Friday, 3 July 2015

A very kind review

It has been a while since my last post, but I have now received a review for the "Musicality in Theatre" book, which not only "gets" the book completely, but is also very kind, so here it is:

Musicality in Theatre: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making. By David Roesner. pp. xiiiþ305. Ashgate Interdisciplinary Studies in Opera. (Ashgate, Farnham and Burlington, Vt., 2014. £70. ISBN 978-1- 4094-6101-2.)

Ever since ‘the idea of absolute music’ (Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music (Chicago, 1991)) became the ideology of absolute music in the early nineteenth century, the other arts have one by one turned to music as a model for their own procedures. In this book David Roesner cites a passage by the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist from as early as 1811 that already presents the analogy between writing and music as an aspiration. From the later nineteenth century a succession of writers, starting with Mallarme and followed by names as varied as Strindberg, Joyce, Eliot, Stein, Huxley, Pinget, Leiris, Beckett, Tardieu, and Thomas Bernhard adopted music directly as a model for writing, not only poetry, but also novels and drama. These writers were primarily seeking modes of writing capable of conveying the complexity of consciousness. But they also found in music (as they understood its newly bestowed powers of abstraction and idealization) a powerful argument for the autonomy of art freed from dependence upon the representation of the material world, or, indeed, from instrumental ends such as morality. In time, painters would follow suit, artists such as Whistler, Kandinsky, and Klee finding in music analogies for their own quest for the painting of mood and atmosphere, or for more formal concerns. And inevitably modernist theatre-makers found their way to music too as a way of escaping the imperious tyranny of the real, perhaps even more pressing in theatre. This is the first book to chart the history of the musicalization of theatre comprehensively in relation to writers, directors, scenographers, and performers, and it does so with great clarity and authority.

The association of theatre with music was perhaps inevitable since, like music, theatre is an art of performance and therefore in many ways it is a form that is closer to music than painting or the novel can ever be. Moreover, theatre has historically always been entwined with music. In most non-Western theatrical forms music is an essential element, and it is only in the relatively short history of modern Western theatre and music that these two arts have separated. And of course, even Western theatre has its own distinctive form of musical theatre in opera. But although this book appears in Ashgate’s Interdisciplinary Studies in Opera series, Roesner makes clear from the start that it is not a book about opera, music theatre, or musicals, all of which, of course, may be described as musicalized forms of theatre (as, indeed, can much dance, which is not mentioned). But Roesner’s interest is in forms of theatre that borrow from music as analogy or metaphor rather than directly incorporating music, although, of course, theatre-makers with a keen musical ear are also likely to understand the subtle role that music itself can play in theatrical performance. Hence his use of the word ‘musicality’ rather than music, and the terms in his subtitle: music as ‘model, method and metaphor’ in theatre-making.

In his introduction Roesner makes clear that he is not assuming a normative definition of either music or musicality but rather that he is interested in what he describes as the ‘dispositif ’ of music and musicality, a term that is borrowed from Foucault to describe a network of ‘discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions’ (p. 10) that sustain both ideological formations and social practices. To pursue a musicalized theatrical practice is to subscribe to a whole set of beliefs about the particular efficacy of music: its sociality, its relation to the body, cognition, subjectivity, etc. And inevitably, different theatre artists will employ different aspects of musicality (e.g. rhythm, melody, counterpoint, timbre, etc.) depending upon their particular aesthetic or ideological interests. The aesthetic and ideological reasons for the Swiss theatre artist Adolph Appia to advocate a musicalized approach to theatre based on the Schopenhauerian principle of music as the expression of the inner essence of things are very different from those of the contemporary Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek, for whom ‘music makes one strange’ (p. 128). This form of Brechtian Verfremdung gives the musicality of the writing of both Jelinek and her compatriot Thomas Bernhard a particular edge in their deep knowledge and love of the Austro-German musical tradition and in their savage scorn for its cosy bourgeois domestication (the theme of Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher, made into a film by Michael Haneke, although the novel is even more remorseless than the film, shocking though that is).

Roesner’s book begins, as it must, with an excellent chapter on Appia as perhaps the founding figure of musicalized theatre, although, of course, Nietzsche had paved the way with his concept of Greek tragedy as a form that arose from the Dionysian spirit of music. Appia’s approach to theatre was founded in Schopenhauer and in his intense love of Wagner, along with his justified disappointment in Wagner’s own oddly literal approach to staging his works. Appia rightly discerned that the symbolism of Wagner’s dramas was at odds with the Romantic-realist forms of scenography espoused by Wagner himself, and developed an approach to scenography that was essentially abstract, seeking to convey through space, light, and image the inner meaning of the drama, expressed in the music, rather than simply its outward form of representation. Although much of Appia’s career was inspired by Wagnerian drama, in his work at the Dresden garden suburb of Hellerau with Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, founder of Eurythmics, a method of expressing music through movement, Appia extended his method to create forms of dramatic expression in which all of the parameters could be musicalized above all the performer’s body.

Roesner’s longest chapter on one artist is dedicated to the work of the Russian director Vsevelod Meyerhold, one of the most important innovators in twentieth-century theatre, and unlike Appia, who had limited opportunities to put his ideas into practice, primarily a practitioner. Meyerhold’s approach was an aspect of what his contemporary (and rival) Alexander Tairov described as ‘the re-theatricalisation’ (p. 94) of theatre, an acknowledgement of the fictive artifice of theatre that drew on Meyerhold’s love of popular theatrical forms such as commedia dell’arte and its Russian derivatives. Music also played a crucial role in Meyerhold’s quest for forms of theatre that escaped the realism of his mentor Stanislavski, although as Roesner mentions, Stanislavski’s own later method also placed great emphasis upon the use of tempo and rhythm as means of externalizing inner states of being. The importance of Meyerhold for Roesner’s understanding of the role of musicality in theatre lies in the fact that for Meyerhold music was both means and end. As a means it was a means to theatricality, to a foregrounding of form rather than to the signification of reality. Like early silent movie comics, who used music on set to animate their physical performance, Meyerhold used music in rehearsal as a means of animating his actors and encouraging them to find non-naturalistic forms of expression. As an end music gave energy and form to performance.

Tairov complained that Meyerhold’s method led to theatre as ‘empty form’ (p. 97), and of course Meyerhold himself was explicit (in his theory of ‘biomechanics’) about his concept of the performer as a kind of machine whose body should be like an instrument that could be played with the precision of a musical instrument. His directorial style, like that of an orchestral conductor, demanded similar precision from his performers. But he also drew from commedia a love of improvisation that draws on different skills, in particular the ability to adapt fixed routines to various dramatic situations, and to play variations on conventional forms. Most of the European theatre writers and directors discussed in this book draw on notions of music from the Western classical tradition, which privileges form and structure, but it is known that Meyerhold was interested in jazz, which is a musical genre that makes extensive use of improvisation. One of the most original chapters in the book is on American theatre practitioners who have, perhaps inevitably, drawn directly upon the dynamics of jazz in their work. The writer Sam Shepard, whose plays incorporate many aspects of American popular culture, draws upon elements of jazz such as call and response in the construction of dialogue, and upon the notion of riffing on a set of changes. In the 1980s Shepard teamed up with the director Joseph Chaikin, who at the Open Theatre in New York had developed a theatrical laboratory for experimental theatre in which he drew upon the concept of ‘jamming’ as a method for developing a particular kind of improvisatory performer responsiveness. But again, Roesner wisely avoids offering a normative explanation of jazz practices, considering jazz instead as a set of social as much as musical practices, and recognizing that for artists like Shepard and Chaikin jazz represents a form of social critique as well as aesthetic expression.

All the directors discussed in this book recognized that musicalized forms of theatre demand specific actor skills and dedicated as much of their energy to actor training, and theorization of such training, as to production. This is no less important for performers who have to respond to writers such as Samuel Beckett and Elfriede Jelinek, who require a very particular kind of quasi-musical precision, Beckett was notorious for beating out the tempo that he wanted actors to adopt when performing his work, and was described as behaving like an orchestral conductor in his management of rehearsals. In a chapter on ‘the musicality of playwriting’ Roesner discusses writers as varied not only as Beckett and Jelinek, but as Heiner Müller, Caryl Churchill, and Martin Crimp, all of whom explore different aspects of the musicality dispositif in their work (it is noteworthy, perhaps contrary to the expectation that left-wing writers should engage with social reality in their plays, that it is often left-wing writers such as Müller, Churchill, and Jelinek who have more consistently explored musicality, a recognition that there is a politics of form as well as of content).

In his last chapter Roesner demonstrates the way in which the musicality dispositif has pervaded a wide range of recent and current theatre practices, in particular in Britain and Germany, the countries Roesner knows best. Across the cases he looks at, the specific use of musicality varies greatly. The American director Robert Wilson, for instance, puts his theatre pieces together with the precision of a composer notating a score, whereas in the work of the German director Michael Thalheimer the musicality of the dramatic text is found through the process of analysis in rehearsal, with the aim of producing a piece of work with the emotional impact of ‘a good pop-song’ (p. 236). The British theatre company Filter also references popular music in its work, but employs a less controlled method of production; sometimes their performances seem more like a staged rock concert than a piece of theatre. Their aesthetic credo ‘can we do it sonically?’ (p. 242) leads to some fundamentally new ways of thinking about theatre, and the extensive and eclectic range of such practices demonstrates that music has opened many doors to theatrical innovation, and will continue to do so as both music and theatre continue to evolve. Indeed, Roesner makes even more important claims for the function of musicality in theatre, suggesting that it engages with the ways in which different aspects of musicality and musicking (to adopt Christopher Small’s famous neologism) shape human identity as ‘an omnipresent foundation of our lives’ (p. 263). By implication, a theatre without musicality is in some respects an impoverished theatre. This is an important claim, and should ensure that this book will secure a lasting place not only as a stimulating counter-history of twentieth-century theatre, but also as provocation to rethink the ontology of theatre itself, and the meaning of musicality.


University of Sussex


© The Author (2015). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Research Event: Music and the Dramatic Text, University of Kent, European Theatre Research Network

The European Theatre Research Network at the University of Kent is delighted to invite you to the following research event:
(convened by Dr David Roesner and Dr Montserrat Roser i Puig)
University of Kent, Grimond Building, Aphra Studio
Monday 19th May at 2pm
The afternoon will start with three presentations by Dr Catherine Laws (University of York, Music) Dr Montserrat Roser i Puig (University of Kent, Modern Languages, Hispanic Studies) and Dr David Roesner (University of Kent, Drama) will explore the impact of music on a range of European dramatists, their playwrighting and the musicality of their theatre-making. Music here serves as a topic, an intertextual presence, a range of structural models and an attunement to the sonic qualities of language or the rhythm of gestures.
The presentations will be followed by a student 'work-in-progress' production based on the Catalan author Joan Brossa's music-theatrical miniatures "Accions Musicals" (1966-1978). These have been translated especially for this event by Dr Montserrat Roser i Puig from Catalan into English and will be performed for the first time in the UK.
The performance will be followed by a panel discussion with all speakers, the directors and the audience.
The event is funded by the School of Arts, University of Kent and Kent Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KIASH) and attendance is free.

My talk can be viewed here: 

Friday, 25 April 2014

Not long now....

In the past few weeks and months I have been busy with the final editing, proofing and indexing stage of the forthcoming book. It is now going to the printing unit very soon and will be available in July – not your typical summer read, but perhaps still worth looking at?

Here is the announcement in Ashgate's online catalogue.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014


For the Francophone of you, this very recent publication may be of interest:

Didier Plassard (ed.), Mises en scène d'Allemagne(s) (Paris: CNRS, 2014).

It contains chapters on theatre practitioners such as Peter Stein, Thomas Ostermeier, Klaus Grüber, Christoph Marthaler, Claus Peymann, Peter Zadek, Frank Castorf, Einar Schleef, Rene Pollesch and Rimini Protokoll.

My chapter on Christoph Marthaler in this collection offers an in-depth analysis of his 1999 production "Die Spezialisten" (Hamburger Schauspielhaus) and investigates how musical form is used as a core dramaturgical and narrative device.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Another quick plug

For those interested in Matthias Rebstock and my co-edited book Composed Theatre. Aesthetics. Practices. Processes but found it a bit too pricey to add to their personal bookshelf, you may be interested to know that it is now out as a paperback (£29.95) and as an ebook on most platforms starting as low as £4.19 (Kobo) to £9.99 (ibook) or £13.99 (kindle).

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Legacy of Opera – hot off the press

A chapter I wrote a while ago is now finally 'out there': it appears in the new volume:

The Legacy of Opera – Reading Music Theatre as Experience and Performance (edited by Dominic Symonds and Pamela Karantonis)
In my chapter Dancing in the Twilight – On the Borders of Music and the Scenic I investigate the complex interaction of music and theatre, musical and theatrical performance and perception and particularly the dissolution of clearly definable borders between them on the basis of two different practices: a meta-musical-theatre film (Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark), and an experimental music-theatre production by composer-director Heiner Goebbels: Eraritjaritjaka. The methodological considerations that precede these investigations are based on Jens Schröter's notion of transformational intermediality and expand the idea of an intermedial relation that "consists in one medium representing another” into three types of relations, which I label with the metaphors “Suchbild” (picture puzzle), the “Kippfigur” (tilting phenomenon) and the “Schwellenphänomen” (liminal phenomenon). In my argument these notions are used to classify and distinguish different forms of cohesion or fusion between music and theatre in performance. I focus on productions which challenge or blur boundaries of clearly distinguishable media, genres and/or performance modes. They also question fixed dispositions with respect to both production process and perception and draw their particular appeal from this ambiguity.

More details on the book:
Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York, NY 2013. 269 pp. (Themes in Theatre 7)
ISBN: 978-90-420-3691-8 Paper
ISBN: 978-94-012-0950-2 E-Book
ISBN: 978-90-420-3692-5 Textbook

The Legacy of Opera: Reading Music Theatre as Experience and Performance is the first volume in a series of books compiled by the Music Theatre Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research. The series explores the widening of the meaning of the term “music theatre” to reflect new ways of thinking about this creative practice beyond the genres circumscribed by discourses of theatre studies and musicology. Specifically it interrogates the experience of music theatre and its performance energies for contemporary audiences who engage with the emergence of new expressive idioms, new performative paradigms, new technologies and new ways of thinking. The Legacy of Opera considers some of the ways in which opera’s influence has informed our understanding of and approach to the musical stage, from the multiple perspectives of the ideological, historical, corporeal and artistic. With contributions from international scholars in music theatre, its chapters explore both canonic and experimental examples of music theatre, spanning a period from the seventeenth century to the present day.

Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of illustrations
  • Dominic Symonds and Pamela Karantonis: Empty houses, booming voices
  • Bianca Michaels: Is this still opera? Media operas as productive provocations
  • Nicholas Till: A new glimmer of light: Opera, metaphysics and mimesis
  • Sarah Nancy: The singing body in the Tragédie Lyrique of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France: Voice, theatre, speech, pleasure
  • Clemens Risi: Performing affect in seventeenth-century opera: Process, reception, transgression
  • Magnus Tessing Schneider: The Violettas of Patti, Muzio and Callas: Style, interpretation and the question of legacy
  • Pamela Karantonis: The tenor in decline? Narratives of nostalgia and the performativity of the operatic tenor
  • Michael Eigtved: The Threepenny Opera: Performativity and the Brechtian presence between music and theatre
  • Jeongwon Joe: The acousmêtre on stage and screen: The power of the bodiless voice
  • David Roesner: Dancing in the twilight: On the borders of music and the scenic
  • Pieter Verstraete: Turkish post-migrant “opera” in Europe: A socio-historical perspective on aurality
  • Dominic Symonds: “Powerful spirit”: Notes on some practice as research
  • Abstracts
  • Notes on contributors
  • Bibliography
  • Index 

I hope the book will enjoy many critical readers!