadays, even at the earliest ages, discover television as well as computer and video games and tend to regard them as being much more fun than theater or music. There is not yet, in a society where the image of the young, beautiful, and dynamic is everywhere, much of a concept of theater for the old.

    In the Americas, other exceptions are made for the urban poor and for immigrant audiences. What was once called “race music” turned out to be jazz, blues, gospel, and its progeny (up to and including hip-hop). Black and Hispanic theater is important in New York and California and has always been open to musical theater forms. There is even a movement to create hip-hop opera and music theater. Bobos (American Music Theater Festival in 1993) by Ed Shockley and James McBride is an early example, and there is now a Hip-Hop Theater Festival.

    There are many paradoxes here. The stressed young urban professional dresses up for a couple of hours to go to a performance of a classical opera. But why? It is much easier for her not to dress up (or to dress down) and go to a nearby auditorium where there are plenty of seats and where, often at a lower price, she can meet her peers and see or hear something new in pop music. But perhaps this does not match the social aspirations of her peers or the unconscious desire to affi rm traditional culture and the status quo.


    Local or/and global

    Many questions about audiences need to be asked. To whom is contemporary opera/music theater addressed? What might a potential audience for new music theater be interested in? Nineteenth-century society, originally addicted to amusements and escapes, turned to various forms of realism with the work of Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg, Verga, Dreiser, and others, work that reflected “real” problems and “real” tragedies. Verismo in opera was not far behind. Nowadays, however, theater presents itself in laboratory costume—in vitro so to speak—as a series of proposal for discussion. This attitude is connected to our vaunted knowledge explosion. Some spectacular remote events are now transmitted immediately into our homes and form pieces of a large puzzle. The result is that our knowledge of the world is as much global as it is local even though most of this is useless ballast in our minds, a mixture of curiosity and voyeurism. The commercial possibility of live, local performance, as contrasted to global media transmissions, is limited and tends to be ignored by the media. What claims can be made for live theater (let alone live music theater)? Does it really help promote a better understanding of the world or is this merely the kind of educational approach that audiences dislike?

    It is very characteristic of music theater to be local but widespread. When NewOp was founded in 1992, it brought together composers, writers, and producers of new music theater from different parts of the world who did not necessarily even know each other or each other’s work. The globalization of music theater was, perhaps, an inevitability in a movement that had popped up in many places but had deep roots only in few. Increasingly, electronic (or, more correctly, digital) media have begun to dominate a mass music scene that absorbs and fuses everything available for sale on the global market. National trends and characteristics are losing their profile as European Community policy promotes quick exchange, artistic discussions, and cross-national projects. The trend is towards the application of free-market policies, which ensure that even the arts have to follow the economic rules, a very problematic path at best. The issue then becomes—for free-marketeers and arts bureaucrats alike—what art organizations and art works can be sold across the widest markets, a principle that tends to put at a disadvantage, or ignore entirely, small local institutions and local cultural conditions. These rules have put control into the hands of a few managers who tour one production or a selection of artists within the carousel of festivals that are often the only way to get in touch with nonmainstream performance art. The globalization represented by NewOp or by the Munich Biennale resulted in a music theater that is necessarily a form of Zeitoper and has an audience that is widespread in the Western world and in Westernized cultures although not necessarily numerous anywhere in particular.


    Audiences, media, and performance space

    When we talk about media, a distinction has to be made between media that is part of the work under discussion and media that functions as the performance space by acting as the conveyor of the performance itself. Performance space in this latter sense includes theater as well as radio, television, and film. Performance media within a performance might include video, cassette tape, computers and mini-computers, even CD-ROMs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, computer games, mobile phones, headphones, and mini-computers. Some of these are already well-known components of music theater and other performance arts; others might seem more peripheral. Nevertheless, it is perfectly feasible to introduce music theater to such media or vice versa. Joshua Fried, a New York composer, has a series of “headphone-driven” pieces involving performers who respond not to written-out music but to what they hear on their headphones. In his Headphone Follies, not so much a performance as an installation, it is hard to tell who are the performers and who is the audience. In International Cloud Atlas, Mikel Rouse’s score for Merce Cunningham’s eyeSpace (2006), each member of the audience has an individual Ipod and listens to a different random shuffl ing of the tracks (there are 3,628,800 possible permutations).

    The computer game Lara Croft, in a series called Tomb Raider 2, is placed in and around the Venetian opera house La Fenice and the dramaturgy of the game, which lies between cinema and theater and depends on the ambience of this traditional opera building (where many contemporary pieces have been premiered), pushes us to think about future possibilities. In this last example, the social aspect of live theater is essentially nonexistent although the interactive functionality of the game transmits the feeling of a live performance. King Ludwig II of Bavaria or on occasion the Pope might have constituted the entire audience for an operatic performance, but the proverbial command performance is available only to such exalted personages. Now, however, the transmission techniques of electronic media have made performance-on-demand for an audience of one perfectly feasible and there can also be performances without performers or in which the spectator is the only actual performer. Interactivity and interactive media put a question mark on a lot of traditional assumptions. Is interactive game playing creative in any meaningful sense or is it merely “interpretation” (the creative role presumably belonging to the developer of the game)? This leads to the question of whether an audience can be (or can be made to be) creative at all. This question was posed in the 1960s and early 1970s in the so-called Wandelkonzerte (“wandering audience concerts”) of Ladislav Kupkovic in which groups of performers and audiences were organized to move inside compounds or even throughout a city. This differs from those public art performances, happenings, and installations in which the art activity merges into the fl ux of everyday urban bustle and becomes nearly indiscernible from real life. The audiences at such events do not deliberately gather at a certain time in the expectation of a performance but are simply passers-by who happen on some action or performance and have either a fragmented idea of what is going on or no idea at all.

    The public space, where the performance is free of charge, can draw in people who otherwise never would enter a theater. The street or subway (underground or metro) musician, the clown, the break dancer, and the living statue are performing theater literally without the theater building. Most outdoor performance venues are places where people gather and such places are often chosen for their qualities of landscape or architecture. What is missing is the frame and the dedicated audience; after all, anybody can be on the street and nobody is excluded. Perhaps these can be viewed as positive aspects of street performance. On the negative side, there is the likelihood that such performances will be simply overlooked by the very people who might be most interested. And, although street musicians are common enough, elaborate ensemble musical theater performances on the street or in the subway are, for many reasons, rare and difficult to carry off effectively.

    Performances in the ancient open-air theaters of Greece and Rome took place in daylight.6 Renaissance theaters were brought indoors but they used permanent sets that represented the street—as if the outside were being brought inside and plays were still being played in daylight. Curiously, many modern open-air performances in Italy, often played in antique ruins, reverse this situation and bring the proscenium and set design of the closed theater back out into the open, generally competing with, disregarding, or even blocking out the surrounding landscape (and most often, with the aid of modern outdoor stadium lighting, performing at night). The ancient theaters were built to integrate nature and landscape into the theater performance. These performances had to conquer and hold their audience’s attention by being surprising or suspenseful. Otherwise the audience would prefer to eat, drink, and chat (as it still does—or did until recently—in provincial performances of ultra-familiar operas in Italy). The baroque and rococo court theaters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed the art of the changeable set within the picture opening provided by the proscenium stage. The public was separated from the stage by the orchestra placed at ground level. However the relatively small size of the theaters and the horseshoe design of the théâtre à l’italienne meant that no one was very far from the stage, and sightlines and acoustics were generally good for everyone. The bourgeois opera houses that followed, although on a much larger scale, carefully imitated the court theaters in such matters. The rigidity and hierarchy of the seating arrangements and the ritual of theatrical procedures was preserved along with the increasingly traditional repertoire. Curiously enough, although most concert music and classical opera is quite profane in its nature, a religious aura is preserved in these performance rituals, perhaps a relic of the time when such events actually had a religious significance. Performances in lofts, galleries, and abandoned industrial buildings can be said to lie in between the rigid traditions and rituals of formal theaters and the unspecific float and rush of street theater.8 In all these situations, there are different expectations and different limitations.

    To a certain degree, audience response is based on expectation, which is, in turn, based on prior knowledge. How does an audience get to know something about what they are going to see and hear? In this secondary and preliminary layer of communication lies the biggest problem of all art forms that do not have the consecration of institutionalization. Before the performance and its actual unfolding in time, there is a kind of pre-performance, a background event that prepares, publicizes, helps, and even promotes the understanding of the art work or the performance that has yet to appear. This may take the form of press releases, journalism, public relations, advertising, promotion, media coverage, or any number of other methods of binding a new work or performance to its potential public. Without the older coherence of a society where certain agreed-on languages, codes, and rituals are a well-established habit, the traditions for understanding may be blurred or missing and the activity of public relations9 has to take their place. It represents a deep difference between those who claim that a new piece should be understandable at first sight without pre-information and those who say the opposite.

    Berio said that his pieces for the opera needed the opera house and the opera public and he even went so far as to seat provocateurs in their midst. At the time—the 1960s—opera audiences were still coherent entities with predictable behavior, which made scandals easy to program. When the social and intellectual background of the theater- or operagoer is calculable, the assumption can be made that certain notions, themes, and texts will be recognized and understood. When those assumptions are no longer valid or when theater happens outside its protected areas (protected in the sense that there is a certain understanding and behavior to be taken for granted), problems of intelligibility arise.

    There was a major discussion in the avant-garde as to whether there could be any kind of musical underpinning to new work without some connection to history. For Scriabin there was a metaphysical message in the concept of synesthesia; the audience became humankind itself, which had to be saved by listening to and watching his compositions. Twentieth century artists and authors, particularly in Europe, have often employed a language that feeds directly into that “second layer,” the explanatory bytext, the row of footnotes. Does this actually win over the audience or, on the contrary, does it create resistance? Such ideas can be stimulating, surprising, and inspiring, but it is not always the case that a great idea makes for a great musical or theater evening.

    Why can’t a work be self-explanatory? Why should a piece of music or a play need to be explained in simple words when the work itself is so highly complex or disturbing? Has the common denominator of theater consumers been lowered so much that the public cannot understand anything but the simplest discourse any more? Is the discourse of contemporary art too specific? Are new art, music, theater, and opera destined only for a specially trained audience?

    When art and music represented the wealth of governments, they aimed at universality. Haydn said, “The whole world understands my language,” and by and large that was true (of course, “the whole world” was a much smaller place back then). In most of the arts, universality was closely connected to mimesis but in music it depended on something else. Perhaps there is something innate or “hard-wired” in human beings when it comes to music. Or perhaps it was the connection to folk art and to a popular culture that has always favored music. We all react to the sound of the human voice, and in most cultures, vocal music is dominant. Where instrumental music comes to the fore, there is rhythm, perhaps equally hard-wired. Rhythm is connected to dance, and like the structure of the instruments themselves, rhythm has both a physical component and mathematically defi nable characteristics that make for hard-fact realities. Even with all the variety that twentieth- and twenty-first-century music has shown, the psycho-physiological meanings of distinct intervals and kinetic rhythms continue to exist and have not yet been by any means replaced by other compositional concepts.

    By the late nineteenth century, the leading masters of musical composition, many of them opera composers, developed different strategies to avoid or postpone the tonal cadence. We might well ask if this had anything to do with the social-political evolutions or revolutions of the same period. A cr for freedom was coming from colonialized peoples, subjugated minorities, Afro-American slaves, workers in heavy industry, prisoners, Jews in the European ghettos, and so forth. But who was crying to be liberated from the tonal cadence?

    The cadence might be considered as the mimetic element in music. This harmonic-melodic and rhythmic pattern has a double importance to musical composition. It defines formal sections as well as whole pieces by setting the basic tonality and creating movement away from the center and back again. The play of tonalities and associated rhythmic movements create movement through expectation and, increasingly, by defeating expectation. Whole forms, notably the famous sonata form, are based on this. So are theatrical structures although we are less likely to be concerned about the tonalities of operatic scenes. Die Zauberflöte is, in a larger sense, indubitably in E-fl at major, but unless the overture is performed as a separate concert piece, that fact is not generally noted. In any case, the cadence is part of the power of traditional opera and a point of connection between the arcane arts of composition and the musical comprehension of the public. In effect, it was the link between purely musical form and the power of music to drive a theatrical narrative. As this power slowly ebbed away, a hole was created in the fabric of music, which has not yet been repaired.

    No one would deny the importance of the core structure of tonality in Western art music. But is it just a relic from another, more hierarchical period, when politics and social organization were similarly organized? Can it be called a reign of musical terror or musical oppression with meaningful political parallels? It was certainly the product of a dynastic era of absolute monarchs and baroque social hierarchies, and as they disappeared, the reign of tonality seemed to become progressively weaker and weaker. Do the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the advent of meritocracy have esthetic applications? The parallels, however simplistic, are irresistible, especially since we know that the breakdown of the old order and the beginning of the breakdown of tonality and the cadence are almost simultaneous historic events. In an age of pluralistic democracy, wouldn’t any sound have the right to be played and heard in the widest context? In fact, this has actually proven to be the case. It is ironic that when innovation is everything and any new sound imaginable is a possibility, the term music itself becomes fuzzy (any sound or complex of sounds can be “music” if we so name it) and the notion of new music itself becomes a paradox.

    There is another factor here, a twentieth-century addition to the political and social change of the previous century. This is the intrusion of technology into the process. The near-universality of amplified and loudspeaker sound long ago replaced acoustic sound transmission as the norm of musical culture. Although classical opera might seem to be the least affected of all the arts, it hardly escapes the omnipresent and democratic reign of audio—and now also video—technology. New halls and opera houses are built to sound like high-quality audio recordings. Performers learn music and musical interpretation as much by listening to recordings as through written music. Formerly rare and obscure repertoire becomes familiar to both performers and audiences. Difficult or unfamiliar contemporary music becomes much easier for performers due to the presence of examples that can be imitated or learned by ear. Through recordings, the history of music is pushed back and forth through the centuries and extended horizontally around the globe.

    Only new, unperformed music seems to escape this and presumably must be learned in other ways. But even this is no longer completely true. New music is now often recorded before it is performed for an audience. Composers, even when writing for the voice, can routinely mock up electronic versions of their music for learning and rehearsal purposes, a scheme that is enormously aided by the portability and relatively low cost of modern sound systems and digital audio computing.13 In addition to creating sound and music, sound systems make available any sound that can be or has been recorded; such sounds are not only available for direct musical use but they can also be sampled for further use and processing. With the intervention of microphones, amplifi ers, and sound modifi cation devices—nowadays mostly computer programs—any sound can be recorded, synthesized, processed in multiple dimensions, reworked, distributed, and redistributed.

    All of this has had a huge influence not only on new music but on musical culture in general. This infl uence extends from pop music through all the layers of classical and contemporary music and is a major factor in new music theater as well. The new universality of a musical culture where everything can potentially enter the world-scene through media and mass media has produced a new complexity and new levels of overload. It has also produced a reaction, a strong countercurrent that favors “acoustic” music, the nonamplification of voices, the paring-down of vocabulary, and the kinds of neo-tonalities represented by minimalism and its offshoots.

    This even has social and political ramifications as it did in Marxist days. The double-bind of total democratization may bring and even require a simplification of language. Looking at the avant-garde of the twentieth century from the vantage point of the early twenty-first, we can see how and why much of modernism was transitory. The utopian plan for a new society with potentially total freedom inside an anarchic but peaceful social order simply collapsed. Is there a new cultural order that will come to replace the old? What is certain is that change continues and that it is reflected in new audiences and new relationships between audiences and the performing arts, with music theater most certainly in the front lines of change.