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: www.newbritishmusictheatre.org.

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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.

Continue reading

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Live Review: Between Worlds @ The Barbican

I need to have some serious problems with a work in order to bother writing a bad review these days. It has to really rile me on an ideological level. I’ve actually seen quite a few operas so far this year that have tried to engage with ‘contemporary events’, and ended up demonstrating some pretty odious politics (and the subjects are never actually very contemporary either), but they were productions far too small to be worth engaging with. Tansy Davies’s ‘9/11 opera’ Between Worlds is not a small event; it is a major ENO/Barbican co-commission, a nationwide media event, a huge undertaking that deals with one of the most epochal events of our time, and it’s been pretty well received. I saw it on Sunday afternoon, and I have serious problems with it. So I’ve written a very bad review. Here goes…

Between Worlds depicts the events of the 9/11 attacks by focusing on five characters who work in the WTC: four white-collar professionals and a janitor. They start their days, leave their homes and arrive for ‘an important meeting’ in a conference room which is suspended – as the middle section of a three-tier set – above a milling chorus on the ground (who variously represent their loved ones, a grieving crowd and a sea of dead bodies) and below a higher tier on which a mysterious, Shamanic countertenor sits and interjects periodically. The characters are only very vaguely differentiated, primarily in relation to their absent families. They experience fear and confusion when the first tower is hit, attempt a failed escape, express their regrets, call home to leave a message of love, and finally accept death. We hear almost nothing about the details of the events as they unfurl. Continue reading

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WE BREAK STRINGS now available at Rough Trade East

We Break Strings at Rough Trade

Go get it (http://www.roughtrade.com/albums/92307)

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Can Music (Still) Be Critical?

This was the dissertation I wrote for my Art & Politics MA at Goldsmiths. It was an attempt to think through the idea of critique in relation to music, as well as an excuse to listen to loads of ‘political’ music from the late 20th century.

(You can download it as a PDF here: DOWNLOAD)

Abstract: 

This dissertation attempts a critique of music’s potential for critique, focusing in particular on the extent to which music can make a critical intervention within an ‘extra-musical’, socio-political situation. I begin by outlining some of the ways in which political music has attempted such an intervention over the last century, focusing on three musical ‘affordances’ which can be used to argue both for music’s political potential and its essentially apolitical nature. I aim to show that it is always possible to ‘listen in spite of’ any political content, as a result of a self-definition of ‘the music itself’, which necessitated the turn to ‘immanent critique’ by the ‘critical composition’ movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. By identifying certain transcendent criteria within this musical auto-critique, I suggest that this approach also artificially limits the critical potential of music, through the affirmation of an uncritiqued definition of ‘music’ through which its auto-critique remains possible. Instead, I propose an alternative model of musical critique which acknowledges and makes use of these limitations, which can be related to what Harry Lehmann has called ‘critical modernism’. While still limited, this model is more reflexive and more adaptable than some of the previous strategies of musical critique.

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Can Music (Still) Be Critical?

While the title of this essay promises a critique of musical critique, one of the main objects of this critique – the historically-recognised category of ‘critical composition’ – is in fact defined by its concerted attempts at auto-critique, meaning that this essay will partly be a critique of music’s critique of itself. I aim to explore the limits of music’s criticality, particularly in relation to the possibility of music making a critical intervention into what we might recognise as the ‘socio-political’ sphere. The idea that music can be ‘political’ – can be somehow ‘to do with’ politics or broader social issues, or can even function as an agent for change in an ‘extra-musical’ sphere – is as widespread as it is contested, but the notion of ‘political music’ has a particularly ambivalent relationship with ‘critical composition’. In some ways, the music that is most actively self-critical is also the music that is most sceptical towards its wider ‘political’ potential. Continue reading

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