Side Navigation

Section 3: A brief retrospect of instrumental theatre

By travelling a little bit back in time, I want to sketch some of the historical events that I consider important in preceding and creating a situation in the fields of music and the arts that allowed Boivin to find his voice of artistic expression. Mauricio Kagel began using the term ‘instrumental theatre’ a few years after hearing a lecture at the 1958 Darmstadt summer course where Heinz-Klaus Metzger introduced the term. Kagel’s exposure to John Cage and Fluxus as well as hearing Metzger’s talk coincided with the beginning of his own experiments in music theatre, and in Kagel’s writings from around 1960, ‘instrumental theatre’ inherits a much more definite meaning and theoretical foundation. But music theatre as such is not Kagel’s invention. Both Stravinsky and Schönberg had, among others, developed new ways of combining theatrical and musical elements covering some new ground outside of the established areas of musical drama, in traditional opera on the one hand and the static text delivery of song cycles and oratorios on the other.

The post-war avant-garde, which Kagel belonged to since his arrival in Cologne in 1957, was on the whole quicker to seize the technical and aesthetic innovations of the pre-war avant-garde than in their re-conceptualization of the nature of performance. Performance was still largely thought of as a means of realising a score, and a communicative process that is primarily or completely acoustic in nature, though aleatory technique, and graphic notation in particular, already acknowledged the performer as an important collaborator in the creation of music. By developing new forms of music theatre that call attention to the inherent theatricality of musical performance, Kagel was thus picking up a thread from the pre-war avant-garde, which had been largely overlooked. The emergence of performances with electronic music and the prevalence of the phonograph medium may also have been an important catalyst in re-evaluating the physicality of performance. The ghostliness of electronic music concerts, the conceptions of ‘true music’ and ‘pure sound’ being poured out of the loudspeakers found its counteractive reaction in Kagel’s instrumental theatre. In many ways, he strived to rediscover what had been lost in Western classical music: the visual and kinetic nature of performance including communication and interaction with the audience, the physicality of music-making implying the erroneousness of a live performance, the bodily presence of the performers who are invited to a shared identification in the unique recreation of the work. Of course, all these and more elements were subject to a severe expansion and most thorough investigation in the new development of music and instrumental theatre, which was to be eagerly followed by many, Stockhausen, Schnebel, Ligeti, Berio and Aperghis among them.

But to unwind the lines of history leading up to ZAB we must return to the 1950’s, to the experiments with music theatre performed by Mauricio Kagel, and to Dieter Schnebel’s almost simultaneous development of ‘visible music’. Kagel’s earliest pieces of instrumental theatre, Sonant and Sur scène, were both composed in 1960. Their reflection upon music and theatre start from opposite poles, in Sonant, being the most relevant piece in our context, we experience the dramatisation of musical performance, the transformation of playing musical instruments into theatrical action, while Sur scène presents musical performance in the context of experimental theatre. In 1964 he wrote the piece Match for three players, which is a classic of the instrumental theatre. In Match, two cellists compete under the direction of a percussionist-referee in a musical game of tennis or table tennis. In his book The music of Mauricio Kagel (2006), Björn Heile (p.47) writes: “…Match clearly falls in the tradition of Sonant. The scenic effect of the piece is derived from the playing of the instruments themselves. Likewise, the piece extends, but does not break with, the traditional concert situation. Where Match departs from the conception of Sonant is in combining the emphasis on the intrinsic value of the kinesis of instrumental performance with a semantic reference. But it is astonishing to what extent this semantic effect, that is the athletic nature of the playing, is also derived from an exploitation of instrumental technique”. Kagel’s sketches reveal that his point of departure in composing Sonant and Match lay in studying the instruments, cataloguing and sorting playing techniques before proceeding to invent music that can be produced in these ways. This is very much the same method as used by Boivin in his early work on ZAB. Rather than taking on the compositional process with purely musical ideas, such as melody or rhythm, the physicality and kinesis of playing is central to the production of music. This results in a visual dimension to the music-making, as many instrumental actions are chosen for their kinetic and visual effects as well as for their acoustic results. Also following in the tradition from Kagel’s Match and Sonant, the scenic effect of the music in ZAB is derived from the playing of the instrument itself.

To a greater extent than Kagel’s development of instrumental theatre, the concept of Schnebel’s ‘visible music’ (the original German expression being ‘Sichtbare Musik’) originated from an aversive cultural criticism against the current perfection-oriented performance practise. In her book Dieter Schnebel, Lesegänge durch Leben und Werk (2001), Gisela Nauck points to an inspired growth, initiated by Fluxus and Neo-Dada experiments, of music that displayed a discomfort with the interpretation-cult of classical music which embraced the new media in their quest for perfection. Schnebel picked up the thread laid out by these early reactions to the infallible modes of music performance and wound it into his own critical version of music theatre, his visualised music: ‘Mit Hilfe von Schallplatte, Tonband und Lautsprecher vermochte man Musik auf die pure akustische Präsenz schrumpfen zu lassen, dies zumal in der elektronischen Musik, die auch den Interpreten vergessen machte. Sie und High fidelity ließen überdies die Illusion aufkommen, es gäbe Musik ohne Fehler’ (Nauck, 2001, p.92). With the help of the phonographic technology, attempts were made to recoil music to its pure acoustic presence, especially within the domain of electronic music, where also the interpreter is set aside. This and high fidelity suggested moreover the illusion that there is music without error. Instrumental theatre, or visible music, is by nature impossible to reproduce the same way each time being performed. Even though sound and movement is strictly rehearsed there will always be space for small impulsive actions or coincidences in the performance situation that changes the sound or the movement, without being perceived as mistakes. An audience will not notice these variations, unless having attended several performances of the same piece. My experience is that a performance constitutes a more captivating communicative feeling (and is perhaps more successful, seen from the audience perspective) if the performer succeeds in freeing him- or herself to some extent from the notation, to ‘act out’ the music. Implied in such an interpretation is the transcendence of the score, the personal coloured pages of the music and the reflective or intuitive feed of cognitive detail. Visible music is Schnebel’s term for a heterogeneous art form in which sound, space, text, and image become musicalised. In his essay “Visible Music” (1969) he identifies and discusses several forms of visible music where music in motion and gestic play point to developments, where gestural actions are formed together with the idea of the music. It is the initial production of the note, sound or noise that projects and prescribes the compositional result. Another situation is described in this way: “Even when only the inherent possibilities of the instruments are realized - that is, when they are used to their full capacity rather than having something superimposed on them - the performance turns into action” (Schnebel, 1969). This is true, for example, in many of Berio’s Sequenzas, and in much of the music of Vinko Globokar and George Crumb. Schnebel points out that in these pieces the musicians become actors. Not with the intent of turning them into second-rate actors, as is sometimes suspected, but, with practise, to let the musicians use the gestural dimension as a fluent additive in the music performance.

Lars Igesund writes in his thesis on visible music (2004) that instrumental theatre is a form of music theatre where focus is on the visual and theatrical energy that lies implicitly in the performance itself, in the creation and bringing forth of single sounds and music on instruments, and in the communication and relationship between musicians and the audience. Instrumental theatre is visualising the music. But what are then the meanings of the visual aspects of ZAB? The prime answer of the composer to this question is that the gestures are connected to ways of creating sound on the bass, and that the whole instrument was thought of as a sound generator. Because of its size and its shape, the bass is in itself a strong visual instrument: Beautiful and feminine in its form, often being said to resemble the shape of a woman, though masculine through its deep voice, which is more linked to rhythm and timbre than to melody. The movements required to play the double bass, in conventional or strange ways, are easily caricatured in a way that they become aesthetical objects of their own.

The concept of visible music, as developed and used by Schnebel, was multifaceted in its complex theorisation and practical compositional outcome. In 1988 he sums up his own music by saying: ‘Wie bereits die Titel verraten [‘Sichtbare Musik’], handelt es sich um Musik, in der das Szenische einen eigenen Wert bekommt und wo der Gestus und die Gänge von Musikern eine besondere Rolle spielen’ (Nauck, 2001, p.92). Visualised music is concerned with performance situations where the scenic is assigned its own significance and where the gestures of the musicians play a particular role. Schnebel’s experiments with the visualisation of music manifested profoundly new philosophical and conceptual ideas. Timbre, noise, speech, sound, gesture and movement become equal musical matter. The function of the visual part of the music is often elucidating, it enhances the audible impressions and makes them more understandable and perspicuous. Groundbreaking performances in the 1950’s that emphasised the visual, or presented exceptional instrumental difficulties, in works like Ionisation (1931) by Edgar Varèse, Polyphonie X (1951) by Pierre Boulez, John Cage’s Water Music (1952) and even Kagel himself in Transición II (1959) played a part in the development of visualised music. Common to these works are a resounding need to move borders, to question the commonly habitual. We talk about a pioneering creativity and an urge to explore. And these attributes can also be ascribed to Boivin when he took on the task of writing a piece for the double bass. It was not so much about conceptualising the traditional role of the double bass through a reflection on certain playing techniques and performance-active elements, but to simply create a new entirety out of the action of playing the instrument; to call attention to the visual elements, to display the fusion of performer and instrument, and to let the instrument form a new identity.

Much of the same characteristics are pertinent in the pioneering work of George Crumb and Luciano Berio. Crumb is noted as an explorer of unusual timbres, alternative forms of notation, and extended instrumental and vocal techniques. His compositions often incorporate theatre as an element of performance, for example by letting the musicians wear masks as in Vox Balaenea for Three Masked Players (1971)or by letting the musicians use the gestural dimension inherent in extended instrumental techniques as a fluent additive in the music performance. As mentioned in a previous chapter, Dieter Schnebel describes the gestural effects of a virtuoso performance as a kind of visible music, where the virtuosity of performance turns it into action. For Luciano Berio, an extended idea of virtuosity connected all the pieces in his Sequenza series. In her essay Provoking Acts: The Theatre of Berios’s Sequenzas Janet K. Halfyard dedicates a chapter to the theatre of virtuosity. She describes that “the theatrical nature of virtuosity lies in the way the audience’s attention is fixed upon the performer and largely relies on acts of live performance, on the visual appreciation of a musician’s skill…” (p.113). The theatre of virtuosity spellbinds the audience in a performance of ZAB, and it presents very challenging tasks to the musician who must transcend the new virtuosity of novel techniques and gestural play. However, the interpreter must also possess what Berio calls ‘a virtuosity of knowledge’ (Halfyard, p.115), through historical reflections and awareness of the potential conflict between composer and performer, the “tension between the musical idea and the instrument, between concept and musical substance” (Berio, p.91).

In the theatre of ZAB, the audience’s expectations of what is natural and normal in a performance are constantly re-evaluated through unexpected and ‘alienating’ actions. But contrary to the critical dramaturgical concept of Verfremdung (translated as ‘alienation’ by Osmond-Smith, 2008), underlying Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre and adapted by Berio in many of his compositions, Boivin aims to consolidate the actions into positively new expressions; the opening of ZAB can be taken as an example: The performer slowly approaches the double bass and begins playing percussions on the instrument, which is still lying on the floor. Together with the performer, the audience immediately re-discovers the instrument through the immediate perception of new sounds and gestures. Right from the beginning the play already suggests that we are witnessing an exploration or reinvention of a new identity. Something that we thought we knew wakes up with an altered nature, yet we are invited to associate the coming exploration with a subtle set of emotions, ranging from humour, surprise and happiness to desperation and anger. Dramaturgically, this is all very similar to the opening of Berio’s Sequenza III for voice, except that the Brechtian alienation device is very much present in this opening by compelling the audience to self-consciousness of what they are doing, staring at this woman who walks onto the stage producing muttering vocalizations. On the other hand, the effect of the opening of both pieces is, as Janet Halfyard describes in her essay (p.110), simply to reinforce the theatricality of the piece. Similarly, in the compositional structure of ZAB, where Boivin deliberately has juxtaposed different playing techniques in order to make new sounds, the effect is not what we can see for example within Berio’s Sequenza III, “where lyric singing, speech and ‘everyday vocal acts’ such as laughter or coughing are juxtaposed in a vertiginously compressed manner, mutually alienating one another” (Osmond-Smith, 2008). Instead, the result is carefully blended sounds that surprise us in their novelty but still familiarize instantly in the context of the performance.

While Berio with his use of extended techniques never distanced himself from traditional instrumental treatment, Boivin steps out of the tradition to form new sounds. At the time when he composed ZAB he described the focus on timbre and sound, and the elimination of most other parameters like pitch, rhythm and harmony, as an intuitive approach towards music. This was the way the music had to be, and the dissociation with traditional instrumental writing was never a question that was up for reflection. Interestingly, with both Berio and Boivin we see very idiomatic writing, which links both composers to the tradition of virtuosity. The idiomatic outline of technique and gesture, and the theatre of virtuosity, becomes part of the essential nature of the composition. The Sequenzas represent Berio’s own reinvention and appropriation, as composer, of instrumental idiomatic writing and of virtuosity. ZAB marked the beginning of a similar representation in Boivin’s compositional activity, where a recurrent attitude is on how to make the instruments sound the best. In ZAB, as in the Sequenzas, the music creates its meaning through physical action, comprehended through our visual sense as much as through abstract musical sound.

Prior to ZAB, the physical interaction and communication with the double bass was explored in works like Alice (1974-75) by Michael Finnissy and Valentine (1969) by Jacob Druckman. In Valentine, the player attacks the instrument with a bow, a timpani stick, and both hands, alternating manners of percussive tapping on the body of the instrument. It begins with a soft, driven intensity and moves toward a state of euphoria. Any excessive use of theatre or humorous gestures will mitigate the effect of the complexly vivid and unheard music. Because of its huge size, the performers battle to play the double bass quickly becomes a funny visual sight. Even in romantic, virtuosic music the flashy, acrobatic dance of the hands provide a spectacular sight that takes focus away from the music. The use of visual effects and humour to affect or spellbinding the audience is common in most music. With the use of extended techniques, new and challenging performance situations, new media etc, the multifaceted expressions of contemporary music must be careful as to keeping the focus where it necessarily must be, on the music, on the reflective and explorative compositional process as well as on the true dissemination and communication of the work. An outstanding mediator of new music and master explorer of new sounds on the double bass was Fernando Grillo, who, during the 1970s, created a whole new performance situation around his experiments with sound and movement. Many of his performances were conceived as very strange séances, being reluctantly funny, caused by the very many untraditional ways of treating the instrument. Michael Finnissy reflects some of these in Alice, which was written for Grillo, where drawings, similar to those we find in ZAB, of movement and gesture illustrate some rather absurd situations. But when taken seriously, the performance resembles a ritual, and for Grillo it also took on a sense of spirituality.

Instrumental theatre does indeed facilitate a greater participation of the performer in the creative and performative act, and this might also be part of the genres communicative success. Yet, to me it is also possible to close my eyes and just listen to ZAB (an experience shared with Boivin when he recalls a successful radio broadcast by Radio France after the premiere in Avignon in 1982). The sonic landscape is certainly the most important and interesting constituent of this piece. Boivin confirms that his point-of-departure were the sounds that he could find on the double bass, and he stresses that in order to present a successful performance of ZAB, the musician must maintain a perpetual awareness towards the living sounds, in the initiation and the being of their present creation, which not only projects its present structural and musical meaning but also organises the memories of the sounds already heard and furnishes the presentiments of sounds to come.

As a pure listening experience, this new world of sounds presents a number of subjective challenges in the perception and definition of these sounds. The inventive use of untraditional playing techniques can create a confusing mental picture of the performance, even for experienced musicians. I can remember my first listening to ZAB, and how confused I was simply because I could not visualise the sounds that I heard. Usually, since I know the bass from the inside out, my listening experience is depicted by an image of how the sounds are created. This inner mental performance can be described as a listening ‘performance’. But when listening to ZAB, this image was often blurred to a degree beyond recognition. And, if compared to the images shared with the general listener, my inner pictorial interpretations are far more detailed (pointed towards the actual playing of the instrument), which again makes the sounds even more radical to the general public. Nevertheless, the experience of a listening ‘performance’ is always more subjective than a visual performance where everybody can see what is actually happening.

The musical aesthetics expressed in ZAB are easily matched with a postmodern set of perspectives. Subjectivity is an important matter, as the piece was created in collaboration with bass player Jean-Pierre Robert, using his unique techniques, which again were challenged and expanded through Boivin’s own experiments. Together they created a piece that mirrored their musical identities and preferences. Boivin’s own candid curiosity, exemplified through his interest in the Persian tonbak drum, led to the discovery of many new sounds on the double bass. For a short period, Boivin was working as a producer at Radio France. Here he was introduced to the music of Djamchid Chemirani, a brilliant tonbak player who, since his arrival in Paris in 1961, has been teaching at the Centre d'Etudes de Musique Orientale at the Paris Sorbonne Institut de Musicologie. The tonbak, which is also called zarb (ZAB?), is a goblet drum from Persia (ancient Iran). It is considered the principal percussion instrument of Persian music. The percussive sounds in ZAB are a direct consequence of the discovery of the techniques and sounds of the tonbak drum. But also a selection of more conventional quotes taken from traditional music can be found in ZAB. According to Boivin, this was at the time not common, and not very popular, in the field of contemporary music. The sounding references to traditional music, and the theatrical incorporation of Eastern philosophy and meditation point strongly to the openness that Boivin feels towards music and life.