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Theater 30.2 (2000) 75-81
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On Concert Theater:
A Director's Notes
Pioneering a new form or putting a dress on a tree?
A group of solemn players disguised as Lutheran ministers enters and takes their seats. The silent audience suddenly applauds. The players, pretending not to hear, begin a splurge of dissonant racket as if they just remembered that they're there to play in tune with one another. Then the choir enters, each singer wearing her high school graduation gown. Again, wild applause from the audience. The choir stands in place, stoically deaf. Finally the conductor comes in, briskly, like a cocky bridegroom in tails. Wilder applause! The conductor hears this, but it does not make him happy. He turns to the audience and bows an unsmiling crinkle of the waist. The audience has sent its compliments though the music may turn out to stink.
How has the traditional European concert come to contain, and the audience to agree to, these absurd formalities? Even the most avant new music concerts are usually in this sense traditional: a blank hall, stoic faces expressionless above black clothes, forgettable furnishings, conventionally bound scores, individual players who sit in a semicircle and ignore each other, whole stages of players who pretend the audience is not there at all. Can't contemporary concerts evolve beyond this?
"It seems the peculiar province of the 'serious' classical music genre to pretend that the standard ritual behavior of the classical concert form is not a theatrical event," says composer, musician, and instrument designer Paul Dresher. "Perhaps this is done to maintain some idea of 'purity,' of course implying quite emphatically that theatrical values are an impure intrusion into the sanctity of the elevated concert hall. This is perhaps the result of the hard-core modernist aesthetic, which seems to abjure even the most fleeting pull at our emotional, noncerebral moorings."
Concert theater is a term I use to describe a presentation that releases concerts from this predictability and acknowledges that every element in the concert space informs the audience and influences the players. Immediately, however, there's a difficulty. Anyone [End Page 75] who wants to do anything else with a concert--to intrude into that sanctity and add theatrical values--has to deal with the way that "anything else" either goes unnoticed or, if noticed, seems inevitably to demote the music to the background. Slide shows and video precipitate this all the more. It's almost impossible to watch video and not hear music as mere accompaniment.
Why then should we see anything at a concert except the performers and their instruments? Or, in the case of electronic music, just the equipment? The answer is that visual elements are present at every concert, we just deny that they have meaning or effect--instead of thinking about their meaning and using their effects to serve the overall aims of the music.
From time to time in the twentieth century, maverick composers and performers nudged the concert form along a more theatrical path. Harry Partch said in the late forties and the fifties that music is an aural, a visual, and a visceral experience, and devoted his life to creating new sounds on instruments he constructed and played in highly visual and physical concerts.
Later there were artists like John Cage and La Monte Young--who composed a "Piano Piece for David Tudor" that required feeding the piano a bale of hay and a bucket of water--Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Ashley, who composed the first video opera before the home VCR existed. By the early eighties, "performance art" was maturing in the theater, and perhaps I should clarify how the movement toward concert theater differs from it. When I direct a performance piece I shift focus from music to dance to visuals to text; any element may dominate at any given moment. When I work on a concert theater piece, I make all my decisions under the overriding necessity that music be the dominant element and remain in the foreground.
My first venture into...