Live review: Placebo @ The Lowry

Clod Ensemble are an interdisciplinary performance company whose recent work has been shaped by a particular interest in human biology and medicine. Their new productionPlacebo, appears to follow this trend, both exploring the medical concept of the placebo effect and employing a structuring device that refers to the scientific method of experimentation. However, the show (which I saw recently at the Lowry, Salford) is also an excellent demonstration of how concepts transplanted from other disciplines can soak up new meanings and swell to new dimensions when introduced into a fluid performance environment. In the case of Placebo, the strange dialectic of realness and fakeness at the heart of the eponymous phenomenon threatens to undermine the whole edifice of ‘expressive’ performance.


Or perhaps it’s the other way around… Placebo injects dancing bodies into an ‘experimental design’ intended to demonstrate the placebo effect to the audience: the fact that certain ‘fake’ treatments can nevertheless produce ‘real’ health and wellbeing benefits. Crucially, these benefits rely on the patient believing in the efficacy of the treatment. An unseen voice, abetted by a ‘lead’ dancer onstage, announces a series of experiments involving the various dancers as ‘test subjects’, who are all ‘seeking treatment’ for different ailments. But the audience is also implicated as a subject in these ‘experiments’. Indeed, many of them are presented as ways to explore the effects of certain parameters—music, costume, but particularly contextual information—on the audience’s response to the dancing. One dancer, we’re told, is dancing in a way that brings her ‘real joy’; another is dancing in a way that causes her ‘real pain’. Rather than presenting these statements as facts though, the voice asks us to assess how such statements might affect our response to the resulting dances, if they were to be believed. This self-deconstructing frame ends up destabilising the efficacy of the placebo effect (or its aesthetic analogue) by demonstrating its contingency. Continue reading

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Live review: BLACK @ Jabberwocky Market

Last week I caught 20 Stories High‘s BLACK at Darlington’s Covered Market, presented as part of the Jabberwocky Market festival. A Liverpool-based company that collaborates frequently with ‘young people from excluded communities’, 20 Stories High have referred to some of their previous work as ‘hip hop theatre’ and I was keen to get a sense of how they mix live/sampled music and rap-inflected styles of address/performance into their productions.


To describe the show simply, BLACK is a dramatic monologue delivered by protagonist Nikky (Abby Melia) that gives the audience an insight into a young white woman’s inner journey from hostile prejudice towards her new black, immigrant neighbours, to intense compassion and solidarity in the face of the racism that they  experience from her community. As such, it addresses potentially relatable issues that can be addressed in a post-show discussion, in the manner of political, educational theatre.

While it achieved all this with convincing nuance, I was mainly affected by the way that this monologue was nested within a (slightly) larger theatrical frame. Melia shared the stage with Craig Shanda (aka CHUNKY), who was slouched behind an array of decks, effects units and laptop for the majority of the performance in an upstage corner. His constant presence prevented the stage from being completely dominated by Melia and her narrative: from carrying us all away into ‘her’ world of intense psychological realism. Shanda remained quiet and unassuming for the majority of the show, but the monologue was punctuated by interludes (most of them musical) that marked leaps in time, each of them at his initiation. As a result, the stage remained separated according to two quite distinct performance modes or languages. More specifically, it was marked by two different styles of address, since both performers spoke to the audience directly in different ways, while barely acknowledging each other’s presence. Continue reading

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Live review: An assembly @ Anthony Burgess Foundation

Louis d’Heudieres — Laughter Studies 6b (2017)
Rowland Hill — Tha-at’s right (2018)
Charlie Usher — An assembly (2018)

The experimental music group An assembly kicked off their Autumn tour last night at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, with a three-piece programme including two new commissions. I thought I’d use this occasion to start what I hope will be a series of reviews that will allow me to focus on certain parameters of musical liveness and explore particular ways of experiencing live performance, rather than attempt to stake any claim to the position of ‘legitimate’ critic or reviewer.


We all bring our own priorities to any performance environment, in terms of what we’re listening and looking for, what we’re finding or what we find lacking. These priorities become more and more self-justifying and self-perpetuating as they appear to produce sense and/or value from the phenomena being experienced. At the concert yesterday, I was finding disjuncture and discrepancy, patterns of identity and difference, and ambivalent dynamics of simultaneity, synchronicity and recognition.

In Louis d’Heudieres’s Laughter Studies 6b, disjuncture is immediately established between the four young men standing downstage, and the seated instrumentalists behind them. The four men all have beards. They also all wear headphones. The instrumentalists have scores in front of them. Their attention, like ours, is on the standing men who are facing us, but whose attention is in turn focused elsewhere: the invisible soundworld that (we assume) they are tapped into.

One by one, they start describing the sounds that they are hearing. One by one, they begin imitating these sounds. Thus, the initial presented disjuncture is layered with further invisible disjunctures: four different sound channels, four different unseen-unheard worlds drawing the four bearded men out of the room and into the headphones. Continue reading

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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)

Continue reading

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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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