The best way of using music in a production is to write it yourself (or to pay someone to write it for you). However, there are times that you might not be able to, or want to do this. Using other peoples music is a tricky area to negotiate, and is something you need to think about before performance, otherwise it could end up costing you a lot of money.
Note: I am not a lawyer nor have any legal training. I am offering my experience and opinion as a musician and theatre person. If in doubt check a friendly expert.
Using Sound Effects
I have written about this before (see this post) but legally most sound effects (whether downloaded, on CD, Tape or Record) will have some sort of license. This tells you under what circumstances you are allowed to use the sound, and what conditions need to be met in order to do so. Some (especially free sounds) will require acknowledgement, or will forbid alteration. If you are creating a complex tapestry of sounds these conditions can get overwhelming. More expensive sounds are happier for you to have your way with them and give them no credit, but you still need to make sure you know exactly what is going into your mix, and where it came from. While you can just hope that nobody notices (and they probably never will) you can still be a responsible citizen and make sure that everyone receives the reward they ask for for their hard work.
Using a Recording of a Song
Sometimes you (or your director) will want to use a specific recording of a specific song for a scene or transition of the play. This is possible (and usually pretty easy) but you usually have to get permission from the rights holder (either from the writer and performer, or more usually though a collection agency). They will easily be able to issue you with a public performance licence for a fee. Check your local rights administration agency for more information. If you want a full complement of songs, though, this can add up.
Performing an existing work live
If you want to perform a song or composition with live musicians or on-stage singers you do not need a mechanical license, but you do need a performance licence for the original song from the writers or their agent. This can be slightly harder to find or organise, but is possible. It is a similar process to what you would go though if you were recording a cover song: you need permission for the song itself, but not from the artist who originally recorded the song (unless they also wrote it).
Recording a new version of the song
This is where things start to get complicated. By law to arrange (or substantially change) a song you need explicit permission from the original writers, and a license to record and reproduce that song for public performance. I can’t offer much advice here, as every example will be different, but work out what you wan to do and seek permission and advice early on.
Remember, when you adapt or arrange an existing work without permission that not only can you get sued, you lose a lot of artistic reputation. See this video:
There are as many different ways to present or reinterpret an existing song or recording as there are to skin a cat, but always keep track of what you are doing and the conditions attached to all of your sources. Respect those and you can feel comfortable in whatever you are putting into the theatre, safe in the knowledge that you are respecting and supporting musicians and artists wherever they are.
If you have corrections, suggestions, or useful links leave them in the comments!
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 Gyntwritten 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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This video can’t be embedded, but I urge you to go have a look on the national theatre website. This is the introduction to a whole section of videos about the music that goes on in the National Theatre in London (UK).