OK, So What Is “New Music Theater”?
In a self-post appended to my previous blog on Vachel Lindsay, I corrected myself for stating that performance art necessarily involved music. What, then, do we call performance art with music? (Or musical theater presented in a gallery, or conceptual art with underscoring presented on a proscenium stage?) “New music theater,” say some observers, to distinguish it from older musical theater hybrids like Mozartean singspiel, Weillian Broadway musicals, or even modernism like Pierrot Lunaire; in other words, new music theater is “postmodernism” as distinct from the “modernism” of Schoenberg. If it’s been produced at the Avignon Festival, the Munich Biennale, or the various Fringe Festivals from Edinburgh to New York, chances are it’s not opera or music theater but “new music theater.”
Still confused? Fear not. Restorative understanding is coming in a book to be published by Oxford in 2008, tentatively entitled Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body: The New Music Theater. Its authors, Eric Salzman and Thomas Dezsy, have scoured every horizon to define once and for all the DNA of NMT. Salzman has, since the 1960s, been both a composer of new music theater (recent works include The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz and Jukebox in the Tavern of Love) and a producer (the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s). I recently looked at galleys of this much-needed book, which covers the ground worldwide from American hobo Harry Partch to South Asian Kathakali to Sylvano Bussotti and Stockhausen.
“Music theater is theater that is music-driven (i.e. decisively linked to musical timing and organization) or where, at the very least, music, language, vocalization, and physical movement exist, interact, or stand side-by-side in some kind of equality,” the authors write.
In other words, music is really not necessarily, or even at all, the driving force as in opera, and the seven lively arts do not integrate with and complement each other in NMT as they do in opera and musical theater. They may just exist next to one another like sculptural blocks. Nor, Salzman and Deszy go on to say, is the artist’s personality (in the Romantic sense) necessarily a (or the) determinant voice in NMT; rather, the mere accident of the process of composition—sometimes rendered in real rather than “theatrical/historical” time—is the chief effect. The authors observe that while time is historical, and theater always deals with “historical time,” NMT often desemiotizes or de-historicizes time, being all in the present, even though music’s effect on the listener must depend on a sense of memory and historical time in order to be perceived and processed. (Think Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, et al.)
Salzman and Deszy suggest that in NMT, even the text itself (if there is one, as sometimes the piece is improvised, or its “text” is scripted aleatorism) is often not the driving force, unlike the text (libretto) in traditional opera. More important than “text,” the authors explain, is “meta-text” and intentionality. The traditional notions of what constitutes a “composer” and a “librettist” may be mutating in NMT, especially because of the vast vocabulary and manipulative resources of ever-advancing capabilities in electronic processing, available even to musicians with little formal training. Narrative, and even cause and effect, are often eschewed by NMT practitioners, who may variously be elitely skilled Darmstadt-style composers, stage directors, choreographers, rock musicians, or fine arts outliers, and who may either be single-handed auteurs or team players. (Is this all a way of saying that NMT’s relationship to traditional opera and musical theatre is like that of alternate or indie rock to mainstream?)
In fact, like the works of Cage—which sometimes dissolved boundaries of notation, equal temperament, formal architecture, attachments to musical history, and even attachments to meaning—new music theater, imply Salzman and Dezsy, is theater not just without narrative, but sometimes theater without dramaturgy—an oxymoronical theater.
What are your working definitions for new music theater? The term is open for wikification.