Categories
Techniques

Diegesis

What is diegesis?

Diegesis is a term used in film music to discribe the way in which the elements of film relate to the narrative the film is telling. In film music, it is  simple way of describing the function of music: if it occurs within the world of the characters (i.e. someone could hear it) it is diegetic, if it occurs in the world of the audience (but the characters cannot hear/see it) it is non-diegetic.

How can you use it?

It’s not a technique as such, rather a lens though which you can look at your music. Although the script will usually give hints as to the most obvious diegetic cues, you can shift this factor to make your work more interesting: rather than a standard piece of underscore, you could make it play from a gramophone or radio during the scene; or you could use on-stage musician (such as a string quartet in a restaurant) to accompany and set the tone of a scene.

Blurring the line

Of course, the most exciting use of this technique involves the blurring of the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. This is particularly easy to accomplish in films (such as Philip Glass playing the background of the Truman Show, or the entrace of the brass band in My Fair Lady) but it can also take place in the theatre. West Side Story has a famous scene in which a jukebox is turned on and plays a recording of the music to an earlier scene, this then segues into “live” underscoring played by the pit orchestra. However, we still believe that the music is ‘coming’ from  the jukebox (a consequence of Schitzophonia) albiet with a richer and more visceral style. This effect, the transition from one frame of reference to another, enhances the performance and gives the scene much more impact. Ironically, blurring or transitioning across the real/non-real line can make the performance seem more real by assisting or refreshing the willing suspension of disbelief.

Conclusion

Although not a technique as such, diegesis is an important factor in the construction of theatrical artifice. It can be used to change the perspective on a scene and to freshen an otherwise stale or unorginal cue, or to draw attention to or distract from a musical or theatrical element. Next time you are struggling with a music cue, think about whether you can change its position in the narrative frame to make it more interesting. At the very least this will give you some creative inspiration, at most an entire new way of presenting your score and sounds.

 

Categories
Historical Focus

History: The Orchestra Pit

The orchestra ‘pit’ is clearly the major feature of the theatre musician’s career: the musician will spend the entire show in this place, usually in the dark. De rigueur in early theatre, and still found in many opera houses, the orchestra ‘pit’ was simply an area at the front of the stalls at floor level where the orchestra sat. These stalls, and indeed the entire house, were lit from above throughout the 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.

Wagner's Orchestra pit. Based on the illustration in OxfordMusicOnline

The pit also has unique and potentially problematic acoustic characteristics. The orchestra is playing within a space acoustically designed to bounce sound out of the pit and into the auditorium. A side effect of this internal reflectivity is an environment which presents musicians with a high level of noise. Over time this can cause damage to a musician’s hearing, and performers have to carefully manage their exposure through hearing protection and careful scheduling to minimise decibel exposure. Achieving a proper balance in the sound exiting the pit also presents a challenge to conductors or sound engineers. While technology is able to solve some of these problems now, diagrams of the Wagnerian pit show the strings section on raised platforms near the front, with brass and percussion pushed into the depths as far away from the ‘mystical chasm’ as possible. Consequently the pit is dark, cramped and noisy: hardly the ideal working environment for a musician.

Historically the pit was used primarily for non-diagetic music, such as underscoring and feature pieces, while the ensemble was moved into the ‘picture frame’ of the proscenium arc theatre to enter the world of the narrative. The score for Peer Gynt written by Henrik Grieg provides a good example of this. Along with the conventional pit orchestra he uses backstage choirs and ensembles, onstage performing musicians and singers, and unusual combinations of both onstage and offstage performers.