Saturday, 6 November 2010

Space for Music: Stage vs. Screen, Final Act

More than half a year ago, it feels as if there still was snow, I wrote my previous blog posting. It dealt with the difficulties to find space for music on the theatre stage. During summer, I had once again the opportunity to perform thorough research on this. Not least on grounds of complete absorption by the rehearsal process, I was not in the position to cover here work on Cechov's Seagull at Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus. Now I shall catch up, but not until briefly having talked about the film score for Volker Schmitt's Schattenlinie, which I took up recently.

A pre-premier of this film is scheduled for December 8, 2010 at Metropolis-Kino Hamburg. The soundtrack begins to take shape. Which shape and why will be a future subject of this blog. However, a core piece of music leads over to the topic "space for music" right away: it plays along a voice-over.
What is a voice-over? Contrary to an off-text, i. e. an audible text of a figure who features on scene but is out of sight (for the moment), a voice-over is a narrated text that comes from another time and space, so to say. In off-text one could, in contrast to voice-over, in theory display the speaker by adjusting the camera's position in the picture's story space. A voice-over can nevertheless be spoken by a figure who is part of the plot - but without watching her or him speaking, even if on screen. This is exactly what happens in Schattenlinie: two closemouthed characters are on the road in St. Pauli for several minutes, while their thoughs are told by their respective voices. This epic moment is a typical function of the voice-over technique.
Insofar as voice-over (who has heard this on stage, and where? Please comment!) strongly relies on the specific possibilities of sound mix in film - intimate voice-over against fully orchestrated music an street or subway noise -, there could be no sharper contrast to the conditions of the Düsseldorf Möwe production. The rehearsal stage C2 at Central in der alten Paketpost, serving as main stage during the renovation of the regular stage, is a slightly over-acoustic vast room. It remains empty in Möwe, accept some chairs, a low footbridge, some foliage and a curtain.

Director Amélie Niermeyer leaves everybody on stage throughout. Apart from a couple of turbulent moments, the figures converse in a moderate, well-nigh "realistic" temperature, given today's state of affairs in theatre. Her focus on dialog (by the way, Cechov is brillant! An exhilarating read!) and on driving the story literally tolerates interruptions between the acts only, when backfitting is inavoidable. Moments without dialog bear tense silence. There are three "special situations" where there is music under the scene, namely the theatre performance in the middle of act I., the beginning of act II. / Boule game, as well as the beginning of act III. / good bye party.

In short: first, the project to put, apart from those three moments, only the faintest Cello dots under the scene finally had to be abandoned for forlorness. Annoying. Secondly, the rigid limitation in space for music only allowed for fragmentary an low-key concoctions, at least this is what I was able to achieve. Therefore, I do not see why I should receive these as music in its own right, and record them and put online, or so. This is just too little.

The (however well audible) pieces of music between the acts are only three in number, last only a couple of seconds each, and are, following hours-long minimalism, accompanied by frantic actors, curtain, light shift, props and a stage rotating speed all of a sudden. Things which distract attention from the music. Two out of those three exceptional moments mentioned above are bound to repetition and monotony for scenic reasons, and subject to the actors need to "put their words all delicate" in order to get their attitude right. Solely remains the theater performance halfway through the first act. Might be we shoot a video of that one...

To make it complete, there is one more thing the severity of which has been clear in my mind since a long time, but has not been covered in the technique-focused March Space for Music posting: inside the branch Big Houses of Contemporary Theatre, on average (!), music ranks quite low concerning experience and - correspondingly? - regard. The shares, ranging from the average theatre rehearsal over the house's expenses to sentences per press critique, even how long one has the floor at the after-rehearsal pub meeting, are constant: 40% director, 40% actors (star roles 35%, supporting roles 5%), stage and costume design 15%, the rest music, if one is lucky. Apart from individual deviations which can, as always, be substantial, these shares only change by any kind of star status (only culture/entertainment really counts) or personal juice.

For daily work this means that, given a standard two months production period, not even a single hour of regular rehearsal time is sacrified for checking out music. Then, actors would be spear carriers of music; then, work on scene x would not be pushed on. On the other hand, it is absolutely common that music serves as spear carrier of acting, because it is of course impossible to retrieve or develop the right attitude without the music played in earlier rehearsals. In addition, the musical director has to close-mesh follow what is going on on rehearsal in order to be able to react to new requirements at short notice and well-informed. As a result, attendance is generally required, be it to fill the rehearsal stage with sound, be it in order not to miss a thing. Yet it is awkward to work on music during rehearsal. Soundcheck begins at 10.30 p.m., past the lighting rehearsal. "Space for music".

What I have thus said is of course not valid for every production I have luckily been part of - on the contrary, to name only a few, there was luxuriosly large space for music in Inferno/Purgatorio/Paradiso at Thalia Theater 2001/2002, directed by Tomasz Pandur, including the rehearsals. Likewise, all children theatre productions were different in that respect. But I could have made exactly the same points on the Volksfeind production earlier this year, with the only difference that I have been recording plenty of music "in its own right" for it - which however appears in the performance only briefly.

Leaving aside my obvious deficiency to cope with such conditions and just function, I can hear a leitmotif. To say it with (German seventies comedian) Otto Waalkes: In The Seagull my shirt is mouse gray in the first half, whilst in the second half it sports a light dash of ash. Curtain.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Space for Music: Stage vs. Screen

On February 20, Ein Volksfeind premiered at Staatstheater Stuttgart, before I did the soundtrack of NOWHERENOW, and a movie soundtrack comes next. I take the opportunity to muse about the differences between film music and playback stage music which are all so obvious concerning production and result.

This is not meant to address the differences due to reception history - a groundbreaking film, or rather a groundbreaking soundtrack, has more influence on film than on theatre, and vice vera. By the same token this is not meant to address the differences due to budget, distribution, target audience, and the organisational condition of corporate or non-corporate theatres versus film production enterprises. There are, so I hold, differences which immediately follow from fundamental properties of making plays or films. (This text is, like some on this blog, controversial by purpose: I appreciate any hint (comment-functionality) to films or stage plays contradicting my elaborations!)

Two aspects seem to be of particular relevance. On the one hand there is volume adjustment between (overdubbed) dialoge, original soundtrack and film music; on the other hand there are the specific capabilities of the camera, i.e. optical zoom, perspective, tracking shot, cut. Both are limited on stage. While microphones and a mixing console are available on stage, there are "hard" limits. The same is true for stage design/light, where impressive effects are possible, but nothing like those camera tricks.

Let's begin with volume adjustment. When mixing a soundtrack, a whispering actor can well be put beyond a furious orchestra of 120 people, or a whispering reed-pipe can be effective against a thunderous blizzard or a cried dialog. Here, not only sound level is a parameter. Rather, a subtle combination of panorama and reverb can precisely place a sound signal spacially. A Dolby Surround film in a THX certified cinema is much more transparent than a theatre stage could ever be, given varying reflecting surfaces with moving actors whose microphones, if they wear some, not only transmit their voices but also all kinds of environmental sounds.

The use of support microphones at the theatre, be they attached to the actor or fixed somewhere on stage, is generally not unproblematic. An accentuation of speech level is quickly realised by the listener. On the one hand she feels that the actor cannot produce the volume by herself (which does not happen in a decently mixed film), and on the other hand she registers those tiny sound colorations which can never be completely eliminiated on stage, e.g. wind and plop sounds, amplitude variations, impact noise, comb filter effects etc. As soon as the microphone is noticed it feels at least unnatural. Frequently it even raises the quest of a scenic justification - which sometimes leads to actors wearing visible hand microphones just to state the obvious.

Underlying unamplified speech with music on stage is a difficult enterprise all the more. In case the music is played so soft that speech comprehensibility does not suffer, the music gets stuck below a level where it can unveil its effect. Music needs a minimal volume in order to make significant elements (like melody, harmony, rhythm, sound colour etc.) reach the listener's mind. A music played too soft sounds like a disturbance, like an unspecific irritation. An actor declaiming aloud might drown out music played with functional volume, but his dynamic bandwith is severely restricted. Normal speech gets lost. Common rules of thumb known from film help, but not so much, e.g. to restrict oneself to slow and even movements, or to avoid frequencies which are important for speech comprehensibility. One faces the choice between music under amplified speech, with all unwanted consequences, or no music at all. This is a major handicap in the fight for "time slots".

Another handicap at claiming space for music results from the fixed position of the theatre audience. While the audience normally takes place on stationary seats the eye has a wealth of possibilities in film. These considerably expand the narrative options in favour of music. The camera follows a figure, it zooms into something, it slowly pans over a landscape, a room - this all creates moments, sometimes very long moments, where music not kept underneath speech can unresistently unfold its effects. Cuts helps in a similar fashion to establish extended passages without dialog, or with few bits of speech. Cuts make it possible to proceed with a plot without someone speaking. Classical example: car chase. To carve out a lengthy action scene on stage which is full of suspense is difficult - as difficult as a 100% long shot action scene without a single cut. Something like this can rarely be seen at the movies (counterexamples? Comment in!)

It seems to be complicated to find perspectives on stage which grant space to the music. Music with no text beyond tends to have a retarding effect. The plot does not keep moving. This need not be the case, of course: at the ballet, the plot moves on without anything being told. Maybe here is is no hard, but a soft factor at work, namely theatre tradition. According to theatre tradition, a play is a text in the first place. If not text, it is picture. Working with the actors is in the foreground who, in a consistent picture and costumed consistently, are to act consistently.

Stage is however not inferior towards film in every respect. The restriction of a room, or a finite number of rooms, which are obviously "made", the physical presence of actors who obviously "act" - these factors highlight the fictional character of the whole matter. The consciousness of fictionality can be utilised, and theatre has gained considerable mastery at this. Nobody wonders why there is a musician sitting on top of a guitar amp or at a piano right in the middle of the stage, even if he does not intervene at all. At the movies, the reception attitude, just because film can do, is more like diving into a world, what suggests to ask about the role of a figure and renders the establishment of a non-acting musician amidst all the action more challenging.

Yet there are hundreds of films which are capable of producing claims offside the realistic plot: finally, reception attitude is no hard limit for stage music. I meant to show that, instead, these consist in, on the one hand, problems with sound mixing on stage, impeding music below speech, and on the other hand music lacking space on stage which speechless narrative forms made possible by the camera open up easily.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Topoi of Mainstream Rock-Pop

I've been publishing an analysis of German Rock-Pop mainstream lyrics on the German mirror of this Blog: Topoi des Mainstream-Rock-Pop - since the lyrics are all in German I refuse to translate this post :-)

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Earworm Torture

Perhaps the United Nations when, in 1997, they sanctioned relentless exposition to loud music as torture method, thought it too complicated to brand the exposition to bad and catchy music as torture too. For a fatal effect, a nasty melody does not need to be repeated particularly often, let alone loud. It entrenches itself easily into the lamentable victim's head and eats along all by itself. Probably the venerable organisation would find itself in a permanent lawsuit with pop song producers whose achievements were ostracised by the respective UN committee as potential torture music. Probably this very committee would have to give up at the task of identifying which music would be suitable for agonising which men, regarding the enormous differences in reception preconditions, and to proscribe it accordingly. Probably this top-class committee would give way commenting that, just like a knife is not only a suitable means to cube onions but also to kill somebody, virtually any music can be misused to torture somebody until his "will is broken" (see link list below).

Inhabiting an island of of carelessness which, to this extent, rarely occurs both historically, geographically, and socially (German in Germany, financially and socially situated, no risky profession as, e.g., soldier) I have of course never encountered real torture. In every day language, however, "torture" is used as hyperbole for arbitrary unpleasant situations which one cannot escape in the short run, in particular if someone has imposed such situation on oneself exactly because of that: "Please stop torturing me and tell me what we will have for dessert!". The torment caused by a, say, involuntary imagination of music conceived as bad has been of such a big impact on my life that, for myself, I would rank "earworm torture" somewhere in the middle between the rhetoric and the literal meaning of "torture".

When I was at school I gained money by playing in show bands, rather than wait at table or find a holiday job. Friends I used to play with in classical music ensembles and jazz bands were also sitting in, and we developed sort of an ambition at the challenge of covering song classics. The repertoire reached from songs I liked quite a bit down to the lowlands of schlager, with some of the most penetrant earworms following me to sleep. After a gig where the bandleader - a high school teacher, i.e. an authority for me then - in an unbearable act of anticipatory obedience, enforced "Adelita" again, it happens: completely exhausted by the show going on until long after midnight, packing up our stuff, heaving it into our bandleader's house, leaden way home, I am finally lying in my bed at dawn. Eyes wide open. Adelita doesn't stop playing. The feigned gaiety of the song pushes me on the edge of despair. I get up, go to bed again, read something, listen to some Miles Davis - nothing helps. My sweet Adelita. I wait until 10 am, I am no brute. Then I call the bandleader and cancel the band.

I do no ballroom dance since, no matter how nice or harmless the context, no matter how short, no matter how rudely threatened with the party killer verdict, even though, when I was sixteen, I did the advanced level dancing course and even won a silver medal at the end-of-course dance. Yet my schlager trauma is of more import for my work as band and theatre musician: whenever and why ever schlager, kitsch, trash, bad taste, "bad but funny" or the like remotely comes up, sunny me all of a sudden becomes unexpectedly complicated. The showband leader has not remained the only one I have cancelled for this kind of reason, and my dearest musical friends do not even ask me for projects suspicious of kitsch anymore.

On music as torture instrument (without earworm aspect):

+ Bad Vibrations
+ A History of Music Torture in the "War on Terror"
+ Music As Torture: War Is Loud
+ Music As Torture / Music As Weapon
+ Statement against the use of music as torture

On earworms:

+ Can't Get It Out Of My Head (without torture aspect)
+ Wenn einmal der Wurm drin ist (with torture aspect)

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Birth of Mainstream from the Spirit of Protest

For reasons which will have to be addressed later I have been listening to the CDU (Christian Democratic Party of Germany) Song for the 09 election "Wir sind wir" ("We are us" or something).

Written and produced by Leslie Mandokie, has-been singer of "Dschingis Khan" scary (for those who do not dare to click the link: sounds like the arithmetic means of Rosenstolz, Xavier Naidoo and all music from recent German TV soaps, sorry, very German, this post!). The song reminded my of a question which had been on my mind when working on the stage music for Judith von Shimoda back in 2008. Which is the music of the Mitte ("middle of the road"; Mitte is a very common notion in the German political sphere), where everyone ought to be part of if they do not want to be cranks or even deviators. Which is the music of the market, to which laws everyone ought to submit oneself to if they do not want to be party poppers or even prohibit economic growth? In other words: which music is today, in the middle of Germany, used for propaganda purposes?

Preliminary note: in western democracies, as opposed e.g. to totalitarian regimes which used to reside in Germany, there is no such thing as a dedicated propaganda music as a genre anymore. If only the structures ceased to exist out of which such music tradition could emanate from. For instance, military music is completely marginalised. The political parties (as the CDU song reveals), unions and similiar organisations do not output specific music either.

Instead, it holds: "There's nothing more successful than success" (is there a saying like that in English?). A self-reinforcing mechanism is continuously normalising a mainstream which very slowly and carefully evolves with orientation towards chart success and recycling in tv series, soaps and ads. Composition and production closely follows what the markets have washed ashore. Medial exploitation on all channels massages the music into the mainstream brains with the result that it is commercially successful - and the cycle starts over again.

The pabulum this yields (yes, this metaphor is an allusion to McDonalds & Co.; it works the same) is not ideologically in the intention, but innocuously trimmed to maximal market success at minimal risk. Nonconformism is not verboten anymore, it simply gets lost in the information overload and the much higher marketing power of the mainstream productions. Everybody can do what he wants to do, or listen to. Noone will protest, but one can ignore, smile away, refuse to buy.

In the Judith production, the music was attributed to the protagonist who is outlawed because of her nonconformism. Therefore, the music was not about deconstructing mainstream but rebelling against the constant stream which, so to say, enforces consensual conformity. Do not accept to be brought into line! Non-consumption! Protest!

Yet which music would incorporate this protest? Surprising finding: this is not too easy! Practically every protest turned music is creepingly assimilated by mainstream in the course of the time. The sheer volume of the drums and the 68th's distorted guitars used to be a torch - today it feels at home in every VW Golf. What used to be "Independet" or "Gangsta", is today shrinked a Indie-Rock-Pop or Shiny-Suit-Rap, respectively, into the majors. In ads for sportswear, cars and mobile phone providers the breeze of savagery ultimately degenerates to an attitude.

In the Judith production the task was to give the protagonist a music where one could not imagine easily which product or which party could be advertised with it. Sounded like this:

Judith-Medley by fritzfeger

The CDU goes for the insignia of pseudo-youthfullness in order to reach as many as possible and to alienate as few as possible. The song features pseudo-tough drums, pseudo-protest distorted guitar, pseudo-cool vocal phrasing and pseudo-emotional belting voices. This is Schlager, this is
Kitsch. To pluck the lyrics into pieces has already been done by others, e.g. here, here and here (all in German).

It is highly interesting to compare the CDU song, concerning both the lyrics and the music, with this work of Rosenstolz:

One year ago I had noted: It need not be shown anymore that this kind of mainstream is bad, in the first place. This is commonly known, and everybody knows what it refers to: nothing. This is, nothing which can be deconstructed in the course of its destruction. I have changed my mind. Normalised music stimulates and reinforces normalised emotions. It wraps whitewashed cotton wool around our heads to make us feel good - and to put us into working order as customers and electors. It is important to understand why this music is so well-suited for the self-reassurance of the Mitte. This is also Marcel Reich-Ranicki's opinion:
[…] die Mehrheit des Volkes liest keine Literatur, jedenfalls keine, die sich ernst nehmen ließe. So konnte die herrliche Literatur der Weimarer Republik mit Thomas Mann an der Spitze politisch (gegen den Nationalsozialismus) nichts bewirken. Es gehört übrigens zu den Sünden der Literaturkritik, daß sie sich damals um die Trivialliteratur, beispielsweise die Romane der Hedwig Courths-Mahler, überhaupt nicht gekümmert hat. Man hätte zeigen müssen, wie das Zeug gemacht ist. […]
Just in case noone will read this critique it could be helpful to try to "make mainstream impossible from the inside", i.e. to create music with the surface aesthetics of mainstream with abysses. Well then.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


After having lunch with my wife and neuroscientist Axel Lindner speaking about our common presentation on Saturday at Schnittstelle Mensch, I associatively point to a website recommended to me by bat sonar researcher (yeah!) Hans-Ulrich Schnitzler: Their James Bond-like self-advertisement:
"NeuroPop uses the math behind the mind to create weapons grade sound design. We use our proprietary Neurosensory Algorithm (NSA) technology to modify any sounds or music to activate specific parts of the listener’s brain and get the emotional responses you want."
On the basis of results of recent neuroscience research, any sound, i.e. also music, can be modified in a way that it causes certain neurophysiological effects. For example as "sonic branding" a subconscious recognition effect, stress reduction, sleep inducing, attention direction or inducing particular emotions. The armory of sound design would thus significantly go beyond established psychoacoustic methods.

On their website there are some "Toys" from which I cannot see the great leap forward compared to pre-neuroscientific times. I do not doubt that e. g. one sound event immediately stimulates neuronal processes correlated with psychic relaxation, while another sound event maybe induces a feeling of threat, given the same conditions. But I doubt that these effects remain significant when conditions vary, if e. g. the same brain region is to be stimulated by "Neurosensory Algorithm (NSA) technology" in two pieces of music which differ, if only slightly, in expression.

It is of course a massive scientist's PR exaggeration to claim that it is possible to "get the emotional responses you want". This can be done for certain impulses (and by no means for any emotional response you want) with electrodes placed directly into the brain regions in question. But with sounds? Concerning this, I am very much looking forward to the talk of Eckart Altenmüller of the Institut für Musikphysiologie und Musikermedizin Hannover on "Music as a universal language of the emotions?" Friday eve at Kupferbau in Tübingen.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Twelve Tone And Serial Music And Neuroscience: A Polemic

This weekend the Zeitklänge-Festival for Contemporary Classical Music (Neue Musik) takes place in Kempten (Germany). There are concerts, workshop concerts and scientific presentations. The science journalist Christoph Drösser from ZEIT weekly newspaper reports: Zu schräg für unser Gehirn (Too Crooked For Our Brain). I seize the opportunity and reason about the neuroscientific investigation of music perception and the attempts from this direction to explain the unpopularity of Neue Musik (I use the German expression for contemporary music by the likes of the later Schönberg, Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Cage, Penderecki, Kagel, Ligeti etc. because there is no proper name for this particular genre in English).

In short, from the neuroscientist's perspective Neue Musik lacks structures which a) can be recognised and b) cause feelings of happiness or joy. This, so they argue, could not only be achieved by consonants absent in the dissonant Neue Musik, but also by the "game of fulfilled and disappointed expectations", which seems to be big fun for human beings. As Neue Musik does not feature recognisable structures it already lacks the prerequisites for this game. To the neuroscientist's lights, Neue Musik refuses reference to the "grammar" of musical styles which the listener is already familiar with and from which she could acquire something new. The gap is too big. In the spirit of Adorno who ranted about the emotionality and agreeability of jazz and pop music, and called for maximal innovation instead, the typical composer of Neue Musik is eager to avoid such appeals to the "pleasure principle."

This analysis is correct but incomplete. From the musician's perspective, critisism of the lacking reference to familiar structures which are comprehended as musically meaningful can be further sharpened: a composition following rigid formal principles as, e.g., in serialism, does not have a musical syntax any more, it has a non-musical syntax. It shares only the sound aspect with music, but its syntax follows mathematical principles. (From an outside perspective, the widespread traditional morphology brought about by the use of traditional classical instruments has a comic effect at times). Therefore Neue Musik cannot be deciphered by the method normally used to comprehend music, which is, well, listening to music. Similiar to that many an exhibit of modern art is in truth superfluent because everything which can be comprehended can be read in the catalogue, Neue Musik is fun only if one reads along the partition, or even studies the partition in silence, supplemented with the composer's or an insider music critic's remarks.

This leads me to the second point I would like to make. It is the question what someone who writes Neue Musik intends to communicate (or rather someone who writes a felt paradigmatic Neue Musik; this genre is of course by no means homogeneous and includes many works and composers to which nothing of what I am writing here applies). If a composer decides to compose something in non-musical syntax, she could as well write an essay and attach the partition and her diverse calculations. This would be more to the point and much cheaper. Put differently: what is a typical work of Neue Musik about?

The focus on neuroscientific aspects of music reception distracts from another aspect which is not less important: at the same time, music is a cultural code. It is not a quasi levitating technique to stimulate the cerebral system of human beings as effectively as possible without any cultural reference. Music does that too in having a musical syntax rather than a non-musical. But music also means something. (I silently pass over the philosophical question of a semantics of music, i.e. how musical syntax can carry meaning in the first place). A choral by Bach invokes a historical period, a religious attitude, indeed a whole world outlook in the listener's mind which of course largely differs from what is conveyed by a Beach Boys song. Our precision in relating music to a historical period and a milieu proves the richness of meaning music is capable of conveying - in musical syntax, nota bene. Musical syntax and, technically speaking, its neuronal correlates is the enabling condition for comprehensive music, but the effective stimulation of certain brain areas is not sufficient for meaningful music (see however NeuroPop). This makes the neurocientific investigation into music enormously complicated.

Nevertheless I believe that the unpopularity of Neue Musik is not only due to its neurological dysfunctionality. When we listen to something which is presented to us as music we apply musical patterns of interpretation even if the composition does not feature these, or if the composer was at pains to avoid musical syntax. At best this yields a music which, sometimes to the composer's dismay, perfectly fits horror movies, say. At worst we read a world outlook into the sounds which resembles the composer's outlook to a surprising extent. If I have not been polemic up to this point, now here it is: the world outlook which seems to be encoded in many works of Neue Musik is sectarian, presumptous, constructed - and above all anti-pleasure by purpose. Why should we do something like this to ourselves?