Sunday, December 04, 2005

Music in plays

followspot@hotmail.com
December 5, 2005

A playwright acquaintance once remarked that he finds music in theatre to be an annoying distraction from dialogue. We’re not talking musicals here, but “straight” theatre. I conceded his point that underscoring is, most certainly, manipulative — but that’s exactly why, as a director, I use it. What say you all?

26 comments:

Sara said...

if i'm not mistaken, one of Aristotle's six main elements of drama was music or song. it adds suspence and emotion which tugs at the audience's hearts. for most plays, i think it's needed to simply get the complete experience.

David said...

I don't know. Theater always has that element of spectacle (even kitchen sink realism, by drawing attention to it's own ostentatious mimicry) to which underscoring may add even more dimension. But, man. Underscoring can also feel so cheezy, and not a little lazy, just as in the movies. Do we use it too often to cover a weak script or unsure acting? Interludes, however, are nice, when the tunes are well chosen.

Anonymous said...

You use it for the same reason you use words, it is manipulative and effective. I think people who don't like music in plays probably mean corny, cheesey music or underscoring. Well done music is like well done costumes, lights, sets and acting; transparent and effortless. That’s my fifty.

Neal said...

My Sound Design professor always lamented that sound was the red-headed step-child of theatrical design. Most non-union houses will have light, set, costume, and even props designers, but sound is often just left to the director to pick some stuff they like. So you can end up with a home-burnt mix tape that distracts from the production instead of a proper score which supports it. Even pro-houses that have sound designers (in residence even) will still have shows where you get the mix tape effect. Which is obviously not to say that pre-existing, even recognizable, music is inapporpriate. It's all a matter of forethought. Sound design deserves as much time and attention as any other element of the theatre. Why it doesn't get that attention is a mystery to me, because a great design really lifts a show.

ms said...

To support Neal's thesis ... Case in point: our very own Rody Ortega and Elias Foley among others

miles m. said...

Why say "manipulative," and not simply "communicative?" Music just adds another level and speaks to another part of our brains. It can underscore the action and heighten the already-present emotion, or it can contrast with the action, providing an ironic or distancing effect.

Also, I'm starting to disagree a little that all the design elements should be "invisible." Of course they shouldn't be distracting, but there's absolutely no reason they can't be as interesting and relevant to the show as the actors or the script. This is the technological age. Movies feature special effects, and, when they're not gratuitous, they can add a great deal to the emotional AND intellectual richness of a piece. An example in film that comes to mind is Requiem for a Dream. Okay. It said "Look what I can do with film!" and made compositions that were symbolic and thought-provoking. We could do a lot more of this with sound and light. The modern audience member can handle it!

-m.m.

heather rose said...

"why say manipulative, and not simply communicative"

often times i feel music IS purely manipulative. it is not communicating the story more effectively, it is telling me how i am supposed to be feeling. i.e. the music swells and my eyes tear up in a pre-programmed pavlovian response.

by "straight theatre" i assume you mean psychological realism. music doesn't seem as odd to me in less "conventional" plays, like Lorca In A Green Dress or The Flu Season - stylized plays, plays where the forth wall is broken or the story is not chronological, etc.

if i'm watching conventional realism, i don't expect music to underscore the action. if it does, my suspension of disbelief is challenged.

no cut-and-dry rules. sometimes it works. depends on the artistry.

heather rose said...

"why say manipulative, and not simply communicative"

often times i feel music IS purely manipulative. it is not communicating the story more effectively, it is telling me how i am supposed to be feeling. i.e. the music swells and my eyes tear up in a pre-programmed pavlovian response.

by "straight theatre" i assume you mean psychological realism. music doesn't seem as odd to me in less "conventional" plays, like Lorca In A Green Dress or The Flu Season - stylized plays, plays where the forth wall is broken or the story is not chronological, etc.

if i'm watching conventional realism, i don't expect music to underscore the action. if it does, my suspension of disbelief is challenged.

no cut-and-dry rules. sometimes it works. comes down to artistry.

heather rose said...

oops. thought it didn't work the first time. actually, i thought my opinion was important enough to say TWICE.

ahem.
:)

miles m. said...

Sure, but the way the action is staged, the dialogue, the composition, the situation, all these things are "telling you how you're supposed to be feeling." I mean, we come back to the philosophy of theatre, and auteur theory, but does a script have a meaning before it's interpreted by a reader, or viewed by an audience? Some say no. Certainly, all of the choices a director makes, from casting to lighting, is supposed to Communicate (or manipulate) an audience in to seeing and feeling and thinking what the director wants the audience to see and think and feel.

But, no, I agree that music underscoring psychological realism tends to be a bad idea. My comment was more about how there could be more non-musical, non-conventional theatre that took greater advantage of music. (And, I suppose, an inappropriate response to this thread) A play like Faust.Us comes to mind. Or, for lighting, No Exit at Imago was terrific (I mean, No Exit wasn't terrific, but the lighting was!)

m.m.

heather rose said...

"all of the choices a director makes, from casting to lighting, is supposed to Communicate (or manipulate) an audience"

yes. for me, lighting (generally) creates mood more subtly. scenes in life ARE afterall lit. i'm not distracted by lighting shifts. scenes in life have props and people. but i don't hear music playing when mom and dad kiss under the christmas tree.

i'm not often attracted to psychological realism anyway. so break some conventions and mix in some music and movement and abstraction.

Follow Spot said...

I always did wish real life had underscoring.

Tom M. said...

My real life has underscoring. You can't hear the soundtrack in my head, but it is there I assure you.

Tom

Anonymous said...

It's the same for me. The soundtrack in my head gives each day an extra lift, makes running more bearable, and oddly comes to my rescue in emotionally stressful times.

Being a sometime musician -- a less than mediocre one -- I ALWAYS notice soundtracks in films and underscoring in plays. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I don't think it's very useful in serious drama unless specifically referenced in the stage directions or dialogue, but everybody seems to agree on that

miles m. said...

Exactly! That's what I'm saying, and it's nothing new, but I wish music and light were used more in plays to show what they FEEL like, the way you can be walking down the street with your headphones on and the world takes on a completely different look every time a new song comes on. I've always wanted to do a short film experiment like that, like, the same scene, but different music and see how the "meaning" or whatever, changes.

JzR said...

Even for ultra-realistic plays where you might not underscore a scene, I'd still take the time to put together pre-show and curtain music. Don't always see that here in Portland. Maybe to some it seems too gimmicky -- too canned/packaged -- but I think it's a missed opportunity.

Erin said...

"I've always wanted to do a short film experiment like that, like, the same scene, but different music and see how the "meaning" or whatever, changes."

That would be interesting. There is an old (like maybe 1960s or 70s) experiment that I think I heard about in a psychology class wherein a shot of a person with a blank expression is alternately followed by various scenes.

That didn't make sense.

Like this: shot of blank face / shot of man dying / shot of blank face / shot of baby playing / shot of blank face / shot of people arguing... etc

When they showed it to people, the audience reaction superimposed the blank face with emotions-- people thought the blank face was sad after seeing something sad, etc.

I think the same would be true with your music idea, miles m.

Anonymous said...

I've always been bothered by directors who say to me "We're gonna need some sound here..." as though sound is the answer to "I'm not sure how to direct this part of the play." What, I ask at that point, are you trying to communicate to the audience?

A Sound Design, like the other designs (oh, and casting, too) is a shortcut - a tool to help the audience understand the story in the allotted time. Sometimes a story will be enhanced by 'obvious' sound (just as sometimes flagrantly mis-matched costumes will tell the audience a thing or two), other stories require a much more delicate touch, and some are just plain best left alone.

It's up to the director to be aware of their personal preferences, to evaluate the script in as unbiased a way as possible, and to hire a designer appropriate to the project. There are quite a few of us out there. Some specialize in grand composition, others in moody underscoring, and still others in the gizmos and gadgets that fill all of the little corners of our homes.

Understand the story, hire the right person, use all of the tools you need to tell the story. (And don't make the audience wait for the story of the play while telling them the story of the design or direction - who hasn't sat uncomfortably through the top of a show while two minutes of music shouts a "message" to us about what we're about to see? Yuck."

At least 75 cents...

Anonymous said...

If you are turned off by a sound design or distracted from the telling of the story then the director/designer got it wrong. Truly, some artistic people swing sound around as gracefully as a hammer. I work in the theatre, doing sound for living, and the phrase that comes often to mind is, "People know two things in theatre, their name and sound." Sound really is the "red-headed step-child of theatrical design." Ironically directors that know how to pull it off are in the minority. For some reason this aspect of design has been marginalized and now that is showing, simply by the subject of this blog, "music in theatre to be an annoying distraction from dialogue." I would guess your friend has seen more bad designs than good.
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Jeff said...

"If you are turned off by a sound design or distracted from the telling of the story then the director/designer got it wrong."

By what standard? Yours? Mine? The snoring old man in the thrid row? I think "wrong" is too definative a word to use. I know that there are sound designs that bug the crap out of me, that people have loved, and the the opposite is also true. I do believe there is a certain level of "duh" to a design, and even a three year old would know when a cue dowsn't fit a scene, but getting something "wrong" in art is a bold statement.

PM said...

Heh -- if only sound designers could control that snoring man in the thrid row -- oh, wait -- that's the director's job.

Le Foi said...

Yeah, you really know the director's done her job when you can see her snoring happily in the third row.

Anonymous said...

At the risk being off topic:

"but getting something "wrong" in art is a bold statement."

Audiences make that statement everyday. That's who you are playing to. That's who you want a good sound design for. You, the artist/designer, may not agree with the audience, but still you would like their approval.
We as audience members have the right is say, "I loved it" or, "I hated it". Never are you going to hear an audience member say, I don't want to pass judgement because it's somebodys art."

If you are a production member working on a team to realize the director/designers vision, then you need to hold back your inner critic. Rationalize your hard work by saying, "I'm cool with this because it's someone elses art and they understand something in it I dont." The running joke between the lighting guy I sit next to and myself, is to turn to the other at the end of a bad peice and say, in our best "Greater Tuna" "Tuna Christmas" red-neck-drawls, "Well, I don't understand it so it must be art."

jeff said...

anonymous 10:23-

So are you saying that "wrong" and "hate" are synonymous?

-j

Anonymous said...

"So are you saying that "wrong" and "hate" are synonymous?"
Within the framework of this disscusion, yes.

If the audience regrets (ok, hates) sitting through your production and they don't want to see your work again, then maybe there were WRONG artistic decisions made. If you are doing art for art's sake, in your bedroom for yourself, THEN no one can falt you, i.e, pass judgement and use the word "wrong".

This seems way off topic. If you'd like to respond, maybe we could take it up here, on the "Smoking Balcony"
http://patagreenroom.org/phpBB2/viewforum.php?f=11
My name is Burt Reynolds.

Anonymous said...

Wow

Burt Reynolds thinks about music in theatre.