Song and Dance

The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body BY Eric Salzman, Thomas Desi. Oxford University Press, USA. Hardcover, 416 pages. $39.

The cover of The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body

Early in their fascinating, sometimes maddening cornucopia of erudition, The New Music Theater, Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi define their subject: “Music theater can be considered the confluence or adding up of language-like expressions: verbal or spoken language (the story; the libretto), physical movement or body language (gesture, dance), images or visual language (décor or design), and sound or musical language (pitch and rhythm; vocal and instrumental).” The book’s subtitle, Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body, aptly conveys the nature of this porous and flexible art form, in which disciplines mate in diverse and often obstreperous ways. The subject is complex and one the authors know a great deal about. Desi is an Austrian composer and director, Salzman— composer, director, dramaturge, performer, and more—is the author of the excellent Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction (1967).

Before they get down to the business of describing twentieth-century works and contemporary trends—devoting meaty sections to music theater in Germany, Italy, France, northern Europe, and the United States—the authors offer a more than substantial backstory. They delve into the histories of opera, drama, and popular theater forms in the Western world. They also track influences, such as the Darmstadt Summer Course in Contemporary Music, established in the late 1940s, which put young composers in touch with a heritage of innovation—primarily by serialists like Ernst Krenek and Edgard Varèse—that had been interrupted by World War II.

Still, deciding what constitutes music theater and what doesn’t is a tricky business. It isn’t opera, although some contemporary pieces of music theater have been performed in opera houses, and some operas have elements of music theater. Furthermore, a “Quick Summary of the Modern History of Music Theater” (presented in an appendix) points out that by the latter part of the twentieth century, “the ideologically drawn lines between opera and music theater blur.” Music theater isn’t operetta or its spawn, musical comedy (now more often termed musical theater)—although recent West End and Broadway productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, with the musicians given characters and incorporated into the action, have elements more usually associated with serious music theater. The form, as the authors make clear, is rooted in ancient ritual and the earliest Greek dramas and has a kinship with a number of Asian dance-theater forms, such as Japanese Noh and Indian Kathakali. It has antecedents in seventeenth century court spectacles (from which opera stole away with the singing element tucked under its arm) and owes something to music hall and vaudeville (Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera of 1928 is discussed in terms of its transformation of popular theater elements). “New” music theater performances frequently hold sway in humble venues (unless they get invited to the Brooklyn Academy of Music or similar European establishments) and traffic in ideas that are often challenging, sometimes political, and not necessarily entertaining. Music theater may waltz with performance art or sneak into existing plays and transform them. It tends to avoid linear narrative, preferring discontinuity, and may interject rehearsal elements or references to the performing situation into the work itself.

Even when a plot develops along traditional lines, subversive strategies often explode it. Billed as an opera, The Black Rider, staged by Robert Wilson and premiered in 1990 by members of the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, is based on the German folk tale that inspired Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. But it has a text by William S. Burroughs, music by Tom Waits, and lighting and scene design by Wilson. The story emerges via askew scenic elements, bizarre dances, objects that menace the performers, images that draw on puppetry and mechanical toys, enigmatic songs, and instrumental music that sometimes highlights words and actions the way a POW! does a cartoon fight. A character rises through a trapdoor and later descends from the sky in a chair.

Robert Wilson, The Black Rider, 1990. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 1993.
Robert Wilson, The Black Rider, 1990. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 1993.

Although postmodernism is mentioned only six times in The New Music Theater’s 375 pages of text, the book itself is, in a sense, a postmodern event. The chapters are rife with subtitles, which introduce as few as two paragraphs. These can be prosaic and immediately helpful, such as “New Roles for Performers” or “Ligeti.” Others are more playful and slightly mysterious, like “Sondheim, minimalism, the return of tonality, crossovers and hybrids,” which introduces the last two and a half pages of chapter 3. “Entr’actes,” with such piquant titles as “the art form that never happened,” separate the chapters. The book is structured in such a way that names and facts frequently appear in several places. Because of the wide reach of John Cage’s ideas about chance procedures and the blurring of boundaries between art and life, he crops up in a variety of contexts. Mauricio Kagel dances through the pages, leaving hints about his importance as a composer and director and as a teacher at Darmstadt during the ’60s. However, if you’re not familiar with his work and missed this reference on page 72—“Kagel’s Pas de cinq requires blindfolded actors to use canes to tap their way around the stage”—you’ll have to wait until page 325 to get a fuller sense of what he’s up to. There you’ll learn that Pas de cinq was created in 1965 and that “five actors in dark glasses with canes and umbrellas wander slowly through a labyrinth of ramps and turning stage elements, tapping out rhythms.”

If you loved hearing in chapter 12 that in Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), “King George III converses with his birds (represented by instrumentalists inside bird cages) in a vocal technique extended in all directions,” you’ll appreciate the parenthetical tip to look in chapter 17 for performer Roy Hart, for whom the piece was written. Once there, you’ll read about his supposed eight-octave range, his ability to sing fundamentals and overtones simultaneously, and the Hart technique, which considers human vocal sounds—“belches, farts, growls, the so-called vocal fry (a kind of low rasp), squeals, shrieks, and screams of all sorts”—as possibilities in a musical setting. Not all facts wave at one another across great distances, though. There’s a fine discussion of composer Tom Johnson, headed “Under the influence” (of Cage, that is), in a chapter called “The American Eccentrics.” (Johnson’s minimalist works are generated and limited by principles expressed in their titles, for example, Composition with Ascending Chromatic Scales in Twelve Tempos, All Beginning Simultaneously, the Piano Playing the Low Notes, the Clarinet the Middle Notes, and the Violin the High Notes [1993].)

Salzman and Desi provide suggestions for further reading at the end of every chapter, as well as a “Selected Reading” appendix, so you can pursue individuals and productions they’ve only been able to mention. The New Music Theater, however, isn’t simply an account of achievers, achievements, and trends. The authors have many wise, often provocative ideas and insights to share. Sometimes all it takes is a few lines to set the reader thinking. “The so-called musical impressionism of Debussy and Ravel—really more closely allied to art nouveau than to impressionism in painting” is only the first half of a sentence to do with “innovations in harmonic discourse and in rhythm,” and I could hardly get to the rest, I was so busy taking this notion apart in my head and conjuring up relevant examples. Other, perhaps more crucial insights are developed at some length. A history of evolving vocal techniques traces the gradual replacement of voci bianchi (the pure tone of the castrati so admired in eighteenth-century European opera) by the “vibrato-based vocalism” of the nineteenth century and ends up analyzing a more contemporary alteration caused by the invention of the microphone as “a kind of aural magnifying glass.” A skillful use of amplification, Salzman and Desi write, not only makes vocal projection in large spaces more effective but also “enables the artistic use of close-up sound and makes expressive intimacy (not to mention true pianissimos) part of the singer’s repetoire.”

This slippery form—music theater or Musiktheater or teatro musicale or théâter musical—acknowledges the past by subverting it, all the while eyeing the roiling present. Newness is an unstable concept. “It is ironic,” the authors say, “that when innovation is everything and any new sound imaginable is a possibility, the term music itself becomes fuzzy (any sound or complex of sounds can be ‘music’ if we so name it) and the notion of new music itself becomes a paradox.” In the last chapter, “Is Anyone Listening?,” they unpack audience expectations, group psychology, the marketplace, and the media, concluding inconclusively: “What is certain is that change continues and that it is reflected in new audiences and new relationships between audiences and the performing arts, with music theater most certainly in the front lines of change.”

Deborah Jowitt is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (Simon & Schuster, 2004).