'Failed' Mediation?

Auditory Distress in Contemporary Music Theatre
Pieter Verstraete KVNM Congress “Heden, verleden en toekomst van de Nederlandse muziekwetenschap” Academiegebouw van de Universiteit Utrecht, Domplein 29, 31 January 2009 (2.30-4.00pm) Session MUSIC & MEDIA, convened by Isabella van Elferen (UU)

Over the past fifteen years contemporary theatre in Belgium and the Netherlands has seen a renewed interest in music as a proper, autonomous medium that can affect many aspects of a performance, seeking for new models of a total experience. Parallel to this development is a debate directed by media studies on the all-pervasive nature of media and mediation, including the expanded notion of mediatisation. In Theatre Studies and Musicology this has lead to an on-going debate on musical multimedia, hybridity and, the rather vexed term, ‘intermediality’. With the growing use of new technologies in the modes of production, music theatre equally deals with related issues of media and mediation, exploring and blurring boundaries between them, while calling upon the spectator’s regimes of perception as their mutual aesthetic project. Therefore, these tendencies urge for a critical examination of such concepts as media and mediation for the analysis of contemporary music theatre. In my dissertation, entitled The Frequency of Imagination: Auditory Distress in Contemporary Music Theatre, I have come across the issue of mediation implicitly in one of my case studies: Wouter Van Looy’s semi-scenic staging of Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle (‘Blauwbaards Burcht) for Muziektheater Transparant, performed by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic orchestra (deFilharmonie). I have also written about the same performance in my latest article for a new book on sound in performance, Sonic Mediations: Sound Body Technology (appeared with CSP). My intentions with the present presentation are, however, foremost theoretical. Nevertheless, I will refer to the staging of Blauwbaards Burcht to illustrate certain mechanisms and implications of the concepts I engage with. My aim here is to relate the issue of mediation to the central thesis of my dissertation, namely that sound is always in a sense distressing, causing ‘auditory distress’ to the listener. Sound thereby carries the elements of disturbance and ‘failure’ in the mediation that are necessary for it to communicate with the listener-spectator. This affects also other aspects of mediation in the theatre. I will further develop the implications of this thesis for the listener in music theatre in this presentation. I will particularly focus on how auditory distress in the mediation of sound urges the listener to respond, and thereby positions oneself towards the music theatre performance. In so doing, I want to contribute to the debate about musical media and mediation through an awareness of positionality that is often offered in contemporary music theatre. By focusing on how auditory distress instigates the way the


Murray Schafer makes a variation on this idea. Auditory distress is then to be understood as caused by the excess that sound imposes through its address on the listener and the capacity to channel. Auditory Distress and the Listener’s Urge to position oneself I wish to argue that theatre’s intermediality re-emphasises the distressing nature of sound as fundamental to our perception. Note that through my attention on auditory perception (instead of specifically musical experience). sound and music as media. as it would neglect the possibility of harmonious or pleasurable feelings in the listener. interrupts in our train of thoughts. which has both a physical and a perceptual-cognitive reason. or trespasses our inner selves.1 As the general argument goes in my investigation. alongside theatre. R. the ear is by nature defenceless without a protecting lid such as the eye has. Therefore. violation is too strong of a term to conceptualize auditory distress as a basic condition of our auditory perception. which could draw her in the music while taking leave of the physical context of listening. With my notion of auditory distress. Rather. claiming authority in its pervasiveness and the abrasions it produces in the listener’s attention. I would like to detach my notion of auditory distress from a physical understanding and relate it primarily to the senses in a perceptual understanding as a basic mode of auditory perception. 2 . sound is necessarily marked as an impulse that intervenes in the human auditory system. Auditory distress should however not be merely regarded as an aesthetic or argumentative strategy. Rather. I regard auditory distress as the basis for every experience caused by sound. I want to claim that even such feelings have auditory distress as a basis. I am also aware of the danger of generalisation by claiming that sound is always producing distress. suggesting an immediate connection with Wagner’s theoretisations: 1 My argument finds support in Walter Ong’s (1982) claim that sound can “register interiority without violating it” (Ong 1982: 71). I include music for its sounding qualities in the first place. necessitate a definition of mediation in terms of a context-bound channelling of the auditory distress in listening. process or block this excess through the listening attention. Indeed. In his time-honoured book Tuning of the World (1977). which would be too narrow as a basis for the analysis of sound and music in the theatre. Perceptively. once it is noticed by a listener. Rather. distress is necessary for every sound to be picked on from a certain acoustic horizon or background. I go against a notion of ‘medium’ as a neutral go-between or material carrier of a message. as sound needs to intervene and catch our attention. I want to respond to the idea of interiority being ‘untouched’ by sound. Because the listener is therefore willy-nilly always switched on. Rather.listener positions oneself towards sound in processes of mediation and signification. distress has been assigned to the rather damaging effect of sound or noise in the cochlea of the inner ear. Physically. auditory distress should be understood as an appeal on the listener. however. but this only includes extreme levels of sound. However. sound leaves physical and cognitive traces that make us respond by channelling the ‘harmful’ or unwanted intensities.

has a long history of concealing the modes of producing sound and music in the staging to secure a total and ‘direct’ experience. Susan Buck-Morrs (1992). by implication. The act of listening can then be understood and analysed in terms of the listener’s responses to the auditory distress. addressing the listener to position oneself through her responses. sound would blur the boundaries between an outside and an inside. which extends my thesis: “There is no legislating for sensory distress: all sensory input is distressing. Marshall McLuhan’s distinction between the efforts of the eye and the ear could put too much emphasis on the fragile interiority of the ear. the idea of auditory distress could explain for the basic need in the perceiver to channel the unwanted intensities of sound that produce excess in listening.’ The ear’s only protection is an elaborate psychological mechanism for filtering out undesireable sound in order to concentrate on what is desirable. or rather ‘artwork of the future’ as Wagner called it. without overt narrational mediation. Seen this way.’ (Schafer 1977: 11) Seen this way. dramatic mediation. and especially the music drama tradition since Wagner. Robin Maconie’s rather throwaway remark.The sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will. Paradoxically. has pointed out in this context that technological novelties – such as the darkening of the listening space and the reverberating acoustics of the Festspielhaus – were used to cover up the heterogeneous experiences of the modern everyday outside the auditorium. I choose to oppose to McLuhan’s rather problematic distinction. the sounds that surround us in our daily lives. Wagner said: ‘To the eye appeals the outer man. the ear draws inward. music are essentially obstinate ‘media’ as they always mark their own materiality in the excess they produce. Listening involves an active engagement to the mediation of sound that always in itself causes levels of distress. According to her. In the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. literally marked by the gap of the orchestra pit. … These facts have prompted McLuhan to write: ‘Terror is the normal state of any oral society for in it everything affects everything all the time. This explains why theatre. This could also explain for the disembodied effect of singing techniques. whereas literacy under the hegemony of the eye would favour clear demarcations. while being invisible to the eye and all-invasive to the body and inner ear. sound and. for instance. and we are engaged in a constant effort of keeping unwanted intensities of information at bay” (Maconie 1990: 23). the concealment of the modes of production had to secure the illusion of an immediate. Drama was long the exclusive vehicle or medium to secure a sense of immediacy. The eye points outward. the unity of the Gesamtkunstwerk 3 . are always a threat to our auditory selves: they pose a state of terror on our intersubjective encounters with the sounding world. this immediacy is traditionally produced and enhanced through distance between the auditorium and the stage. It soaks up information. Taking Schafer’s and Maconie’s claims together as a departure point. Within such contrastive thinking. Following McLuhan’s distinction between oral and literate societies. There are no earlids. the inner to the ear. thereby ignoring the ‘literacy’ of the listener who projects her attention outwardly in order to deal with the auditory distress in her perception. but likewise in the theatre.

Such subject positions can be equally thought of in music theatre in the staging as well as in the music. However. the Gesamtkunstwerk offered an experience. but rather stimulates signification in the spectator-listener by not offering any easy solutions to auditory distress. I contend that the reason for this may be found in the way the theatre always offers perspectives on the things seen and heard. in relation to other media. structured by a unifying intelligence – the ‘grand’ synthesis – that would steer the listener’s attention away from the fragmentation. I wish to demonstrate how sound as medium and mediation. the immediate mediation based on concealment carried the elements of its own destruction. thereby always mediating the spectator’s experience in its intervention of representation. however.was superimposed against the disunity of the senses under the conditions of modernity and its aural culture. music theatre implies a great deal of importance to positionality in the way the listener engages with the perspectives mediated by theatre and music in her personal response to auditory distress. I focus on the opening scene of Blauwbaards Burcht as an illustration of how medial awareness in an acousmatic listening situation can call for an imaginative and narrative mode of listening through a text: the bard’s prologue. Music theatre today. The spectator’s position to what is to be seen and heard materialises then in the way she or he moves her attention in an urge to make sense of it all. Today. Due to theatre’s exhaustive appeal on reading theatrical signs in everything it represents. the spectator relates to these implied positions in music theatre in a meaningful way. I will therefore now discuss how a performance can evoke different modes of listening through the perspectives it offers. These perspectives in the theatre. as Maaike Bleeker pointed out in her dissertation and book Visuality in the Theatre: The Locus of Looking (2008). I contend that flashes of awareness about the processes of mediation give the listener the means to control her responses to auditory distress and the meanings her imagination might evoke. as Adorno already emphasised through his critique of the Wagnerian ‘phantasmagoria’. Mediation in music theatre should then be understood as the way in which the theatre offers implied positions for the listener to adopt. 4 . I therefore regard the perspectives mediated in the music and the performance as decisive for analysing how music theatre creates meaningful experiences. the Wagnerian model does not suffice anymore. can call for an awareness of the perspectives the staging has to offer for both looking and listening. the fragmentation and the sensory impoverishment of our modern existence (Buck-Morrs 1992: 26). I thereby wish to avoid the discussion on Werktreue to the score or historical dramaturgical readings of the libretto. Rather. As a way to channel out the acoustic disruptions of modern life. Media in the theatre then assisted in channelling the sensory overload. inviting the listener to respond to and cope with the auditory distress. As such. does not mediate any straightforward meanings. always imply certain subject positions for the spectator to engage with. most of the time.

and his latest bride. split between two voices: Bluebeard and his antagonist. You are looking. unfolds as a monodrama. you all. moreover. an imaginary space. are thematised through Bluebeard’s psychosis. can be read as a metonymic space for Bluebeard’s (sub)conscious: a perilous space of past memories from which there is no possible escape for Judith or Bluebeard. Ladies and gentlemen. (Prologue of the bard in Blauwbaards Burcht by Béla Balász.2 The plot is based loosely on the popular folk tale by Charles Perrault (1697) and more prominently on Maurice Maeterlinck’s and Paul Dukas’s opera Ariane et Barbe-bleu (1907). Therefore.. 5 . Balàzs has heavily reworked the material in a rather psychoanalytic or ‘psychosexual’ reading of the story. however. Ladies and gentlemen? […] Music sounds. The castle. The curtain of our eyes rises: Applaud when it falls. I feel inclined to regard Bluebeard’s Castle as a monodrama played out on the stage of the subconscious. the human subconscious and its treacherous depths. In the staging it becomes. The curtain of our eyes rises: Where is the stage: outside or inside. I have translated it myself from the Dutch version by Ildi Lasányi. the Bard’s Prologue. Following Judith’s “endangered” perspective and 2 Sometimes Bartók’s opera is referred to as Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (‘Hertog Blauwbaards Burcht’ in Dutch). however. Judith. 3 See Bruno Bettelheim’s much later published study The Uses of Enchantment (1976). Intrigued by its prologue. conceivably under the influence of a Freudian understanding of the fragmented subject at the beginning of the twentieth century. I will use the English translation of the libretto by Christopher Hassall in Boosey & Hawkes Stage Works series 1952. I am looking at you. Of which the rumours go. where Judith witnesses the narrative unfolding of the events as she unlocks the seven doors. with its locked doors. The original Hungarian title reads: ‘A kékszakállú herceg vára’.3 The imagination. It does not include. The spectacle is about to begin. a virtual space that only comes to life through the listener’s imagination as it is never really represented scenically. It is an old fortress.11) speaks directly to our imagination. PV) The bard’s prologue in the libretto by Béla Balàzs to Béla Bartók’s 1911 one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle (Op. my trans. flames flicker. who witnesses the tragic unfolding of the events as she unlocks the seven doors. The drama.Channelling Modes of Attention through Acousmatisation Let the song speak for itself. Listen carefully.

4 Acousmatisation of sound is generally regarded as a principle of cinema. But as we soon are to discover. and reciprocally. et dont les pieds touchaient à l’empire des morts ” (In Musique animée. it could be regarded as a theatrical principle. broadcast of the ‘Groupe de musique concrète’. de qui… la tête au ciel était voisine. Chion takes the notion further from Peignot and Schaeffer to describe a type of listening that is generally caused by a disparity of sound and the visual embodiment of its source. The Greek word has an ancient reference to the Pythagorean venues in 6th century BC where the Master taught his pupils orally from behind a curtain. The origins of the word ‘acousmatic’. Characteristic of acousmatisation is the effect of power or authority it exerts on the listener. on 19 February 2006. it is an imaginary space. cet élément de base de la musique concrète. 1955).her longing to know all the hidden depths of Bluebeard’s past. the stage can raise the listener’s awareness of her or his own private theatre in the mind: an undisclosed imagination that is evoked through listening in conjunction with images and text. This holds for the theatre too. 6 I will refer to the translations of the libretto. Although acousmatic listening affects principally our auditory perception. The latter is a registered trademark of the Canadian Opera Company and its first recorded usage presumably dates January 1983 for their staging of Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra. musique la plus générale qui soit. In its Greek origin. however. The Netherlands. I attended the performance on 21 February 2006 in the Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam.6 4 This staging of Blauwbaards Burcht was originally part of a Bartók-happening. It does. 5 Peignot actually borrowed the term from the dictionary and referred to it in a radio programme: “Quels mots pourraient désigner cette distance qui sépare les sons de leur origine… Bruit acousmatique se dit (dans le dictionnaire) d’un son que l’on entend sans en déceler les causes. the prologue resounds as a pre-recorded. in terms of ‘supertitles’ instead of ‘surtitlesTM’. it is defined in terms of its reliance on seeing in the first place. organised by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic orchestra (deFilharmonie) at deSingel concert hall in Antwerp. 6 . play a substantial role in calling upon a specific attention in the listener to imagine the unfolding events. the listener is about to witness how the stage will unfold as a theatre of Bluebeard’s mind. traces back to the beginning of Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète. Belgium. In Wouter Van Looy’s staging. The bard’s prologue is often omitted during the performance. Daniele Calligari conducted the orchestra. The acousmatic voice in the bard’s prologue activates a narrative mode of listening. as a stage for the listener’s imagination. projected above the stage. Eh bien! la voilà la définition même de l’objet sonore. the voice speaks directly to the listener’s imagination through the translations of the text projected simultaneously above the stage as supertitles. In a reciprocal sense. outside world. the listener enters the castle as a psychoanalytic allegory going down the subconscious through the fictional and diegetic layers door after door. Although illegible for a primarily Dutch-speaking audience. which survived in the technique of ventriloquism. acousmatic voice in the original. Hungarian language. as it has been extensively theorised by Michel Chion in terms of the off-screen voice. Prompted by the narrative mode in the bard’s prologue. as it brings in the voice of a god-like narrator prompting to the moral substance of the story as a warning that the unfolding events may also happen in the ‘real’. or literally ‘what is heard’. which is inherent to the cinematic apparatus. when poet Jérôme Peignot coined5 the French adjective from Greek akousma meaning auditive perception. however.

the narrator’s voice disrupts the immersion and makes the theatre’s construct conspicuous as a ‘spectacle’ for the eye. As a psychoanalytical monodrama. remediating the imagination on stage. the bard’s prologue drives towards a correlation between stage and imagination. Yet in this text. the translations in the projection aim to draw the listener into the drama and diegetic world.7 Boenisch regards the theatre as an extension of the mental space. This disembodied voice presents foremost the core of how opera creates meaning through a conventional split between the fictional character in the narrative. Blauwbaards Burcht could be said to mediate an allegorical ‘theatre of the mind’ that attempts to bring Bluebeard’s subconscious to consciousness. shapes and manipulates cognition and perception (113). and the texts of the libretto above the stage (in this case. however. or one might simply close her or his eyes and try to imagine the narrative events in her or his own ‘inner theatre’. the two supertitle boxes hanging like text balloons above the two protagonists). as for example the extension of the foot in the wheel. Peter Boenisch (2006) suggests in this context a connection between the space of the theatre as a construct and the mental space in the imagination: Drawing on media studies. which he connects with Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) notion of ‘remediation’. 7 . affects the listener’s spatial experience of the theatre stage. or the eye in the camera. The voice prompts the listener’s attention then exterior to her imagination. ‘remediation’) of the mind. the mind is no biological given. when the curtain rises before her or his eyes. which the singer represents through singing and acting gestures on stage. a site) of cognitive strategies. Seen this way. theatre can mediate and remediate this mental space. One might choose to focus on the music and contribute to its development and its structure through the reproductive function of the auditory imagination. This then contrasts with the rather bare concert stage that is empty of any overt dramatic representation. As opposed to these human organs. it must differ vitally from any other such extension. a spatial extension of men and mental space. He directs her or his attention to the song. This split in the acousmatic listening situation influences the spectator’s modes of interpretation through the perspectives it bears: while a causal listening mode can draw attention to the off-stage voice of the bard as originating from a recording and a loudspeaker. even in small unguarded moments. … Precisely because it is the extension (or. 7 Boenisch bases his argument on media theory following Marshall McLuhan’s acclaimed aphorism that defines a medium as the extension of man and his cognitive nervous system. and the story starts to unfold on the stage. in the most illusionistic or realistic representations of a fictional world. we have envisaged theatre as architectural arrangement (thus. In terms of mediation. but itself essentially an implemented quality fabricated by its socio-cultural environment: discourse fundamentally channels.The bard’s prologue asks the audience to locate the stage: is it outside or inside? The bard’s question encourages the listener to carefully listen to the acoustic events. The bard also calls for the individual listener’s attention to the stage. This analogy of a theatre in the imagination.

through how she places the sounds in relation to herself in her imagination. framelessness and restlessness. By exposing the stage as a theatre of the mind. as Boenisch (2006) concludes: Instead of closing down the multiple semantic potential offered into one coherent meaning. which drives at disruption rather than closure. and as such. generating confusion in our minds as to make up our mind about the place of the stage and the music. This awareness has further reaching implications for sound in the theatre. turns this truth-seeking towards itself through its staging and mediation of perspectives. on the contrary. instead of the dramatic content music used to support. The acousmatic listening situation of the bard’s prologue demonstrates how the mediation of sound in relation to text and image is influenced by the perspectives that theatre offers. splits and fissures. inconsistencies and contradictions. it enhances the enigma” (Dolar 2006: 70). In doing so. The perspectives of the theatre then invite the listener to position herself through what the sounds mean to her. Conclusion: Awareness of Musical Multimedia Where is the stage: outside or inside. As such. and of its fragmentary and fleeting nature. Post-modern theatre. The perspectives in the staging that used to contain auditory distress now seem to enhance it in favour of urging a response in the listener. however. his subconscious. ladies and gentlemen? Starting with its prologue. The acousmatic nature of the sounds in the theatre – even when we are made to believe that they correspond to certain sources or bodies on the stage – make us aware of their inherent placelessness. In this context. Mladen Dollar (2006) claims that acousmatisation is part of every sound – which he calls the ‘ventriloquist’ nature of sound – and not only an effect of mediation. plays a significant part in this project. intermedial effects ultimately inflect the attention from the real worlds of the message created by the 8 . testify of a modern world that searches for truths. it makes the auditory distress prevail. Blauwbaards Burcht puts the theatrical code of illusion and concealment to scrutiny. Sound and music retain then a certain degree of a-topicality. and vice versa. He refers to the a-topicality of the human voice: “The fact that we see the aperture does not demistify the voice. intermedial performances derail the message by communicating gaps. Therefore. Boenisch also emphasises the role of discourse in this perception. Perspectives in the theatre participate as such in discourse. and broadcasting detours.It makes the observer aware of her perception. which causes auditory distress. this theatre of the mind exposes also how music theatre mediates in relation to the positions the listener engages with. The intermediality of the stage thereby opens up new ways of creating meaning. The awareness of multimedia on stage. The bard’s questions remind us of the opacity of sound and music. Judith’s search for light in the darkest corners of Bluebeard’s castle. the cultural discourse in which music theatre receives meaning is exposed through its perspectives. our attention is inevitably drawn to the origin of every meaning we produce: our imagination is constituted and made only possible by the socio-cultural discourse in which we create meaning. of which music retains perhaps the most opacity. in other words.

Thus. intermediality manages to stimulate exceptional. disturbing and potentially radical observations . mediation and the performance itself. (Boenisch 2006: 115).performance. On the contrary. . musical media and mediation as part of the performance call for new ways of understanding how the listener relates and positions her to the opacity of sound and music as media. 30 January 2009 9 . and the workings of mediation exposed. Particularly. the tendency towards self-referentiality and self-reflexivity in the staging of music does not liberate the listener from the compulsion to mediate meaning on stage. Amsterdam. As such. towards the very reality of media. Hence. causing auditory distress rather than straightforward meaning. it enhances it but places the search for meaning in the listener herself. . the awareness of the processes of mediation puts also at issue the cohesive strategies and attitudes in listening that are called for to recover a total experience. Auditory distress and intermediality can make the listener aware of her role she plays in the mediation in the way she responds and create meaning of the auditory and musical experiences. The usually transparent viewing conventions of observing media are made palpable.

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