Discussion writing

Maybe the audience is the problem?

Audiences for classical concerts and opera could learn a lot from those for theatre and dance.

Classical audiences are a conservative bunch. The aversion to ‘new’ music has resulted in ensembles doing all sorts of workarounds to try and trick the audience into putting up with a new work. One of the more entertaining, and subtle, is to programme the new commission just before the interval: that way it can’t be avoided by arriving late, or by leaving at the interval. Posters will loudly scream ‘BEETHOVEN’ or ‘VERDI’ while hiding in the small print a great new work by a respected modern composer. Heaven forbid there’s a commission from a young unknown writer, or more than one new work in the same concert…

Even the definition of ‘new’ is being stretched. There are still audiences that will avoid Stravinsky, Shostakovich or Messiaen, and many of these pieces are nearly a century old. If nothing changes, you can expect mass audiences to get comfortable with Thomas Adès and Kaija Saariaho by about 2085. That’s a long time to wait.

I recently was able to get stalls tickets to the Royal Opera House for £7.50 because the work (a one-hour family friendly opera with 5 star reviews and great music) was unable to sell tickets to their usual audience. The horror that the composer is still walking the earth somewhere seems to put those people off. And that was only one week of performances.

Compare this to the audiences for theatre or dance works. Here newness is celebrated, and people will flock to see a 3 hour premiere from David Hare or Tony Kushner, and are happy to take a little more risk with a newer playright such as Lucy Prebble or Inua Ellams. Audiences are even happy to explore experimental theatre: witness the commercial success of Punchdrunk or Complicite, London Road or Warhorse.

Of course there are still companies doing piles of Shakespeare, or Ibsen, but even The Globe has an audience for new work, and new plays are constantly being brought to the attention of West End audiences.

It is frustrating that, while an opera house might struggle to fill 5 performances of Nixon in China (a modern classic), or the orchestra in a BBCSO total immersion weekend could beat the audience in a brawl, the National Theatre or the Old Vic can do 60 performances of a new play with a large cast and crew and still pull a full excited crowd.

There are other reasons a theatre audience might be reticent to see a work, but it seems an aversion to ‘newness’ isn’t one of them. Ironically this results in a secret and surprising source of contemporary new music: Harrison Birtwistle wrote for the National Theatre in the 70s, many ballet and contemporary dance companies are commissioning hour-long new works from living composers. More people will hear new composition at the Old Vic than at Festival Hall.

The challenge for the industry is joining these audiences up: how do we find that willingness for new experience in the classical audience? How do we get the theatre audience to attend concerts and experience opera? There is an attitude and willingness out there which would bring a renaissance in new music and concertgoing, but the constant fight to sneak new music past the ears of a opinionated and conservative concert audience stifles innovation and stagnates the artform.

Discussion Thoughts writing

In defence of the day job

There are almost no composers, at any level of success, who just do composition full time.

I’m talking about the world of ‘classical’ concert music rather than media work, but even in those fields composers might have other gigs as performers, teachers, etc.

The most frustrating thing, from the point of view of someone trying to ‘break into’ a career as a composer, is that no-one ever talks about the work they do on the side. Everyone (myself included) is trying to frame themselves as a pure sucessful composer, but in reality there are very few composers (mostly big name ‘celebrities) who do not support their art through other means.

Many teach, either in schools or in universities or music colleges. Many play or conduct, with successful performing and recording careers. Many write or present, being animateurs in educational concerts, pundits for radio and pre-concert talks, or writing books and programme notes.

Some, like myself, do arrangments and orchestrations, often working anonymously for ensembles and performers to adapt work to their needs, although this is also a difficult career path to break into.

Many, although we can never be fully sure, have jobs or careers outside of music altogether. I know of some who work for tech companies or in the city, some who make films and videos for clients or online, some with just normal jobs in normal places, allowing them to pay rent while they work on their music with whatever time they have. Charles Ives worked in insurance, Borodin was a research chemist, Eric Whitacre is a model.

This doesn’t make music their hobby, unless they want to see it that way. By taking the commercial pressure off their creativity they are allowed to make music at the pace that works for them. It’s still their career, but it sidesteps the myth that commissioning and royalty payments pay anything close to living wage for the vast majority of composers.

All sorts of trendy places are talking about the portfolio career as a millennial idea: the concept of the single career (perhaps supported in the outside by small jobs that don’t matter) is over and now we are all sailing in the gig economy patching together sources of income and finding opportunities wherever they lie. This is hardly new, but is only now being talked about in such terms.

I have a day job, and I have since I left music college: I work in music logistics and administration, originally for the London orchestras and concert venues and now at the National Theatre, using all my knowledge and experience to support musicians and composers. Talking about these two sides of my professional life is so complicated: even if I have the most exciting stories from the theatre or juicy theatrical anecdotes, when talking to others in anything approaching ‘networking’ I have to remember to frame myself as a composer with interesting artistic projects so that I don’t get pigeonholed as the classical roadie and miss out on potential opportunities. I know others in my industry who have to do the same thing.

Almost every composer, going back to Beethoven or Vivaldi, has used other work to support their family and give them space to write. The fact that we are not prepared for this in music college, and this isn’t talked about when musicians meet for a drink and a moan, does a disservice to us all and leaves us unprepared for the realities of a working life. Think of your favourite contemporary composer under 60: they may be at their other job right now, not telling anyone lest you think less of them.


Who does what?

So, what does everybody do? When you read a programme you can see all sorts of music related jobs, many of which sound like the same thing. I’ve provided a brief outline of the most common roles below. Of course, many of these will be done by the same person in a smaller production, and you can even find one person doing the whole lot (although they don’t usually put that in the programme as it would take up too much space)

Music Director

In a musical or music-heavy genre of theatre the music director is the person who makes artistic decision and controls the artistic side of the musical output. They will often conduct (or band-lead) and generally acts as the main point of contact for all musicians during the performance. This person shapes the overall contours of the music and is responsible both for achieving the desired sound and maintaining standards in performance.

Music Supervisor

This is similar to the music director, but has a slightly more administrative role. These are often used with compilation and pre-recorded scores, as their main job is to select appropriate music, suitable composers, and decide (often in collaboration) where cues should occur within the score. This is still a creative role within the music department, even if there is less of a focus on live musicians.

Music Manager

A mostly managerial and logistical role, the music manager performs the important function of coordinating all musicians, equipment, scores, rights and composers/songwriters. They can also be the fixer (the person who recruits and engages musicians) or the orchestra manager (the band equivalent of the stage manager who works with the orchestra during a run of performances).


Composing involves the planning and writing of the music for the performance, but does not include the performance or recording of the music. The composer will often be present at rehearsal or recording to ensure that the music works, but is not necessarily a performer.


Sound designers decide how sound will be used in the production, and the role can vary from the construction of soundscapes and effects to the planning of live sound rigs and acoustic design.


Once the music is in rehearsals the performers (particularly on-stage actors and singers) are supported by a repetiteur, an accompanist, or other members of the music staff. Their main job is to familiarise and coach the performers with the music for the production, to ensure that they are prepared for the introduction of the band or orchestra.


These are the people who perform the music on the night. They may be instrumentalists or singers or electronic musicians, and may even be members of the above areas also. These are the people who interpret the planned musical input (the score, the sounds, the songs) and replicate and present it each performance for the audience. They may also perform in a recording session so that  the recording can be used for rehearsal or the performance itself (although this is frownedupon by musicians unions and performers).

Sound Design for Visual Media and Film Product...
A Sound Design Studio (Photo credit: vancouverfilmschool)

I hope this sheds some light on the various roles and positions within the music department for a production. If you have corrections or suggestions leave them in the comments.


Live and Kicking

Recording a score for later reproduction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Live musicians vs recording

The theatre provides an arena for the latest developments in musical and theatrical technology to be used in a practical context. This technological integration has both advantages and disadvantages for the development of live performance. Moving away from the traditional roles of amplification and reinforcement, advances in electronic and digital technology have allowed designers to replace live musicians and instrumental music with electronically generated or pre-recorded music. The resulting ‘score’ can then be replicated perfectly for every performance, giving an accuracy and reliability not usually found in pit orchestra musicians.

Developments in modern technology have provided theatre-makers with several new avenues to explore, with technology having both strengths and limitations when compared to live performers. Seen by opposing sides as either technological tools or technological shortcuts, the unique opportunities that digital sound technology provides to the theatre have resulted in a wide range of uses within the theatrical realm.

Advantages of Live Performance over Technology

Despite these advantages, the replacement of live performers with technology—digital or otherwise—can remove several key elements of the musical experience. A major advantage of live performers, in any ensemble configuration, is the adaptability of the music to the idiosyncrasies of dramatic performance. As previously shown, musicians are able to compensate for technical or dramatic delays in a way a recording can not. Although a recording may be perfectly replicable, acting rarely is: minor variations exist in each performance, and audience reaction may throw off timed cues. The ability of live music to flex around these variations is its major strength. Also missing in a recorded score are the aesthetic benefits of a live performance. The satisfaction of a concert performance is partially dependent on live musicians and the communal experience of concert-going: replacing an orchestra with a recording seems counterintuitive in this context. Why do we have different expectations of theatrical music from concert music? Similarly, the physical presence of additional people in the performance, such as a pit orchestra or stage-band, imbues meaning in the performance. The communality of the performance ritual means we can get the same enjoyment from this involvement as from seeing large groups in coordinated activity.
From a more formalist perspective, removing the instrumental or live nature of the performance removes many traditional elements of orchestration and arrangement. The development of such an environmentally limited performance style causes a specific set of challenges to arise for the composer. Listening to how the composer has dealt with these challenges can be just as satisfying as an atmospheric or emotional depiction. This appreciation of compositional skill can be side-stepped in theatrical electronic scores, as they often seem designed to be unobtrusive and forgettable. A well-constructed work that maintains standards of orchestration, arrangement and motivic development, while still interacting with and supporting the dramatic work can be a pleasurable and memorable composition. Examples of these successful works can be found as part of the symphonic literature as suites or in non-dramatic full recording.

Advantages of technology over Live Performance

The most obvious advantage an electronic rig has over acoustic musicians is a physical one: in confined or limited venues a public address system reduces the amount of space needed to achieve a desired musical volume. It also enables designers to reduce the space needed by ‘flying’ the system above the stage or auditorium, a feat that is obviously impractical with live performers. Aside from these physical advantages modern sound systems open up new resources for the sound designer. The developments of digital (and analogue) audio effects have enabled designers to ‘process’ live and recorded sound with ease. Applying audio effects such as reverberation, echo, and delay gives designers access to sounds and timbres that were previously unavailable. While this can be used to process live sound (to make it sound like a singer is in a cathedral, or an instrument is
playing from the grave etc.) it is often used in the generation of soundscapes and completely artificial scores. Using these resources as compositional tools allows composers to avoid the traditional requirements of conventionally structured music, and introduce ‘atmospheric’ forms which do not follow the traditional paths of harmony, rhythm and structure. Because of these possibilities, many modern productions now use computer-composed scores, using a combination of processed
snippets of recorded sound and artificially generated noise to evoke tension and setting in the dramatic production. Audio technology is also desirable in a theatrical context because it presents complete control and reliability. A case in point is volume control: unlike acoustic instruments, it is possible to reduce the volume of any recorded sound without altering the timbre significantly. In practical terms this
provides composers with increased musical resources for underscoring, as any instruments which would previously dominate a spoken voice (such as a brass fanfare beneath a stirring speech) can be reduced in volume without losing the emotive qualities of the music. The use of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) as a mechanism to interact with music synthesisers, effects controllers,
and with more unlikely mechanisms such as lighting, pyrotechnic, and hydraulic control allows for a small level of interactivity between live performance and pre-coordinated technology. This, combined with the high level of micro-control, provides opportunities for technological synchronisation, and replicates to some extent the vamps and safeties of the acoustic score. Technological advances have also allowed economic reductions in theatrical music: systems available can replace the traditional jobs of copyists, arrangers, rehearsal accompanists, performing musicians and conductors. Although technology has provided some economic advantages to traditional composition (reducing the need for professional copyists and allowing exotic or multitudinous instruments to be synthesised in the pit) this technological approach to music presents many desirable advantages to the theatrical producer. The perfect replicability and accuracy of electronic systems coupled with the elimination of troublesome live musicians—with tea-breaks, pay-scales, and inevitable fatigue—makes any artificial system eminently desirable to the theatrical context at first glance.

Ethical/Moral considerations

Do we have a responsibility to keep musicians in employment? Are we somehow misrepresenting the theatrical experience if we use only a prerecorded soundtrack? To what extent is a musical score like a lighting design: as we no longer demand that every moving head must have a cheerful navvie perched behind it (and allow Computer Numerical Control to move and focus lights in performance) is it wrong to demand that the sounds we hear are made only by a trained performer. When does art become artifice?

I do not have the answers to these questions, and perhaps there are no concrete answers to them, but I think it is important to consider whether we have any responsibility in what we present theatrically to maintain a standard of ethical performance. It is difficult to separate these arguments from tradition and nostalgia, but creative industries have as much a need to retain and develop skills as they do to explore new avenues.

Phenomenological impacts of liveness

The main problem that arises with using live musicians on-or-under stage is that in contemporary theatre practise they impact the narrative of the play. With today’s realism-based performance style it becomes difficult to incorporate a pit orchestra into the performance as it challenges the fourth wall: if we are seeing a Chekov or Ibsen piece of small room realism, are we to believe that the room has a basement full of professional musicians, or do we decide they are sitting in the theatre with us. This blurring of the line between audience and performer can prove problematic for many productions, and the most appropriate use of music must be decided by those involved.

In more contemporary-style performances I have noticed two trends. First, the introduction of the ‘character’ of the musician(s) as an on-stage agent, where the musicians become actors within the narrative and engage with the plot in extra-musical ways. Secondly, the ‘band’ has moved out of the pit, appearing now on galleries, upstage, gantries or roving front-of-house to directly challenge this old method of performance. It is no longer fashionable to pretend that the music does not exist, rather, we incorporate it into the performance in an often meta-theatrical way. The crucial element is that the method must be appropriate to the specific production of the specific play, and while sometimes a pre-recorded score is the only suitable medium, a creative approach to the staging of live music within the play can prove excitingly fruitful.

Historical perspective on live musicians (Wagner and O’neill)

For the historical composers, music was always live. Even O’Neill, writing in the dawning of the recorded age, saw no other way than to use live musicians. However by this point the actual presence of musicians on the performance was starting to prove problematic, and so we desire not to see them. To have all of the musical qualities, without ruining the illusion with the visible work of performance. Wagner, in the creation of his theatre at Bayreuth, revolutionised the theatre in two ways: he plunged the entire theatre into darkness, and he buried the orchestra pit below and beneath the stage. These conventions quickly spread to dramatic theatres, and by the twentieth century the pit had become a standard theatrical feature. Mark Lubbock, writing in 1957, remarks that “in a Theatre the orchestra should always be hidden”, and cites dramatic reasons: “otherwise the lights and movements of the conductor and players intervening between the audience and the stage prove very distracting. Apart from this, hidden music greatly adds to the illusion.” However, this impact on the dramatic meaning of the work, while vital, means the requirements of the performing musicians are sidelined: the pit is dark, has a “long narrow shape” where cramped musicians are “packed close together”, and is the perfect receptacle for dust and debris rolling off the stage.

Therefore producers directors and composers have to balance the impacts of live music with the problems, and the problems that the solutions to the first problems raise. In my opinion the presence of talented musicians adds enough to the performance to easily outweigh the difficulties involved, but of course this varies from production to production.


On Audiences

The main difference between theatre music and music for film or games or festivals isn’t the technology or the venue, it’s the fact that theatre is performed for a live and responsive audience. It may not seem like this would affect sound and music, but coping with audience reaction is a vital part of balancing and cuing music and sound. For example, if a show encourages laughter (say, by being funny) or applause (say, by being a blatant star vehicle), sound or music cues can be, and probably need to be, louder to ride over the higher level of ambient sound. Perhaps more important is the ability of almost every element of the theatre to time itself to anything. If the audience decides to give a standing ovation at the end of the song, the band can pause between sections, or the lights can give them a cue to sit back down again. As well as those positive occasions, the audience can do idiotic or distracting things that a prerecorded sequence cannot cope with. Take for example this anecdote from the Guardian Theatre Blog: (Great play – shame about the audience | Stage |

“Then, at the most heart-stopping, breath-holding moment in the play – when one character opens a letter written to her by her recently deceased boyfriend – an audience member in front of me abruptly stood up and loudly declared, twice, to his companion that he was off to get a coffee, before banging his way out of the theatre. For a second everyone – both actors and audience – seemed stunned. To the actors’ enormous credit, they both managed to hold on to the pause and continue, more or less as if nothing had happened.”

If this was the kind of play which was timed precisely to a audio or video track the entire production would be unsynchronised until someone could rescue it. People (rather than machines) are able to improvise in these situations, creating theatrical magic out of humdrum hiccoughs.

The nature of the audience also dictates the nature of the music or sound that you use. Certain audiences appreciate complex difficult music, while other audiences call for simpler, more catchy, or less obtrusive sound. In reality a production will call for mix of complicated “serious” music and lighthearted or straightforward ambience depending on the mood of the narrative. In these circumstances music can have a cathartic role: after a particularly gruelling scene in, say, Hamlet, in which ghosts, poison and murder have appeared, the audience is in danger of being over-stretched emotionally. The entrance of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern is usually accompanied by something quirky or funny, giving the audience a chance to relax and enjoy the narrative. Otherwise, they get exhausted from three hours of blood, feelings and soliloquies. A well balanced score for any complex play will usually contain a full mix of tragic, supernatural and escapist compositions.

To finish, I’ll leave you with a remark by Norman O’Neill. He let’s slip that even a century ago audiences were not conducive to good theatre, and were prepared to listen to the serious only if it was balanced with irreverence. And also that audiences can be the worst thing about working in the theatre or concert platform (more on that later this week…)

“I think the only place where it is possible to play music of a more serious nature is at the beginning of the programme, before the people of the stalls and dress circle arrive. I have often remarked that the pit and gallery will listen quietly to a movement of a symphony just after they enter the theatre. This is usually about half an hour before the commencement of the play, and the stalls in front of them are still empty and the house quiet. Later in the evening they have the distracting head-dresses and evening gowns between them and the orchestra, which it is then almost impossible to hear at all from the pit on account of the talking stalls.”


The Purposes of Theatrical Music

Music in a play (or to a lesser extent a musical) serves a very different purpose to music in a film or at a concert. In fact, it has a variety of purposes depending on the  play that it is part of.

I have based these purposes on the great book Sound and Music for the Theatre: The Art & Technique of Designby Kaye and Lebrecht. Their main framework divides all theatrical sound into four categories: Framing Cues (overture, intermezzo, preshow sound); underscoring; transitional music/effects (indicating a shift in time or space), and specific cues.

Framing Cues:

These cues exist in the theatre, but not in the narrative of the play. They are used to transition between the outside world and the exciting world of the story. At the most basic it can be a preshow playlist of old recordings to set the atmosphere for a WWII play, to full blown orchestral Overtures and Intermezzos.


A substantial (although often brief) standalone musical work played before the narrative starts. It usually introduces the musical and aesthetic themes of the proceeding drama.


An intermezzo is an piece of music played between scenes or acts. Designed for a practical purpose—to cover a gap while the stage is dark and the set and costumes are changed—it usually also evokes the following scene, or provides a musical reflection on the scene before it.

Many composers and designers no longer use overtures or intermezzos in their work, which is a shame, as some of the greatest works in the canon started life as theatrical framing cues (William Tell Overture, Mendelssohn’s Nocturne).


Underscoring refers to music which plays underneath dialogue and action, without ‘locking in’ with it or standing on its own. Generally quiet and unobtrusive, it supports the onstage action emotionally and atmospherically. It is not usually heard by the characters onstage.

Rather than dealing with melody or structure, many theatrical writers speak of the importance of ‘atmosphere’. This rather nebulous quality is seen as an effort to reflect the setting and feel of the scene through music, and can be seen as the musical equivalent of scenography. I draws from the techniques and functions of underscoring, but develops into a more ambient and unobtrusive sound. Norman O’Neill, a prolific theatre composer, concluded: “Music should step in where the play itself, the actors and the stage effect, can no longer carry on the illusion. And it is just in such cases that the composer can work wonders and create atmosphere and effects which may be unique in their way”

Transitional Music/Effects:

These are used to indicate time or spatial shifts within the narrative. This can be as simple as the “magical harp” found in 80’s TV shows everywhere, to more extended musical cues to indicate the passing of time or the move to a different location.

Specific Cues:

These cues are ones which occur within the world of the characters: they enter a club, so dance music plays; someone sings a song to someone else; the radio is on. Any music which is called for in the script or which occurs within the fictional world onstage (rather than in the theatre full of audience members) can be seen as a specific cue.

What do these mean?

These distinctions are made by writers such as Kaye and Lebrecht based on the narrativistic properties of the music. Does it exist inside or outside the story? The basic division of this is ‘can the character hear it or not?’. However, this then overlooks any more complex music such as melodramas (the subject of an upcoming post) or musical illustration. Likewise, others make the distinctions between exactly reproduced or artistically interpreted sound. The problem with most of these frameworks is that they are based on a modern understanding of acting and drama drawn from the Stanislavski School and the American Schools of Acting: the ‘method’ by which an actor ‘becomes’ the person they are playing, and is ‘motivated’ by the cues and people around them. Theories like this are influenced by filmic theories such as diegesis as well as filmic ideas of realism. This is also seen in early 21st century frameworks, such as many of those presented by Ross Brown (Sound: A Reader in Theatre Practice), that insist that the stage-technician must ‘feel’ the sounds to imbue it with the correct magical qualities. While these frameworks make sense when dealing with sound and music for contemporary modern theatre, these divisions break down rapidly when looking at anything from an earlier era, or when the division between ‘world’ and ‘entertainment’ isn’t as clear. They also break down when looking at any modern form of theatre which is not based on psychological realism (as many forms are).

However, these divisions provide a useful way of thinking about the music for the theatre, and can be used by composers, designers or directors as a framework for setting out their project.