Musical performance is an inherently theatrical experience. Like all performance art, its paradigms evolved from the religious ritual and community meetings that were conducted publicly on the edge of towns where people gathered, at the crossroads. Part of the enjoyment we take in live renditions of our favorite music derives from the rituals surrounding these shows. The arena rock concert experience begins with memorabilia purchases before settling into seats to wallow in an immersive multimedia spectacular. Club shows generally involve holding beverages while standing amid a tightly packed crowd of like-minded spectators. We time our arrival knowing that the opening acts won’t begin playing until well after the announced starting time and if we want to hear the headlining act we’ll need to wait several hours. The musicians array themselves across the stage in a predetermined order, with the singer nearly always placed front and center and the guitarist commanding a wide swath of downstage right territory while the bassist and other instrumentalists fade somewhat into the stage left background. Intense amplification allows the sound to envelop us so that our cheers and shouting barely register with our immediate neighbors. The experience is all encompassing and communal.
For people who grew up going to rock concerts, the classical concert experience can be a bit difficult to figure out. The performances start on time and latecomers are not welcomed. Instead of showing appreciation by shouting and cheering vociferously as often as possible and whenever the players launch into a personal favorite, the delicacy of the music forces the audience into such complete silence that even shifting in one’s seat or slightly rustling a program can disturb people several rows away. Singing along with the performers is absolutely verboten. The instrumentalists might stop and retune in the middle of a piece, but anyone who claps in these spots risks ridicule from others. These artists dress like waiters in a fancy restaurant, a costume reflecting their status as servants to the music created by long-dead composers, who were often employed as domestics in ancient courts themselves. All of these traditions developed over hundreds of years, and, while they remain very much intact in the orchestral world, few experimental ensembles abide by most of them. Instead, if you’re interested in hearing acoustic instruments create odd sounds, you’re more likely to hear that in a bar performed by people dressed like … people.
When I first began to explore experimental music, I found one aspect of the classical performance tradition absolutely thrilling and far superior to rock shows: the relationship between the physical gestures of the musician and the sound created. While rock guitarists might run around the stage and whirl their arms like windmills, these antics are extraneous to the sound itself; the strength of the chord derives from the volume setting on the amplifier rather than the size of the windup before the strum. Conversely, the body control needed to make a violin scream or whisper is immediately apparent to the acoustic audience, even to my untrained eyes. When I discovered the music of George Crumb—whose piece Black Angels asks the members of a string quartet to use a wide variety of techniques to get unusual sounds, while also having them play percussion instruments and vocalize—I could viscerally relate to the relationship between the physical gestures of the performers and the incredible variety of absolutely beautiful sounds they produced. I knew I was hooked.
I’ve always been drawn to musicians who think of themselves as performance artists, who consider the staging as an integral part of the listening experience. The first album I remember buying for myself was Double Platinum by Kiss, a purchase that I made because their costumes comforted me due to their resemblance to cartoons. As I moved into high school, I discovered Peter Gabriel and his penchant for donning outfits expressing the texts of his songs. He led me to Laurie Anderson and the idea of “performance art.” David Byrne and his big suit served as a gateway to Brian Eno and also the stage director Robert Wilson, who in turn led me to his collaborative partner, the composer Philip Glass. In Glass and later Meredith Monk, I discovered a new conception of the term opera.
[Next week: Incorporating the influence of rock and opera into experimental music performances]