The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater

The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater

IRCAM in Paris may be the most famous center for research and development of new musical technologies and techniques (they’ve been bragging about their work on Farinelli), and many Americans go there to study and work, but they are not alone, and technology is getting cheaper and personalized. Morton Subotnick has been doing quite nicely for years, thank you, on this side of the Atlantic (or is it Pacific?), and doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down (see, for example, his fun Creating Music site). As for big multi-media laboratories, the United States has MIT and Canada has the Banff Centre for the Arts, which regularly encourages collaborations and residencies.

The most famous work to come out of the MIT Media Lab was Tod Machover‘s Brain Opera, which has now taken up permanent residence in Vienna. The voice in Brain Opera was pre-recorded and pre-manipulated – the live performers were instrumentalists. Is it Music Theater? How about Philip Glass‘s experiments with film? And Steve Reich‘s collaborations with multi-media artist Beryl Korot?

Smaller, faster… and cheaper

But the academic multi-media laboratory is only needed for the most expensive or large-scale experiments in the genre. Workstation-like computers are now routinely available at rather affordable prices, along with various MIDI interfaces and creative software written by programmer-composers that put old tape manipulation techniques to shame. Pamela Z is using wearable electronics in her music-theater performances. Microphones, amplification, samplers, digital loops, vocoders and other sound processors used by Laurie Anderson and Diamanda Galas are readily available, and similar manipulation of video is not too out of reach, either. IRCAM itself formed a user group to distribute a usable small computer version of its innovations.

Meanwhile, old technology is being used in new ways. The record player is a musical instrument in much popular music today. Tape manipulation, as wielded by John Epperson in his Lypsinka performances and John Moran in his “operas,” is resulting in exciting music-theater. In Europe, I’ve seen the most amazingly creative work done with synchronized slide projectors, as well as a mere overhead projector.

The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater
by Barry Drogin
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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