Introducing… States of Exception

Apologies for the inactivity here at the biting point this year. I’ve been busy with a few other projects: some pop-related essays on my other blog, The Night Mail, and some IRL music projects. I have, however, been continuing my work on music theatre from last year, by developing a new Tumblr called States of Exception.

I describe this new blog as ‘a travelogue of musical worlds, onscreen and online’. It’s a curated collection of online videos from across the landscape of genres that I have grouped under the banner of ‘music theatre’: musical film and theatre, experimental music, performance art, dance, visual art, musical memes, concert film, music video, etc etc. The title of the site is taken from my essay ‘What is Music Theatre Actually?’ and the collection is intended to complement the theoretical approach that I develop therein.

There’s already a huge archive up there to explore, and I’m currently adding a new video every day. It’s a very subjective project, expanding with my own interests and priorities, but my ultimate aim is to sketch a map of mediatised music theatre that is both surprising and fun.

I’ve also included a ‘Submit’ button, so if you have any suggestions for videos that would enrich the collection, please make a suggestion!

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Logics of Musical Worlds (A Theory of Musical Genre)

I concluded the previous post with the claim that theatre is the condition by which musical worlds are made possible. While music exists in the ‘real world’ only as exception, its presentation within a ‘theatrical world’ requires us to experience it as inherent to that world: indeed, as one of the very conditions of that world’s coherence. These worlds are ‘musical’, because music belongs to them in a way that it doesn’t belong to the ‘real’ world. In a musical world, music is something more than or other than ‘just music’.

Nevertheless, the precise nature of what music is within any given musical world—its function, role, power, efficacy, value, meaning, presence, etc.—is always unique, often protean, and generally difficult to pin down. The logic of a musical world, and thus the place of music within it, is intuited by the audience as they process their sensory experiences of the theatrical world and its development through time and narrative.

This final essay in my series on music theatre is an attempt to demonstrate that some generalisations are possible in the mapping of this infinity of musical worlds, and the most important system of generalisation within our listening culture is what we call genre.


En avant, marche!: Alain Platel, Frank van Laecke & Steven Prengels/Ballets C de la B (photo: Phile Deprez)

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What is Music Theatre Actually? (A Theory of Musical Performance)

In the previous post, I discussed a few attempts to define ‘music theatre’ (particularly in relation/opposition to ‘opera’), and the value of such a venture. I focused on Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s book The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), which opens with the question ‘What Is Music Theater?’, and features a chapter entitled ‘Towards a Theory of Music Theater’. Suffice it to say, I didn’t find this book particularly useful in providing a framework through which to understand ‘music theatre’, ‘the New Music Theatre’, or indeed, ‘opera’ as its opposite. Nevertheless, the book did force me to confront my own understanding of these terms—and subsequently to deconstruct this understanding—to try and figure out why I found the authors’ formulations so frustrating.

As a result, I am now trying to outline an internally coherent definition of music theatre that can satisfy my own specifications. (It also happens to be my definition of ‘live music’.) Such a definition must be as resistant as possible to potential abuse by cultural gatekeepers, as a tool for essentialising taste and value categories. It must therefore be able to include anything and everything that has ever been called ‘music theatre’, as well as everything that could be called ‘music theatre’ on the basis of this set of included elements. The category that I’m trying to define is a very broad one indeed, potentially including around half of all ‘theatre’ and half of all ‘music’. Nevertheless, I don’t believe I could even attempt a coherent argument for a value-neutral category any smaller than this.

While some of the ideas laid out in this and the next blogpost may appear to be commonplaces, I hope that I can organise them systematically enough that they might begin to resonate with each other in new and useful ways. Anyone who follows my blogs will have realised by now that attempting huge holistic ‘theories of everything’ is a particular pleasure of mine. I would add that it is also a guilty pleasure, involving as it does an urge to mastery. I hope that, in this case, such a brazenly general theory might at least point towards some of the reasons why people misunderstand each other’s music. Being open to different musical genres involves more than a passive relativism, or a ‘letting go’ of taste and value criteria. Musical openness means imagining alternative forms of desire, embodiment, sociality and knowledge. Every musical ‘tribe’ has its own cosmology, as well as its own theology. My aim is to identify some of the deep structures, myths and ritual behaviours that underpin them all. Continue reading

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What is Music Theatre?

What is music theatre? Since this usage, although known in various European languages, is relatively new in English, the question has been posed in various ways.

Opera is an abbreviated form of a still-current Italian expression, opera lirica, which can be translated as “lyric work” or “works that are sung”… (p.3)

So begins Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s 2008 book The New Music Theater, in an introduction entitled ‘What Is Music Theater?’. This is clearly an important question in a book that presumably aims to define, locate and promote not only ‘music theatre’ but ‘the new music theatre’, in relation to other terms like ‘opera’ and ‘musicals’. We might expect them to answer questions such as: how does ‘the new music theatre’ differ from ‘new opera’? Is opera ‘the old music theatre’? What makes the new music theatre different, apart from its newness?

In May of this year, I attended the Music Theatre Now meeting in Rotterdam: the culmination of a triennial competition showcasing the best new music theatre from around the world, as selected by a jury of artists and producers. Amongst the winning productions were several that described themselves as ‘operas’, several that were produced by opera companies, some that were even staged in opera houses. Amongst the audience were representatives from many of the world’s leading opera venues, eager to see the new work.

The reason why I chose to open with the Salzman/Desi quote is because it perfectly captures the slippage that so often occurs between the terms ‘music theatre’ and ‘opera’. This was a constant feature of the talks in and around the MTN meeting, including the various scheduled lectures and debates, whereby the object of discussion would suddenly shift in order to justify some line of argument. There is a definite sense that the two terms aren’t synonymous, but their relationship is clearly very ambiguous. Is opera a subcategory of music theatre, or is music theatre a subcategory of opera? Or are they two distinct fields that occasionally overlap?

While this ambiguity was never resolved at the meeting, this was hardly due to a laissez faire attitude to such questions of taxonomy. On a number of occasions, presenting companies were challenged by members of the audience, claiming that, as far as they were concerned, their piece wasn’t music theatre (in spite of the fact that they had won a competition called Music Theatre Now). This is a strange response that nevertheless recalls all those new opera reviews that basically forfeit any attempt to make a judgement on the basis that ‘it’s not opera’. Continue reading

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Surveying New Music Theatre in the UK

As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve spent the last few months helping to set up and administrate an initiative called New British Music Theatre (NBMT), which brought a number of British artists and companies to Music Theatre Now 2016 in Rotterdam. During the course of this work, I did a huge amount of research into the current state of music theatre in the UK. This article is the result of that research: a thematised survey of my findings, loosely focusing on the past 15 years.

One of my main reasons for writing all this up and putting it online is that my job would have been much easier if such an article had already existed. I hope that it might prove useful as a departure point for further research, limited as it is to the information that was available online.

My main conclusion about the state of music theatre in the UK is that there is a lot of it, if you know where to look.

Intro: Some inevitable definitions…

To give a survey of new music theatre in the UK is to identify the same question being asked simultaneously in many different places. Often these places—institutions, venues, platforms, disciplines—can be quite distant, with minimal communication between them. Music theatre can thus be understood as a field of enquiry into which disparate disciplines extend. In each case, the question itself is the same, and it’s a big one: “what is music?”

This question, in turn, can only be posed via a particular definition of theatre (the other element in the ‘music theatre’ formula). Theatre is presentation-as-world; it invites us to apprehend what is presented with all of our senses and make inferences from what we perceive on the same basis that we would in the ‘real world’. This ‘basis’ is that of an inner coherence or logic that holds the elements together, so that judgement (of meaning, value, beauty, etc) becomes possible. Over the last century, this concept of presentation in theatre has expanded far beyond naturalist representation, to include all sorts of post-representational performance circumstances. However, this has only strengthened the underlying concept of presentation-as-world, to which the audience must commit all the more wholeheartedly in order to perceive any meaning or value in a performance. Continue reading

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Staking a Claim: Music Theatre as Provocation

Over the last few months, I’ve been helping to set up and administrate an initiative called New British Music Theatre (or NBMT), which will see eleven UK-based artists and companies presenting their work at the 2016 Music Theatre Now meeting and Operadagen Festival in Rotterdam. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the British scene, as well as thinking generally about the concept of music theatre (along with its various sub-genres). I’m aiming to publish some of these thoughts on the blog in the next few weeks, including an extensive survey of recent British work and (hopefully) a review of the festival.

Reproduced below is a short ‘catalogue essay’ I wrote for the NBMT booklet (in a slightly extended form). It attempts to locate the eleven NBMT artists within a broader discussion of what ‘music theatre’ means in a UK context. For more information on NBMT and on the artists, please visit our lovely website:

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Staking a Claim: Music Theatre as Provocation

Mmm Hmmm (2) copy

Verity Standen’s Mmm Hmmm (photo: Paul Blakemore)

The eleven artists and companies, chosen to represent new British music theatre as part of the NBMT initiative, come from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds: from dance and experimental theatre, to rock music, sound design, video and performance art. However, the artistic moment that they represent is one that extends even more widely across the disciplinary spectrum.

New British music theatre could be envisaged as a boundary line drawn on a map, encircling a set of disciplinary promontories, marking a territory that cuts across institutional and aesthetic borders. Despite their gradual convergence, each creeping peninsula retains its singular identity: its set of foundational laws, its disciplinary ‘constitution’. The drawing of this circular boundary (as with all boundary lines) is therefore a provocation. It says: this, too, is music theatre. It is an implicit provocation, and a gentle one (in keeping with the tenderness of so much contemporary British theatre: open, generous, often utopian, rarely nihilistic or confrontational). But it is a provocation nonetheless. In particular, it stakes a claim for three particularly ‘pure’ modes of music theatre, which nevertheless differ fundamentally from the opera, the musical and the ‘classical’ performance. These are dance, the gig, and the song. Continue reading

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Live Review: Lady Vendredi’s Urban Rites: Battle Cry! @ The Apiary

This is a long overdue review for a piece I saw in June at Hackney’s Apiary Studios: MAS Productions’ Lady Vendredi’s Urban Rites: Battle Cry! The results of a week-long, intensive workshop in ‘Secular Ecstatic Art’, this was a chaotic and riotous music-theatre-happening led by Lady Vendredi (the Afrofuturist alter-ego of performance artist and musician Nwando Ebizie) and her band The Vendettas. It was also fantastic, although — as a thoroughly immersive and genuinely genre-ambiguous performance — I’m going to have to resort to my own very personal experience of the event to try and explain why it was so good.

As someone who’s internalised most of the dominant left-wing art and theory positions, and equipped myself with all the necessary critiques, it is relatively rare for me to feel challenged by an artwork. I’m talking about those artworks that really force you to consider, redefine and justify your attitudes, in the way that so much art would like to do. For this reason, I’m especially excited when I find one which, like Battle Cry!, seems to demand critique and then immediately resist it.

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