The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater

An opera house is a civic institution that a local government and local patrons decide to establish. A commercial theater survives by business agreements between the owner and independent producers, many of which, nowadays, are corporations. No one has ever founded a college as a way of creating a multi-media laboratory. So the entities which allow such work to exist are founded as semi-permanent institutions in their own right which creators come to on a temporary basis.

A completely different approach to the creation of art is creator-centered, and that is the history that will be addressed below. These may be performers, or composer-performers, or famous collaborations. In addition, there are various spaces, some known as alternative performance venues, where such creator-centered work can be experienced by an audience.

Start with the American descendants of singer Cathy Berberian, people such as Joan LaBarbara, Thomas Buckner, Diamanda Galas, Dora Ohrenstein, Laurie Amat, John Duykers, Pamela Z, Theo Bleckmann and Rinde Eckert, as well as the astounding Pauline Vaillancourt of Chants Libres in Montreal. Most of these performers perform their own material, as well as inspire and perform the work of others.

Many who you might think of primarily as music-theater composers have also been long-time performers of their own work. Such a list would include John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Elizabeth Swados and Meredith Monk. Lately, others like myself, David Rodwin, Kyle Gann, Mikel Rouse, all four Hildegurls (that’s a convenient critical shorthand, like “Les Six“), and John Moran have joined the ranks of creators of music-theater who may be found on stage, or backstage, for any particular production.

So-called “alternative performance spaces” such as La MaMa E.T.C., The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, and PS 122 in New York, as well as a host of San Francisco spaces (see Theater Artaud‘s links page for a long list), are available for presentation of this work. College tours are also essential. For composer-performers, it is the production that moves from venue to venue, rather than the venue that switches from production to production.

Composers involved in the performance of their own work is so new that it’s very old, and shows a preoccupation with process, presentation and sound, not just black dots and letters of the alphabet on a page. When Broadway wasn’t workshops with a temporary cast and no set prior to financing, but out-of-town tryouts with a rehearsed final cast in a full production, it shared some of that creative energy.

The enormous time and effort involved in creating works of music-theater this way is what prompted Lukas Pairon and Dragan Klaic to form what are now known as the NewOp meetings, which were initially annual meetings of international music-theater artistic directors trying to figure out how to enable co-productions. But the assumed underlying political structure, whereby government funding is routed through institutions to creators, is a hot-button issue in the United States, which is one reason why a NewOp meeting has never been held here. The NEA did not fund Robert Mapplethorpe directly, it funded a museum which chose to display works by him. Private funding organizations such as Meet the Composer and the Carlyle Fund are starting to recognize that the emergence of the composer-performer as entrepeneur challenges the assumed preeminence of the institution as arbiter of the form.

The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater
by Barry Drogin
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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