CONJUNCTIONS:28 Spring 1997
Music Theater: Texts and Traces
Thalia Field



IN OUR CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM it exists on some long low branch in an ecstatic tangle of phylogenies and ontologies from all over the bush. Opera, dance, art, poetry, theater, film, photography, cabaret--even, in the early days, architecture and political activism--can be seen in its genetic soup. Examples of early music theater have been found on many terrains, on several continents at once--its place as an essential literary and dramatic form continually substantiated. Although it is impossible to locate an original, or originating model, we can, by the tracks left for us to follow, easily see that music theater has grown from a small phenomenon to a major movement. The tracks are of different sizes and shapes and come from many directions and go off in many directions--and yet some of them have led us here, to a gathering of artists whose work represents new and innovative forms of music theater, especially those paying special attention to language, and to the ways language traces itself across the page. Some of these compositions were written long ago, while others are newly born--and yet each text is caught up in the printed present. Each possesses a unique anatomy built for music and theater, and remains incomplete without that final stage of being which is live performance. Look at them this way and I hope you will see each text as a species unto itself, self-evolved and specially formed to carry out its particular method of living. As with all forms, it is impossible to untangle which came first, their structures or their functions.
       Harry Partch, many would say, is the American pioneer of this art. His unpublished, unproduced script of The Bewitched shows a dramatist composing music as language, character and plot. Like his iconoclast compatriot, Henry Cowell, Partch invented unique instruments to express his musical ideas, which were based on non-Western tunings and non-pitched sounds. The feeling of the music, its procedures and beats, can be felt in the way the script is scored and spaced. There are dancers who interact with the musicians on stage, but they are puppets almost to the music's theatrical dominance. No wonder Alice Farley and Henry Threadgill cite him as an important influence on their creation of Erotec, where the jazz band is suspended high above the stage, and the dancers enact their computer-age desires directly underneath. Issues of machine-love and machine-fear in Erotec echo another important music theater composer, Laurie Anderson, whose electronic compositions, though absent here, use words and sounds as layers of complex drama in the soul of the machine.
       All contemporary music theater touches Robert Ashley's shadow at some point. His ear is not only tuned to music, but to the great art of the tale: the shaggy dog, the anecdote, the snippet, the aside. And of course people call him a poet, though he has said that for him, "the libretto--the text for the three operas--doesn't have in it that extreme refinement of language that one would find in a shorter form. It's not poetry, it's song. It's song in the same way that The Iliad was a song. It's just a song; if you read one line, it's not that interesting in itself, but if you read a hundred they start to make sense." He captures, not only in content but also in form, the very structure of consciousness that courses through America like the television broadcasts to which his work aspires. In this way he is creating an idiom as self-consciously "American" as Virgil Thompson did. Ashley calls it tribal. Dramaturgically his pieces break drama into place and character, and then character into tonalities, defined not simply musically, but behaviorally, socially and narratively. As you can see in his score, the characters are given pitches but not told exactly what or how to sing, so their song-speech hovers around the pitch in a measure of indeterminacy.
       If Ashley's work is structured by anecdote, Meredith Monk appears to come to music theater from the opposite pole--from a pre-literate place of movement and vocalization which paints landscapes, journeys and characters through abstraction. But though she uses very little so-called "language," the range of vocal expression in her music becomes a found ur-language, a translation into sound of the abstract principles of drama. Or, as she herself has said, her compositions exist "between the bar lines and beyond the notes." Her most famous opera is Atlas, but here we are given a rare view of an early song-cycle, one of the last to be "written" as text--without the intermediary use of tape. The orchestration of Monk's work is kept simple so that the vocal textures can be foregrounded, and Our Lady of Late is in that tradition, with only a wineglass for accompaniment. Additionally, Meredith Monk is an artist who ignores traditional "collaborative" models (whose borders are too often repressively patrolled in the Establishment venues of opera and musical theater). Her process of creation is nonlinear and she herself functions as composer, writer, director and performer--with a large degree of involvement from the rest of the cast. If you look closely you'll see that alternative collaborations are present elsewhere in this tradition, and perhaps there's something about this reorganization of roles which keeps these creations so fresh.
       Electronic technology has found wide acceptance in composition, and many composers have extended it to music theater. John Moran (with Bob McGrath and Lori Olinder of Ridge Theater) has taken electronic composition and found an entirely new dramaturgical vocabulary for it. The kind of dramatic experience Moran creates comes from something profoundly structural, like the "invisible" effect of editing in cinema, and can be seen in the lipsynched, meticulously choreographed and often frighteningly robotic performances in his work. The music seems to be composed entirely of sounds, sound effects and strands of melody and speech, spliced and cut together like film images to make the scenes in a Frankenstein's monster of music narrative. The dialogue too gives the impression of being a sound effect, and where the entire opera is already on tape there is the impression that the live-ness of the performance is as much an echo as are the characters in the story. When I asked Ridge Theater and Moran for a script, most of what they could reassemble of Everyday Newt Burman is what you see in this portfolio: a momentary glimpse of their process, as scripts for them are places to pass through quickly on the way to tape, which is where his more recent operas exist exclusively.
       Indeterminacy is a growing presence in contemporary music theater. Yasunao Tone's Geography and Music was designed as a text-based accompaniment to dance, and as with other compositions in this indeterminate vein, such as those of Michael Peppe and Joshua Fried, the texts on the page are illusions of a predictability that can't exist in performance once the electronic interventions are enacted. These procedural compositions highlight dramatic questions of the distance between text and performance, utterance and meaning.
       Ruth E. Margraff is more of a writer who composes than a composer who writes, though that distinction may be only academic. In Wallpaper Psalm, she takes up several strands of these various traditions and adds them to her ornate vision of a punk-rant drama. She uses a musicalized vocabulary of character and scene to help structure the story around literary qualities of hysteria and rupture--and the songs in Wallpaper Psalm come out of a "naive" tradition (Meredith Monk meets Sonic Youth?) where vocal quality is more important than precision of notes. The function the songs play in the drama is a pathos like that of the pre-war building which acts as both setting and allegorical singer in whose throat the characters become stuck and are finally disgorged. Her language skips between sense and sound and when she performs her own vocal experiments she shares some ground with Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galas. Also, like Robert Ashley reinvented, the different places in the "set" as well as the individual characters in Wallpaper Psalm have emotional pitches and modes which define them.
       Also included in this ad hoc assemblage, though they are not themselves composers, are two writers who seem to integrate music directly into the form of their texts. Ann T. Greene and Leroy Jenkins's The Negros Burial Ground takes us to the shifting ground of history and the different musical idioms and styles that converge when the past is excavated. Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Lady Into Fox, composed by Nicolas Bloomfield, provides a contemporary chamber drama--where the accompaniment is almost the soul of the transformation. There are many poets who write important and innovative libretti, and perhaps someday it will be possible to take a separate look at that tradition.
       Since its inception around a smoky table somewhere in the sixteenth century, opera has always been the hybrid (or multimedia) artform par excellence, picking and borrowing from far-flung practices to achieve its creators' desire for synthesis. Twentieth-century opera/music theater has been no less dynamic; innovations ranging from silent film to jazz to satellites and rap music have come to the party and stayed. This is not to say that there haven't always been traditions, but rather that the traditions of opera seem to be more about adventures in musico-dramatic expressivity than, for example, representations of "reality." I would wager that opera's constant popularity stems from its chameleonlike ability to be many things to many people. Following the great vaudeville decades in the early century, all the forms of music drama have been gathering momentum in America. Commenting on the Met's production of Einstein on the Beach, Laurie Anderson remarked, "Afterwards, everyone I knew started to write an opera, including myself. You'd see someone on the street--`How's your opera?' `Fine, how's yours?' It was really a fad." And that fad has not flagged, as I think the evidence here plainly shows.
       Ironically, however, since the beginning of opera there has been a sort of "gentleman's" feud between the primacy of the text and the primacy of the music. Along with everything else split along binary lines in Europe (mind-body, master-slave, human-non-human, etc.) this debate was self-perpetuating. On the one hand the story demanded clarity of conception and delivery, and on the other hand the music had a nasty way of defeating the words at almost all points, either through pitch, ornamentation, rhythm or orchestration. This duel makes endlessly entertaining history, too detailed to recount here, until finally the brawl spilled into the streets of the more self-consciously modern era in such works as Strauss's Capriccio (in which a poet and a composer literally duke it out) and Schönberg's Moses und Aron (in which Moses only speaks and Aron sings).
       In some ways it seems that the pieces in this collection, where text is so much a part of the musical conception, can be construed as some sort of response to the duel, highlighting its essential questions, perhaps signaling its insufficiency. Gertrude Stein made it possible to find music theater in the sounds and composition of language itself, an urge which reappears in Glass's Einstein on the Beach, and the syllabic orchestrations of Charles Amirkhanian. In fact, many if not most contemporary music theater composers position themselves on the spectrum of the material versus the grammatical aspects of language. One of the most impressive is Steve Reich's opera, The Cave, where the sounds of extemporaneous speech are the basis of the musical composition itself, woven motivically into an exploration of national character. John Cage formalized the possibilities of noise in music, and his composed silences conditioned listeners to the drama inherent in chance, duration and accident as much as harmony, meaning or form. Perhaps it was becoming clear to composers and dramatists influenced by the upheavals of the media century that war and peace, high and low culture, east, west, north, south, speech, music and noise were not so far apart after all. Stories, they learned, are dramatized less through text or music primarily, but by the strategies of the whole event (and that traditional values of musical or textual "intelligibility" are overrated). Thus the repertoire differs place to place, person to person--but carried in the mumbles, whispers, screeches and melodies we can either find or produce are all the treasures of time. For what sound I cause today becomes what I said tomorrow, and thereby marks that place where we all were, decorated and colored like statues or cartoons, the performance taking shape and slowly becoming an art. As an audience we crave these nonfranchised experiences. Our ears inch around on our heads and our faces grow more open so that we don't miss any of the fun. We are much more interested in what we don't yet understand.
       "History is the story of original actions" (John Cage).


p.s.
       It is a happy coincidence that with the publication of this portfolio comes the introduction of Conjunctions on-line. Our site will allow us to present some, though not much, of what's missing in these pages: a tiny bit of sound or video that will give a small sample of each composer's music. In addition to many of the artists included here, you will find others whose work we couldn't accommodate in print. I hope you will visit this site at www.conjunctions.com/lit
       Literature on music theater composers is scarce. For those who are interested in reading more, I highly recommend
The guests go in to supper, Birch &Sumner, eds., Burning Books, 1986, from which some quotes here are taken.