Nov 19, 2010


I mentioned in a tweet that we had a symposium here at Princeton University on the topic of collaboration in general and music theater collaboration in particular. The punch line of my tweet said, “Hit me how different the world's of music and theater are. Amazing we ever get together.” @musicvstheater tweeted back that he would like to hear more about what I was talking about. So here goes:

I was referring to the fact that composers, for better or worse are trained to think of their jobs as hearing the music and then capturing it in notation. Even still there is a certain macho professionalism claimed by some who appear to have imaginative powers so acute that they don’t even use an instrument to check their work when they compose. (I’m not one of these by the way). But at the very least, the composer is supposed to know what he/she has written and have it fully formed in their mind before subjecting performers to it. The economy of music reinforces this. A composer will only have a couple of hours at most with an orchestra so every T better be crossed and every sound carefully considered. The rehearsal process goes by in a flash.

Theater on the other hand, expects the directors and even the writers to come to the first rehearsal with a draft and be ready to adapt to the particulars of the situation. It is expected that the script will evolve significantly in the rehearsal process with input from all the players.

Related to this is the fact that, in school, composers are trained to write “pure” music and learn to write “theater” music later, out in the real world. That is there remains a certain expectation that not only should the music hit the prescribed theatrical marks – mood, atmosphere, place, expression, sub-conscious revelation etc. – those marks should also be expressions of some purely musical logic where the syntactical elements are symbolic if not absolute manifestations of the stage activity. This is really hard to do!

Composers feel like the director is trying to take the bottom piece out of their jenga structure and it will undoubtedly cause the whole thing to collapse. It probably won’t of course, because it isn’t just music, there is also a dramatic arc that is perfectly capable of bearing the centrifugal force of a suddenly turned corner. Nevertheless that psychological twitch, a feeling of grave jeopardy is there. Combine that twitch with the pressure to have your job done when you show up at the first rehearsal and there is a recipe for tension.

I have had a close collaborative relationship with writer/actor/singer/performance artist Rinde Eckert for fifteen years. We are now close friends and he was the best man at my wedding. I would say that 99% of the tensions I have had with Rinde fall out of this fundamental schism in process. From my point of view he is “not ready” in time. He hasn’t done his work. He hasn’t fully envisioned what should happen so that he can just tell people what to do. He is still working on the piece for goodness sake!

I’m on pins and needles because while he is “evolving” the piece what happens to my music that hit every previously agreed upon mark while spelling mother in 12 directions in the background structure. Am I going to have to revise my perfectly perfect music because he can’t make up his mind? I know I must but it still bugs me. Besides, now I have to re extract parts which I would not have had to do if he had followed the same code of professionalism as a composer.

From his point of view, I am inflexible and defensive of my work. He’s right, which only makes me feel worse! From his point of view, how can the work be finished until the specifics of the physical space are explored and attended to? A step in that direction as opposed to this direction makes palpable some irony that makes new demands on the music. A new line of text which ties his arc together and is ultimately more in the foreground that my music at that moment requires that I change the harmonic rhythm in order to accommodate 5 extra syllables.

in my day Meredith Monk stood out as the rare composer who has always built her pieces "on" her performers.  I do think a younger generation of composers are being raised with the idea that a piece can and should evolve as a collaboration with performers even without a theater component. I am a mentor in the American Composers Orchestra "Orchestra UNsafe" program in which there are many cooks  stirring the pot with ideas including all of the members of the orchestra. These commissions will be the result of several workshops over the better part of a year rather than the situation I described above where the composer are expected to show up with a finished product the first time they meet an orchestra.

It is a challenge to navigate along the continuum of arriving with ones ducks completely lined up or as an open draft. There are times when you want to prepare a meal, select the wine and present it all and there are times when you want everyone just to show up and pitch in. Both are hospitable and generous in different ways.