- Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre by Mladen Ovadija, and: Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound, and Subjectivity ed. by Gillian Siddall, Ellen Waterman
Over the last few years sound studies has emerged as one of the most dynamic fields of interdisciplinary research and one with obvious interest for scholars in theatre and performance studies. Field-defining publications have included a handbook (2012), a reader (2012), an online publication “Sounding Out!” (peer-reviewed and indexed by the MLA Bibliography, 2009–present), and Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, a new endeavor launched in 2015. The breadth of topics explored through the fundamentally interdisciplinary practices characterizing sound studies suggest, time and again, a relevance for the study of performance. Yet, for the most part, thinking about sound in the theatre has largely been a matter for design and production professionals. Signaling a burgeoning scholarly interest within theatre and performance studies, however, Adrian Curtin’s Avant-Garde Theatre Sound (2014) was a welcome engagement with the sonic in the performance practices of the early twentieth century. Mladen Ovadija’s Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre pays attention to the same historical period, but also considers the implications of this history for the more recent work of Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Caryl Churchill, and others.
Ovadija claims that “sound reveals—or perhaps more appropriately, is—performance” (3). Following Hans-Thies Lehmann’s exploration of postdramatic theatre and his insistence that text can no longer be the privileged component of theatrical performance, Ovadija suggests that it is time for a more thorough elaboration of sonic matters. His goal is to make “a case for the centrality of sound as a both performative and architectural constituent of contemporary theatre” (5). Further, Ovadija suggests, his approach allows for better recognition of the interdisciplinary nature of “contemporary arts and theatre,” which he describes as “an amalgamation of performance, conceptual, and installation art and their reflections in theatre proper recognized by Erika Fischer-Lichte as the ‘performative turn’ and by Lehmann as ‘postdramatic theatricality’” (5–6). The citations here of key terms from Fischer-Lichte’s and Lehmann’s work are deliberate, because the ideas of these two scholars underpin much of Ovadija’s own thinking. Throughout the book the conversation developed between an almost obsessive interest in sound performance by avant-garde artists in the first half of the twentieth century and the development of ideas of the aural in postdramatic theatre is particularly indebted to the kinds of performance analysis the two German scholars have promoted.
The first chapters in Ovadija’s book explore sound as an actor in the work of the historical avant-garde, particularly the Italian and Russian Futurists. But he rightly notes that the affective power of sound has been well-known throughout human history (in religious ceremonies and tribal rites and chants, as well as the earliest Greek tragedies), and that sound effectively primes audience response. Abundant examples of avant-garde performance poetry, set alongside more contemporary experimentation with the spoken word, amply illustrate a range of theoretical perspectives, from German expressionism to more recent poststructuralist investigations in the works of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Explorations of “aural architecture” predominate in avant-garde theatrical experiments, in some cases dispensing with text and actors altogether. Ovadija gives the example of Enrico Prampolini’s Santa velocità (1927), an “interplay of coloured lights projected onto an empty stage, different sound textures of city life interpreted by [Luigi] Russolo’s intonarumori” (178). An intonarumore, Ovadija explains earlier, was “a sound box with a large funnel that amplified the sound, which was produced mechanically as the performer cranked the instrument” (124), enabling what Russolo set out as six noise families: rumbles, whistles, whispers, and screeches, along with the noises of animals and humans (125). As this example shows, the text is replete with historical detail about the range...