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

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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.

Dance, for instance, is musical theatre in a sense that is both deeply intuitive and deeply ambiguous. The question here is the place of the music within the ‘constitutive fiction’ of the piece: the set of laws or axioms that permit its various elements to cohere meaningfully. In dance, this coherence hinges on a significant but readily accepted ambiguity—whether the music composes the world in which the dancers exist (and by extension, composes the performers as dancers), or whether the music is somehow a product of the dance. Do the performers dance to the music, or is the music somehow danced by the performers?

The gig, too, is music theatre, along with the club night, the rave, the music video, and pop performance per se. Indeed, for me, pop performance is the richest, most multi-layered mode of music theatre, involving a veritable mise en abyme of mediations: the performance of a performance of a performance, extending from the poetic voice of the song lyrics all the way out to the mediated image of the musician’s body and beyond.

Related to this, but not reducible to it: the song, too, is music theatre. By this, I mean that the shift from the speaking to the singing voice engenders a baseline of ‘pure’ performativity. Crucially, this shift is not a matter of music but of theatre. In this sense, it is not a matter of the voice’s trajectory towards musical autonomy or pure sound as the decomposition of language and vocal expression. Instead, it is a step in the opposite direction, towards gesture, rhetoric, archetypes of identity, relationality and communication. As with the rhyming couplet, the singing voice is one of the simplest, most powerful generators of surplus theatre.

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Little Bulb Theatre’s Operation Greenfield

New British music theatre: a convergence of promontories, encircled by a boundary line, and in the centre is the landmass known as ‘opera’. It is characteristic of this conception of music theatre that the work must remain rooted on its own disciplinary shores, even while declaring itself music theatre. Hence, the narrow straits separating each discipline from opera remain untraversed, not due to any major deficit in institutional infrastructure, but by choice. To remain outside opera is to remain outside of its constitutive fictions: in particular, ‘composition’ (in the broadest sense), which is the subject of extreme suspicion in new theatre, as well as the semi-autonomous ‘sonic stage’ that hangs invisible above performers and audience alike. This ‘sonic stage’ is still the primary ‘canvas’ of new operatic work, even if the work’s aim is to disrupt or critique this canvas’s supposed autonomy, or somehow nail it to the stage.

New opera is still being made in the UK, of course, and some of it is very well received. The sprawling scale of London’s annual Tête-à-Tête Festival is testament to the continued interest in operatic representation among young composers. More significantly, the festival clearly demonstrates the renewed popularity of self-consciously ‘theatrical’ approaches in experimental composition, whether the primary influence is Dada or Fluxus, Kagel or Cage. These pieces reaffirm the provocations of the time: that a concert performance, too, is music theatre (or that theatre, too, is a concert performance). Yet this work remains within the regime of opera, which is the regime of art music. Non-sonic elements are included to illustrate, illuminate, comment on or critique a semi-autonomous sonic text. And everywhere, the composer’s presence is felt, even if the prevalence of composer-performers goes some way towards demystifying the composer’s power.

Both dance and pop music share a crucial distance from ‘composed’ theatre and opera, in that—within their disciplinary fictions—the performers are ‘playing themselves’. At the same time, the performers’ expressive gestures are understood as spontaneous. They are not made to perform their deference to a visible conductor or a score, nor the audience’s deference to an unseen set of authorial intentions, ordering our impressions in relation to an ‘ideal’ urtext.

Similarly, in the theatre world, two of the biggest ‘hits’ of recent UK music theatre—1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets and Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus—looked to a distinctly non-operatic source for their inspiration: the popular music theatre of the early 20th century (cabaret, music hall and melodrama). Unlike the various operas and musicals whose narratives use these forms as settings, the narrativity in both these pieces is constructed on the basis of their particular presentational modes: the live band, the stage illusion, the comedic sketch, etc.

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Clod Ensemble’s An Anatomie in Four Quarters (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

At this stage, the question to be asked is: why claim to be music theatre at all? Why draw this boundary? Why appropriate this terrain? My answer would be that, by positioning an artistic discipline as music theatre, it is reframed according to this bipartite scheme—a twofold cosmology of music and theatre—thus marking the horizon between the two elements and forcing us to consider their relationship. It allows us to contemplate the many distinctly un-operatic roles that music plays in all sorts of art forms (and hence in the ‘real’ world that they may or may not claim to reflect). It is in this sense that the interpolation of musicians into the space of dancers and physical performers in the work of Clod Ensemble disrupts the intuitive relationship between music and movement in dance-as-music-theatre. The experience of the music’s ‘composition’ is subsumed into the fraught dynamics of action and reaction played out onstage.

It is by teasing apart the music and the theatre in these disciplines that artists have come to recognise the various other ways that music can come to operate—and indeed take a central role—in satisfying some of the more general aims and concerns of new British theatre. These include a retreat from the omnipotent author (or director) towards devised theatre, or an individual ‘theatre-maker’ who appears at the centre of their own work, often playing themselves in a dramatisation of the piece’s creation process. The watchwords here are openness, transparency and reflexivity. At the same time, there is a greater empowerment of the audience (both collectively and as individuals), in relational work, immersive and interactive ‘experiences’, and activist/community-centred projects.

Both sound and music have been integral elements in the recent ‘cinematic’ turn in theatre: a term that should evoke a kind of multisensory ‘hyperrealism’, not so much watching a film as being in one. By subtracting other elements, the uniquely ‘hyperreal’ qualities of sound can come to envelop an entire performance, as in productions by Sound&Fury, EarFilms and Sleepdogs. Other companies, like Circumstance, have used sound scores and personal mp3 players to add a hyperreal dimension to everyday experiences, turning the urban environment into a film set.

Melanie Wilson’s work has embraced this dimension of sound head on—as in The View From Here, an audio performance evoking sudden blindness—but it has also subverted it. Wilson’s one-woman spy thriller Simple Girl plays with the fragile fictional integrity of ‘cinematic’ sound, while Autobiographer fragments it in a meditation on the experience of dementia. ERRATICA’s work frequently departs from this fragmentation of sound (or song) as a cohesive text. Works like La Celestina and Triptych attempt to relocate narrative in spite of such incoherence, resulting in the juxtaposition of stratified texts and voices.

Other artists have used the highly charged space of the gig as a basis for their immersive work. For KlangHaus, this is architectural, refitting the spectacular sonic décor of the rock concert across a more heterogeneous location. For MAS Productions, it is social and anthropological: the gig as gateway to a universal search for ecstasy. Meanwhile, Jenny Minton’s Interlude and Verity Standen’s HUG exploit the immersive qualities of the voice itself, transfiguring its corporeal intimacy into an environment in which the body of the audience member is immersed.

The a cappella singing voice has proven a particularly fruitful medium and subject for recent work, across diverse art forms. Verity Standen’s Mmm Hmmm provides an example of the peculiar genre of song theatre, in which the ‘natural’ unaccompanied voice can function as part of an augmented physical theatre, without necessarily opening up the semi-autonomous sonic stage of musical composition. Bare voices become appendages to bodies in space—song gestures as much physical as musical—and the relation between voices merely adds another dimension to a theatre of physical relationships as social analogues. In turn, this has led to a proliferation of choral theatre, and to the use of the choir in relational and activist works as a political configuration, resistant to social atomisation, privatisation and technocracy (see, also, the work of Streetwise Opera, The Shout, and Rachel Mars’s Sing It! Spirit of Envy).

In contrast, KILN make use of genred voices as performance identities to be invoked. They draw on such vocal personae as narrative tools in their gig-theatre piece The Furies, while the shape-shifting chanteuse in Lady GoGo Goch wears and discards these voices like accessories. The musical and interpersonal dynamics of the band provide a similarly useful, relatable set of archetypes, which have been exploited in several of Little Bulb Theatre’s pieces as a way of exploring other sets of relationships.

Occurring at the intersection of seemingly autonomous populist forces—fashion, mass political culture and the market—the rock gig can be viewed as a ‘pure’ performance event, unsullied by artistic intention, while its saturation with socio-cultural and historical resonances has made it a popular text for artistic reenactments (see, for instance, the work of Forsyth & Pollard, Matt Stokes and Greg Wohead). At the same time, musical subcultures have taken on a similar function to choirs, as symbols of solidarity and collectivity, often elegiacally treated in art works as lost relics of a less individualistic past.

It is in this spirit that we might understand Jimmy Merris’s Jimmy Merris sings the blues: a playful rhapsody on a personal, domestic relationship with music in the 2010s. The film’s lo-fi aesthetic and editing call to mind amateur music cultures as mediated through YouTube, and Merris’s wistful recitation of lyrics lends a sadness to his isolated activities. Nevertheless, the film reminds us that this informal, everyday engagement with music, while solitary, is far from passive.

Any music theatre that is interested in music as a phenomenon must be able to engage with these everyday listening practices, in which the majority of musical meaning is produced. It is my belief that, to properly achieve this, music theatre must be free to spring up anywhere and everywhere music occurs, and furthermore, to announce in all sincerity: this, too, is music theatre.

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KILN’s The Furies (photo: Bianca Harvey)

This entry was posted in essay, festival, music theatre, opera, theatre, theory and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Staking a Claim: Music Theatre as Provocation

  1. Pingback: Surveying New Music Theatre in the UK |

  2. Pingback: Logics of Musical Worlds (A Theory of Musical Genre) |

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