Live and Kicking

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Publicity still showing music for The Wizard o...
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 soundrack? 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 bassment 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 presense of musicians on the peformance 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.

One Response

  1. […] dances, montages (although these are closer to underscore), ballets, background radio, jukebox, characters that perform, and other musical works that the characters can engage or interact with. Shakespeare makes great […]

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