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