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.
As with all forms of presentation, theatre operates through a process of subtraction. Extraneous elements, objects, ideas and signs are subtracted from our field of perception, to clarify what remains. The more non-musical elements that are subtracted from the ‘presentation-as-world’ of a theatre piece, the more integral the musical elements become to that world’s coherence. At the same time, in the ‘real world’ (and particularly as we begin to aggregate all the human experiences that might allow us to claim some kind of limited empirical grasp on such a world), ‘music’ is an incredibly volatile category that can mean almost anything, and therefore almost nothing. One result of the subtractive processes of theatrical presentation is therefore that the number of possible ways to hear and understand the music is circumscribed. In order to find coherence, meaning and value in a presented world, the audience member must hear the music in this or that way. As a result, each music theatre piece can present a different answer to the question ‘what is music?’, through its own engagement with one of many subsidiary questions: what can music be?, what can music do?, what does music say?, who is the ‘subject’ of music and to whom is it addressed?, what is singing?, what is dancing?, what is listening?, how can music be meaningful?, how can music be valuable?, etc etc.
While our approach towards recognising and listening to music is always socially constructed, music (at least in the West) has a certain quasi-autonomy with respect to the non-musical world. Music theatre doesn’t remove this quasi-autonomy so much as effect a sort of ‘Copernican inversion’ whereby a ‘total’ world is reconstructed on the basis of this quasi-musical world. Having said that, it is also true that all music is already theatre, in the sense of presentation-as-world. Music theatre is about ‘discovering’ these pre-existing worlds (Columbus-style, with some of the attendant, colonial overtones) and subtracting ambiguities in order to propose a particular answer to that foundational question.
New music theatre can then be understood in terms of a survey of musical worlds, and this essay is thus a survey of a survey. An example of this can already be found in the historical development of opera. While it might appear that composers usually devise music ‘to fit’ an established synopsis or pre-written libretto, the dynamic is actually the other way around. The subjects and texts chosen are themselves determined by the dramaturgical logic of the music of the day: the narratives, themes and subjectivities that are embedded even in the ‘absolute’ instrumental music, and the ways in which this music is commonly heard and understood. It is a question of identifying with the pre-existing drama of a musical style, and ‘re-worlding’ that drama in order to ask: ‘What, then, is music?’
The most important characteristic of new music theatre in the UK, then, is the breadth of its ongoing survey of music worlds. Rather than following the musical avant-garde through its own appropriations of noise and non-sound, and re-worlding these newly occupied territories qua music theatre, many UK artists have gone out into the ‘real world’ to find independent musical spheres to occupy. Their survey is thus anthropological rather than musicological or music-philosophical. The question they ask: if a rock gig is music theatre, what is music? If a club night is music theatre, what is music? If football chants are music theatre, what is music? If X-Factor is music theatre, what is music? In this way, new music theatre artists propose an expanded definition of music, which nevertheless has more in common with Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’ than with the experiments of Cage or Kagel. It is also a resolutely populist approach, approaching music as it is practised and listened to in the ‘real world’, rather than proffering radical new listenings of canonic repertoire or composing out the latest aesthetic trend.
Nevertheless, I have identified eleven distinct categories of approach through which music is currently being used to give coherence to a theatrical ‘world’. I will use this typology to guide my survey (as opposed to, for instance, a typology based on institutional discipline or musical/theatrical ‘genre’) since, while there are many correspondences between these typologies, there are also quite a few discrepancies. Most (if not all) of the works discussed may be understood according to a combination of these approaches, and there are doubtless many further possibilities that I have overlooked. Likewise, there will undoubtedly be gaps in my research. This is a corollary of such an expanded definition of music and theatre, and it should be taken as an invitation to continue the survey: to search ever wider for more answers to that same question.
The first category of new music theatre is that of traditional ‘operatic’ representation: singers playing roles, which in turn lend narrative concreteness to a sonic drama. The Royal Opera House has boasted a number of homegrown ‘hits’ of this type over the past decade, including Birtwistle’s The Minotaur (2008), Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2011) and Benjamin’s Written On Skin (2012; a co-commission with a number of European opera houses and festivals), the success of which has encouraged further world premieres from Mark Simpson and Philip Venables in Spring 2016. To varying degrees, new commissions remain an occasional feature of the other major opera house’s programmes (Opera North and the national companies, including Belfast’s recently founded Northern Ireland Opera).
On a smaller scale, however, the demise of the Almeida’s new opera programme has been keenly felt, as has the end of the Battersea Arts Centre’s annual opera festival (which spawned the global hit Jerry Springer: The Opera in 2001, along with its antecedent, Richard Thomas’s Kombat Opera). A few medium-sized organisations like Mahogany Opera Group (the result of a recent merger between Mahogany Opera and the Opera Group) and Glasgow-based stalwarts Cryptic continue to produce new work, although the latter are increasingly focusing on their annual festival of sonic and multimedia arts, Sonica. Another organisation that frequently commissions new work is Streetwise Opera: a company specialising in creating productions with amateur performers who have experienced homelessness. The particular demands of these projects have resulted in a string of inventive projects, encompassing video operas, installations and staged oratorios.
In place of new composition, many of the smaller opera companies have emphasised new ways of presenting familiar repertoire, with the explicit aim of attracting new audiences through a heightened sensory immediacy. ‘Immersive’ stagings have proliferated in the shadow of English National Opera’s 2010 collaboration with Punchdrunk, The Duchess of Malfi, which used a newly composed score by Torsten Rasch to adapt the aleatory structure of Punchdrunk shows to the representational regime of opera. Without the flexibility of newly commissioned music, it can be difficult to produce the fantasy of freedom crucial to immersive theatre, within the rigid confines of the score. One solution has been proposed by Silent Opera, whose promenade productions of classic repertoire use headphone technology and live mixing to remove the restrictive apparatus of conductor and live accompaniment.
London’s annual Tête-à-Tête Festival (established in 2007) is testament to the continued interest of operatic representation amongst young composers, with a host of small companies using this platform to present new work on a shoestring budget. Tête-à-Tête (along with similar London platforms like the Arcola’s Grimeborn and Second Movement’s Rough for Opera) is primarily a resource for composers, allowing them the chance to hear their first forays into dramatic writing competently performed with the minimum necessary staging, while the festival’s extraordinary dedication to documentation maximises the impact of these tiny shows on the professional CVs of everyone involved.
Nevertheless, one of the problems with new opera in the UK is that it doesn’t easily scale. The comparative lack of medium-sized producing organisations can get in the way of these ‘first steps’ leading to more substantial projects. Having said that, a number of small companies have managed to carve out an identity and longevity on their own terms; among these, we might include London’s Size Zero Opera, Cardiff’s liveartshow and Manchester’s Re:Sound Music Theatre.
Perhaps as a correlate to the relative lack of new operatic production, there has been a recent profusion of multi-sensory/multimedia presentations of non-dramatic repertoire, both old and new. This form of ‘augmented’ concert is now at the heart of mainstream music programming in all but the most conservative of venues and festivals, while also giving rise to entirely new platforms like the Bristol Proms at the Bristol Old Vic. This work, in all its diversity, constitutes my second category of new music theatre, which could be called ‘directed/curated listening’ or ‘visio-audial performance’ (following composer-theorist Michel Chion’s useful inversion of ‘audio-visual’). This is a kind of distillation of how opera functions, in that extramusical signs are used to lend a composition more concrete associations, guiding the listener towards a particular set of meanings or a particular response.
Collaborations between ensembles, composers and video artists, as well as live-scored film showings, are only the most common examples of visio-audial performance, which also includes sound art installations and many of the technologically mediated projects commissioned by Aldeburgh Music’s Faster Than Sound programme. Joana Seguro, who co-produced that programme, has since continued to bring together electronic music and new technology with her companies Lumin and Artists & Engineers. In an alternative take on such high-tech experiments, composer Joe Snape uses live-typed narration and homemade lightbulb instruments to turn chamber suites like Fleck, Flob, Flop (2015) into virtual films.
This category also includes staged concerts. It has become relatively common for ensembles and musicians from various genre backgrounds to present the work of a particular composer or songwriter within a framework that stages some aspect of the composer’s biography. Since the early ’00s, Netia Jones and her companies Lightmap and Transition have created a whole series of staged recitals, using video projections to illuminate historical, biographical and dramatic details within the music, while Neil Bartlett’s 2013 staging of Britten’s Canticles (with Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake) took a more narrative approach. Michael Pinchbeck has made theatre pieces structured around the form, themes and history of music by Ravel (Bolero (2014), Concerto (tbc)) and The Beatles (The White Album (2006)), while Christopher Fox’s recent opera Widerstehen (2012) uses the dynamic of ‘directed listening’ to maintain an appropriate distance in this ‘documentary’ about the execution of the composer’s aunt at the hands of the Nazis.
This general approach to music theatre can also be recognised in many of the ‘site-specific’ concerts and recitals devised by music/multi-arts festivals (like Spitalfields, Salisbury and Norfolk & Norwich) keen to embed their programming within the geographical and historical fabric of the town. In 2015, Bristol’s In Between Time Festival initiated a series of night-time performances in National Trust houses, in collaboration with artists like Patrick Wolf, Louisa Fairclough and Reckless Sleepers. The London Contemporary Orchestra (founded in 2008) have likewise developed a flare for presenting contemporary music in suggestive surroundings, as in their 2013 ‘Imagined Occasions’ series.
Since 2012, Cryptic’s Sonica programme has brought an international selection of ‘sonic art for the visually minded’ to Glasgow, as well as commissioning and touring a range of British works. Commissions by artists like Mark Lyken, Robbie Thomson and Kathy Hinde frequently use data patterns derived from natural phenomena and the physical properties of machines to influence (or directly affect) the composition of both visual and sonic elements.
In a way, the flipside of this strategy of directed listening is the John Cage-inspired strand of experimental music, whereby the sonic elements are the incidental results of a prescribed set of actions. This spirit of musical performativity, emphasising the material and social apparatus of practical music-making—the score, the conductor, the playback technology, the performer as composer—rather than an intended sonic product, is animating much of the new music being made by young composers in the UK today. Its fascination with the details of what is already there (of everyday sounds and the prerequisites of performance), as well as its frequent focus on the figure of the composer-performer, has allowed this style of performance to flourish in the DIY spaces between institutions, driven by disaffected composition graduates and their outsider mentors.
In London, composer collectives like Bastard Assignments and series like Weisslich and 840 have sprung up from a local milieu that includes influential experimentalists Matthew Shlomowitz, Tim Parkinson and Jennifer Walshe, constructing performances in galleries, warehouses and empty shop units, in addition to live art venues and university spaces. Nomadic performance night London Topophobia exemplifies this tendency, presenting guest artists as well as new performances and collaborations from in-house composers Jamie Hamilton and Charlie Hope, and resident band Snapped Ankles. The Tête-à-Tête Festival has also proven a surprisingly ideal platform for some of these composers, given the inexpensiveness of their work (a quality that is both necessary and calculated/celebrated).
Similar networks have also emerged in Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, where collective Asparagus Piss Raindrop recently made a performance for amplified roller rink (It’s Called Discharge (2016)) and composer Greg Sinclair has devised Fluxus-inspired compositions with school children (I Do, Do I (2013)). At its most prestigious, this approach has a significant presence at the UK’s new music festivals, including Glasgow’s Tectonics Festival, Birmingham’s Frontiers Festival, London Contemporary Music Festival and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which presented the premiere of Tim Parkinson’s opera Time With People in 2014.
Along with Cage, Fluxus, and Mauricio Kagel’s ‘instrumental theatre’, the clear influence of Dada can be discerned in the work of composers like Adam de la Cour, Matthew Lee Knowles and Neil Luck. Their work with experimental string ensemble ARCO suggests a mishmash of high and low cultural detritus, often invoking the post-web barrage of mediated information as it impacts the performing body. As with the prolific operatic output of lo-fi collagist Ergo Phizmiz, their work embraces the fragmentary channels of new media—net labels, Soundcloud, streamed radio, YouTube videos—while reproducing the aesthetic qualities of these media. At the other extreme, we might find a highly personal work like Claudia Molitor’s Remember Me… (2012): a miniature opera played out with objects, in a writing desk that the composer inherited from her grandmother.
Jennifer Walshe has recently suggested the term ‘the New Discipline’ for this practice of experimental music, differentiating it from its avant-garde antecedents by emphasising its aesthetic diversity: more a compositional approach than a musical style. As indicated by Walshe, one of the most compelling influences of this approach is the work of Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion. While often presented in a dance context, Burrows and Fargion’s work relies on the fundamental dynamics at play in this ‘New Discipline’—the compulsion of the performer’s body by the score; the performance of composition qua composition—that situates it firmly in this self-consciously musical discipline. However, comparable dynamics can also be found in experimental theatre pieces like Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke (2014), in which the controlling score takes the more vernacular form of projected text on a karaoke machine.
Musical theatre still dominates the mainstream theatre world. Among the West End revivals and American imports, recent new British productions have mainly consisted of, on the one hand, adaptations of films and TV programmes, and on the other hand, jukebox musicals. The high-profile collaborations between Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris, on the back of the former’s well-regarded Monkey: Journey to the West (2007), reflect a seemingly reliable formula. Premiered by the Manchester International Festival, which has come to specialise in brokering such big-name collaborations, the resulting productions have transferred to the Coliseum (Dr Dee (2011)) and the National Theatre (wonder.land (2015)). Even more significant was another Rufus Norris collaboration, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s London Road (2011), the verbatim musical about 2006’s Ipswich serial murders, which has since been made into a film with Olivia Coleman and Tom Hardy.
Isolated music theatre projects have continued to crop up amongst the ranks of the UK’s independent companies, including Complicite, Kneehigh, Headlong and Faulty Optics. Phelim McDermott’s new productions of Philip Glass operas have been amongst ENO’s most successful recent endeavours, while Filter put live music and sound design at the core of their distilled Shakespeare adaptations. However, the most extensive development in this theatrical context has been the recent abundance of gig theatre, often made by younger companies whose musical capacities play a central role in their devising processes from the outset.
London-based company 1927’s unique blend of animation, storybook verse and live performance quickly outgrew its origins on the cabaret circuit; their second show, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, ended up receiving three runs at the National Theatre between 2011 and 2012. In terms of sheer spectacle, the full-stage projections are no more impressive than the miraculous costume changes by the three-person cast, or composer-pianist-performer Lillian Henley’s extraordinary multitasking. This level of stagecraft, maintained in their 2014 production Golem, situates 1927’s work firmly in the tradition of music hall and cabaret theatre, for all its technological pizzazz. In the same category is Little Bulb Theatre’s hit show Orpheus (2013), which reimagines the orphic myth as a Parisian cabaret revue starring Django Reinhardt. Both companies retain a ‘representational’ connection between music and narrative, musician and character, but they do so via the ‘looser’ conventions of early 20th-century popular music theatre.
This then is the essence of gig theatre: the fourth approach to music theatre on the list. It doesn’t attempt to efface or disavow the presence of the musicians, but instead identifies with the inherent narrativity of popular music performance. Both The Animals and Children… and Orpheus were developed and presented at the Battersea Arts Centre, which has become a particularly valuable platform for UK gig theatre. The extended devising processes involved in this approach has also meant that artists and companies rely on the support of independent producing organisations like Fuel, Farnham Maltings and MAYK, as well as the endorsement of multi-arts festivals: the Brighton Festival, Mayfest, Summerhall and Forest Fringe at Edinburgh, and various others.
A strange cousin of 1927’s melancholic urban balladry—and another breakthrough hit of the early ’10s, developed at BAC—is Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients (2012). This epic interpolation of contemporary London life within a quasi-mythic frame is only the most successful example of a spoken word theatre informed by the narrative performativity of UK rap (especially in its kitchen-sink confessionalist mode, post-The Streets’ 2004 album A Grand Don’t Come For Free). At the same time, poet Luke Wright—whose guitar-scored What I Learned from Johnny Bevan (2015) received similarly ecstatic reviews—has been pegged as a Millennial John Cooper Clarke. Between thriving performance poetry communities and the resounding influence of several generations of grime music, this style of performance has been growing in popularity among a broad demographic of young artists, particularly as a response to deepening austerity and the ensuing politicisation of a generation. Much of the new work supported by London theatres like the Roundhouse and the Albany involves an interplay with live music: Inua Ellam’s Knight Watch (2012), Debris Stevenson’s Dirtee Verse (2016), Antosh Wojcik’s Building A Voice-Percussion Gun To Kill Glitches In Memory (2016). At the same time, the sub-genre of ‘hip-hop theatre’—which makes additional use of beatboxing, looping and DJ-ing—has been extensively explored by Liverpool company 20 Stories High in their work with young performers, as well as by Beats & Elements (No Milk for the Foxes (2015)) and Testament/LittleMighty (The Privilege Show (2016)).
The identification with the MC’s persona as narrator-protagonist in hip-hop theatre, which makes a theatrical world out of the rap show, is comparable to the identification at work in one of the UK’s most successful music theatre exports of the past few decades: The Tiger Lillies. After their 1998 collaboration with Improbable on Shockheaded Peter, Martyn Jacques and band have specialised in presenting their dark folk ballads as theatrical suites. The success of these is largely down to their amplification of the existing theatrical conventions of the folk ballad: a technique that has since been used by small companies of actor-musicians from Fine Chisel and Tangere Arts, to Dom Coyote, Bucket Club and Tap Tap Theatre. Conversely, much of the satirical bite of Uninvited Guests’ It Is Like It Ought To Be: A Pastoral (2006) comes from the ironic over-identification with the theatrical conventions of British folk music, and the mediation of its wholesome authenticity through cheap recording devices. KILN’s rock ’n’ roll take on Aeschylus, The Furies (2011), involves an identification not so much with the singer-as-dramatic-storyteller, but rather with the singer-as-embodied-persona. The three female performers are the living incarnation of the electric elementals channelled by rock vocalists, given names and motives, and set loose amongst the audience.
Some of the most acclaimed gig theatre of late has come from the national theatres of Scotland and Wales. In 2013, National Theatre Wales worked with the band Neon Neon to create an immersive performance based on their concept album about Italian communist millionaire Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Praxis Makes Perfect, which has since toured internationally. Meanwhile, the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (2011) weaves its narrative of an uptight folk-studies professor’s sexual awakening through a riotous folk gig staged in a pub. A gig theatre approach was also used in two biographical pieces from 2014, treating two very different Scottish musical eccentrics (who both happen to be played by the same actor): Vanishing Point’s The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler and Pachamama Productions’ GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story.
The autobiographic resonances of the garage band for both artists and audience—as a symbol of camaraderie, a catalyst for arguments, and a testament to youthful ambitions and passions—have proven powerful in theatrical approaches from the representational to the relational. Little Bulb’s productions have used the personal and musical dynamics of the band in various charmingly humble scenarios: a troupe of kids at a family reunion in Sporadical (2009), the teenage Christian rock band in Operation Greenfield (2010), and the village folk society in The Marvellous and Unlikely Fete of Little Upper Downing (2010). Bristol-based company FellSwoop Theatre used the intimate environment of a village choir practice as the setting for their 2015 climate-disaster adaptation of Toshiki Okada’s Current Location, just as Cardiff’s Gagglebabble use the setting of the live concert as a starting point for trashy genre theatre, drawing on horror fiction and slasher movie tropes.
Sam Halmarack, another of the many Bristol-based artists who have made the city a key centre for alternative music theatre, exploits the same autobiographical resonances in his Sam Halmarack & The Miserablites (2011). In this simple yet effective piece, the audience must save the idealistic front man’s emotional investment in his musical project, by joining in an abortive gig: playing drums, keyboards and singing backing vocals. Another Bristol artist, Kid Carpet, has developed a sequence of children’s shows on the back of a similarly charming lo-fi pop project, with a back-up band composed of toy animals. Meanwhile, in 2012’s Garage Band, Richard Allen stages a reconstruction of the amnesiac protagonist’s own amateur musical experiences, in an actual garage, as a way of pursuing lost memories. The personal, political and performance dynamics of the rock band have likewise inspired work as diverse as Suspect Culture’s One – Two… (2003) and Cartoon de Salvo’s Pub Rock (2010), Action Hero’s Frontman (2010) and Middle Child’s Weekend Rockstars (2014), A Band Called Quinn’s Biding Time (Remix) (2012) and Unfolding Theatre’s Putting the Band Back Together (2016).
On top of all this, the phenomenon of the jukebox musical—in all its diverse forms, from tribute show to biographic drama to fantasy narrative—shouldn’t be overlooked. The same approach taken to rock, rap and folk music in gig theatre, identifying with an inherently ‘theatrical’ dimension of live musical performance, is often used to bring the narrative and dramatic shape to these pieces. Moreover, I would argue that this is a fundamentally different approach to music theatre than that of most (but not all) traditional musicals. One recent variation/deconstruction of the jukebox musical, Reasons To Be Cheerful (2010), proved a hit for established London-based company Graeae. Incorporating the company’s ‘aesthetics of access’—the creative use of techniques like signing, audio description and surtitles—the musical created a new narrative out of Ian Dury & the Blockheads songs, which itself revolved around a group of fans trying to get into a sold-out Blockheads gig. Thus, the re-performance of familiar songs is filtered through the highly personal frame of fandom.
Besides the ‘dramatic persona’ of the performer-protagonist, there is another theatrical ‘pole’ to the rock concert, which is much less pronounced in the folk gig and spoken word night. It has more in common with the theatricality of the club night, the music festival and the sound system. This is the gig as heterotopia: a strange elsewhere space in which social relations are transformed and performativity is heightened. Such an audience-centred theatricality is cultivated in immersive gig theatre projects, like MAS Productions’ sci-fi rituals and the spatialised gigs of KlangHaus (not to mention the site-responsive compositions of revered expat Benedict Mason). It is an approach to music theatre that appeals to different qualities of music than the previously mentioned approaches—its effects on the body rather than its rhetorical dimensions—which in turn bind it to physical space. It is a conception of music unmediated by a dramatic persona, impacting directly on the listening body, forming the basis of a theatre of spectacle and ritual.
This fifth approach to music theatre includes the immersive work of Living Structures (with music by composer-performer Verity Standen), augmented film screenings and sideshow curiosities by Glasgow collective 85a, and huge-scale theatrical club nights, like Christopher Green and Ursula Martinez’s Office Party (2008) and Joshua Sofaer’s Border Force (2015; in collaboration with legendary events collective Duckie). The Manchester International Festival has produced two large-scale projects with filmmaker Adam Curtis (with involvement from Massive Attack, Damon Albarn, the Kronos Quartet and Punchdrunk), building on the pivotal yet ambivalent use of music in his documentaries. Verity Standen has also made immersive works on a far more intimate scale, with HUG (2014) and Symphony (2015) engaging audience members in physical encounters with the singing voice.
This is also a category that includes a lot of site-specific work, especially performances in which the physical location serves not merely to backdrop or contextualise the music, but instead functions as a component within it. An extreme example of this was Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway’s Foghorn Requiem: a huge spectacle for the decommissioning of the Souter Lighthouse foghorn in 2013, featuring local brass bands and a fleet of ships’ horns in concert with the foghorn’s final blasts. The music for this event was devised by Orlando Gough, who has worked on several similar spectacles: 2005’s The Singing River in Stuttgart and London, and 2012’s XX Scharnhorst: a performance on the HMS Belfast, using the ship’s hull as an instrument. This form of place-specific, community-focused pageant—exemplified by the work of Gough and his frequent collaborator, director Emma Bernard—has become another programming touchstone for music and multi-arts festivals. The Voice Project, partners of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, regularly stage promenade concerts of this nature, interacting with local landmarks in a form of choral theatre. The festivities surrounding the 2012 London Olympics were a particularly high watermark for this kind of performance, with special PRS commissions like David Bruce’s Fire, for the Opera Group and pyrotechnic artists The World Famous (not to mention the opening and closing ceremonies themselves).
In 2008, Joel Cahen inaugurated his underwater concert series Wet Sounds at the London Fields Lido in Hackney. Developed around a new swimming pool sound system that diffuses sounds above and below the water, Wet Sounds has since been toured as a flexible platform for electroacoustic performances, new sound art commissions (including a new piece by Pierre Henry) and DJing, along with hybrid live shows and specially designed operatic presentations (such as extracts from Rebecca Horox’s TEFFRADOT in 2015). In each case, the listening experience is mediated by a bodily interaction with a unique physical environment.
Wet Sounds is only an extreme example of the sub-genre of ‘sculptural’ sound installation. The medium of spatialised sound is now encountered with relative frequency in gallery and art museum settings. Whether the installation makes use only of a white cube space and the sound producing apparatus, or whether it involves further sculptural elements, media or unique architectural features, these works place the viewer-auditor in a relationship with space and presence that has a partially sonic consistency. Louisa Fairclough’s collaborations with composer Richard Glover give ghostly voice to her delicate filmic sculptures, in contrast to the demonic devices populating Haroon Mirza’s installations. In large-scale works like Ray Lee’s Siren (2004) and Robbie Thomson’s The New Alps (2015), the sound-producing sculptures lend their environment a certain uncanny autonomy, while interactive installations like Jenny Minton’s Interlude (2014) allow the listener’s behaviour to influence and thus co-compose their sonic surroundings. (Anarchic experimental group ARCO have presented their own perverse take on this particular trend in their series of lo-fi gallery installations at the Tate Britain, entitled Engagement.)
From sculptural sound art, it isn’t much of a jump to site-specific headphone pieces, ‘audio walks’ and other podcast-based work. However, many of these works operate on a fundamentally different principle, moving from an immersive/spectacular multi-sensory experience to a mode of cinematic ‘hyper-reality’ in which sound can play a crucial role. This is due to the extraordinary verisimilitude of sonic representation, as evidenced in the work of sound recordists like Chris Watson, and exploited in radio documentaries and plays.
Circumstance are a Bristol-based company that work with both approaches. Their Of Sleeping Birds (2012) is a processional piece performed by pedestrians with portable speakers, yet they have also pioneered the ‘subtle mob’: a form of collective invisible theatre that quietly unfurls in a public space, through the synchronisation of a personal audio track. Circumstance’s work frequently exploits the technological trend of an augmented cityscape, as mediated through smartphone apps and big data. As a result, it can have as much in common with the immersive work of companies like Blast Theory and Coney (projecting a one-player ‘game’ onto the real city), as it does the ‘Autoteatro’ of Rotozaza.
As well as imposing a virtual ‘sonic’ layer onto a real environment, this sixth approach to music theatre—what we might call ‘immersive sound theatre’—removes other sensory elements (by isolating/blindfolding audience members or presenting work in darkness) to ‘totalise’ the sonic elements as theatrical world. Melanie Wilson’s The View From Here (2008/2010) explores the literal implications of this, in relation to the experience of blindness. In contrast, All Eyes Wide have used this strategy in their Gate series to orchestrate one-on-one interactive experiences: a speaking performer and a sound designer responding live to the actions and reactions of a blindfolded, headphoned listener. Companies like Sound&Fury and Earfilms specialise in sound-driven narrative theatre, presented to seated audiences, while David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s Fiction (2014) is the latest in a series of acclaimed headphone experiments from Rosenberg: most notably, 2010’s spectacular Electric Hotel.
Other artists have taken a more deconstructionist approach to the ‘cinematic’ potential of sound-based narrative theatre, possibly in response to the highly influential work of British director Katie Mitchell. Mitchell’s use of live Foley in her deconstructed film works (from 2006’s Waves onwards) is evoked in Proto-type’s Whisper (2007); however, it is predated by other similar experiments, such as Will Adamsdale and Chris Branch’s The Receipt (2005; in which Branch soundtracks Adamsdale’s narrative with sounds produced using only a Moog synthesiser and filing cabinets) and Uninvited Guests’ Schlock (2004; in which Circumstance’s Duncan Speakman used a stethoscope to sample sounds from the performers’ bodies).
Melanie Wilson—one of the key exponents of this type of work in the UK—was sound designer on several of Katie Mitchell’s productions. In Wilson’s sound theatre, she often re-interpolates herself as performer between soundworld and audience; in Simple Girl (2007) and Landscape II (2013), she performs the sound score using samplers, performing her own role as fallible narrator (or ‘cinematographer’), while she fragments this role in 2010’s Autobiographer, to collectively characterise the experiences of a woman with dementia.
Bristol-based company Sleepdogs take a comparable approach. Their work usually revolves around the music and sound design of composer/writer Timothy X. Atack; examples include the live-performed audio play The Morpeth Carol (2011) and a number of ‘sci-fi’ pieces that make dramatic use of the physical qualities of sound and light. 2012’s The Bullet and the Bass Trombone emphasises the ambiguous role of the composer—the only person left on a concert hall stage—as he attempts to reconstruct the uncertain fate of an orchestra trapped in an unfamiliar city during a military coup. Even physical theatre heroes Complicite have produced their own take on this trend in the form of their recent one-man show The Encounter (2016).
The seventh approach to new music theatre in the UK shifts the focus from the listener, immersed in a sonic world, back to the musical body of the performer. This is the approach that emerges when we consider dance as a form of music theatre, and begin to explore the implications of such a redefinition. For one thing, the loosening of dance conventions that gave rise to ‘dance theatre’ also allowed these conventions to deconstruct themselves, permitting the music to appear as part of the narrative diegesis of the dance. Pieces like Earthfall’s GIG (2009) and Vincent Dance Theatre’s Test Run (2006) have explored these dynamics head on, while the embedding of dancer-musicians in Charlotte Vincent’s company has allowed such dynamics to influence the general vocabulary of later pieces, such as 2009’s If We Go On and 2012’s Motherland.
The mid-’90s saw a proliferation of such experiments in music and movement, emanating from the ICA and BAC in London, Cardiff’s Chapter and Glasgow’s Tramway. Within a year of the first Vincent Dance Theatre and Cryptic productions, influential music theatre ensemble the gogmagogs presented their first recital programme: introducing the gogmagogs. Over the next decade, the gogmagogs (under the direction of Lucy Bailey) pioneered a uniquely theatrical marriage of music and movement, devised in collaboration with composers including Django Bates, Errolyn Wallen and Roger Eno, as well as a full-length piece with John Tavener (The Fool, in 2000), before dissolving in 2006.
Also founded in 1995 and still going strong, Clod Ensemble have exhibited a similar fascination with the points at which virtuosic music intersects with virtuosic movement to create meaning. Combining Paul Clark’s original music and Suzy Willson’s direction and choreography, the company’s recent work includes staged concerts, dance theatre pieces, performance interventions and one-woman shows. The polyphonic choral composition at the heart of 1999’s Silver Swan, for instance, has since underpinned an evolving range of performances, in response to a variety of spaces, including the Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall in 2012. In contrast, the solo performances in Under Glass (2009) take place within a series of large specimen jars and display cases.
The presence of live musicians (and dancer-musicians) in new dance theatre is still a prevalent trend, as demonstrated in recent works by Still House, Van Huynh Company and Protein Dance. However, the latter’s 2016 project—May Contain Food—also constitutes the most recent development in another long-standing trend in UK music theatre, that of ‘song theatre’. With music by Orlando Gough and appearances by singers Michael Henry and Louise Sofield, May Contain Food is the latest reverberation of The Shout: a sixteen-piece multi-genre a cappella choir first assembled by Gough and Richard Chew in 1998, for their outdoor oratorio The Shouting Fence. The choir devised a number of theatrical concerts (including Tall Stories and Sea Tongue, directed by Rufus Norris), playing with the musical and interpersonal dynamics within its heterogenous collectivity, as well as spawning later collaborations between director Emma Bernard, composer Jocelyn Pook and singer Melanie Pappenheim.
Both Pook and Gough received commissions from the Royal Opera House in 2012, and they brought their own brand of song theatre (as well as members of The Shout) with them. In Gough’s one-woman loop opera A Ring, A Lamp, A Thing, as in his work with Pappenheim and Rebecca Askew’s Flam Productions, there is an emphasis on song-as-utterance: vocal tics, natural timbres, simple motifs that become the raw gestural material for a physical-vocal-theatre of mundane diversions and everyday interactions. Verity Standen’s three-voice Mmm Hmmm (2014) covers similar terrain, creating counterpoints from everyday vocal and physical gestures, distilled and abstracted ad absurdum. Meanwhile, in the same year, Helen Chadwick Song Theatre used a similar vocabulary to address a more serious topic, in War Correspondents. In the same category, we could also mention eclectic trio Juice Vocal Ensemble, who’ve made their own music videos and appeared in operas by Richard Barnard, Luke Styles and Mikhail Karikis.
(And while the influence of Meredith Monk looms large in all of this work, we can identify at least one other, rather unlikely, strand of song theatre in the form of I Fagiolini’s highly successful live show and subsequent film with director John La Bouchardière: The Full Monteverdi (2004).)
For London-based company ERRATICA, the relationship between unaccompanied voice and raw bodily presence remains fundamental, even when this is only presented through absence. The relationship between voices is as important as the relationship between bodies when interpreting the ghostly dance theatre of Toujours et Près de Moi (2012), while Triptych (2014) juxtaposes singing bodies with recorded voices in a deconstruction of operatic narrative. The dramatic character of the singing ensemble, especially where it draws on non-Western musical traditions, has similarly played a role in the work of Bristol’s The Mechanical Animal Corporation, and it was the subject of both Earthfall’s 2003 collaboration with Polish director Tomasz Rodowicz—Hode Galatan—and h2dance’s Say Something (2011).
Aspects of this ‘choral theatre’—the particularities of bodies and spaces, the relationships between performers—have been deployed among the outbreak of new ‘art choirs’ establishing their own approaches to making and staging performances of new work. These include graphic-score specialists the Vocal Constructivists and artist collective Force Majeure, feminist ‘girl gang’ Gaggle and amateur experimentalists Musarc. The latter was founded as part of an architectural research project, and has since performed at the Serpentine, Whitechapel and Barbican galleries, among others. Meanwhile, Gaggle have curated a week of performances at the ICA and appeared in Eileen Simpson and Ben White’s The Brilliant and the Dark (2010), as well as presenting their own version of Lysistrata at the Almeida in 2015. The defiant power of women’s song—the driving force of the history of opera—can similarly be heard ringing through other feminist performances featuring ensemble casts, from Nic Green’s Motherland (2012) to Melanie Wilson’s Opera for the Unknown Woman (2016).
The choreography of a cappella voices can add a new dimension to dance and physical theatre, complementing their existing dramatic conventions. However, it can also achieve something even more immediate, relating to the performers as unique singing subjects as opposed to bodies or personas. One of the most enduring experimental choral projects by a British artist, Phil Minton’s Feral Choir workshops, exploits this ‘pure performativity’ of the voice. Minton’s workshops embrace raw vocality as an egalitarian medium for expression and improvisation, especially when working with amateur groups of ‘non-singers’. However, various other choral projects have gravitated towards the pure performativity of the song (or ‘songfulness’), which both departs from and extends beyond our intuitive understanding of song as we encounter it in day-to-day life.
Many of these projects have a political edge. The immediate performativity of singing (and particularly group singing) is invoked in community/activist projects like Streetwise Opera and the Sex Workers’ Opera, in terms of ‘giving a voice’ to certain marginalised groups and subjectivities. Hannah Nicklin’s mobile punk project Songs for Breaking Britain (2013) similarly ‘gives voice’ to the concerns of local people. The idea of singing as performance of discourse itself is treated more ambivalently in Rachel Mars’s 2014 choral performance Sing It! Spirit of Envy, exploring neoliberal and ‘red Tory’ ideology with pop-up local choirs. Mars’s collaborators, Verity Standen and Eilidh MacAskill, have both explored similar aesthetics in their own choral projects. Several of Richard Grayson’s video works have also used singing and musical performance as a kind of externalisation of shared ideology, referencing the use of music within religious communities. Similarly, Lucy Ellinson’s #TORYCORE (2012) feeds chunks of George Osborne’s budgetary speeches and David Cameron’s pro-austerity rhetoric through the performative machinery of hardcore music.
This approach to music theatre receives an unusual treatment in Michael Harding’s The Removal Men project. The fictive frame of this project is a music therapy workshop for security officers at an immigration removal centre. Harding appears as Moses, one of the officers, who performs a series of therapeutic exercises and self-penned songs to a minimal electronic accompaniment. The resulting performances exploit the ideology behind art therapy to present a highly politicised character study.
The fundamental performativity of song, as employed in these politically engaged projects, is the same that underpins much of the UK’s cabaret and drag scene. This is the principle behind lip sync performances, in which the body of the performer channels the ‘vocal subject’ of the song, through the medium of the voice. Artists like Dickie Beau and Helen Noir, Theo Adams, and Foxy & Husk have produced extended performances building on these techniques. The drag personas of Christopher Green (Tina C, Ida Barr) play on the conventions of musical performance, and opera-cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat uses the vocal recital to explore aspects of his own complex identity. Meanwhile, live art companies like GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN and None of Us is Yet a Robot have taken these resulting themes of identity and embodiment in still more extreme directions.
If the UK’s performance art scene could be vaguely split into a ‘theatrical’ wing and a ‘visual art’ wing, this eighth approach to music theatre remains the domain of the ‘theatrical’. Sharing many of the institutions of experimental theatre (including the BAC and Forest Fringe), this work also receives key support from live art festivals like SPILL, BUZZCUT and Fierce, and producers like Artsadmin and hÅb. (Nevertheless, it has recently lost some vital platforms with the closure of Manchester’s the greenroom in 2011, and Glasgow’s The Arches in 2015.) In addition, British performance art has been enriched by collaborations with composers like Andrew Poppy, Leo Chadburn and Philip Venables, whose own work often shares the themes and vocabularies of this approach.
Speaking generally, the use of music in this aesthetic mode can constitute an ‘interruption’ in the flow of the performance—an irruption of the pure performativity of the singing voice—which reconfigures our understanding of the rest of the performance. On the one hand, this interruption can still fulfil the ‘alienating’ function famously assigned to song in the work of Brecht (and, indeed, Dennis Potter), puncturing a serious, naturalistic or emotionally involved narrative with moments of detached levity. (Examples can be found in recent British work ranging from the political cabaret theatre of Sh!t Theatre to the surreal video work of Marianna Simnett.) Yet it is just as common for song to serve the opposite function. Much of the work made by performance artists and theatre-makers today involves the artist addressing themselves directly to the audience, from an their own subjective position. Often the creation process of the piece remains unhidden, with the performance presenting its own motivations, rationale and self-critique. In this context, the singing of a song constitutes a breakthrough into a different mode of performativity. Even if the text retains its presentational directness, the melodic and rhythmic patterns that underpin it produce a ‘surplus’ of content, resulting from the input of additional time and additional breath.
This approach is employed in Paul Granjon’s eccentric performance lectures about robots, Jenny Moore’s Proposal for a Rock Opera, and Molly Naylor’s storytelling pieces. Greg McLaren’s Doris Day Can Fuck Off (2011) takes such an approach as both its medium and its subject; McLaren spent an entire month singing instead of speaking, and the resulting piece is a through-sung presentation of his experiences. This musical/vocal ‘surplus’ has also been put to work in video art, such as in the documentary work of Mikhail Karikis and Amy Cunningham’s video song cycles about the history of technology. Turner Prize winner and ex-Talulah Gosh singer Elizabeth Price’s video work employs ‘musical’ rhythms and structures, along with post-MTV editing techniques, to create installations that evoke an eerie mixture of academic presentation, corporate promo and music video.
We could also hear Christopher Brett Bailey’s hallucinogenic rant This Is How We Die (2014) as an attempt to push a spoken monologue into this ‘pure performative’ realm through sheer rhetorical force and a calculated flight from meaning. This function of song has become an absolute staple of experimental theatre in general, routinely deployed in devised pieces by veteran companies like People Show, Forced Entertainment and Third Angel. As in Brett Bailey’s work, the electric guitar often serves a similar function, as a vernacular tool with performative weight. Indeed, even when a piece contains only one ‘musical’ moment, the inclusion of that moment is always a proposition: it posits a role for music within the unique theatrical assemblage presented.
The ninth approach to music theatre concerns song as an artistic medium. Related to the previous approach, there are nevertheless fundamental differences in emphasis. Rather than a focus on the autobiographical subject, personal identity and song as ‘augmented’ (or ‘distilled’) speech, artists from a visual art background often focus on musical bodies-in-general, as well as associated themes of gender and the post-human. Rather than the singing of something, the focus is on the singing body and the sung voice. While this approach can thus be positioned closer to experimental music/extended vocal technique than pop music/‘natural’ song, there is still a particular interest in singing-as-such (as opposed to all vocal sound) that distinguishes this approach from the audio-centrism of post-Cagean experimental music.
The presentation of much of this work within a gallery setting encourages its interpretation in relation to disciplinary constructs such as artistic practice, medium and ‘the work’. Indeed, British art has never been so interested in the medium of song. The nomination of Janice Kerbel’s DOUG for the 2015 Turner Prize is just one indication of this. Martin Creed, a Turner Prize winner, has made his pop songs a central part of his practice, while beloved British artist David Shrigley presented his first opera, Pass The Spoon, with composer David Fennessy and Magnetic North, in 2011. (Much of this was, perhaps, anticipated by the singular work of prolific expat Chris Newman, who’s recently been touring with his new band Miss Moth.)
Since its establishment in 2014, the London Contemporary Music Festival has looked repeatedly to the international art world for the cutting edge of vocal performance, especially in its ‘To A New Definition of Opera’ programmes. One of the featured performances at the first LCMF was DEPRESSION: a performance by video artist Ed Atkins, premiered at the Serpentine Galleries’ 2012 Memory Marathon. Atkins’s performances had recently been showcased in the Serpentine’s 2014 Park Nights series, along with new work by London-based, Lithuanian composer Lina Lapelytė, whose ensemble vocal works have received international recognition. What’s more, earlier in the same year, the Tate Modern had presented Cally Spooner’s chorus-line musical And You Were Wonderful, On Stage, along with its accompanying video ‘trailer’: He’s in a Great Place!
Many of the key British artists working in this area appeared at Birmingham’s IKON Gallery for The Voice and the Lens. This was an exhibition curated by adventurous producing organisation Third Ear and Sam Belinfante, himself an artist interested in musical performance as medium. In addition to screenings of international video art, the exhibition programme included performances by and featuring some of the most singular contemporary vocalists in the UK: Loré Lixenberg, Mikhail Karikis, Elaine Mitchener, Jennifer Walshe, Linda Hirst and Phil Minton.
Cara Tolmie and Hanna Tuulikki are two further artists whose site-responsive performances produce a space for their own extraordinary voices to inhabit, engaging with environments and relationships through improvisation. Tuulikki shares with fellow artists Claudia Molitor and Caroline Lucas an interest in composition as visual art; these latter composers have prepared visual scores from a number of different tactile media, whose realisation completes an extended performative process decentring certain traditional compositional priorities, with feminist implications.
The final two approaches to new music theatre look beyond the figure of the individual composer-performer, whether conceived as fictional persona, ‘real’ person or resonant body. Instead, these approaches construct theatrical worlds through collective listening and interpretive practices: the active and creative ‘musicking’ of a certain group or subculture. Hence, in the tenth category, live musical performance is treated as a socio-historical artefact. The re-performance of musical practices or texts functions as a performative anthropological or cultural-historical exploration. The practices and texts in question usually derive from popular or folk cultures, which in turn allows them to operate as part of an explicitly resistant or utopian aesthetic (although we could also understand the UK’s ‘historically informed performance’ tradition in these terms).
Glasgow-based artist Nic Green has used this approach as part of her diverse practice. One section of her acclaimed 2009 piece Trilogy took the song ‘Jerusalem’ as just such a text, in a performance of its subversive use by the Suffragettes. Likewise, I Belong to This Band, a roaming gig-theatre project by Kings of England, similarly attempts to recapture the radical social relations latent in traditional British folk music. Moreover, broadening the definition of ‘folk music’, several of artist Jeremy Deller’s projects have explored the socio-political meanings of cult bands and subgenres, often through ‘dialectical’ cover versions like 1997’s Acid Brass.
Re-enactment has proven a popular method by which artists can explore the socio-cultural dimension of a musical movement, as well as shedding light upon the ‘raw material’ of ‘performance qua performance’. This approach was pioneered by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard in the late ’90s, with their re-enactments of pivotal David Bowie and The Smiths shows, while Jo Mitchell was commissioned by the ICA in 2007 to recreate Einstürzende Neubauten’s destructive Concerto for Voice and Machinery, originally performed in the same building 23 years prior. Live artist Greg Wohead’s recent Comeback Special (2016) casts him as Elvis Presley in a reconstruction of the singer’s 1968 comeback gig, and in the field of video art, Matt Stokes frequently explores extreme musical subcultures in his work. Stokes’s Long After Tonight (2005) staged the ghostly recollection of a Northern Soul event in one of the churches where the nights were held in the ’70s, while the two-screen these are the days (2009) presents footage from an Austin punk band’s live show alongside the same band’s ‘musical response’ to the footage in a recording studio at a later date.
This peculiar music theatre of performative re-enactment underpins many other popular phenomena, from themed retro nights and tribute bands, to celebrity drag impersonators and certain jukebox musicals. It found a curious expression in the popular Saturday night TV show Stars In Their Eyes (originally a Dutch import, which ran from 1990–2006), and remains a staple of British reality TV (although theatrically, this relates as much to drag performance (see VIII, above)). All of these examples involve a curatorial act, selectively appropriating and reconfiguring elements of the past to be used in the present as tools for everyday life. It is often only through such re-enactments that these tools appear at both their most pliable and their most potent.
The final approach to music theatre could be described as a ‘theatre of music reception’. It re-centres the site of musical production onto the listening individual (often ‘played by’ the individual audience member) and thus presents a ‘performance of listening’. Aesthetically, it can take many forms: narrative theatre, performance lecture, participatory piece or multimedia installation. It also includes new writing about music, especially where that writing takes on the musicality of its subject. Thus we can include here plays by young writers like Kieran Hurley, whose monologue-driven pieces include the DJ-driven BEATS (2012) and the ‘ceilidh-theatre’ of Rantin (2013). We might also include plays by Kate Tempest, including WASTED (2011), which was designed for music festival audiences, premiered at the Latitude Festival, and featured original music by Kwake Bass. More recently, writer Sabrina Mahfouz has followed in Tempest’s footsteps with her With A Little Bit Of Luck (2016; similarly co-produced by Paines Plough and Latitude), which explores the cultural legacy of UK garage.
Performative explorations of the reception of familiar music can be personal, like Bill Aitchison’s Vinyl (2011), or political, like Rob Drummond’s The Riot of Spring (2013). The framing conceit of Little Bulb Theatre’s first piece, Crocosmia (2008), involved young siblings listening to their deceased parents’ vinyl collection, while Michael Pinchbeck’s music-inspired works include The Post Show Party Show (2008), a re-enactment of his parents’ first meeting after an amateur production of The Sound of Music, structured by the musical’s soundtrack.
The aesthetic of filmmaker Jimmy Merris is indebted to YouTube’s amateur music culture—bedroom covers, homemade lyric videos, memeable ‘concept music’—as well as the various internet micro-genres that have become possible from the easy ripping, sampling and collaging of music online. His Jimmy Merris sings the blues (2013) gives a sense of the ways in which listeners take and use pop music for their own affective ends. Similarly, Elle Dubois and Kim Donohoe’s I hope you never love anyone as much as I love you (2014) was a duo performance about the obsessive side of country music fandom.
Performance artist Bryony Kimmings’s The Catherine Bennett Project (which included the shows Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model (2013) and That Catherine Bennett Show (2014)) was an intervention into the social reception of pop music. Kimmings collaborated with her nine-year-old niece to design a fictional tween idol who could serve as an alternative role model, using the persona of Catherine Bennett as a basis for media appearances, festival gigs and school performances. In a way, the opposite approach has been proposed by London’s controversial art-music collective and record label PC Music, with surreal diva personas like GFOTY and QT performing an ironic over-identification with commercial pop music’s ‘dark side’.
The ultimate example of this final approach to music theatre is the dancefloor. A good dancefloor involves a DJ’s own performance of listening, via their curation and manipulation of extant musical tracks, re-performed by the dancing listeners. Performance artists like Bill Aitchison, Paul Granjon and Action Hero have all made performances about dancefloors and group dancing. Will Dickie, a performance artist who also spins as DJ Alwayz Will, recently presented The Rave Space (2016): a piece that explores these dancefloor dynamics in relation to language and transcendence. However, the real musico-theatrical aesthetics of the dancefloor are constructed and demolished by DJs and crowds on a nightly basis, in clubs, warehouses, fields and bedrooms across the UK…
To read my (much shorter) essay, giving a more theoretical examination of music theatre trends in the UK: click here
To find out more about the artists chosen to represent New British Music Theatre at Music Theatre Now 2016, head to www.newbritishmusictheatre.org