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.
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