Feminist Music at the Southbank: III. On Semi-Stagings (or, How To Silence A Political Piece)

A visit to the Southbank Centre the other week has compelled me to think a few little thoughts about ‘feminist classical music’. Here is the third-and-final,  following on directly from my discussion of Kurt Weill’s/Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins, in which I try and figure out why, if this piece can say something powerful about gender and class oppression (which I believe it can), it certainly wasn’t ‘saying it’ on the 3rd March 2013 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall:::

This is a post about the possibility of performing and presenting politically-committed music, or trying to put across any set ‘meaning’ or fulfil a ‘purpose’ through music, which is sometimes cast into doubt even while similar assertions about political film, literature or theatre would surely be deemed ridiculous. However, it means talking about the nature of ‘meaning’ in music per se, which is a tricky topic but not one that I think we should be frightened of. For one thing, a lot of power is concentrated within certain institutions who are very quick to silence any discussion of ‘meaning’ in music, reckoned to be an impossible question to address, beyond the fact that it’s ’emotional’ and probably sometimes also ‘spiritual’ (both mystifying, ‘silencing’ terms par excellence). This allows such institutions to effectively dictate the delimitations of musical discourse, and to ascribe what we should or shouldn’t expect from a musical performance.

For me, it’s much more rewarding to assume that music can be meaningful, that it is always – in fact – meaningful, and that it has the potential to say very specific and powerful things, in a way that no other art form can. This comes with the double-edged thesis that a) this is a much more respectful and honest interpretation of the particular and enduring power of music, and b) nevertheless, it can’t be said of music ‘on its own’, or ‘music itself’ – as an autonomous object – which is a purely theoretical concept anyway, and cannot exist if we define music as something which comes into existence by being heard by humans.

Meant to Mean?

In my previous post, I argued that Brecht and Weill, in this piece, have managed to put together an unusually direct, clear and cogent piece of committed music-theatre, with every ‘composed’ element coming together in support of a powerful, malleable exploration of the ‘intersectionality’ between class and gender oppression. If all of this is actually contained within the work, and is there to be deployed or reactivated, it ceratinly isn’t concentrated in ‘the score’, or ‘the music itself’. As with most such works, the ‘political’ potential is instead located in the interaction between music and text, text and performance, performance and structure, structure and music.

I see this as the dynamic relationship between media which ‘represent’ and ‘refer’ with relative precision (like text and bodily gesture), and more ‘abstract’ rhetorical, discursive or framing media (like music, spatial relations and architecture). In this way, sound is received and decoded in the listener’s head in conjunction with all the various visual and sensual elements, through an interpretive framework structured by all of the listener’s accumulated knowledge, understanding and prejudice, giving ultimate meaning to subconscious associations and libidinal drives, etc etc. It’s a complicated process, I know, but I think this is something approaching how music is ‘really’ received (at least to the extent that this can ever be imagined).

So, in the final ‘listening’ – the form in which the work is most tangibly ‘received’ – is the product of a combination of decisions (conscious, intuitive and contingent) by a range of artists, from the composer and librettist to conductor, musicians, lighting designer, architect/acoustician, clothes designers, stage managers, programme writers etc etc, not to mention the overwhelming creative input of the listeners themselves. Only certain aspects of this final ‘listening’ – the piece’s ultimate impact (or ‘meaning’) – are controllable. But if the piece is divined, by anyone at any stage with any considerable power over the performance, to have a clear meaning, or commitment or purpose or specific truth, there are a lot of different factors which can be bent towards the effective delivery of that meaning.

My gambit is that all pieces which are programmed in such venues are ‘meant to mean’ something. Most of the time, they are meant to mean what the composer ‘intended’ them to mean. Sometimes they are just ‘meant to mean’ what the hegemonic discourse of classical music would like them to mean – often something to do with a ‘universal language’, and ’emotions’, and ‘higher truth’, and ‘spirituality’ etc. Often those two considerations seem, conveniently, to coalesce. Their potential meaningfulness is the prerequisite to their performance, it allows the performers and conductor to apply some sort of coherent reading of the work, it allows programme notes to be written, and audiences to spend their money and their time on it in good faith. Moreover, it allows us to actually conceptualise the piece as ‘art’ in the first place, and as a unique ‘work’ created by an artist, which has a genre and a style. So, in essence, those institutions who present music decide upon its meaning early on, even if this decision is largely in recourse to existing institutions, assumptions and contexts (i.e. if it’s a classical piece then it’s right and normal to perform it in a concert hall with orchestral players arranged in a certain way, dressed in a certain way, acting in a certain way, and that’s a safe guess as to a complimentary presentation for that piece’s meaning).

The Impossibility of Unstaged Performance

But what this means is that all performed music is ‘staged’, often by default. Not just because it’s on a stage. Wherever it is, if it’s being performed, it’s always ‘staged’, and the ‘normal’/’natural’/’neutral’ staging of orchestral music homogenises its meaning, especially when combined with the expectations of the audience and the desire for the audience to feel complicit with the producers as shared members of a unique ‘culture’.

Usually this doesn’t seem like an issue, because it seems like 1) the composers’ intentions for the piece, and 2) the hegemonic interpretations of those who set the frame of meanings for this kind of music (largely those with the cultural capital – artists, producers, presenters and critics) are that pieces shouldn’t have set ‘meanings’, or purposes or commitments, and that therefore they don’t and then the best thing to do is just to not think about it too much, not change anything at least, and let this performance of ‘negation’ (i.e. ‘we’ve done nothing special in our choices of how to stage this work’) serve the purpose of meaning that this piece doesn’t have a meaning.

This is often tempered, largely because it’s frustrating for audiences but also because it usually constitutes only one part of a composer’s ambivalent relationship with ‘meaning’. As soon as a symphony inherits a name, for example, it becomes super-charged with meaning. Historical performances and biographical details all become hugely meaningful, all the more so because of the enforced vacuum of ‘meaning’ in all the most famous works of ‘absolute’ music.

Problematic or not, none of this is news. What the listener eventually ‘receives’ can never be anything like what the composer’s ‘intentions’ are, as far as meaning is concerned, but if there is to be meaning, or purpose or interpretation or effect involved, it is the responsibility of all those different artists and producers and presenters to approach it together.

Semi-Staging is a Myth and a Lie

Which brings us back to The Seven Deadly Sins, finally. This was a rare performance of a highly committed, political work. In the event, it didn’t have much of an impact at all. It didn’t come across as an anti-capitalist artwork, or a feminist artwork. The reasons for this, some of which Mr Boo suggested to me, were primarily the fact that much of the words were unintelligible, because Shara’s mic was too low and there were no surtitles or printed words, and that the ‘semi-staging’ didn’t in anyway clarify the narrative. (Although to be fair, Mr Boo was also annoyed that they’d decided to perform the piece in English, not German, ‘without warning him’, so I feel some contradictions were at work there regarding intelligibility.)

To be fair, I don’t think it was even meant as a ‘semi-staging’, in the way that the term is supposed to be used (as, for example, in the performance of The Threepenny Opera the night before). It looked more like Shara Worden, quite naturally, had felt the need to put a little more theatricality into the role (which, after all, was initially designed to be half a dance role), and brought a bag of props and costume onstage for the occasion, rather than just stand at the front like it were an oratorio. But it achieved nothing, other than to accentuate the total lack of consideration for any clarification of the events, the structure, the narrative, or even the words. For example, in the ‘Anger’ scene, the long instrumental section in which the ‘injustice’, over which Anna 2 becomes righteously incensed, is supposed to occur, remained wholly ‘unstaged’. Shara just stood patiently at the front, waiting for her next cue. Presumably we were meant to refer to our programme notes to make sense of her following remarks, completely nonsensical otherwise, although they were almost inaudible anyway. As a semi-staging, it was certainly lacking, but the term is stupid anyway. It suggests that the only ‘right’ way to stage the piece is with a big stage full of set and expensive lighting and costumes, and that any less intensive treatment effectively gives you the licence to not give a damn about stagecraft/dramaturgy/whatever you want to call it.

‘Semi-staged’ is a Nothing, it’s a Negative; it’s basically just acknowledging that to put on a theatrical work staged as a classical concert – i.e. ‘unstaged’ – is frustrating and counterintuitive, so to appease the audience someone’s going to come in and add a few ‘theatrical’ embellishments, anything from a hat and a wig to full gestural characterisation but without a set, which all basically comes under the umbrella of ‘you should be happy that we bothered to do anything at all’. It suggests that the audience should not expect everything to be clear, to be thought-out or considered, but that we must just tolerate it. It’s an admission of half-arsedness. It’s a glancing gesture towards taking the work seriously as a dramatic work. If you think that the piece is ‘dramatic’ enough in its staging-as-a-classical-concert staging, that it means enough (or it means what you want it to mean, or what the composer intended) then that is a staging decision. It also kind of makes you wonder why bother putting it on with expensive lights and costume in the first place.

The whole ‘semi-staging’ concept, I believe, also partly comes from licensing laws, as a means of getting around the cost of ‘grand rights’ of stage works – i.e. you don’t have to pay for the visual aspect, the narrative ‘meaning’, any kind of cross-arts aesthetic richness, if you promise to give a substandard interpretation, which leaves bits out and consciously commits to not fully representing the artwork to its potential, or creating an interpretation that admits that it is ‘staged’. If it costs so much to ‘stage’ a work to fill out its ‘intended’ aesthetic dimensions, and presumably a little less to ‘semi-stage’ it, i.e. to purposefully paint an outline of what we ‘should’ get from a whole-hearted production of the work, then think about how little producers must actually care about the theatrical impact and effectiveness of ‘concert performances’ of operas or stage works. It figures that they would purposefully make them as untheatrical as possible, in order to avoid the charge of a ‘staging’ and thereby have to cough up money. This is just one instance of the utter irrational absurdity of intellectual property and copyright legislation, which is also just one instance of the utter irrational absurdity of making ‘art’ in a capitalist society, which all amounts to but one of the many instances in which the ‘logic’ of capitalism reveals its disgusting inner inconsistencies and irrationalities.

But this whole set-up also demonstrates how absolutely central the music is to our idea of the staged musical work – that somehow we can still call it by its name, we can still advertise it, identify it, hold it up as meaningful, when it’s completely stripped of its other disciplinary dimensions. The huge predominance of the musical element of music-theatre is clear when you consider the absurdity of putting out audio recordings of stage plays. The difference between writing theatre for stage and writing theatre for radio is very significant – when a playwright writes for radio, they will envisage the drama as being particularly suited to this audio-only dimension. We have nothing like the same distinction in opera. We like to talk about the inherent drama of operatic music, of the ‘theatre’ of text/voice (even in an unintelligible language or setting) interacting with structure sound, as heard on CD or on the radio. This ready, eager faith in the intrinsic ‘drama’ of music complicates our understanding of music theatre, of the role and requirement of the ‘theatre’ aspects beyond providing an excuse to perform the music and  the provision of the most rudimentary, clarificatory signifiers.

<<<<<<But is it Art?>>>>>>

A music-theatre collaboration by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, with no staging and inaudible words, is not a music-theatre collaboration by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. There is not Brecht present. But it isn’t even just a piece of music by Kurt Weill, because The Seven Deadly Sins is not that thing that we hear going on underneath the words and behind the visuals. It can’t be boiled down in that way, and retain its identity. It is dishonest to advertise it in that way, especially in a festival which is supposed to be placing these pieces in their contexts. The one of the most potent ideological trends in classical music is that the music mainly means on its own, and that as an art form we are all ‘really’ concerned with ‘just sounds’, and that the combination of sounds with other media – words, bodies, visuals, stories – is interesting but slightly besides the point.

What I would posit is that all musical meaning happens in the intersection between music and its context (because music is not meaningful on its own, or its meaning is learned via this process of contextualisation). Not only that, but meaning – or whatever we want to call it – is what we are interested in, not total abstraction which is a chimera anyway, and that the best music is made when artists consciously (or unconsciously) suggest meanings through the ‘artful’ combination/juxtaposition/contextualisation of sounds and other media. That is where the art is. There’s still meaning in concert performances of operas, bubbling up between surtitles and ’emotive’ vocal performances and the faces of the singers and programme notes and Wikipedia synopses and facts about composers’ biographies and historical periods. But the artistic potential of such performances is limited.

I don’t mean to put ‘the composer’s intentions’ on a pedestal either, although – if such ‘intentions’ were to exist – then they’d certainly be violated by any concert- or semi-staged performance, no matter how nuanced an approach you take to the tempo markings or how much money you spend on hiring ‘authentic’ percussion instruments. But composers’ intentions would be too narrow here anyway. What I like to think about instead is taking the piece seriously. Which I don’t think a lot of classical institutions do. I think we can be very patronising to artists of the past, even while we feign reverence. We either try to fit their work into what is our ideological conception of how all ‘great’ classical music must be ‘best’ performed (i.e. if it doesn’t make its greatest effect in this context then it can’t be ‘great’, or possibly that it can’t be ‘classical music’), or we somehow think that we’re ‘recreating’ the piece by taking its markings and historical performance circumstances way too literally, and making it seem archaic or banal or irrelevant or ridiculous. What we should be doing when we perform music of the past, as far as I’m concerned, is trying to understand the specific intentions of the piece within its socio-cultural milieu, and then trying to find its equivalent potency in our own milieu. It’s a question of understanding the piece’s potential as art, not just as entertainment or history lesson which, as far as I’m concerned, most classical music has become. There is a strong sense that, because it ‘is’ classical music – aka art music – that it ‘is’ automatically art, but I think this is just a question of definitions – deciding after the fact what art is, so that a particular lazy field of banal production can be perpetuated, in order to maintain a certain cultural status quo, make money for a few people, and make a few people feel happy in the ‘knowledge’ that they know what’s going on, and that they’re in control of a whole ‘cultural tradition’, with all the kudos (and power) that this involves. If that’s what ‘art’ is then the category is too broad and should be narrowed if we want ‘what-we-call-art’ to retain its world-changing aspirations.

…but that’s another, bigger question……….

Brecht and Weill/Weill and Brecht

To return to the example: it’s hard, but possible, to perform (some) Brecht ‘convincingly’ without making a strong political statement, or engaging with contemporary socio-political events. It’s a lot easier to perform Weill ‘convincingly’ without explicit politics, but he was a composer, who wrote music, and it’s the standard attitude now to assume that composers really only want to write music, that music is their ‘real’ art (and by music we mean autonomous and meaningless), and that they would be happy if posterity were to dictate that, in the end, their music doesn’t need politics, that it ‘stands on its own’. Because the music is the thing.

This was clearly the ideology behind this concert, thereby delineating the ‘meaning’ which had been constructed and was being delivered. Forget all the ‘Rest is Noise’ stuff and the ‘Berlin in the ’20s/’30s’ stuff – none of that was present. What we were given instead was not only Weill without Brecht, but Weill without Weill. And not only Weill without Weill, but Weill-rescued-from-himself and his delusions of ‘committed’ music, or ‘music for use’. It’s not only a question of saving music from commitment to ‘invalidated’ socialist politics, by some openly reactionary cultural establishment. It’s a case of saving him from commitment itself, in the manner of all those old arguments against programmes and ‘representation’, which are really just power struggles over the right to a hegemony, or monopoly, of meaning.

This trend is standard in all canonic appropriations of socialist artists, most classically in contemporary stagings of Brecht, which make very little effort to rethink a 21-century Brecht’s possible/probable political stance, or to ‘commit’ his works anew to a contemporary praxis, in the way that he obviously would have wanted. Performing Brecht or early Weill as supportive of bourgeois ideology – and not even some perverse ’emancipatory’ bourgeois ideology (free markets + social networking or whatever) but just a wishy-washy liberal-humanist chastisement of people from the past, and maybe the odd foreign dictator – should be viewed as a conscious, reactionary attempt to co-opt and delegitimise leftist art. And the thing is, I don’t think I’d mind as much if there was some recognition that this was what was being done – that it was on purpose. But the fact is that they continue to do this while making out, and possibly believing, that their performance practice is in keeping with the ‘proper’, ‘neutral’, ‘standard’ practice of observing the ‘composers’ intentions’, being ‘faithful to the score’ and treating the music seriously and respectfully. In this case, not only are both Brecht’s and Weill’s ‘intentions’ clearly being quite extremely violated, a fact about which one may or may not care, but it is also very obviously not taking these pieces seriously at all – disregarding their intended effect, their nuanced cross-disciplinary dialectic, the particular potency of their style – by deciding that they can ‘communicate’ just as authentically by being totally dismembered and deactivated.

This entry was posted in feminism, live review, opera, theory. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Feminist Music at the Southbank: III. On Semi-Stagings (or, How To Silence A Political Piece)

  1. Pingback: Feminist Music at the Southbank: II. Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins & Intersectionality |

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