news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Thursday, 6 June 2013

"The artist, naturally, is expert at synesthesia."

Ideas from Conservatory instructor Quinn Bauriedel in the lead-up to his class with Volcano, New Directions in Music Theatre Fusion

A good friend and composer, Troy Herion, when speaking at the Pig Iron School, talked about a moment in his artistic life when he had immersed himself so fully in music that it was no longer distinct from the rest of his life. He didn't have to put on a music hat once he got to his desk. Music was the lens through which he saw the world. Birds sitting on a wire had a rhythm in the distance from one bird to another. He could hear the rustling of the leaves as a musical composition, as though the wind played an enormous harp. Everything - from autos careening down the highway to a ball rolling across a field to the slow movement of the moon in the sky - Troy couldn't help but notice, had musical qualities.

Photo: L. Todd Spencer
My lens is a theatrical one. I see individuals in the park and can't help imagine their stories. I watch someone walk down the street and intuit things about them from their gait, their gaze, to what degree they are falling into the earth or rising off of it. A ride on a subway is like watching a tremendous play with entrances and exits, chance encounters, relationships teetering on the brink, all range of human behaviour and interactions. But my theatrical lens, I must admit, moves far beyond people toward the more musical building blocks of live performance. Like Troy, there is a natural drama - and dare I say music - in a grove of trees planted too close to one another, each vying for sunlight, water, and nutrients in the soil. The tree that has been hit by lightening has endured tragedy, can't undo this scar, but continues to attempt to survive nonetheless. There is a song in these trees and a sound that comes from them. The artist, naturally, is expert at synesthesia.

Photo: Warisan Indonesia / Hardy Mendrofa
I lived in Bali, Indonesia for a year, soaking in the rich theatrical traditions there. There is no word for actor in Balinese, only a word for dancer. Actors are dancers and every performance is underscored with music. The music provides the motor for every piece from the tragedies to the comedies. In the Balinese shadow puppet plays, the dalang (puppeteer) is simultaneously puppeting up to 25 puppets and giving each of them different voices (speaking up to 5 different languages) while also playing drums with his feet and conducting the orchestra that accompanies the play. The dalang is responsible for the piece and understands how to control the tempo. The battle scenes need a driving tempo. The love scenes need something, perhaps softer. When the clown characters are caught with their pants down the music must resemble something closer to slapstick. Their master artist makes no distinction between music and drama - both are essential components of live performance and both are required to engage and awaken an audience. 

Cab Legs. Photo: Clemens Scharre
For me, the lines between theatre, dance and music are fairly thin, if they exist at all. A few years ago I saw a Christoph Marthaler piece in Avignon and the play was a mix of silences, choral singing, talking, dancing and stillness. I couldn't help think that  Marthaler envisions the stage as a kind of symphony. I remember an early Elevator Repair Service play, Cab Legs, which utilized loads of stage whispers as the main sound design of the piece. Though the PS122 space was 20'x20', they created a space far bigger than that with the playful use of sound. In Pig Iron, we often loop simple musical phrases - feet scuffing on the floor, a tennis ball bouncing - to lay a carpet on the stage of sound and tension. At times you almost don't notice the sound, but it supports the work the characters are doing. It heightens the drama. It draws you in.

Quinn Bauriedel and students. Photo: Andrew Daddio
This summer at Volcano, I am eager to crack open the big question about music and theatre, working toward something that is neither rock concert nor Broadway musical. I am eager to fuse the musical and theatrical lenses into one where music can be considered as the rhythms between bodies in space, and theatricality can be considered as the relationship between a character and the music that supports the stage. My guess is that this will take us toward the use of music in many Theatre de Soleil productions where live music is improvised alongside the actors so that, like Bali, everything is underscored onstage. Perhaps this has its roots in the early films that were live scored. Film directors, of course, know that without sound and music, ordinary actions and relationships remain ordinary, but with sound and music they become epic and extraordinary. We will also look at sound design to break the convention that sound design exists to cover scene changes, in order to discover ways that simple sound design choices can focus the action onstage and can contribute as a vital language of performance.

Lastly, we will examine songs and melodies, bands, and choirs onstage to understand the theatrical potency of live music, played and sung. Like in Emir Kusturica films, can we create a new convention in which characters are supported by bands who play the music that shares how they feel, as though in life you wander around with your own soundtrack? Mine goes something like this:

Tak tak dee doom ba dum dum dee dum...whack!

New Directions in Music-Theatre Fusion runs July 19-21 at the Volcano Conservatory. Click here to register!

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