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Discussion

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).

Composer

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.

Designer

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.

Répétiteur/Accompanist

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.

Performer

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.

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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.

Categories
How-To

Making Ghosts

Ghosts are one of the most enjoyable things to create in the world of technical theatre, as they allow you to merge a live performance with technological enhancements to create something impressive and other-worldly.

Ghost Onstage

These are a lot of fun, as you get to turn an actor essentially a classy cyborg. For me these are the most fun when you can conceal a radio microphone into the costume of the performer. Once you have their voice on a channel you can do all sorts of transformations with it some of which are below:

  • Apply reverberation or echo effects
  • Adjust equalisation to change the tone of the voice
  • Route the sound to come out of specifically located speakers (say behind or under the stage)
  • Boost the volume to ride over music or texture effects
  • Apply any number of complex effects to the voice
  • Enhance gutterals, plosives hisses and other transients through microphone placement
All of these effects enable you to transform the sound to a greater/lesser extent. In some circumstances you may want to keep the sound subtle, in others you may want to go all melodrama with the ghostly presence. Miking up the performers in a ghost scene ables you to control the scene in such a way that the technology isn’t noticed but the effect is. I have worked on plays where a bit of simple reinforcement and bass-boosting, when combined with stage-fog and angular back-lighting, and of course a powerful performance from the actor, has got a standing ovation from the one speech.

Ghost Offstage

An unseen ghost is simpler, as you can have a simple wired microphone, or even just shouting from the wings, with many of the effects above. Often, though, with an offstage ghost you will simply need to reinforce the sound so it can be heard in the auditorium. These are already (by their definition) other-worldly, but you can enhance this in some subtle ways so that the sound is taken out of the backstage curtains (which never sounds particularly ‘realistic’) and into the bowels of hell itself (or perhaps just the next room). You can also pre-record these lines to

Hamlet, Act I, scene 4
Hamlet and the Ghost of his Father

Ghost Implied

Sometimes we do not need to see or hear the ghost to know that it is there. These situations give the opportunity for terrififying (or cathartic) sound composition, as we try to conjour up the emotional and spiritual state of the ghost, or perhaps the impact of the ghost on the scene. I like to transform real-world sounds into other-worldly echoes (see my post on soundscaping) and bring altered musical elements such as distant drums or harmonic feedback and sung voices. But of course the sounds you use will depend on the circumstances of the situation, as well as the length of the scene you are writing for.

Decisions that should be made are whether the ghost can be seen (and you are underscoring or mickey-mousing their actions), whether they are heard (against a supernatural texture or isolated and alone) or if we simply evoke the spirit of the ghost through musical and technological means. All of these can be done with a little effort, and you will often find all three variants in the same show.

Ghosts are hugely fun to create, and you get a real sense of control and artistic involvement when you design and operate a ghost in a theatrical setting. These morbid intrusions provide an opportunity for all elements of the theatre to come together to create something that can be moving, impressive, spectacular, emotional or entertaining, and with continual adjustment can provide a truly immersive theatrical experience for the audience.

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.

Categories
Discussion

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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Historical Focus

Korean Musical Theatre

This blog is mostly about western music and western theatre, but I think it provides an interesting viewpoint to look at the theatrical and musical traditions of another culture. This weeks history focus revolves around an article by ethnomusicologist Andrew Killick. He examines the various genres of traditional Korean Theatre with music, and provides an interesting perspective on a performance genre which many of us are not familiar with.

The Changguek play titled "Leaving Ship" performed by the National Changguk Compoany Of Korea (wikimedia commons)

Discussion

Andrew Killick, in Road Test for a New Model: Korean Musical Narrative and Theater in Comparative Context, explores the different metaphors that can be applied to his musical subject. Killick argues that any method of approaching a non-western musics such as this one is only useful “in proportion in its applicability to different cases, its ability to identify recurring patterns”. His exploration of the ethnomusicological method balances geographic, historic, and cultural context with a detailed description of the music tropes and techniques found in traditional Korean musical theatre.

His chosen subject is relevant to the subjects of this blog due to the fact that, despite existing outside the western tradition, music “forms only a part of each genre, alongside verbal and visual elements”. Killick asks whether a musicological model “should be applied only to the strictly ‘musical’ components”, or whether each other component should be examined separately using a literary (or dramatic) analogue for the musical theory. He concludes that examining each of these elements in isolation “would seem counterproductive as well as cumbersome, since the ethnographic model seeks to understand musical experience in all its complex interconnections and not in isolation.” Despite the professed desire to integrate the study of the various component disciplines of a musical theatre, Killick explores each facet separately, discussing it in commendable detail but not linking each element together with the strength he calls for in his introduction. He discusses the traditional narrative components (such as vice and virtue) and the performance environment (both historical and physical), but does not seem to link these to the musical output of the performers. This output is described in detail, analysing techniques in true positivistic style: “rhythmic cycles (changdan) … based on compound meters with triple subdivision of the main beats” coupled with “performance techniques that include a broad palette of vocal timbres” based on “versions of the anhemitonic pentatonic scale”. He then goes on to talk about the impact of geographical and cultural space in the development of the genre. What is lacking is an explanation of how these detailed and specific musical idiosyncrasies developed in relation to this history and environment. Without these relationships we are left with a complete but incoherent understanding of the key elements of this genre. Although he introduces his article by arguing that the non-musical factors must be incorporated into an understanding of these genres, he avoids discussing the impact of the various factors upon each other, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the musical environment and the musical product.

Concluding Remarks

Killick argues that any analysis, viewing, or interpretation of a musical score to a theatrical genre should not be divorced from the other elements that make up the theatrical whole. This is applicable to our whole subject area: rather than obsessing over the minutia of the music for a play, we should instead explore the links between the sound or music and every other element of the performance being studied. Any mechanism can impact the score, from the script, the direction, the costumes or the staging, and so we should try to examine the music in the contexts of these interactions.

Killick, Andrew. “Road Test for a New Model: Korean Musical Narrative and Theater in Comparative Context.” Ethnomusicology 47, no. 2 (January 2003): 180. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3113917.
Categories
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.”

Categories
Historical Focus

Norman O’Neill – Music to Stage Plays

This is a wonderful old article (it was published in the proceedings of the Royal Musical Association in 1910) which lays out the land for the traditional method of presenting music to a stage play. Norman O’Neill was a composer who wrote prolifically for the theatre, and these musings are the product of an expert knowledge. He was hugely prolific and famous in his day, being the first british composer to conduct his own music for recording, and teaching composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Nowadays, however, he is almost entirely forgotten, perhaps because his output was the theatrical ephemera rather than the monumental symphonies by which composers are usually known.

A Portrait of The Author (via imslp.org)

On History

The essay starts by outlining the rich tradition of English theatrical music, focussing in particular on the works of Shakespeare. By pointing out the wide variety of musical cues alluded to in the text of various plays O’Neill argues that “Shakespeare well knew the value of music to help his dramatic effects and situations.”

Perhaps the most interesting pointers in this first half of the essay is his outlining of the various ensembles which have been common in repertory theatre throughout the ages. He notes that in the Shakespearean theatre tended to use (as far as was known): “a combination of stringed instruments. Sometimes flutes and hautboys were added. Anything more than this in the way of a climax of sound was probably obtained by trumpets and drums.” This is a very practical solution to the problems of outdoor staging, and the remarks on the simplicity of the music: most of it is called for in the dialogue, or otherwise happens at points in which music can be legitimately used (such as fanfares or parties). A turn of the century theatre, however, had a wider range of “house bands”:

Many a conductor in our smaller provincial theatres to-day has less than this at his disposal. In illustration of this perhaps you will allow me to tell the following story. I was once asked to write some music for a play which was to go on tour in our small towns. When I inquired what kind of orchestra I should write for, I was informed that in some places I might find twelve players: this would be considered a great luxury and would only exist in a very prosperous theatre. In others I should constantly find only three players, (pianoforte, cornet, and violin), and so it was necessary to write my music in such a way that it could be performed by any of these noble combinations. Considerable economy of instrumentation and material was necessary, I need hardly say.

Interestingly he notes with sadness that no Elizabethan theatre manuscripts have survived, a sadness compounded by the fact that an unknowingly similar fate awaited him, as his scores are equally unknown.

He, like many writers (myself included) attempted to categorise theatrical music, using the following divisions: The first:-Incidental music-which may or may not be specially composed for the play. The second :-Entr’actes and interlude music. The third :-Music which is specially written for a play, and which is an essential part of the production. The term ” incidental music ” is sometimes, and I think correctly, applied to marches, dances, and songs which are incidental to the action of the play, but it is also applied to what is called ‘Melodrame.’ That is, to music which accompanies the dialogue and reflects the feeling and emotionof the spoken lines”.

He makes a point which is as relevant today, in this world of instant replay and mechanical reproduction, as it was in the days before soundtracks and recorded song: “A short musical interlude played during a change of scene seemed to me exactly the right thing in the right place. This, I think, was specially written by Mr. Crook for the situation. But in a case of this kind there is, of course, no reason why a composition which has not been specially written should not be chosen, that is to say if the right piece for the particular situation, with the right sentiment, can be found. But as I have already pointed out this is rather a dangerous proceeding, on account of the associations which are inevitably bound up in our minds with any well-known pieces of music.” (emphasis mine)

On Working

When a play in which the music is to be an important feature is to be put upon the stage, the composer usually meets the author and the producer and discusses where it will be advisable to introduce music. The producer or “metteur en scene” of a play draws up a plan of the whole action in every detail, the scenic effects, and so forth, which he intends to employ. These will greatly determine the spirit and atmosphere of the production. It is not enough for a composer only to know the play through and through, but he must also be in close touch with the exact spirit in which the work is to be given. Where music is to accompany the dialogue he must, before writing any music, know the tempo of the speeches, the pauses and business to be introduced, so that his music may coincide in the minutest detail with the stage rendering of the play. He will otherwise find his musical effects clashing or coming in the wrong place. Where music accompanies the action and there is no dialogue, as for instance in a procession or entrances of characters, most careful adjustment is necessary, the producer and composer working together and arranging the time that any such effect or business will take on the stage. Where there is no dialogue, the stage business should be timed to the music. Where there is dialogue the music should be timed to the stage. It is obviously much easier for the composer to accompany the actors in speeches, than it would be for actors to follow the music.

When music accompanies dramatic action without dialogue each movement of the actors must be timed to the music, and not only is a great deal of rehearsal usually necessary if the effects are at all elaborate, but what is sometimes more difficult to obtain, mutual sympathy between them and the conductor is essential. Sometimes, as in opera also, the best effects are those which are the most simple. Such effects as the intro- duction of a chorus behind the scenes, or a stage orchestra in conjunction with the orchestra in front, are all hard to obtain in the theatre. They are, of course, most effective if well arranged. We have all probably heard the stage trumpet come to grief in ” Carmen,” or the “Sirens” sing anything but alluringly in “Tannhauser.” In ‘ L’Arlesienne” Bizet avoids this danger by having a small stage orchestra to accompany his hidden chorus. But the dramatic situation will not always allow for that.

In summary: Always follow the dictates of the production, and keep it simple, stupid.

On Orchestration:

All music that actually accompanies the spoken lines should, in my opinion, be mainly scored for strings, which I think mix far better with the human voice than do wood-wind instruments. Harps, horns, and timpani-softly, of course- can also be used effectively, and, to quote Bizet again, the lower notes of the flute also. The fact that the clarinet is not a suitable instrument to accompany the human voice was first brought home to me by Mr. Martin Harvey. I had written for the solo clarinet in the accompaniment of a speech of his. In rehearsal he stopped when he heard this. “Is that a clarinet ?” he said. “Yes,” I replied. “Oh, it sounds like a caricature of my voice !” And this is just the danger with reed instruments.

Horns, harps, and even the brass and percussion can be used in melodrame, but for ordinary purposes the string orchestra is the best, and with regard to the wind, as they say in the Instrumentation primers, “these beautiful instruments should be used sparingly “! As soon as music to the spoken lines becomes too obtrusive it defeats its own end. It is very often impossible for the conductor or the actor to tell if the music is too loud or too soft. The right balance can only be obtained from the theatre. Personally I always listen to the music from the dress circle before the first performance.

On Ensemble

Personally, I very much object to an orchestra in which there are as many wind players as strings. So often in the theatre, music is played which has been scored for an orchestra of at least fifty with three trombones, trumpets, horns, and full wood-wind, against which struggle seven or eight violins, two violas, and two violoncellos. To my mind, it is far belter to do with less wind and brass, and to get something like a proper balance between wind and strings. I will not lay down any hard and fast rule, but for ordinary purposes an orchestra of, say, twenty-six performers should, I think, be constituted in this way :-

  • 4 first violins
  • 3 second violins
  • 2 violas
  • 2 double-basses 
  • 2 violoncellos 
  • 2 horns, 
  • 2 trumpets,
  • 2 clarinets 
  • 1 bassoon
  • 2 flutes 
  • 1 oboe
  • and one trombone or harp and celesta (one player),
  • one percussion.

The harp is more essential in a small orchestra than in a large one. It makes just this difference, I think, it turns what we call a ” theatre band ” into a little orchestra.

But twenty-six performers are a comparative luxury. For a run of a play in which there is no music, and during which the orchestra is only required in the entr’actes, a conductor may consider himself lucky if his management allows him eighteen or even sixteen players. For ordinary purposes an orchestra of eighteen performers should be constituted thus:

  • 4 first violins
  • 2 second violins
  • 1 viola
  • 2 violoncellos
  • 1 bass
  • 1 flute
  • 1 clarinet
  • 1 bassoon
  • 2 horns
  • 1 oboe.
  • 1 trumpet
  • percussion

Of course with only a small orchestra the conductor will find it necessary to arrange nearly all the standard works, and in many cases practically re-score them for his combination of instruments.

His Conclusions

In conclusion I should like to suggest that some of our own younger composers should turn their attention to the modern theatre orchestra. There is an undoubted opening here, as there is a great lack of music well scored for small orchestra. I feel that it would not only benefit them, by bringing their name and work before the public, but at the same time be quite a healthy change from writing for the larger orchestra. A modern musician may gain much experience in the theatre in spite of the necessary limitations connected with the performance and the writing of music for the stage.

My Conclusions!

I wholeheartedly agree! I find it sad that a century later theatrical music is even less of a focus than it was, but his exploration of scoring, orchestration and dramatic interaction are important lessons for all composers young and old.

O’Neill, Norman. “Music to Stage Plays.” Proceedings of the Musical Association 37 (1910): 85-102. http://www.jstor.org/stable/765702.
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Video of the Week

In the Orchestra Pit

This week’s video isn’t strictly about straight theatre, but it gives a good insight into the lives of those who play music in theatrical settings.

via the Really Useful Website backstage blogs