I concluded the previous post with the claim that theatre is the condition by which musical worlds are made possible. While music exists in the ‘real world’ only as exception, its presentation within a ‘theatrical world’ requires us to experience it as inherent to that world: indeed, as one of the very conditions of that world’s coherence. These worlds are ‘musical’, because music belongs to them in a way that it doesn’t belong to the ‘real’ world. In a musical world, music is something more than or other than ‘just music’.
Nevertheless, the precise nature of what music is within any given musical world—its function, role, power, efficacy, value, meaning, presence, etc.—is always unique, often protean, and generally difficult to pin down. The logic of a musical world, and thus the place of music within it, is intuited by the audience as they process their sensory experiences of the theatrical world and its development through time and narrative.
This final essay in my series on music theatre is an attempt to demonstrate that some generalisations are possible in the mapping of this infinity of musical worlds, and the most important system of generalisation within our listening culture is what we call genre.
In the previous post, I emphasised the prime role of the audience in recognising music theatre as such. This ‘recognition’ involves imaginatively reconstructing the theatrical, musical world as a coherent, logical one, on the basis of their own experience of the ‘real world’ as coherent and logical. Musical genre constitutes a set of coordinates according to which the logic of a musical world can be guaranteed. Musical genres are often discussed—in music discourses both academic and vernacular—in terms of a set of reified signs and gestures, social demographics and historical junctures, but these ‘genre markers’ are no more than signposts suggesting a particular interpretive approach. Instead, the word ‘genre’ names a particular theatrical performance practice, designed to elicit or prioritise an interpretive approach on the part of the audience. At its most open-ended, a musico-theatrical world could support a huge range of unpredictable and even revelatory interpretations (or ‘constitutive logics’), but such ambiguity can give the impression of incoherence, inconsistency or randomness to the audience, and hence affecting their ability to judge or evaluate the work. This in turn threatens the apparent value of the work as an investment of the time, space and labour of artists and audiences alike, and hastens the obsolescence of the work (and the consequent annihilation of its world).
Thus, creators will often attempt to impose genre on their musico-theatrical worlds, foreclosing some of the possible interpretations while indicating towards a particular orientation suggestive of a coherent logic. In the final analysis then, genre is an interpretive practice on the part of the audience, which ‘hears’ music as belonging to a musical world in a particular way. However, in this essay, I will talk about genre in two other ways, which posit a certain autonomy on the part of a set of ‘genre conventions’—and the ideologies of listening (or ‘aesth-ethics’) underpinning them—based on consensus among the listening groups or ‘congregations’ that sustain them.
As a final disclaimer, I want to emphasise that I don’t believe these conventions to be ‘essential’ qualities of actual pieces or real-life performance situations, nor should their ‘ideal’ realisation be understood as the ‘perfect’ performance of this or that musical work. Sound is a material phenomenon, genre is ideology, and music is always located somewhere in between.
Genre as conventions of fiction
As with every expressive medium, the conventions of musical genre can be understood as delimiting a particular type of fiction. This is not a fiction that can be located somewhere ‘beyond’ the medium; rather, it is the fiction of the medium itself. It is a fiction that places the audience/reader, the author/creator, and the various intermediary ‘voices’ (or ‘eyes’, ‘ears’, ‘consciousnesses’, etc) in relation to each other. This is the fiction that constructs what the ‘text’ is, how it was produced, why it was produced, but also how ‘fictional’ the fiction is: whether its reality is ‘objective’ or ‘imaginary’ or ‘rhetorical’ (e.g., ‘subjunctive’, ‘conditional’, etc.).
Crucially for music, this is also the fiction that constructs how ‘direct’ a ‘communication’ or ‘expression’ the medium is: are we hearing first-, second- or even third-hand? Is this a ‘reiteration’—whether perfect or imperfect—and what/where/when is or was the ‘original’? Does the expression ‘know’ it’s being expressed? Does it ‘know’ it’s being heard? Is it actually meant for us, or for someone else? Who is it meant for?
This mode of fiction pertains as much to reportage, documentary, diaries, academic essays and cooking recipes as is does to feature films and poetry. In these cases, it could be characterized as the fiction of non-fiction. It is the fiction that constructs the written word or the sequence of images and sounds as non-fiction. This is achieved through the presentation of a world in which some qualities, properties or modalities of the medium exist and some do not exist.
I will go on to discuss musico-theatrical examples in great detail, and examples of the structuring fictions of musical worlds can already be found in my previous essay. However, it is perhaps clearer to introduce this conception of genre with literary analogies; the principle is identical, since genre is not a medium-specific operation.
So, from the perspective of most novels, neither the author nor the book itself exists. Such books encourage the reader to interpret their experiences as the direct outpouring of one or several consciousnesses. In other novels, an ‘author’ will be used as a device within a book: in such cases, the book exists but the ‘real’ author still does not. Indeed, the real author cannot exist within a novel if it is to remain a novel; a book may present itself as a book, but as soon as the real author takes the place of the fictional author, the result is read as autobiography (a sort of meta-discourse on writing, perhaps) and not as a ‘work of fiction’.
By contrast, from the perspective of a letter, both the text and the author exist. What doesn’t exist in the case of the letter is another modality of writing that we might call ‘the written’; a formal letter usually constitutes a single, unambiguous performative action, while a personal letter exists both as a social act in itself and as something like frozen speech. For the letter to be read as a letter, the sense of its having been crafted—pulled together from a constellations of words, symbols or signifiers—must be discounted or effaced, and so must any sense that the contents of the letter constitute any kind of autonomous reality, exceeding the author.
Of course, there are many notable exceptions in which some previously ‘inexistent’ element is forced to appear within a fictional world. The result is usually a rupture of genre, which may or may not be experienced as ‘avant-garde’. With such ruptures, we are hurled out of the fictional confines of the medium and made to confront some aspect of the ‘real’ qualities and conditions of the work. This aspect can then be wrapped back into a new set of genre boundaries (I will return to this ‘avant-garde’ operation at the end of the essay). Crucially, though, for any expressive medium to function as such, it must operate through the elaboration of a genre-fiction, meaning that some element or quality of the medium must be made to inexist from the standpoint of the medium itself.
Genre involves a distribution of the represented and the unrepresented, the marked and the unmarked, the noticed and the unnoticed, the ‘existent’ and the ‘inexistent’. The audience is always still able to perceive an author and a text, the writing process and the reception process, the political motivations and the commercial implications, influences and quotations, bias, irony and unreliable narrators. These are all fictional elements of a larger collective fiction: the fiction of Western/hegemonic art and culture, as it has been constructed over time. In the spirit of the avant garde, critical theory and deconstruction, it is possible to force these elements to exist within a text as part of a critical intervention. Genre, however, involves the perception of these elements from within the fiction. As such, it is a mode of fiction that first presumes coherence, logic and legibility, and only then aggregates, distributes and codes the necessary elements to satisfy this presumption. The question of genre asks: which of these elements does the fictional world represent, rather than merely present? Which elements aren’t just perceivable by the audience, but are shown to the audience?
Genre as ritual conventions
While each genre can be characterised on the basis of the fictional conventions that construct and regulate its world, the actual force of these conventions can best be felt by looking at their functions. In order to understand these functions, I will focus on the ritual aspects of each genred musico-theatrical ‘assemblage’, as the second of my two approaches to genre.
As performance theorists like Victor Turner and Richard Schechner have argued, the border between ritual and theatre is ambiguous at best, and potentially even non-existent. ‘Ritual’ elements permeate all performance genres, on both a micro- and a macro-scale, with the playful recombination of ritualised behaviours composing the meaningful material of theatre, just as formalised social rituals determine the ways in which theatre genres are created and consumed. Music-theatre-as-ritual usually occurs in a special place (opera house, theatre, club) at a special fixed time (leisure time, night time), and it transforms a collection of individuals into a collectivity with a unified relationship to the performance (audience, fans, clientele). This ritual transformation of individuals into audience in turn makes possible the transformation of performers into their characters or personas, through the construction of a ‘liminal’ stage-world: the ‘in-between space-time’ between the imaginary reality of the fictional characters or musical actions and the ‘real’ reality of the performers’ bodies and identities.
There is another dimension to music-theatre-as-ritual, however, which goes beyond the universal structural homologies that Turner outlines, in that it pertains specifically to music. As I argued in the previous essay, music is exceptional to the ‘real’ world. The ‘place’ of music is not in the real world but outside of/beyond it, and when music does appear, it is to lift us out of this world. Music can exist in the world only as sound or noise; its ‘becoming-music’ requires the partial transportation of the listener away from material and linguistic reality. As such, music is frequently accorded a ‘spiritual’ status. It exists within a ‘spiritual’ realm that runs alongside the ‘real world’ but remains separate from it.
This is, of course, merely the result of constructing ‘reality’ on the basis of the ‘rational mind + sensing body’ dyad, and thus producing an ‘outside’ space of ‘irrational’ (spiritual, emotional, religious) unreality. Nevertheless, it permits the musical realm to function as an effective stand-in for the divine. In one sense, this is a symbolic function: the unseen organ or choir exists in a sonic ‘place’ that is immediate and congruent with that of the church, bringing the congregation into communion with angelic voices and instruments, joined in prayer with the heavenly hosts. The music refers to the divine, while not pretending to actually be sounds transmitted from heaven (in the manner that the Catholic communion wafer is transformed into the body of Christ). In this way, the invisible, exceptional musical realm is homologous to other invisible spiritual realms whose existence is sustained through faith. The musical realm is a metaphor for the spiritual realm, used as a rhetorical indication towards other, more absolute transcendencies.
However, this alone would suggest a rather impoverished notion of religion and the sacred, in which ritual serves a purely representational or pedagogical function. The ‘true nature’ of a religion and its divine cosmology cannot be located beyond the specifics of its rituals, but must be understood as partly constructed by these specifics. Thus, a Christianity with music at the heart of its ritual practice, and one which has banned music, cannot be said to share a common cosmology. The relationship between spirit and body, Heaven and Earth, is different in each case. Similarly, music that ‘accompanies’ magic or trance rituals in other religious contexts cannot be separated from the functioning of that magic (the idea of music ‘accompanying’ ritual is a very Eurocentric one anyway). The music is the magic, by which I mean that the ‘becoming-music’ of the sounds or sound-making actions is homologous to the ‘becoming-magic’ of an incantation or set of gestures.
The use of religious language to describe music is a cliché common to the discourse of almost every musical genre—spirit, soul, transcendent, magic, sacred, divine, angelic/demonic—and it is too often used to lift music ‘above’ other art forms, to a level that is ‘beyond explanation’ (often accompanied by moralistic judgements of music’s intrinsic value). However, when I assert that music is magic, music is sacred, music is spiritual, this is part of a materialist assessment of these terms, from the perspective of an anthropology of religion. The genre fictions that we construct in order to transform sounding bodies into musical performance involve the creation of sacred worlds in the liminal space between theatre (material) and music (spiritual). The possibility of musical worlds also means the efficacy of ritual practice: joining the earthly with the heavenly, ‘realising’ the divine in the place of the mundane, spirit possession, séances, miracles, revelations, holy ecstasy or communion with the gods.
From this perspective, the different genred logics of musical worlds equate to different formalised relationships between the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the sacred and the profane, gods and men. Genre conventions legislate on the possibility of religious ecstasy, communion or divine intervention, and thus how a potentially efficacious ritual action should be evaluated (understood through judgements such as a ‘good’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’, ‘powerful’ or ‘genuine’ performance, etc). Therefore, my treatment of genre here in terms of a ‘comparative religion’ (a study of ‘the varieties of musical experience’, with apologies to William James) is simultaneously a comparative aesthetics—or, more precisely, aesth-ethics—of genre.
While the ‘holy wars’ fought over musical genre are generally bloodless, the stakes of such conventions are nevertheless very high, considering the ‘fervour’ or ‘zealousness’ of initiates from the churches of opera and Lieder, emo and Goa trance, Northern Soul and free jazz. In many of these cases, there is no significant difference in the degree of intensity or ‘realness’ between the function and experience of live music and that of religious ritual.
Four musical modalities
There are a number of different ways to conceptualise, experience and talk about music. It is something that is composed, played and heard. It exists on tape, on paper, in the air, in our heads. It is a text, a script, a medium, a process, an action, a tradition and an art form. When writing about music, we tend to fix on one or two of these modalities at the exclusion of the others. By temporarily fixing what music ‘is’, within the discursive world of the piece of writing, propositions can be made and supported, opinions can be expounded, arguments can be outlined in an internally coherent manner, and (most significantly) value judgements can be made with a semblance of ‘objectivity’.
This fixing of music’s ontological status results in the founding of a fictional genre: the construction of a literary ‘world’ in which music ‘is’ this and not that. This in turn leads to the codification of genres of music writing (single reviews, album reviews, live reviews, fanzines, formal analyses, biographies of artists, ethnographies of scenes and many others), which feeds back into the professional and vernacular discourses of music production and reception, determining to a degree how music is heard, why it is made and how it can function (and thus, what types of music can be imagined, created and financially supported).
My argument in this essay is that a similar process occurs for musical genre itself (genre and style being key products of these wider discourses). Specifically, I will argue that these genre fictions are constructed on the basis of four musical modalities (that is, four different registers on which music can be said to exist). These modalities correspond to the four tiers of music theatre introduced in the previous essay (speech act, song act, theatre, performance). The crucial difference here is that we are now looking at musico-theatrical worlds from within their own fictional logic. My contention is that, while all four modalities are theoretically open and accessible to audiences of any musical genre, the experience of live music as a coherent ‘worlding’ of music onstage requires the audience member to empathise with just such an imagined inhabitant of that musical world (who may be a persona of the performer, the composer, the ideal listener, or some other ideal subject position).
The modality on which a musical performance is experienced can fluctuate; one example would be watching a virtuoso pianist play, and admiring a) the composer’s witty subversion of structural conventions, then b) the breezy skill of the performer in tackling a particularly tricky passage, then c) the emotional resilience shown as they persevere through the movement’s tragic climax towards the cautious hope expressed in the coda. Reading an opera review in a mainstream newspaper can be particularly illustrative of this fluctuation of modalities, with each paragraph describing and appraising the work on a different register, often drawing contradictory conclusions (the piece is a masterwork, the production is a travesty, the soprano’s performance is a triumph, etc. etc.). Nevertheless, I believe that each genre has a particular configuration of modalities that construct it as genre (i.e., that must be at least momentarily privileged in order to experience the result as that genre), even if the experience of the piece on other modalities provides more interesting, unique or accessible observations.
Again, this is not to say that I think there is one ‘proper’ way to experience or write about a particular musical genre, just that a genre coheres by experiencing itself in one particular way (or, by integrating music into its world according to a particular configuration of modalities). While I believe the misrecognition and subsequent denaturing of genre worlds can have extremely positive consequences, the enduring orthodoxy of genre cosmologies should not be underestimated. Often, when audiences and critics feel most free to experience a genre on multiple different levels, it is because the founding fiction that constitutes it as music theatre is taken absolutely for granted.
Recalibrating the previous essay’s four-tier music theatre model from the perspective of the fictional musical world, then—and continuing my use of ‘song/to sing’ as a single word group to stand in for all possible forms of ‘music/to music’—the four musical modalities that I will explore are 1) the Sung, 2) the Song, 3) the Singing, and 4) the Singer. My theory is that all current genres of Western musical performance and music theatre are constructed on the basis of one or two of these modalities, at the exclusion of the others. This process of construction can be reduced to a proposition, as part of the fictional conventions that structure the musical world, stating ‘music is this’. From the outside of the genre world, we can also hear this proposition as simultaneously stating ‘music is not that’. Hence, the polyvalent, ineffable nature of music for the ‘real’ world (and its exceptionality in relation to that world) is foreclosed. The breadth of music’s possible beings, and thus its possible meanings, is greatly reduced, and as a result, music can be made to belong to a presentation-as-world.
This means that music cannot be represented as its ‘real’ self (i.e., as exception) in a theatrical world; music is instead represented as a partial, refined or impoverished ‘music’ (in scare quotes), or as something else entirely. Consequently, music cannot coherently exist in all four modalities for the fictional world. Usually it exists in one modality or through a limited number of pairings. Thus, the fictional world legislates, ‘Music is the Song’, or ‘Music is the Sung and the Singer’. For this world, music is not exceptional but integral; music becomes worldly and the world becomes musical.
I will now attempt to characterise the four musical modalities. Rather than trying to systematically, deductively pin down the essence of each, I hope to evoke them through a proliferation of possible terms by which the being of music in that particular modality is frequently affirmed in discourse. In each case, the modality cannot be reduced or equated to any of these terms; it is instead that modality of music that allows music to take the place of these terms.
What is the Sung?
The Sung is the principle of organisation beyond the sonic, which is nevertheless unaware of the sonic. As such, it might be recognised in terms such as ‘expressive content’, ‘story’ or ‘message’. It is the musically signified or communicated. It is the imaginary speech act within the sung lyric, the ‘relationships’ between the notes, the musical drama. It is the motivation of the composer or songwriter, the ‘something that needed to be said’. It is intention, purpose, guiding principles, envisioned goals, ideology, ‘pure meaning’. The Sung is the regime of the imaginary.
What is the Song?
The Song is music qua music. It relates to any idea of music as a ‘thing’: composition, recording, song sheet, tune, lyric, sound. It is music as medium or channel, as product or commodity, as heirloom or vessel of reified knowledge/tradition. It is the text, the written and the composed, notation and distribution. It is the musical signifier, and the regime of symbols. It is an object of consideration, reiteration and reproduction. Yet the Song is also music as socio-cultural presence: a cultural practice that can be isolated and contemplated. It is the materiality of sound and the presence of the sonic body. It is physical, it persists and it is autonomous.
What is the Singing?
The Singing is probably the most difficult of the four modalities to pin down. It concerns music as action, but not musical action. The Singing is, in fact, anything but singing. Like the Sung, it is unaware of the sonic. It is music as communicating, expressing, speaking, imploring, raging, mourning and making love. It is spontaneous and unmediated. It is acting and reacting. It is ‘theatrical’. It is the complement of the Sung, in that it is the playing out of motivations, intentions, desires and drives through the musical body. It should, however, be separated from any idea of the musical ‘being’ of these motivations and drives (the Sung). It is musical doing, as opposed to doing music.
What is the Singer?
The Singer is the ‘Real’ of music. It is musicking in the cold light of day. It is the hard facts of the performance: the musician’s body, the shape of their gestures, their name and biography, their gender, race and class. It is the ‘real’ context of the audience: the space of the venue, the ambient noise, the lighting, the architecture, and the presence of the audience itself. It is the performance as performance, but not as musical performance. It is the complement of the Song, in that it acknowledges both the sonic and music-qua-music, but the Song is subtracted from it. It is the artist’s identity, their media presence, their celebrity persona. It is the artist’s profession, the culture industry, and the concert hall as social space. It is the listener’s own body, their ears and eyes, their knowledge and ignorance. It is humans in a room together.
These four musical modalities can be grouped into pairs in two different configurations.
Firstly, they can be grouped according to a product–process binary (music vs. musicking): the Sung and the Song form a pair that both focus on the sonic, what it ‘stands for’ and what ‘stands in’ for it; while the Singing and the Singer both focus on the sounding (or the ‘doing that sounds’). Since a genre situation usually legislates ‘what music is’ according to one or the other of each pair (either Sung or Song; either Singing or Singer), it is very difficult for both modalities in each pair to belong within the conventions of a single coherent world. It is almost always ‘either/or’.
The four modalities can also be grouped according to their relationship to ‘music/musicking as such’. The Song and the Singer are both grounded in a certain concept of ‘music’/‘musicking’, even when this concept is depthless: purely a name without referents. They acknowledge the existence of music/musicking in some form or other: the Song musicological/anthropological, the Singer phenomenological/empirical. On the other hand, both the Sung and the Singing cannot recognise music/musicking as such; in these modalities, music is always something other than music. Nevertheless, this pairing scheme has no bearing on the possibility of combining modalities within the conventions of a single coherent world: ‘music’ can exist as the Song alone (single modality), or it can exist as the Song and the Singer, or the Song and the Singing (mixed modalities).
Of these pairs, it is thus possible to designate the former (the Song and the Singer) as fictive non-fictions and the latter (the Sung and the Singing) as fictive fictions. This system of classification allows us to map two more established theoretical binaries onto the four modalities presented above. The two ‘product’ terms—the Sung and the Song—can be related to ‘non-diegetic music’ (fictive fiction) and ‘diegetic music’ (fictive non-fiction), respectively. The two ‘process’ terms—the Singing and the Singer—can be related to ‘representational theatre’ (fictive fiction) and ‘presentational theatre’ (fictive non-fiction), respectively. The introduction of these terms has the unfortunate effect of reinstating a division between ‘music’ and ‘theatre’, which should be resisted, since the issue in each case is the same: the modality of music’s existence from within a musico-theatrical world. Still, it allows us to draw up a nice table in which we can imagine all the possible mixed-modality pairings, using terms already familiar from theatre and opera studies:
|Fictive fiction||Fictive non-fiction|
|Product||The Sung (non-diegetic)||The Song (diegetic)|
|Process||The Singing (representational)||The Singer (presentational)|
|The Sung (non-diegetic)||The Song (diegetic)|
|The Singing (representational)||The Sung + The Singing
|The Song + The Singing
|The Singer (presentational)||The Sung + The Singer
|The Song + The Singer
Cultivating genre: on accessibility and universality
Having established the possible modalities of music’s existence, we are then faced with the difficult question of how a musico-theatrical world (or, indeed, an entire genred constellation of worlds (or ‘genre of worldness’, perhaps)) goes about legislating on the being of music. In truth, there are as many different ways as there are different worlds, and as many different worlds as there are different individual experiences of different performances. More generally though, certain modalities can be actively affirmed: privileged, foregrounded, remarked upon, coded as valuable or interesting, etc. Other modalities can be actively negated: controlled, restricted, short-circuited, undermined, coded as unremarkable or neutral, etc. Such techniques of control can force all the ‘meaning’ to resonate through a single privileged modality. In other cases, modalities may be passively disavowed, naïvely or ironically ignored, unmarked, hidden or performatively neglected. Purposefully or not, these techniques often allow the ‘indiscernible’ modalities to resurface erratically, signify independently, and potentially undermine the integrity of the world itself.
In the end, genre is an effect of collective patterns of interpretation on the part of quasi-homogeneous audiences, sharing expectations vis–à-vis the supposed function of art, the purpose of capital-C Culture, and socially desirable strategies of conspicuous cultural consumption. None of these would be accessible without a belief in the possibility of music theatre, which is in turn made possible by the ordering conventions of genre. As such, there can be no music theatre outside genre. Music theatre involves the audience’s ‘experiencing-as-music-theatre’, which is simultaneously an ‘experiencing-as-within-genre’.
With that in mind, I will permit a momentary relaxation of my aggressively reception-oriented viewpoint, to lend a little speculative autonomy to the musico-theatrical world ‘itself’ (i.e., the ‘text’, or even the ‘author’ who ‘created’ it). We can, after all, view all elements of ‘staging’—all visual and tactile correlatives to sonic phenomena—as live ‘interventions’ into the dramaturgical process. These live interventions function through their very liveness—being presented at the same time and in the same place as the sonic—but they are no different in nature from other interventions that precede or follow the experience of the sonic (ranging from publicity images, titles, synopses, programme notes and Q & As, to artist biographies, reviews, analyses and discussions with friends).
If we imagine that the artist or producer consciously intervenes in the ‘presentation-as-world’ in order to fill it with signs and codes to fix the modality in which music belongs to it—furnishing and framing their event with clear genre signifiers—it is not, of course, to prevent the work from slipping out of a genre altogether. Instead, it is to force the world to produce meaning and value most readily or most gratifyingly when interpreted according to a particular set of fictional conventions. It is to fix the genre, and thereby fix the genre’s cosmology, its ritual function, and its terms of success.
This can never be guaranteed, of course: one audience member’s ‘natural’ musical-worldview is another’s esoterica. Still other musical worlds will cohere differently and signify more richly when certain genre markers go unperceived, and the musically indiscernible takes the place of the musically essential. This might suggest that, from the perspective of the creator who wants the maximum number of people to ‘get something from’ their work, it would make sense to maximise the number of genres through which the artwork could be meaningfully and rewardingly interpreted. Nevertheless, the reason I stress the ritual structure of genre—and the differing ‘religious’ persuasions behind them—is that something else is at stake here than how ‘accessible’ an artwork or performance is (or, how easy it is to ‘get something’ from it).
For many musical genres, the efficacy of the ‘ritual work’—the transportation/transformation of the performers and audience—relies on the inhibiting of other sets of genre conventions from cohering. The impression must be of a united audience: a single, unified congregation. Or, to put it differently, an artwork’s capacity to unify an audience is taken as demonstrative of its value. Hence, ‘accessibility’ is rarely experienced as a positive trait from the perspective of the work itself (as opposed to the meta-perspective of ‘the arts’/culture in general). Hence, also, the contestation around the notion of ‘universality’: does this term mean that anyone can get something from an artwork, or does it mean that everyone can get the same thing? I would guess, usually the latter; ‘universality’ imagines an artwork that resists any genred interpretation besides a single sanctioned genre: an ‘essential’ or ‘natural’ genre. This doesn’t mean that the actual meaning (or ‘message’) discerned in such works is identical from listener to listener, just that those listeners who deem the work to be meaningful consider it meaningful in the same way.
Behind all this is my belief that the ‘spiritual’ dimension of musical performance—the cosmology (distribution of seen–unseen, earthly–divine, etc.) informing its ritual structure—isn’t a metaphor, but has an affective and psychological force no different from other spiritualities. The spirituality of the listener may be constructed in relation to ‘musico-theatrical’ phenomena, just like other cognitive faculties, but it remains semi-autonomous. It is this spiritual disposition that makes us defensive of ‘our’ genres, and leads us to organise value criteria based on the absolute efficacy of their ritual relations: true communion with the divine, a clear channel to the Other Side, a pure message from beyond, total possession by an unruly spirit, the intoning voice of the Devil Himself.
Mysticist genres (single-modality)
The first four genres I will describe are ‘single-modality’ genres, meaning that music exists for them in only one modality (either as the Sung, the Song, the Singing or the Singer). This, in turn, has more general implications for the ways in which meaning and value are extracted from these genres. Subsequently, all these genres share certain qualities, which have led me to characterise them as ‘mysticist genres’.
Firstly, the fact that music exists in only one modality suggests that it can be ‘purified’: i.e., that the function or affordance it represents, relative to visible ‘materiality’ and invisible/sonic ‘spirituality’, could exist in an ‘ideal’ form. This in turn suggests that this function or affordance is generalisable, rather than particular.
This quality of single-modality genres can best be explained by contrasting them with multi-modality genres. When more than one modality exists, music is constructed as the articulation between more than one set of phenomena (song and performer, signified and signifier, theory and praxis, etc). This binds the possible meaning and value of one modality to the particularities of the other. In contrast, a single-modality genre can imagine music’s existence—however this happens to be constructed within the unique musical world—to be both perfectible and generalisable (within the confines of that world). Thus, whatever the specifics of the ‘message received’ or ‘gift given’, it is the perfect functioning of the genre’s ritual process—the ‘connection’ or ‘transformation’ or ‘clairvoyance’ or ‘truthsaying’—that determines its value first and foremost.
The second characteristic of mysticist genres, which proceeds from the first, is that meaning is left relatively open. When music exists in two modalities (in multi-modality genres), these two modalities are often structured as complements: for instance, in a causal relationship, as a semiological pair, or through a kind of ‘mapping’ process, the imperfections of which can be as meaningful as the successes. One modality is ‘pinned’ to the other, and meaning occurs somewhere along the line that is supposed to connect them. In contrast, the concern with perfect ritual function in single-modality genres leaves signification to occur elsewhere. It is allowed to resonate freely in the spaces and gaps, congealing where it will, often accumulating in very different patterns from audience member to audience member, even where these audience members would all agree on the value of the performance.
At this stage, I must make a couple of final points about genre ‘puritanism’. The genre descriptions presented below may well appear exaggerated or caricatured when compared to real audience members’ real experiences of real performances. Likewise, all really existing religious practice admits countless heterodoxies or ‘impurities’, which augment, coexist with or undermine the cohesiveness of the religious tradition among its observers. These impurities lead eventually to productive schisms, revolutions, and the codification of new genre ‘denominations’. I will go on to discuss more ‘formal’ heterodoxies in the final section. Having said this, the role of such impurities can easily be overemphasised. Genre is an ideological construct, and the underlying ideologies of single-modality genres tend towards puritanism. The more puritan an ideology, the easier it is to entirely overlook such impurities, exclude them from the ‘proper’ construction of a coherent musical world, ignore them or otherwise treat them as wholly irrelevant. When such impurities are admitted as ‘belonging’ to this musical world, we must begin to ask whether we are actually talking about the same genre (this is usually indicated by angry debates over an art work’s value, in which both sides simply cannot comprehend each other’s position).
Finally, I must reassert that, while an audience can and will experience, appreciate and discuss any musical genre in relation to all four modalities, this is only after acknowledging the limited modality according to which music is constructed from the perspective of the musical world. We can praise an opera singer’s performance, but our appraisal must be grounded in an understanding of the opera as a fictional world in which the singer (as Singer) doesn’t exist. We can praise the braveness of a symphony written in secret under a tyrannical regime, but similarly, this must be grounded in an understanding of a symphony as something that isn’t aware of its ‘having been written’—indeed, that isn’t aware of its own existence ‘as music’ or ‘as Song’—but that instead comes into being spontaneously with each performance.
With all this said, I can embark on my survey of musical genres as musico-theatrical worlds as fictional conventions as ritual processes, beginning with four mysticist genres—orchestral, experimental, folk and improvised performance:
ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE (the Sung)
Of all musical genres, the theatre of live orchestral performance provides possibly the clearest example of mise en scène as ritual apparatus. It is, in fact, a sort of theatre of anti-theatre, a performance of anti-theatricality. Like many religious traditions, it employs asceticism as a means to access the visionary. It denies or effaces its most ‘theatrical’ dimensions in an attempt to become transparent, leaving a clear and unmediated ‘view’ through to a transcendental ‘elsewhere’. This ‘elsewhere’ is the realm of the Sung itself: music as pure content, pure message, pure meaning, pure occurrence, pure unfolding of time or history. In other words, it is the realm of spirit qua spirit.
By performing its own disappearance, the orchestral assemblage constructs a world in which music has an existence that is simultaneously ideal-essential and tangible. This may be understood in terms of the composer’s voice or intentions, the composer’s emotions or soul, some holy or angelic message, a pure ‘idea’ or ‘essential quality’ (sorrow, joy, love, life, nature, departure, Englishness), a physical or mathematical law or truth, a philosophical concept (presence, difference, repetition)—the important thing is that the orchestral world is one in which this ideal-essential thing remains purely itself, yet can be apprehended as such by the senses.
The key to this transcendental coup de théâtre can be found in two properties of orchestral sceneography: the music stands and the conductor. The stands function as part of a performance of standardisation by which every other musical modality apart from the Sung is controlled or constrained. Each player directs their attention towards their stand, their decisions clearly subordinated to the stand’s causative power. Not only do the musicians perform their lack of spontaneity, the very possibility of spontaneous action (the Singing) isn’t really in evidence within this musical world. All the stands are identical, and in attitude and dress, the performers are similarly undifferentiated. In this way, the being of music as Song (written score) or Singer (real performers’ bodies) isn’t hidden or denied, but is instead shown to be undifferentiable, unremarkable and therefore unmeaningful. The orchestral body is bound, its face masked, its name forgotten.
By denying the differentiation of any musical modality except the Sung (the immanent being/unfolding of (sonic) essence), the conventions of orchestral fiction allow an autonomous ‘spirit world’ to materialise within the sacred space of the concert hall. The ‘ideal’ acoustics of such venues collude in this, swirling together the spatially differentiated instrumental sections to be re-spatialised as a ‘balanced’ totality that is present both everywhere and nowhere in particular. Still, this ‘visionary asceticism’ is only one aspect of the theatre of orchestral performance. In order to further establish the autonomy of the Sung, and its essential qualities beyond the actions of the musicians, the ‘real’ relationship between the orchestral assemblage and the parallel spirit world is inverted. Instead of ‘playing’ the music, the orchestra is effectively ‘played by’ the music. The spectacle of the string players’ bows rising and falling in concert, choirs standing and sitting in one sudden movement, percussionists raising their cymbals and beaters in anticipation: the relation of the sonic world to these machine-like gestures is not one of a by-product, but one of an animating force.
This supposedly counterintuitive relationship is assured through the presence of the conductor, who is the sole performer capable of anything like spontaneity. While the musicians’ music stands partially obscure their movements from the audience, the conductor’s position front and centre partially obscures the conductor’s own stand, giving the impression of free action. The conductor is thus positioned in a primary position relative to both the unfolding of the sound world and the orchestral machine that it articulates. Crucially, the conductor clearly has no sound-making capacity, but ‘summons’ the spirit world through gesture alone. The conductor is thus the manifestation of music as gesture—of the unfolding of ‘musical’ drama as ‘pure expression’—whose trace we can hear in the sonically materialised spirit world. It is only after this summoning and hearing that we see the force of the spirit sounds on the orchestral apparatus in front of us. The conductor reminds us that, for this world, the essence of ‘music’ is first of all non-sonic: pure content/movement/message/affect indifferent to medium.
But does this then compromise the ‘essential’ presence of music’s ‘spirit’ in the sonic? Wouldn’t this locate the Sung more in the conductor’s gestures than in the resulting sounds? This tension is an integral part of the orchestral fiction. On the one hand, the conductor’s apparently spontaneous gestures help complete the orchestral ‘doctrine’. As the sole ‘free agent’ in the musical world, the conductor performs a Oneness of intention, constructing the spirit realm (and its message or meaning) as a unified One, or a plurality that can nevertheless be ‘counted as One’. As such, the conductor might take the place of the composer-god, or of some more distant unifying intention: the divine orchestrator of the music of the spheres. On the other hand, the conductor’s gestures and the gestures-in-sound are constructed as two different media through which a single ideal gesture is realised. Rather than the conductor’s gestures causing or producing the sonic gestures, then, we experience the sonic gestures as a more perfect or true understanding of the contents of those gestures (sound thus being constructed as ‘the medium which is not one’). In the orchestral world, the audience is able to perceive an earthly sign (the conductor’s movements) and immediately receive the (divine) meaning of that sign with perfect clarity (the sonic).
The precise role of the conductor within this assemblage will vary, depending on the interpretation of the audience member. Perhaps the conductor is themselves possessed or animated by some divine force or spirit (the soul of the composer, for instance). Perhaps the conductor’s gestures are the externalisation of an inner life—the bodily traces of mental and emotional processes. Perhaps the conductor is envisaging, creating, working out or realising something, and the gestures are its moment-to-moment communication. In each case, the conductor is a vessel for the unfolding of what is effectively an autonomous process, flow or Idea (the conductor themselves cannot resist its unfolding or pull away from it). The conductor’s gestures signify the precedence of this Idea vis à vis its sonic materialisation (not to mention the instrumentalists’ movements), while the conductor’s presence as individual subject signifies the unified nature of this Idea. For the faithful, the orchestral ritual is one in which a) this Idea can be apprehended by everyone personally, in its pure form, directly, without mediation, and b) this Idea can be seen to have real power and efficacy in the earthly realm, as it ‘plays’ the assembled musicians.
EXPERIMENTAL PERFORMANCE (the Singer)
Orchestral performance can be instructively contrasted with what I am calling ‘experimental’ performance at its most fundamentalist. By moving from music as pure Sung to music as pure Singer, we shift our focus between the two modalities of music that are ‘furthest apart’. Indeed, experimental performance is constructed as the negation of classical orchestral performance: as ‘anti-anti-theatre’. It is anti-expression, anti-idealism: a fictive anti-fiction.
A certain concept of ‘experimental music’ has been used as a rhetorical weapon in politico-aesthetic movements throughout the last sixty years. The fact that many of these were experienced historically as ‘genre-breaking’ might suggest a constant, restless self-questioning or self-critique. Nevertheless, this progressive narrative hasn’t precluded the codification of genre conventions by which an accepted repertoire can be retrospectively grouped as valuable in relation to a particular, unifying ritual function. Indeed, it is through the establishment of such new conventions, and the audiences’ belief in their capacity to produce meaning and value, that such ‘genre-breaking’ ruptures are effected. Looking back at the ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ repertoires of the last century, it is clear that certain orthodoxies have formed that tend towards puritan value systems, and suggest underlying ritual structures. The structure that I am calling ‘experimental performance’—which relates to aleatoric music, total serialism, ‘sonification’, certain text scores (Fluxus/Stockhausen), some process music, some ‘non-cochlear’ music, and various strands of performance art—is arguably the most radical of these orthodoxies.
The fiction of experimental performance admits only the ‘real’ body of the performer: their ‘real’ actions as they relate to the ‘real’ phenomena of the ‘real’ world. As such, music doesn’t exist for experimental performance; as I’ve mentioned, music is exceptional in the real world, and experimental performance deals exclusively with the real world in its ‘realness’. This also means that there is neither a score for this world, nor a composer, a set of intentions, desired effects or results. There is no message or Idea to be relayed, which precedes the performer’s actions, and which the performer’s actions are concerned with communicating. This world knows neither form nor content, but only ‘factness’: ‘things as they are’, the fiction of reality.
Experimental performance presents us with real people doing real things in real places, and constructs these actions as ‘behaviour’. They might be actions that are demanded by particular objects or tools, they might be gestures that are demanded by social structures or regulations, or they might be the processes that are manifestly required by the immediate circumstances or surroundings. In each case, the possibility of creativity (and thus meaningful expression) is totally subordinated to some kind of impersonal demand: a set of tasks, a series of arbitrary ritual gestures, or the obligation to maintain equilibrium through changing circumstances. Often, the mediation of the human body is entirely circumvented, and we are shown the direct operation of impersonal forces: biological, physical, geological, economic, and even ‘general laws’ of human behaviour, such as that of crowds.
In each case, if a score is present, it must have a transparent logic equating it to natural or social necessity. It cannot appear unreasonable or irrational, or representative of the will of an absent agent. It cannot represent a script whereby the resulting actions will communicate any kind of message beyond their ‘having been enacted’. Every action must appear necessary, and necessarily in the form that it appears, thus an ‘obvious fact’ of the ‘real world’.
Of course, the by-product of all these actions is sound. Sound, noise and silence—whatever may (dis)appear in the realm of the sonic—coexist with this pure reality, and the fiction of experimental performance constructs the sonic substrate of reality as its pure ‘being’ or ‘truth’. The unique sound of an action—or the unique operation of an action on sonic materiality—is experienced as a purification of that action, having been removed from the pragmatics of its appearing in the world. To experience these phenomena as music theatre, which is the active role of the faithful congregation, is to experience the sonic (or ‘music’) as the Singer itself—i.e., the ‘nature’ of the performer’s real body/behaviour/environment, etc.
In this way, experimental music is actually quite similar to orchestral music in terms of its cosmology. It binds the theatrical assemblage, blocking out all knowledge of the symbolic regime, in order to force a transcendental, spiritual plane to appear. This spirituality isn’t assumed to point ‘beyond’ the world (towards expression, or creation, or composition), but instead to distil a perfect knowledge of the world: the ‘essence’ of the world. In its own way, it is no less idealistic than the orchestral ritual. It could be compared to a humanist or atheist spirituality, which reifies the perfection of being at its most empirical, or alternatively to animist spirituality, which divines the ‘spirit’ animating all things. By denying the total autonomy of a divine sonic realm, experimental performance is even more radical and more militant in its affirmation of that realm.
It should be added that the fictional conventions governing experimental performance as music theatre also extend to encompass music with conventional scores and instruments, when this music is experienced as being governed by impersonal forces or laws. By emphasising the compositional techniques behind process music and total serialism, which can be done through ‘theatrical’ means (even if this just means programme notes), it is possible to experience performers as entirely in thrall to natural, scientific or mathematical logics, with the movements of their fingers up and down their instruments as merely constituting a by-product of the necessary operation of these logics, whose ‘pure nature’ can be apprehended in the sonic.
FOLK PERFORMANCE (the Song)
The genre designation ‘folk’, as it is employed across Western musical discourses, has become fascinatingly messy and diffuse. Those musical practices that are marked ‘folk’—or ‘folk rock’, ‘folk pop’, ‘anti-folk’, ‘psych-folk’, ‘folk punk’, ‘folktronica’, etc—can vary wildly; sometimes they seem to correspond with such categories as ‘acoustic’ and ‘singer-songwriter’, sometimes they denote sounds and practices that would never be associated with these labels. Perhaps this is the result of an elision between what we might call a ‘genre’ marker and a ‘style’ (or ‘subgenre’) marker. Nevertheless, it is my belief that the term ‘folk’—even when used as a stylistic descriptor—is always charged with a certain ‘ethics’: an aesth-ethical orientation towards a set of ‘folk’ genre conventions or ritual structure.
At its most puritan, we might associate this ‘folk’ aesth-ethics with ‘trad folk’: the performance of traditional folk songs in clubs, pubs and private settings, a cappella or with minimal/acoustic accompaniment. It also usually characterises the explicitly functional performance of sacred and secular ritual music, from chanted prayers and hymns, to national anthems and ‘Happy Birthday to you’, as well as musical games like Guitar Hero and other miscellaneous ‘everyday’ scenarios. As a hegemonic Western genre, folk performance has come to determine the Western reception of diverse musical phenomena from around the world. Aware of the unattainability of the ‘authentic’ ritual structures (or ways of listening) associated with the ‘original production’ of these phenomena, folk performance attempts to make up for this by positioning the music within a kind of tautological vacuum, or short circuit, that can stand in for authenticity as such. In this way, it wards against the sort of outright appropriation threatened by other genre conventions, through the reification of music as the Song. It thus constitutes a performance of ethnography qua ethnography.
Folk performance affirms the song text as text. Crucially, it is the performance of the song that constitutes this ‘textness’, often in opposition to other types of script or channel: notated or oral, recorded or reconstructed, lyrical fragment or esoteric sequence of movements. The performer performs their own transparency; in performing, they remain ‘inexpressive’ and ‘uncreative’. Similarly, the music is neither enacted nor embodied; in fact, the folk performer is unbodied, becoming an ‘everyman’, often a general type (representing a nation, region, class, profession, ethnicity or membership of a religious community). Neither Singer nor Singing exist within the fiction of folk performance; the performer ventriloquises the autonomous voice of the Song. The Song is itself an unadorned frame for the voice of ancestors: the Ur-voice of national, regional or ethnic identity. Even if there is expression or communication on some level—hope or pride or love or suffering—it certainly doesn’t occur on the level of the performer’s body, either ‘real’ or fictional.
Where it corresponds with classic definition of performative utterances—those speech acts that have real effects on the ‘real’ world—these aspects of folk performance may seem obvious. But even in less obvious cases, outside of overt ritual situations, the music in folk worlds operates through direct (re-)iteration, rather than via any metaphorical power. The performance of the Song refers to all the previous performances of the Song, to the extent that the previous performances only exist through the Song’s reiteration, and the Song in turn only exists as the sum of all these previous performances (which do not in fact constitute an aggregate, but only a single entity). Moreover, the Song performs itself (or, perhaps, it is performed by the ancestral/Ur-voice that is immanent to it). This is usually emphasised by the structure of ‘folk’ music: rather than proceeding as if developed or devised ‘in the moment’ by an expressive Singing subject (or unfolding the destiny of an expressive Sung subject), it proceeds via repetition and circularity, thematising its own ‘being sung through’, all the way to its inevitable completion.
The ritual structure that folk performance as fictional world betokens is fairly unambiguous, given the prevalence of these conventions in religious and secular ceremonies (from Judaism to ancestor worship, nationalism to revolutionary socialism). The invocation of the Song resurrects it as a unified entity across time and space: the continuity of a single tradition, movement, identity, promise or purpose, which cannot be localised but is itself wherever it is invoked. Naturally, this ritual function would be threatened by the particularity of Singing, Singer or Sung: modalities that reconstruct the Song as ‘something other’ than its simple reiteration in time and place.
IMPROVISED PERFORMANCE (the Singing)
In stark contrast to folk performance, jazz and free improvisation affirm musicking as pure action. Any pre-existence or autonomy of the sonic is suppressed. Sound only exists in relation to action and can be reduced to this relation. The Singing is signifyin’ without an isolatable signified. Thus, even if we conceive improvised musicking as ‘work’ (a term classically defined in relation to production), the sonic cannot be allowed to exist as product. The Singing may constitute a ‘working out’, ‘working through’, ‘working up’, ‘working on’ or ‘working over’, yet the being of an independent ‘something’—‘working on something’, ‘working something out’—is denied. The sonic is instead constructed as this very ‘out’, ‘through’, ‘up’, ‘on’ or ‘over’—sound not as object but as preposition. Similarly, musicking as such doesn’t exist for the improvised music world. ‘Playing music’ is always ‘doing something else’, even if that ‘doing’ can best be understood through some more general conception of ‘playing’. There is no music, just as there is no musicking.
Like the musical genres described above, there is a puritan faith at the heart of this performance fiction, which denies the possibility of the ‘expressed’ being removed or alienated from the moment of its ‘expression’. Hence the tension represented by recordings of jazz solos and improvisatory performances; to be experienced within this genre, such recordings must be re-heard as occurring spontaneously within the precise context of their original utterance (date, location, personnel). No plan, script or ideal model (the Song) is permitted that could point to some intended message (the Sung), preceding the process of expression, whether or not this message is perfectly or imperfectly delivered. If the music is conceived in terms of feeling, it is as verb rather than noun: there is no specific feeling to be conveyed, beyond the process of feeling that is the conveying.
At the same time, the ‘real’ body or identity of the performer (the Singer) is also not permitted an existence within the improvised performance world. The performer exists only as persona, and that persona is constructed through the force of their actions (as a ‘through-line of action’: being as doing, or ago, ergo sum). The sonic in improvised music therefore exists as the presence of pure action. As with the other mysticist genres, this presence is arcane and mercurial. As with the folk genre, it has no essential, idealist existence that exceeds its realisation in the moment: it is ephemeral. Unlike folk performance, however, this presence is immanent to the particular actions of the particular performers, localised in time and space. There is no ‘it’ to be ‘iterated’.
As ritual, then, improvised music constructs the performer-persona as an ecstatic body, located in a liminal space between heaven and earth. There is no spiritual realm that extends beyond the material one, into which the performing body is cast. There are no divine or demonic voices to be channelled. Neither is there an immortal spirit that might enter the body from outside. Such a spirit could only exist in the process of its conjuration, within this liminal space. This spirit would be danced up into presence, but present only as dance. As such, improvised music constitutes a distinctly earthly form of magic: a cult of virtuosity in which extraordinary powers, capabilities and effects demand extraordinary actions.
Exegetical genres (multi-modality)
Unlike the single-modality, ‘mysticist’ genres described above, the remaining genres to be discussed are all ‘multi-modality’ genres. This means that the fictional conventions of the genre world permit music to exist in two modalities (and occasionally more). Crucially, these modalities are linked; for the genre to function, they must both be acknowledged, and they must be acknowledged as interdependent. The efficacy of the ritual function in multi-modality genres cannot therefore be judged on the perfectibility of a single parameter, but must instead be judged on the basis of this interdependence. As a result, all multi-modality genres have an in-built concept of meaning: of the sign as semiological pair. Their value system, ritual structure or ‘aesth-ethics’ is built upon this notion of meaning, which ties the modalities together. For this reason, I will refer to them as ‘exegetical genres’.
What does it mean for exegesis (the interpretation or explication of religious tracts) to be ritualised? Would exegesis-as-ritual—a sacred act of sense-making—not require its own exegesis, to make sense of such an act? For me, this captures a fundamental operation of music theatre. By forcing a second musical modality to appear within a mysticist genre (the Singer’s body appears in the space of the transcendent Sung; the Song is reified as the autonomous product of the Singing), meaning is foreclosed and ambiguity removed. Something is territorialised: a cause for an effect, a face for a name, a this for a that, etc. We are presented with a redundancy; from the standpoint of the fictional world, there aren’t two musical modalities but rather a single, articulated ‘music’. What I describe as two linked modalities are, for this world, identical. There can be no deconstruction within the fiction.
Thus, while ‘concrete’ meanings exist within the fictional world, these don’t necessarily correspond with the meanings that are extracted by the genres’ initiate audience members. Indeed, often the fictional meanings of the music are inaccessible from the outside. The audience is instead able to reflect on the world’s particular systems of meaning, as well as the meaningfulness of musical meaning within this world. Within this system, genred musico-theatrical worlds are able to present meta-commentaries on the meaning of music as such. They can teach us how to extract meaning and value from music. However, since music takes a fictional role in music theatre, often representing other systems, practices and phenomena, these exegetical genres can also teach us how to extract meaning and value from worlds in general. Thus, the key ritual function of multi-modality genres tends to be pedagogical: instructing and cultivating a unified audience-congregation who can all interpret the world in the same way.
Whether this school of interpretation, this system of meaning extraction, corresponds with the one presented in the fictional world depends on the genre, the performance and the audience member. Audience members might identify with a particular redundant pair (the Sung is the Singing, the Bible is the Word of God, science is truth, etc) or they might reject the proposed redundancy, considering it merely an arbitrary juxtaposition. In this way, musical worlds can also cultivate critique and meaning through negation: ‘the meaning of meaninglessness’. Thus, the value of exegetical genres doesn’t necessarily correspond with ‘perfect meaning’ or the presentation of a ‘perfect’ semiological pair (i.e., a sign whose presented structure maintains a certain veracity when translated into the ‘real’ world). Unlike with the mysticist genres, value cannot easily be separated from meaning when it comes to the reception of exegetical genres, just as the perfectibility of a ritual function cannot be separated from the particular ‘content’ of a genre’s ‘teachings’, as they relate to the audience member’s own experiences, ethics and desires.
POP PERFORMANCE (the Sung + the Singer)
The theatre of pop performance is one that extends across the broadest gap between musical modalities, spanning the Sung and the Singer. Within its fictional conventions, ‘music’ ties the ‘expressed’ content of the Sung-drama to the ‘real’ body of the musician onstage. We might characterise live pop performance, in terms that focus on the vocalist, as placing the ‘implied speech act’ (i.e., the virtual life of a sonic vocal-subject, as inhabitant of a dematerialised songworld) back into the ‘real’ mouth of the singer.
The resulting effect is one of calculated disjunction. There is a gulf left between these two modalities—a gulf that is produced through the erasure of the Song and the suppression of the Singing. The audience is shown no scripts or texts; there are no visible lyric sheets or notated scores onstage. Everyone in the band performs as if spontaneously, without conductor or director. From the perspective of the pop world, songs don’t pre-exist their realisation, but arise instead from the necessity of the context. In other words, the songs aren’t being re-performed. At the same time, the Singing is standardised and thus de-emphasised. The musicians are musicians: they are ‘really’ in the space, in front of the audience, contained and delimited by the pop stage as electrified sounding assemblage. They are musicians, yet they what they’re doing is not playing songs. Rather, their presence onstage—their electrification, objectification, possible intoxication—affords an occasion for the Sung to find them, to enter them and to speak through them.
In order to exorcise, puncture or undermine both the Singing and the Song, pop performers must maintain a delicate balance between the ecstatic and the mundane. They cannot be seen to ‘merely’ be playing music, otherwise the music risks appearing as Song within the fictional world. Therefore, the pop performers’ stage presence is over-the-top, unnatural, extraordinary, inscrutable or uncannily immaculate. The stage is a liminal space, a nowhere space, constructed in terms of arbitrary dimensions: left or right, light or dark, red or blue, upstage or downstage, etc. The stage affords the possibility of presence as such: to be present onstage is to be present, full stop. And yet, simultaneously, the performers cannot be seen to be doing anything besides playing music. There cannot be any motivations, aims or intentions to which the musicking is subordinated (Singing), nor can purposeful actions take place parallel to musicking, which might frame musicking as only one subcategory within the total repertoire of possible actions in this fictional world.
This delicate balance constructs and maintains the pop stage assemblage (and musicking itself) as a sacred organ, alive to potentiality. The ‘music’ exists along two parallel channels with minimal redundancy, and the pleasure of pop performance stems largely from the richness of resulting possibilities: the diverse resonances and subtle overtones discerned along the string—whether slack or taut—that extends between these two pinned ends.
Crucial to the ritual structure of pop is the iconicity of the Singer. It is true that the musician’s body presents itself according to the ‘sacred’ economy of the stage: presentation as re-presentation, in which every aspect and attribute, every accessory and affectation, becomes a sign signifying itself and more (this surplus denoting the errancy of meaning that results from the presentation of presence). This imposes totemic proportions on dimensions like gender, race and class, far exceeding those of the performer’s individual body. Characteristics such as beauty and ugliness, counter-cultural attitudes and taboo identities, give a ‘general’ dimension to the Singer’s presence, through harnessing collective responses, whether that means mass sexual arousal, regional pride, or anti-establishment sentiment. Nevertheless, these ‘generalities’ are accompanied by absolute singularity, in the form of the artist, band or Singer as name. Hence, the performer’s body is never just an Every-body (or a Black-body, a Lesbian-body, a Nerd-body), it is always also a singular, named body (or embodied name). This is the quality of iconicity.
To be clear, all pop performers are icons. The iconic body is a precondition of the pop genre’s ritual function. While iconicity may be easier to discern and talk about in cases like Grace Jones or David Bowie than in cases like Matt Berninger of The National or Jake Bugg, this relates merely to the visibility of certain dimensions—like blackness and queerness—and their perceived value in relation to hegemonic Western culture. The pop stage produces the Singer as iconic body: simultaneously a) ‘themselves’, b) ‘more-than-themselves’, and c) the name through which these two are constructed as identical. In terms of ritual, it is possible to compare the pop performer to gods, saints, fetishes or other religious icons that ground their symbolic excess in material singularity. And yet, in most pop, the iconic body is used as a way to represent the human subject, as it experiences itself. This image of a threefold self—composed of physical body, socio-cultural dimensions and named singularity, each abstracted and exaggerated—constructs the Singer as icon of personhood.
The Song Act
The flipside of pop performance concerns the Sung. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the recorded pop song; suffice it to say here that the being of the vocal-subject (the voice on the track) can be understood in terms of a ‘song act’ whose efficacy relates to the instrumental ‘songworld’ that constitutes its context (the sonic ‘space-time’ in which it exists). The realisation of the Sung as part of pop performance, then, refers to this song act, and the motivations, aims and desires that drive it, as well as its efficacy. Pop performance also refers to the instrumental songworld that contains, provokes and enables this song act, and the ways in which the song act affects and transforms the songworld.
The particular quality of the ‘refers’ in the previous sentence is left open. Pop performance presents its audience with two parallel worlds and two parallel sets of subjects or agents (vocal-subject and instrumental forces in the sonic songworld; vocalist/s and instrumentalist/s onstage). Both are distilled and abstracted into the form of the human subject (as universal-singularity) and its being-in-the-world. Pop performance invites us to consider some kind of relationship between these worlds and these subjects, whether this is identity, synchronicity, homology, or ironic disjuncture. In a sense, the songworld is projected onto the blank, formalised pop stage, just as the vocal-subject is projected onto the iconic body of the singer. The Singer cannot act, because the only action permitted is the song act of the vocal-subject. Similarly, the instrumentalists-as-Singers embody the (Sung) instrumental circumstances as a set of dynamic forces or shifting conditions (social, physical or psychic), reconstructing the Sung drama as co-produced by vocal-subject and songworld.
All of this comes together with varying consequences, depending on the relative power and efficacy of the various presented elements. Some pop performances construct their iconic bodies as mythic subjects capable of extraordinary deeds, producing heroic demonstrations of high-power song acts executed impeccably with minimal effort. Other pop performances construct their iconic bodies as ‘normal’ subjects, often a mirror image of their ‘normal’ listeners, thus positioning their high-power song acts as supreme expressive or emotional interventions into the mundane fabric of the everyday. Pop performers might also fail to realise their intended song act in the face of powerful musical forces, producing empathetic responses ranging from pity, critical anger or the jouissance that accompanies the destruction of the subject. They could even fail to fail: if the Sung suggests a song act that fails in its desired effect on the songworld, this failure could be ironically reversed in its embodiment onstage, suggesting alternative forms of resistance and agency. This form of reversal is a particular affordance of the classic pop attitude of ‘cool detachment’.
Sometimes, a particular relationship between Sung and Singer will structure a particular pop style or aesthetic, dictating a clear value system relating to the success or failure of the song act and its embodiment. Sometimes, a style or aesthetic will evaluate performances on the basis of other criteria (often political or ethical), which don’t always correspond to the success of the song act. In all these cases though, pop performance posits a relationship between the spiritual and the material realms. It is a ritual structure that mediates between heaven and earth, body and soul. It produces its initiate congregation through practical demonstrations of this relationship, enacted through spectacles ranging from the miraculous to the bathetic, in each case focusing on the generic human as singular subject (and thus invoking the particular role of Jesus and the Saints in Christian ethics).
Through apotheosis (the successful enacting of godlike song acts), pop performance can construct the human as capable of truth, perfect love, absolute sexual potency and self-knowledge. Through self-flagellation, public humiliation and loss of control (the failure of the song act beneath the weight of powerful instrumental forces), pop performance can expose the limits of human capacity when faced with the sublime, reaffirming truth, love and the erotic as beyond human understanding.
OPERA (the Sung + the Singing)
While the two musical modalities in pop performance pull in opposite directions, the two modalities in opera—the Sung and the Singing—cling tightly together. In the operatic performance, every sung phrase is shown to be the utterance of a particular subject in a particular context, just as every emotional state, secret intention or sudden revelation is rendered palpable in sonic space. In a sense then, opera aspires to total redundancy. It is an exegetical operation that ‘fixes’ one modality onto another, thereby closing down all the semantic errancy of the sonic into a narrow band of possible meanings.
In my previous essay, I described music as a dramaturgical process enacted by the listener. Sound becomes music through the distribution of various roles, identities, groupings and hierarchies, determining the meaning of subsequent transformations. Opera is the imposition of a particular dramaturgical interpretation onto the otherwise ambiguous sonic plane. It assigns names and labels: ‘This timbre is the voice of the old father’, ‘This rhythm is the excitement of young love’, ‘This key change is the disappointment of the fiancée, awaiting the Captain’s return’. It imposes scales and units onto vectors of transformation, zones of consistency and boundaries of difference.
Opera presents music as a regime of representation. At the same time, this regime in fact exists entirely on the sonic stage: that same ‘spirit realm’ that hangs over the orchestral assemblage. It is true that, on one level, the fictional conventions of opera permit music to exist as a doing onstage (the Singing): the ‘acting’ of the singers, for instance, as well as the appearance and transformation of scenery, props, lighting and other effects. Within opera’s fictional world, the singer doesn’t know she is singing, but music instead exists as ‘speech’ or ‘thought’, ‘emotion’ or ‘the trace of physical action’. In the same way, the orchestral music exists as ‘place and time’, or ‘existential dread’, ‘a festive atmosphere’ or ‘the machinations of fate’. But this doesn’t fully capture how opera operates. While both the Singing and the Sung exist within opera’s conventions, the two modalities are functionally indistinguishable. The Sung is the Singing, just as the Singing is the Sung. The operatic world is a world of perfect semantic equivalences: every sound has a meaning (indeed, every sound is assumed to have a correct meaning, even if ultimately this meaning is inaccessible) and the sonic realm constitutes the aggregate of all these signs. The operatic world is a world in which everything is what it is.
As such, the operatic world is a world that consists entirely in the realm of the sonic, away from the messiness of the stage with its ‘real’ bodies. Opera staging functions like a map, projected back onto the sonic stage as it unfolds. Sounds travel through the stage apparatus to acquire a fixed identity, and then return with this identity, back to the sonic realm. The theatrical trappings are used and then discarded. Bodies, costumes, props, scenery, gestures and narratives function as signposts; operatic acting refers to acting, just as operatic bodies refer to bodies, but their being shares no identity with the being of music as it constitutes the opera world. Thus, acting can be highly stylised, singers can play characters against physical type, and countless libretti can be woven from the same few clichés, gesturing at poetry rather than fully engaging in it.
The function of opera is to tell the listener what they are hearing. ‘A pitiful mental breakdown’, ‘the most handsome man in the kingdom’, ‘the sweetest love letter ever sent’: all these things exist on the sound stage (in the music) and not on the physical stage. As a result, I would compare it to theatre-as-literature—an art form of telling in the guise of showing. Much literary theatre effectively just ‘illustrates’ its stage directions, perhaps in addition to a few notes from director or dramaturge. The ‘reality’ of the performance occurs in the realm of spoken language, as in a poetry reading or storytelling. Opera is similarly a ‘directed, annotated, illuminated reading’ of a set of sonic phenomena; as such, the operatic stage assemblage can be located on the same spectrum the programme note, the synopsis and the printed libretto.
The consequences of this can be seen in the often-violent reactions that opera fans (initiates of opera’s ritual structure) have to so-called Regietheater productions of the classics (which thus function as the exceptions that prove the rule). We might define this trend as any production in which the sceneography challenges its status as redundant, by confounding an absolute equivalence with the sonic. Opera fans will often complain that the ‘arrogant’ director is imposing themselves on the opera world; this is understandable, in that the inclusion of any object, gesture or presence onstage, which isn’t included on the sound stage, will necessarily feel like an unnecessary, excessive foreign body. Such a presence can’t be worked into the opera world, because the opera world is not a visible-tactile one but a sonic one. Remaining outside of the fiction, this abjection can only be accounted for in terms of the excessive Real, like police transmissions interfering with a radio broadcast, or someone accidentally walking through the beam of a film projector. The blame is placed squarely on the human failings of the human director, whose choices, preoccupations and politics exist in quite a different dimension from the divine symbolic completeness of the canonical opera.
MUSICALS (the Sung + the Singing)
At their most basic, musicals fulfil an equivalent operation to opera, but for the pop song. The musical number closes the gap between Sung and Singing by erasing the Singer (replacing the artist/performer with a character); in this way, the ambiguity inherent in the pop song is replaced by certitude, on the basis of a dramaturgical decision. The motivation, context and addressee of a song act are fixed, stabilising such an act within a coherent, verisimilar universe in which song acts, while still reserved for special occasions and functions, are no longer exceptional.
As with opera, the process for this ‘reworlding’ of the song act is the reverse to how it is usually imagined in popular discourse. Music isn’t merely added to such worlds as a kind of magical, grinning, cheesy surplus—people ‘bursting into song’, ‘singing instead of speaking’ or ‘singing their feelings’. This would suggest a musicalisation of the speech act, or alternatively, the introduction of a new register of speech act that can only be uttered via music. In my opinion, musical worlds should instead be envisaged the other way around, as the ‘composing out’ of the song act into a world that can logically sustain it. The song act precedes the world in which it functions. The musical equivalent of a ‘scientific enquiry’ would approach a new song act as a puzzling yet empirically verifiable phenomenon, requiring a new model of the physical universe (or ‘paradigm shift’) to logically accommodate it.
Just as the emotional, symbological and narratological possibilities of operatic matter are dictated by the musical ideologies of the age, so the qualities of a musical world are informed by the pop material that must function ‘naturally’ within it. The ‘orthodox’ musical imagines the world necessary for song act to be turned back into speech act. Consequently, the nature of such musical worlds has evolved along with the development of pop music. The popular song of the first half of the twentieth century (music hall, parlour song, ballad, jazz standard) equipped the emergent musical comedy genre—both onstage and onscreen—with a relatively pliable vernacular around which a consistent set of fictional conventions could take shape, as they had previously done in operetta, ballad opera, melodrama and other earlier styles of popular music theatre.
Musicals ‘compose out’ certain stylistic traits particular to a song style, from the micro-motivic level (hook, repetition, rhythmic cadence) to the rhetorical affordances of structural elements (refrain, bridge, final key change) and the interpersonal connotations of textural elements (call and response, canons, a duet in parallel sixths). The development of rock and pop music from the ’50s onwards, following the elliptical trajectories traced by runaway subcultures and rapid mainstream recuperation, presented challenges to these conventions. New structures, vocal styles and lyrical conventions required new situations to ‘naturalise’ them as potential speech acts, and new character types to flesh out their vocal-subjects as psychologically complete agents within verisimilar worlds.
The resulting ideological interplay between music-in-the-world and imagined musical worlds, as rendered visible through the history of the popular musical, can be extremely instructive. The production of a coherent musical world built on pop songs requires a near-obsessive identification with the vocal-subject, almost pathological in its literalness. Yet ‘literalness’ is itself a fluid concept when it comes to music; the ‘literal’ register of the song act is just as contingent as any notion of ‘literalness’, revealing instead the assumptions of the interpretive community behind it. As such, identifying literally with the vocal-subject of a pop song or style (or, in the case of jukebox musicals, an entire pop oeuvre) means conjuring up a kind of unconscious pop Zeitgeist: the spirit life of an entire subcultural movement in the shared, ideal imaginary of its participants.
The result will always be somewhat reductive. Indeed, many musicals function as ambivalent caricatures of the musical cultures and styles they’re drawing on, slipping from overly earnest identification with the imagined emotional content of the music at its most unequivocal (often approaching an idea of universal emotional intensity that can be reached in spite of the particularities of musical style), to parodies and spoofs that undermine the music’s sincere claims to meaning, value and functionality among its listeners.
In a way, this destructive aspect is to be expected, since any foreclosure of potentially multiple meanings leaves only two possibilities for the song act in such genred fictions: either it is more meaningful than the pop song act (in that it consists of a single perfect meaning and the perfect communication of that meaning), or it is essentially devoid of meaning (it is an arbitrary placeholder for language or gesture). As such, musicals will often produce a two-faced image of the pop material from which they are composed: on the one hand, they distill the purported integrity, sincerity and honesty of the vocal-subject by treating the song act as powerful, true and important; on the other hand, they tend to present any song act representing anything less than perfect truth, power and importance as fundamentally artificial.
On the one hand, by reproducing this image of an ‘obvious’ relationship between the song act and the world—and thus, an image of an ideology, via the reconstruction of that ideology’s idiosyncratic utopia—the musical is perfectly suited to satire and can retain an obvious critical function. Simultaneously, the result of this ‘destruction’ of musical meaning is to produce a space of excessive artificiality to invest with camp meaning and value, and to repurpose this field of musical phenomena for camp enjoyment.
GIG THEATRE (the Song + the Singing)
Having said all this, ‘really existing musicals’ constitute a wayward, inconsistent genre. More often than not, a single evening’s performance will shift between fictional modes, alternating between the ‘musicals’ conventions described above and the conventions of what I’m calling ‘gig theatre’.
As a genre label, ‘gig theatre’ is relatively new and has been used to characterise a particular strand of new music theatre which takes the familiar mise en scène of live pop performance as the basis for its sceneography, its dramaturgy and often its narrative. Such fictional worlds use the modality of the Singing to present a particular image of the Singer. The ‘real’ body and identity of the performer don’t exist in this world, but the Singing character instead exists as a representation of just such a performer (i.e., the ‘musician’), within the limited symbolic world of the fiction. As a result, the Song is also forced to exist as the musical object, practice or text that constructs the musician as musician. In this way, the Song eclipses the Sung, which no longer exists in the musical world. When the musician in the narrative ‘plays a song’, it is because she’s a musician, not because she has ‘something to say’ or ‘something to do’. Any residual meaning, value or efficacy of the song act consists in its ‘being played/sung’ (its objectification through performance), rather than some message, feeling or intention that exists ‘beyond it’.
The fictional conventions of ‘gig theatre’ extend far beyond the relatively new style of theatre that the label describes. They encompass staged concerts and recitals, certain backstage, jukebox and biographical musicals, TV dramas about musicians, and music-centred performance/video art. More importantly, these conventions encroach into both pop performance—where the performers are playing musician personas (Ziggy Stardust, The Monkees, Flight of the Conchords, Glee live)—and opera/musicals, where the characters are performing music as part of the story (so-called ‘diegetic music’). Clearly, this includes a sizeable proportion of musicals, with many musical numbers existing ambiguously on the cusp between musical/gig theatre conventions, depending on staging decisions.
Gig theatre proposes a hermeneutics or mythology of pop performance, by foreclosing on meaning in two directions: the performer is reduced to the ‘musician’ and sung expression is reduced to the ‘song’. However, both these categories take on a magic quality within gig theatre worlds. For the fictional musician, ‘Singing the Song’ becomes an act that is immediately necessary and directly effective within the context of the fictional world. The gig theatre world is a world in which music itself can do things: in which to act rationally can also mean acting musically. The musician in this world is a miracle-worker, witch doctor or magical hero, and the efficacy of this magic is demonstrated within the logic of the world. We are shown the power of rock ’n’ roll, of punk, of dancing, of singing, of a beat or a rhythm or melody, of a violin sonata or a trumpet improvisation. We are shown worlds in which such musical acts are power: a kind of abstraction of action, force or potency. Gig theatre is the ritual presentation of ritual itself at its most efficacious: a revivalist spectacle of ideal ritual practice. In this way, gig theatre teaches us how to listen effectively or properly; like the other ‘exegetical’ genres, it proposes aesth-ethical guidelines that illuminate the path to a musical life.
The fictional conventions of opera establish a like-for-like equivalence between the world and epic myth, while those of the musical establish an equivalence between the world and a caricature of the world, derived from a misrecognition of the pop song as song act. Still, opera and musicals join gig theatre in their ability to feed back into parallel genres—orchestral and vocal music, pop and jazz music—to impose their hermeneutics onto the reception of music in these spheres. Through their performed exegeses, they draw a straight line towards understanding and thus efficacious enjoyment or catharsis. Hence, while potentially dogmatic, such exegetical genres can have an initiatory function with respect to the ‘mysticist’ genres, proposing musical dramaturgies onstage which might later be appropriated and re-deployed in the listener’s head.
AVANT-GARDE PERFORMANCE (the Song + the Singer)
The final possible combination of modalities among these two-modality genres can be recognised in what I’m calling ‘avant-garde performance’ (as distinct from ‘experimental performance’, described above). In this category, I would include a fair amount of twentieth-century avant-garde and contemporary experimental music (in particular, those that involve graphic scores), as well as certain types of ‘instrumental theatre’, scripted happenings, ‘concept music’, and what has been called ‘the New Discipline’.
The conventions of avant-garde performance reintroduce the score—and, by proxy, the composer—into the ‘fictive anti-fiction’ of experimental performance. The Song thus ‘appears’ onstage in the guise of the score as text or script, or in the (absent) author-character of the composer, and subsequently forced into a relationship with the Singer’s real performing body. This relationship is usually cemented by virtue of the score being clearly challenging or actually unplayable—either technically impossible, incoherent, semantically chaotic, or rendered in some alternative form of notation requiring a performative ‘translation’.
Simultaneously, the score itself—and the will, desires or intentions that it represents—is cast in the same light of ‘cold reality’ that illuminates the experimental stage. Thus, the supposed ‘Sung’ of the score (its expressed content) is replaced by the score as object (as medium, or as a set of reified social relations). While the supposed intentions, message or vision of the composer is thus de-emphasised to the point of near arbitrariness, this objectification of the score also causes any potential ‘Singing’ on the part of the musician to be fully displaced by these arbitrary intentions.
The final result is a performance of ‘following the score’, ‘playing the notes’, or ‘respecting the composer’s intentions’. In rendering the objective of performative action as a discernible presence within the musical world, the actions of the Singer shift from necessary/natural (as in experimental performance) to arbitrary. By presenting an image of a desired endpoint (a perfect model of success) that doesn’t exist ideally within the sonic realm, the audience experiences the performative action as attempt: one of any possible number of such attempts that indicate towards an ideal result without ever perfectly attaining it. The ‘Sung’ is rendered as a negative image—the ‘real’ sonic content of the score is unplayable, unhearable and thus unknowable—but the surplus product of avant-garde performance, traced in sound, is a dynamic or tension between Song and Singer, experienced in terms of failure, coercion, discipline, power, resistance, mastery, competition, inspiration, etc.
As an exegetical ritual, avant-garde performance could serve a scepticist or materialist function, questioning the possibility of absolute knowledge or truth, either of the divine nature and intentions of a composer-god (as in orchestral performance) or of the essential nature of the world (as in experimental performance). Such rituals could also affirm the sublime inaccessibility of the divine. The failure of performers to perfectly grasp the essence of a notionally ‘ideal’ message or vision could point towards a spirituality of humility and obedience, or it could render visible the power relations structuring authoritarian religious doctrine. At the same time, the spectacle of virtuosity involved in such attempts could function as a moral lesson: the virtue of striving towards perfection in spite of our all-too-human defects. If the emergent trend in avant-garde performance constitutes a ‘New Discipline’, then the performers are the new disciples.
Having given examples of genres employing all eight possible single- and double-modality combinations, we can now add these genre designations to the charts:
|Fictive fiction||Fictive non-fiction|
|The Sung (non-diegetic)||The Song (diegetic)|
|The Singing (representational)||OPERA & MUSICALS
(the Sung + the Singing)
(the Song + the Singing)
|The Singer (presentational)||POP
(the Sung + the Singer)
(the Song + the Singer)
My argument has come a long way from the criticisms of Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s book The New Music Theater that I made two essays ago. However, with the theory of musical genre that I have developed here, and the scheme outlined in the charts above, I think it is possible to return to the archive of twentieth-century performances that they present in their book under the nebulous labels of ‘alternate opera’ and ‘new music theatre’, and re-attempt something like a definition.
Returning to Salzman and Desi (‘Presentational Opera’)
Salzman and Desi exhibit their panoramic survey of ‘the new music theater’ across eleven central chapters. The first five chapters focus on national musical avant gardes (protagonists include John Cage, Schoenberg/Darmstadt, Luigi Nono, Avignon/Aperghis, and Maxwell Davies/Birtwistle). There are then two chapters on the Downtown scene (one on performance art and experimental theatre, another on minimalism); a chapter on the musicals of Kurt Weill and on Robert Wilson/Tom Waits’s The Black Rider; and three looser chapters on ‘in-between’ genres, extended vocal techniques, and new technology/media.
As I argued before, this portrait of a genre seems to have been assembled as the negation or ‘outside’ of a dominant, ‘central’ region of fictional consistency, which is that of traditional opera and mainstream musicals (the Sung + the Singing, or, ‘representational, non-diegetic’ music theatre). Despite The New Music Theater’s lack of a thorough account of developments in modern theatre, the most sure-fire guarantee of inclusion in its narrative would appear to be a ‘presentational’ rather than ‘representational’ approach to dramaturgy (the inclusion of the Singer, in place of the Singing). This would account for the centrality of the experimental and avant-garde performance genres (according to my typology, above) in the authors’ archive; even where they appear on the concert stage rather than the theatrical stage, the experimental works of Cage, Stockhausen and Reich, and the avant-garde works of Kagel, Ligeti and Aperghis, are positioned at the core of this genre. While it isn’t really acknowledged as a conscious decision in their book, I think it is significant to my argument that Salzman and Desi seem to consider even ‘unstaged’ live music by these artists as worthy of discussion in relation to ‘music theatre’.
Where music takes a central role in ‘presentational’ approaches to theatre—from Brecht, through to Robert Wilson and Heiner Goebbels, via dance theatre and performance art—it is also deemed worthy of inclusion. The music in many of these pieces, and the way it is performed, is very different from the avant-garde work presented alongside it. How then does a piece like The Threepenny Opera or The Black Rider fit into my music theatre schema? The answer, of course, is that the representational fiction of opera/musicals is problematised by the staging: the Singer or the Song is forced to appear within the fictional world. At this point, for the fictional world to remain coherent and meaningful, new conventions must be imposed by the audience member: perhaps those of pop or folk or avant-garde performance. Theorised and deployed most famously by Bertolt Brecht, this has always been a common function of music within theatrical worlds; the sudden irruption of music within an otherwise internally coherent fiction forces a decision from the audience member regarding its being (if it isn’t merely experienced as a gratuitous imposition). This decision can totally undermine the conventions of the theatrical world, forcing a transformation between so-called ‘representational’ and ‘presentational’ modes.
Both these categories of ‘new music theatre’—live experimental/avant-garde music and ‘presentational’ opera/musicals—fit comfortably within broader narratives of twentieth-century art. They deconstruct their own constitutive fictions by representing properties and modalities that conventionally remain hidden or transparent, and thus perform a critique of the genre or medium. In turn, this criticality is often considered generalisable; avant-garde art is supposed to teach its audiences to see the world anew, and to perform their own deconstructions on the ‘real’ world in which we must live much of our lives.
It seems to me that this particular understanding of an ideal function of progressive art was central to the portrait of the ‘new music theatre’ that Salzman and Desi present. The array of performances they assemble could otherwise be described as, on the one hand, ‘modernist’ musical performance (live music that is self-critical enough to recognise and deconstruct its governing ‘theatrical’ conventions), and on the other hand, theatre that employs live music as a ‘modernist’ tool. This emphasis on modernist aesthetic strategies is reflected in the authors’ explicit privileging of the director-auteur as the genre’s creative protagonist, replacing the composer, librettist or playwright.
It is no wonder then that a composer-centred history of ‘Western art music’ should serve as the appropriate backbone to this study, even while so much of the work discussed in the latter half of the book draws on pop, rock and jazz traditions. Music can serve many functions, of which plenty could be considered ‘progressive’. Indeed, the comparative study of ritual functions given above describes only a fraction of these possible functions, specifically as they relate to a pedagogy of hermeneutics: creating communities and identities around shared beliefs concerning the value of meaning, the nature of the divine, the good life or the virtuous act, the perfectibility of humanity, etc. There are other strategies available; for instance, by reorienting the fictional ‘stage’ onto the audience, a subcultural milieu, a particular identity group, or society in general, new musical worlds can be constructed which conflate the listener themselves with Sung, Song, Singing or Singer, thus recalibrating the terms of meaning and value (and the aims/goals of ‘successful musicking’) in relation to musical being and doing.
To finish this essay, I want to paint my own image of a ‘new music theatre’, which maintains the core dynamic underpinning Salzman and Desi’s account (a ‘modernist’ relation to genre), while discarding the ‘critical’ imperative that is, by implication, associated with this dynamic (all too evident in the authors’ harping about ‘auteurs’ and their ‘intentions’). As a result, the terrain I map out is far wider than theirs, and can hardly be called ‘new’; nevertheless, it does create a more comfortable space for many of the new works that should fit the designation of ‘new music theatre’, but don’t sit neatly within Salzman and Desi’s historical narrative. What’s more, by focusing on my laboriously defined genre framework—rather than dabbling in arbitrary value categories like ‘originality’ or ‘innovation’—alternative notions of value should be allowed to emerge, based on alternative ritual functions and their associated notions of success, which are able to coalesce with the formation of new musical worlds.
Heterodoxies and heresies: the New Music Theatre
At the risk of repeating myself once too many times, I want to stress that the genre worlds described above represent ideal situations, in which music has a particular, fixed essence, role or meaning. In turn, this contributes towards a broader understanding of logic and value, according to which the presented theatrical world can be interpreted and judged. When elements are introduced into the set of presented elements that threaten to undermine or confound this essence, role or meaning of music, the audience member can react in one of three ways. Firstly, they can choose to ignore these elements, excluding them totally from the ‘presentation’ that is being ‘interpreted-as-world’, through a process of ‘selective attention’. Secondly, they can read them as signs of failure within the conventions of the genre, judging them as markers of a lazy, ineffectual or ‘bad-quality’ performance. Thirdly, the audience member can integrate the new elements into the fiction of the theatrical world, in order to maintain its logic and legibility at the expense of the previous genre conventions.
The result of this is not to propel the reconstituted world beyond the boundaries of genre or fiction. Once again, where there is value, there is always genre. Where there is sense, there is always fiction. Instead, the new elements can impose new genre conventions on the fictional world, which reframe all the other elements previously presented within it, transforming their meaning and value. These new conventions may remain in force to the conclusion of the presentation and beyond, ultimately determining the value of that particular musical world for that particular audience member. On the other hand, these new conventions may prove only temporary, and the genre of the world may shunt back and forth, in order to preserve coherence. In some cases, the result might even be a volatile three-modality genre, in which both Singing and Singer, or both Sung and Song, are forced to coexist in an uneasy relationship.
In this way, something of the function of ‘new music theatre’ (as a process of self-commentary, self-criticism, or self-deconstruction) occurs whenever a musical modality is forced to appear within an established genre world to which it doesn’t belong. I give a list of some of these ‘genre heterodoxies’ below, to which many more could be added; for each example, I indicate the ruling genre conventions, as well as the newly introduced modality:
- Soloists in orchestral concerts, who perform downstage of the conductor and without a score (orchestral + Singing)
- Orchestras who play without scores or conductor (orchestral + Singing)
- Non-conducted chamber music and classical vocal performance (orchestral + Singing)
- ‘Staged’ concerts/recitals (orchestral + Singing/Singer/Song)
- Classical or pop performance that integrates some element of folk or improvised music, and vice versa (orchestral/pop + Song/Singing)
- Classical performance that features ‘borrowed’ music/quotations, or pop performance that features samples (orchestral/pop + Song)
- Cover versions in pop performance, or DJ sets that include familiar tracks or remixes (pop + Song)
- ‘Diegetic’ music in opera (opera + Song)
- Musical performance that cultivates an ‘aesthetics of amateurism/ineptitude’ (orchestral/folk/improvised + Singer)
- Site-specific or guerrilla concerts (orchestral/folk/improvised + Singer)
- Use of borrowed music in political demonstrations (folk + Singer/Singing)
- Improvised music that features objects or other ‘found’ elements (improvised + Singer)
- ‘Theatrical’ pop gigs, including use of costumes, sets, multimedia and choreography (pop + Singing)
- ‘Presentational’ or ‘postdramatic’ opera and musicals, including cabaret, revues and variety acts (opera/musicals + Singer/Song, or pop + Singing/Song)
- Avant-garde music performance/Musiktheater (experimental + Song (see above))
- Gig theatre/musical hybrids (musicals + Song (see above))
In addition to all these variations and mutations, there are three further ‘genres’ which, when considered as music theatre, demonstrate the sheer magnitude of possible worlds that music can help construct. These genres (or, in reality, clusters of genres) are dance, multimedia/sound installation, and music video. While all three are present somewhere on the fringes of Salzman and Desi’s survey, exerting a considerable magnetic force over their field of study, the authors fall shy of actually affirming the inclusion of these disciplines in their archive.
Dance and multimedia
Both dance and multimedia function as music theatre by substituting a ‘real’ sound source with a ‘fantasy’ one, thereby restoring recorded or acousmatic music to ‘liveness’. Usually this functions through the synchronisation of sonic and visual movement—in the case of dance, this means musical and physical gesture—but it can also be achieved through the spatialisation of sonic elements in relation to the listener’s body, as in a sound installation. Thus, however strange and unique the sonic environment, it is interpreted as having a somehow essential (non-exceptional, non-arbitrary) relationship to the physical environment, alongside the visible, tactile, olfactory, linguistic and otherwise semiotic clues that inform the ‘theatrical’ reconstruction of the art installation by the viewer.
Formal dance styles can usually be located on the boundary between genre conventions, since it is unclear whether the dancers are dancing to the music (the music is making them dance), or whether they are ‘dancing the music’ (the music is a (by-)product of their physical action). In the former case, the conventions of dance would resemble those of gig theatre (Singing + Song); in the latter case, the conventions would resemble those of opera/musicals (Singing + Sung). Crucially, while the introduction of dance into these two-modality genres can help reinforce their fictional logic in each case, it can also undermine it, by shifting across the genre boundary and forcing the Sung or the Song to appear, respectively. This is equally true when choreography is introduced into a pop concert. In such cases, either the Singer is compromised (replacing the real presence of the performing body with a set of signifying limbs, indicating an implied set of fantasy actions) or the Sung is compromised (reifying the Song as a rhythmic vehicle to be ridden, rather than a transparent channel for spontaneous expression).
‘Postmodern’ dance and dance theatre fictions will often admit other modalities, notably the Singer, in the form of the performer’s real dancing body, their physical or technical limitations, their submission to the will of the choreographer, the extraneous sound of their body as it moves, and other such elements. The introduction of the Singer moves dance closer and closer to other ‘new music theatre’ genres: in particular, avant-garde performance and ‘the New Discipline’. The work of Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion could be considered the point at which the arbitrarily distinct ‘art forms’ of dance and musical performance meet.
As for multimedia and sound sculpture, such performances draw variously on all four musical modalities, in different multi-modality combinations, in order to construct their theatrical worlds. In each case, live elements are more or less substituted for mediatised, automated or otherwise ‘reanimated’ elements: physical action substituted for mechanical/digital ‘action’, human bodies substituted for artificial ‘bodies’, human intentionality substituted for algorithmic decision-making, the laws of physics, or the tidal patterns of big data.
Music video: model for a non-redundant opera?
So far, all the genres I have presented share a certain modality of ‘liveness’, by virtue of their being ‘presented-as-worlds’ (my definition of ‘theatre’). This means that we are encouraged to apprehend and interpret them using all the same faculties with which we would apprehend the ‘real’ world. In the case of film and broadcast media, this is clearly not the case. Yet, where ‘live’ music appears in these media, they do still share a great deal with live performance, in that a world is still being constructed on the basis of fictional conventions that decide the being of music within that world.
Bearing this in mind, I want to emphasise the unique richness and complexity of the music video genre, as it has proliferated over the last few decades (with very little formal codification), when considered in the terms of my genre framework. Music video is best understood as a form of music theatre that is radically non-redundant. Unlike in conventional musicals, the aim of the music video is rarely to imagine a world in which the song act can function as a verisimilar speech act: in which a song could be iterated in its totality and still retain all the efficacy and functionality of a ‘real’ utterance. Instead, in my favourite music videos—which are usually a) dance videos, or b) feature the vocalist, or a surrogate, lip-syncing throughout—the various separate modalities of music are forced to coexist in the music video world, resonating together but remaining irreducible to each other. The various modalities often appear as follows:
- The Sung—the concept of the video, often derived from the lyrics or from stylistic elements, but also the structure and articulation of the video (editing, narrative), the material consistency of its ‘space-time’, the distribution of its climactic moments, all derived from the sonic. The music video is the fantasy space of the song-as-Sung, dreamed up for its duration and governed by its own internal rules.
- The Singing—the narrative/diegesis of the video: what the singer/performer is doing by embodying and re-enacting the music, or what the music-as-action/identity permits, compels or empowers them to do (especially where this can’t be reduced to ‘performing music’).
- The Song—the materialisation of the song itself within its own fantasy world, in concert scenarios or more generally, frequently towards the end of a video (i.e., when the more ‘narrative’ material of the early verses give way to the affirmation of an affective state in the repeated final chorus). This could be seen as the incursion of the Real into the dream landscape, shortly before awakening. The use of dance may also effect this shift, with dancers continuing to dance to the autonomous music that they initially ‘danced into being’.
- The Singer—this modality inheres in the frequent knowingness of the (iconic) performer, invoking their identity or brand, addressing the camera, playing ‘themselves’. By holding fast to this self-presence within the music video, not allowing the artist to become a character, the ritual function of pop performance is preserved. The slight detachment that is thus presented, between Singer and music video world, actually enables the various modalities to hold together in their incoherence, enclosed as they are within the Sung-frame that is the precondition for their existence.
Naturally, not all music videos follow this scheme. Some music videos barely permit the existence of any modality, featuring the music as if it were the soundtrack to a short film, although the Sung usually materialises faintly as a guiding principle, through synchronised edits and visual allusions to lyrics. Other videos permit the existence of only one or two modalities, often referencing if not replicating the fictional logic of film musicals or gig theatre. Still, we are currently living in a golden age of pop videos, many of which attempt to conjure fragmentary, hallucinatory four-modality musical worlds. Especially when watched in succession (on a music video channel, Youtube playlist, or visual album), such videos give a sense of the infinite possibility of musical being as they trace an unpredictable trail across the expanding constellation of musical worlds.
There is no right or wrong way to construct a musical world; as demonstrated in this essay, certain ontological orthodoxies can enable the pursuit of spiritual projects whose ‘aesth-ethical’ systems extend deep into our everyday lives. However, as I currently see it, there is no area of music theatre more interested in exploring the sheer breadth of possible musical fictions and genre configurations (and thus the potential capacities and functions of musical bodies, actions and identities) than music video. If we’re really serious about finding or creating a new music theatre—or, indeed, a new, ‘alternative’ opera: one that doesn’t rely on a constitutive redundancy—then perhaps Vevo would be as good a place as any to start looking.