Categories
Techniques

Feature Pieces

Feature pieces are pieces which stand apart from the fabric of the performance in some way, often contributing traditional musical structures and thematic writing to provide some variation to the musical score. When suites or albums are made of theatrical scores (Peer Gynt, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) they are usually drawn from the feature pieces, as they are the cues that translate best into concert form.

Works outside the Narrative

These are pieces which the characters cannot hear. They are used to introduce or contextualse scenes for the audience, and to fill up time between scenes or acts. Aside from the most common types, Overtures and Intermezzos, these feature pieces can include Entr’actes, Curtain Call music, Exit music, interval music, preshow playlist and many other genres.

Overture

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.

Intermezzo

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.

Works within the narrative

These include songs, fanfares, 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 use of these and they provide many great moments in theatrical performances.

There are no great tricks to the composition of feature pieces for the theatre. Each composition is naturally governed by the requiremnts of the script and of the performance venue, but in general they allow composers to flex their creative muscles and present music that is distinctive or memorable, and emerge from the supporting foundation to which it is normally accustomed.

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Around the Web

Around the Web: Theatre Today

This ones a bit old, but it’s nevertheless interesting.

Andrew Haydon believes “lip-synching and the use of the recorded voice has become the new kitchen sink”. I agree, sort of. Like Andrew, I’ve spent the past fortnight watching shows that illustrate theatre’s current infatuation with headphones, microphones and recording devices.

Until 15 or 20 years ago, sound design was still very much viewed as a technical skill. It wasn’t until 2004 that sound design was recognised as a category in the Laurence Olivier awards. Audiences still have to endure plays in which music is randomly poured over scenes like so much aural lube, but a generation of theatre practitioners are busy leading sound design deeper into the realms of art.

This increasing importance of sound in the theatre is, in part, down to new and improved technologies, but productions at the vanguard of sound design are as likely to be lo-fi as high-tech. And it goes hand in hand with the trend towards more immersive theatre, and cross-fertilisation between theatre, film and radio.

I don’t know about you, but I find that I’m much more aware of sound as a key ingredient in theatre than I was even three years ago, and usually in a good way.

From Now hear this: theatre’s revolution in sound design on the Guardian Theatre Blog.

The West End is full of beautiful, historic theatres that are in some cases entirely unsuitable for contemporary theatre.

The nature of theatre is change. Without change, the West End really would die…

from Crisis in the West End – or is it?

For many the appeal of theatre is tied up with a feeling of being present at something remarkable, and as no two performances can ever be the same, the accompanying sense of exclusivity can become addictive. Part of Jerusalem’s power came from the fact that the audience was, for a few hours, part of a community, witnessing Rylance’s virtuoso performance, or feeling whatever mysterious spirits are present in the woods – attempting to understand the play without access to these intangible forces will therefore always feel like a compromise.

from Theatre on video: not live but kicking.

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Discussion

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 | guardian.co.uk)

“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.”