- Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre by Mladen Ovadija
Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre is published amid an “interdisciplinary ferment in the human sciences that takes sound as its analytical point of departure or arrival” (as Jonathan Sterne, one of the leading figures of Sound Studies, has called the recent surge of interest in sound, noise, auditory culture, and associated histories). Longstanding sound scholars such as this reviewer, once accustomed to interjecting as disciplinary mavericks from the fringes of our arts, social science, and humanities discourse, must now be more cautious about claims that modernity is characterized by a visual bias—an ocularcentrism as Jay has termed it, or a hypertrophy of the eye and “eye-thinking” as Berendt more figuratively put it. It has been suggested that a new postmodern aural paradigm is discernible in the tropes of resonance, rhizomatic networks, fields, ecosystems, and noise that litter contemporary intellectual discourse, particularly in the cultural fetishization of “immersive experience.”
There is talk of a new age of aurality—a term whose sudden, prolific adoption precedes any clearly established definition, but which seems to indicate a field of interaction between the acoustic world, its inhabitants, and their cultural activities. This may be premature. Theater, whose remit it has been to think through the modern condition by staging it, is in its institutions of practice and scholarship only now starting to conceive of sound as anything other than a technical practice (of acoustics, voice, effect production, or amplification) or a specialist meta-discourse. The consideration of sound in more ontological terms takes it into modally alien territory. While drama’s conceptual subservience to the word may have been broken, theater studies has tended to approach sensual materiality though phenomenological tropes of spectatorship and kinesthetic object-theater, or through biomechanically or viscerally physical performance, rather than through audience, aural bodies, and their space. If theater once enquired about visuality and physicality, it now seems to ask about immersion and resonance, about what atmosphere and noise mean when they are no longer in the background, and about the energized materiality between theater’s objects. So attention turns to the Sound Studies ferment for a conceptual framework with which to make sense of theater’s under-theorized aurality.
Ovadija’s interest here is primarily in how sonic meaning might be achieved independently of the semiology of words or other indexically “read” sign-systems—how, as he quotes Steve McAfferty, sound “need not be a this standing for that but immediately be a that…free of the implications of the metaphysics of linguistic absence” (56). The book identifies this enquiry in the works and manifestos of twentieth century avant-garde art and Lehmann’s concept (broadly [End Page 441] interpreted) of “postdramatic” theater. The book mainly focuses on Dada, Futurism, Expressionism, and the Bauhaus as they appear “through the rear view mirror” (8) of this postdramatic theater. This conceit initially struck me as a crafty way of making a genealogical connection between theater’s current interest in sound and some iconic sonic art that (so I had thought) had little to do with theater history, other than in that theaters were occasionally used for its poetry performances or noise concerts. The book makes big claims about the seminality of these movements: that Marinetti, Russolo, and their cohorts liberated the material performativity of sound and noise from its subservience to semantic systems and musical morphology; and that because of this breakthrough, today’s theater aurality became possible. In my view this is unnecessarily overstated. It would have been enough simply to use his rear-view mirror conceit to present his new take on the avant-garde experiments with sonic performativity, and allow it to resonate in his accounts of recent developments in theater sound.
Structurally, Ovadija uses his postdramatic mirror to frame a number of themes: a “return to pre-verbal and corporeal impulses” (207); music-like staging methods; the aural and physical values of choric performance; an emphasis...