This is for any of you in Toronto. Had the nice surprise of an exciting evening of theatre Tuesday night when I thought I was being taken to something quite different. We saw Linda McLean’s “Strangers, Babies”. It plays at Artscape’s Sandbox (301 Adelaide W) thru May 28. It’s a shortish, five-act play with no intermission. In Theatre Panik’s production, each act is played in a different area of a single gallery, and the audience moves around with the players, generally standing though there are benches to relieve tired feet. Had I any advanced notice what I’d be seeing I might have declined, assuming it would be too gimmicky. The gimmick is powerful! The protagonist, May, has successive conversations –one per act- with her husband in their condo, her father in a hospice, a hook-up in a hotel, a lost brother and finally a social worker. She is, very evidently, from the start, troubled and well meaning. Suspense has at least as much to do with filling in the back story as discovering outcomes as the action advances. There is what seems to me (perhaps reflecting my ignorance of such matters) a reverse dramatic irony. Instead of wanting to jump on stage to tell Romeo not to do that because you know and he doesn’t . . . you are physically already on the stage, in intimate proximity with the actors and you want to keep your mouth shut because their characters know something you don’t. As this reverberates with the characters’ stress about connecting, it is not an irrelevant framework. The characters, even when distraught or obsessive, retain access to adroit language, surprising turns of thought, big vocabularies. The language, aside from being enjoyable, makes you feel the presence of real other minds. The five guys are really good. Niki Landau, who is also a co-director of the little company, playing May, creates 85 minutes of continuity, touching and humane, earns your total sympathy—pure virtuosity.
Author Archives: lidov
On Being Trumped: Probabilities and Actualities
On being Trumped: Probabilities and Actualities.
If you bet on a horse despite 4-to-1 odds that your horse will lose, maybe you will win big. If you do, it does not mean the odds were wrong. My understanding of the mathematics of probability says we could only check out how smart the odds were by re-running the same horse race, say 100 times. If your horse does not win something like 20-30 times out of a hundred, then the odds were very probably misleading, but we have to say “probably” because the test could have been a fluke. Flukes happen. After Trump’s election, there was much talk that the polling had been wrong. Why? The polls, in aggregate, had suggested that DJT had roughly a 1-in-4 chance of winning. That this horse beat the odds does not contradict them. We don’t deny, of course, with hindsight, that polling methodologies might have been sharper. That is a different conversation.
In normal daily life, we are very dependent on notions of probability not just for horse races but also for thinking about the weather, planning pensions, choosing routes and modes of transportation based on estimates of traffic, and so on. Yet, the interpretation of probability is a problem dicey enough to have attracted careful treatment from various philosophers, statisticians and others. They sustain subtle disagreements as we should expect and respect, but we are generally comfortable with the idea of probability despite the tenuousness of its logic and physics. Thinking about probability as a sign, as I do in this fantasy-bagatelle need not broach or decide expert issues. I express my curiosity with no pretence to launch a theory.
At present, probability is a bothersome theme in metaphysics. Semiotics might properly want to stay aloof from debates about the foundations of physics, but even if we can not help the physicists, courtesy demands we acknowledge that physicists themselves have identified some of their metaphysical issues as semiotic, a failure to find, outside of mathematics, representations that “make sense” to our imaginations for worm holes, superposition, entanglement and some other weird phenomena which include, of course, the probability densities that describe the locations of sub-atomic particles before they make up their minds where they actually are by getting measured.
What I’m curious about is whether the reports from the frontiers of physics, whatever our various capacities are to absorb them, are hitting a sore nerve not simply because of novelties we can’t readily digest, but also because of conundrums we habitually sweep under the rug and don’t want to be reminded of. What do we usually take probabilities to represent and on what basis? What should be clear after that frightening election, is that probabilities, by their design, refer symbolically (that is, as governed by rules) to possibilities and that nevertheless, we conveniently take them as icons referring to future actualities.
In The Implicate Order, most of which he laboured to make intelligible to lay readers, physicist David Bohm lobbied for a full resetting of our acquired frames of understanding for space, time and causation. He recognises the frame, which he calls an “order” and what some of us might call an episteme, as culturally acquired and subject to transformation. Probability is a hinge pin in the reigning “order” and was excluded in the Newtonian order. The scary problem in Newton’s order, not only for Newton’s opponents but for Newton himself was that gravity acts at a distance. Within a century or two, that problem was pretty much swept under the rug and gravity taken for granted. Eventually the problem seemed to be solved with the supposition that gravitons or gravity waves make the connection covering the distance. But gravitons giveth what quantum entanglements taketh away: We still must suffer action at a distance; same dirt under the rug but beneath a different wrinkle. To think about it hurts a bit now, but if quantum computing starts to be economically useful, we might just agree not to notice.
In life down here on earth, probabilities are derived from past and present actualities, such as a sample of voters’ actual intentions at the moment they were interviewed. Probabilities are, nevertheless, representations of possibilities that may in the future become actualities, or not. What sorts of relations connect the possibilities to future actualities? No physical principles. Up there in the clouds and the physicists’ cloud chambers, probabilities may seem to have a partly different basis as their immediate derivations may be calculated from law-like physics equations rather than directly from data records. This difference is perhaps not so deep. In neither construal, on earth or in the clouds, does anyone see probabilities as somehow exercising a determining influence on outcomes. For now. Maybe our order will change. That is what Bohm was pleading for in proposing an implicate order that embodies the hidden variables which—so far—escape our perception in the explicate order. A short part of his book requires more mathematics of the reader than I can bring to the table, but nothing in the English part suggests that he has a real theory rather than a wish list. From what he says about it, I understand the math part as meant to tighten the screws his wishes respond to, not to give an answer.
When I said, “no physical principles” I was skipping over the option, which may seem consensual in physics or close, of accepting randomness itself as a physical principle. For example, we can say it is a law of physics that a balanced coin without any physical bias will, in the long run, land heads half the time. Much can be derived from that one postulate. But it is essential to recognise that this postulate which currently fits common sense is merely an empirical inference, not coherent as part of an axiom set, and remains totally unexplained. In physics, our episteme continues a shaky relationship with reality.
Of course, I, David Lidov, am not asserting that the postulate of randomness is wrong. I am not endorsing Einstein’s refusal to believe that God played dice. (Goodness, Albert, for an omniscient being, dice would be the best game in town!) All I am saying is either way, our representation of the territory continues to include some degree of mess to which we willingly blinded ourselves in the past and may again.
Except that it is a sign, we can not easily assign an ontological category to probability or to the objects that probabilities refer to, possibilities. Peirce identifies Firsts as possibilities, but the converse does not hold. All possibilities are not Firsts. A stick hitting a ball is a possible second; me hitting a home run is an impossible Third, or at least it has a Third (home run) as a component. A probability is a terrific example of Habit in Pierce’s sense because, although it can be deduced from data about actuals by well studied, empirical rules of thumb, it can not be deduced from rigid physical ‘laws’.
Probability expresses a habit (a Third) that actual events have: for example, the habit of penny tosses to aggregate towards a fifty-fifty split of heads and tails. In the hundred years Peirce’s notion of habit has been on the table, no one I can think of has come up with a better conception for recognizing the coin toss principle or for accounting for the dependability of the probability densities of quantum superpositions. If semiotics has one bone for the metaphysicians of horse races, quantum collapse and multi-universe theories, it might be Pierce’s notion of habit. Perhaps Peirce’s systems in the context of contemporary physics should bring to life for us his fascination with regard to the difference between “real” and “actual”.
From the standpoint of semiotics, if not physics, another model may more graciously distribute the dirt under the rug. The notion of other ‘planes’ or ‘dimensions’ of reality beyond that of our business-as-usual, four-dimensional space-time and quotidian sensory capacities is quite alive in various spiritual communities. We are free to imagine that in those spaces, Platonic forms, morphogenetic fields and probabilities are casting spells of influence on our temporally unfolding world. David Bohm was never dissuaded from such speculation nor were all of his colleagues.
*David Lidov, emeritus and senior scholar of the Music Department of York University is currently revising for an online publication his Elements of Semiotics, 1999 (a theoretical system which studiously avoided the type of questions toyed with in this essay).
 David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980, Routledge, New York and London.
 A short and clear discussion, drawing on Janiak will be found in the second of Noam Chomsky’s Dewey Lectures, p667, Journal of Philosopy, 60:12 (December, 2013).
 A cleaner, if vaguer solution should be to choose a class of physical phenomena that we believe to be random, such as penny toss results or Geiger counter click spacing at a specific locale and then speak of another class of events as having a distribution that is equivalent to the first.
I am not your Negro
Raoul Peck’s film “I am not your Negro”, centered by James Baldwin’s final, barely started writing project, is stunning. Nearly all the language in the film is archival recordings of Baldwin or readings from his notes and essays. The constant collage which interweaves recent events with historical sometimes seemed to me a weak substitute for more narrative coherence, but the wealth of portraiture–Baldwin, Medgar Evens, Malcom X and M L King–is deeply moving. Baldwin’s rhetorical excellence, his compassion and his finesse in social and moral analysis are preserved–and his wonderful NYC accent. Some footage is taken from the Cambridge U “debate” between Baldwin and Buckley, which I had watched in its entirety on Utube the night before I saw the film. I had remembered Buckley as always being wrong, but I hadn’t remembered how swarmy and inane he was.
Last Nite (Nov 5)
We saw the Preview performance of The Enchanted Loom, a Cahoots Theatre production at the Factory Lab and were bowled over. Catch it if you can. A Tamil Family who have fled the civil war in Sri Lanka. to take refuge in Toronto morn their loss of the surviving son’s twin. Suvendrini Lena has pared down her script to become straight and straightforward poetry. Margorie Chan and her team’s direction gamely exploits the small stage between two wings of seats and triumphs over what must be a still smaller budget. Touches of incoherence in the staging color the drama with the confusion the characters suffer but without ever obfuscating the movement of the plot. Much of the action pivots around medical therapy; surgery becomes a metaphor exquisite in logic and detail for the fate of a family trapped between love and the ravages of the war. Tragic story; uplifting art, the play runs through Nov. 27. http://www.factorytheatre.ca/201617-season/the-enchanted-loom/
Dan Schnee, who maintains a terrific blog, is a saxophonist and drummer, a visual artist, a superb scholar of several aspects of Asian culture, to mention merely a few of the arrows in his bountiful quiver. He has a strong interest & practice in free improvisation. I knew none of that except for that very last when he approached me some years ago during his Ph. D. studies at York University with a few of the drawings he makes as graphic scores for free improvisation and asked me if I could comment on it “as a semiotician”.
— –I confess his request then made me quiver, just a touch, especially the “as a semiotician” part. It was probably during one of my vacations from being a semiotician. At that moment, I had no context regarding his interests, and I didn’t say much.
What follows is the better response (I hope) that I have felt for years I owed to Dan’s question. A recent personal communication from him, surprising me with the info that even before our encounter he had read and been influenced by my writing makes me feel I owe this response to Dan, himself, as well as to his question.
I append above, without his permission (but will hastily remove if he wishes) a .pdf of PHASE, a graphic he made that he and other improvisers use as a “score” – those quotes are not to disapprove, just to highlight a discussion to follow, but first two personal qualifications.
– 1. I do not have a practice of musical improvisation beyond dabbling or “in the shower” (Metaphor. My piano never takes showers).
- My own stance in semiotics is far from consensual. I hold that the crux of semiotics lies in the comparison of media (e.g., sculpture, math, music, language), a very abstract pursuit, and not in interpreting individual pictures or pieces or events–individual signs. Nevertheless, the comparative view does enable us to ask What kind of interpretive process does a given genre of expression evoke? Certainly, the conjunction of standard musical notation with graphic scores is grist for the mills of comparison.
To take this home, AS a semiotician, I make no interpretation of Dan’s graphics, but given an interpretation or two to start with, I might try for a semiotic perspective on them. So where can I get an interpretation?
—–Easy! AS a musician(!) even a usually non-improvising musician, I can start trying to interpret, and my inner semiotician can watch.
—–First thing I notice is hesitation, How to read the graphic? I think an experienced free improv player might not hesitate, yet, would, nevertheless, be dealing with the same choices. Just instantaneously. The graphic is highly patterned. The repetitions of elements and features and the apportioning of space establish parallelisms—rows and columns. That’s not standard in graphic images and suggests string forming media such as speech (sentences, paragraphs), math (vertically aligned equations) and poetry (verses & stanzas). I might read across and down or down and across or not or somewhat. I might instead pass all that over and simply respond to the character of the graphic as a whole.
The first thing that this hesitant semiotician has noticed, then, is that we might separate (analytically if not in musical practice) a reading strategy and an interpretive strategy. The decisions how-to-read—(the mode of reading might fluctuate)—are logically prior to any interpretation of the graphic as music. Or, if you prefer to use the term “interpretation” for both stages, you could say the decision how to interpret the graphic as a score is logically prior to any decision how to interpret the graphic as music. The way I invoked the alternatives of a holistic response or a string structure response might suggest logical versus impulsive reading, a head vs. heart opposition, but we can find both organs in play, whatever the route. BTW, I put in “logically” because it might seem instantaneous.
—–Suppose the reading is oriented by the array of nine Gestalts that you can readily see, in rows and columns with their multitudinous relations of contrast and variation. At some point, the improviser must still respond holistically, impulsively to something. Maybe we will so respond to each (or some) of those nine shapes. Or maybe a still finer analytic will be summoned up and a holistic response will arise as a sonic interpretation of individual thin and thick lines, dots or circles, angles and intersections. [That is one thing I did AS a musician, fantasizing my improv.] My personal conviction, no surprise to anyone familiar with my writings, is that attention to these elementary visual qualities involve us in impulses of muscular activation, often subliminal, and that the dynamic time shapes of muscle contractions are readily transferred to musical performance.
But instead of responding to parts one at a time, imagine a reading that is, from the start, holistic. It responds to the page as a whole. An example is provided in Dan’s approving description of a colleagues interpretation which seemed to assume a comic pose from the outset. Being too uptight, I don’t think a comic interpretation occurred to me, but it is easy to see why it might to someone else. The simple figures, like stick figures, capture a kind of comic book or caricature style if you are open to seeing them that way. AS semiotician, I wonder immediately to what extent a comic reading is determined by cultural conventions and to what extent it is determined by ‘universal’ (i.e. biological proclivities). One might learn something about that if one could find people who had never seen the graphic styles of Euro-American culture and who could furnish responses to Dan’s graphic.
—–Is “Phase” music? This question readily reduces to questions about how you individually choose to use words—“score”, “music”—that different folks use different ways. Although people do refer to “sheet music” in speaking of conventional musical scores, I think we could argue that “sheet music” is an informal extension of the core meaning of “music” and that speaking more precisely, the “sheet music” determines music, maybe not that it is music. In that perspective, it makes sense to say that any graphic object that determines music is a score. No score I know of determines music 100%–even a score read by a computer and realized synthetically will make somewhat different sounds in different acoustic environments. The clearest difference between Dan’s type of score and Bach’s type of score would seem to me to be that the Bach’s has extensive rules for reading set out in advance. (Again, obviously not 100%–all those problems of intentions regarding ornament, tempo, occasional bow slurs. e.g., Do the latter show dominant patterns or exceptions?)
— –This issue has been studied with excruciating finesse in analytical philosophy, as in (just for two examples) Languages of Art (1968, 1976) by Nelson Goodman or Note and Tone (1986) by Kari Kurkela, which proposes to prove that Goodman’s method doesn’t work. Goodman’s method is to argue that we can discern a key difference according to whether the score permits us to recognize the performance. He does not say so, but the questions in play turn out to be standing in for a very basic philosophical problem: What is a concept? Closer to home, we might suggest, roughly following Goodman, that conventional musical scores are notational scores and graphic scores are indexical or non-notational scores, indicating rather than notating. Not the same difference.
—–BUT lest the reader, if there is a reader, be new to the territory. I don’t want to give the impression that graphic scores are exclusive to improv or that they are necessarily unregulated. There are billions of counterexamples. My composition, Changes (1972?) for solo violin ends with a passage where note durations are indicated by spatial distance on paper. I did that, not to give the player freedom, but to capture the visual rhythm of chairs ascending and descending on a Ferris wheel. It worked. I think I remember working out the proportions with a compass and straight edge to get them right.
Dan’s purpose is not to control the player. He offers a stimulus for disruption, for hearing and thinking “outside the cheeseburger” as he says in this TEDx, where he discusses another graphic, “Chollobhat.”
In Drought, Eve, astonished the first time she sees the Serpent, asks, What are you?
Christian tradition identifies the Serpent with Satan. In Paradise Lost, Milton imagines Satan selecting the serpent for his regal appearance and entering the serpent’s body. Shatan is the also the cause of Adam and Eve’s undoing in the Quran, but the Serpent does not appear.
Yet in my source, the Book of Genesis, the Serpent acts on his own. The Old Testament says only that the Serpent was the subtlest of all beasts. Satan gets no mention. How evil is the Serpent? A miscreant? A felon?
Our serpent, who leads Adam and Eve astray in Genesis, may well be inherited from widely distributed and widely varied folktales in the ancient Middle East. But both Asian and North American indigenous lore regard snakes with favor and respect. The serpent is wise. Many years ago, I attended a Chi Kung workshop lead by Kenneth Cohen,* an authority on world medical traditions. He pointed out traces of Serpent’s ancient and honorable lineage in Genesis. When God confronts Adam with his disobedience, Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the Serpent. In his wisdom, the Serpent keeps mum.
A beauty of the story is that blame is not firmly established, not in Genesis nor, as far as I can tell, in the Quran, where Adam wins a full pardon. At one super corny moment, one that I must hope will be gripping because of its musical incarnation, God breaks the ‘fourth wall’ of the stage and sings directly to the audience: “No, we can’t lay it all on Serpent; no-one here is innocent.”
In operas and a lot of shows, too, the evilest men are often basses. My Serpent is a tenor. I never envisioned my wise-guy Serpent, as purely evil, but he sure is tricky. That links him by another route to the devil, for in many folk tales, the devil is a trickster. (consider also, North American ‘shape changer’; in Africa, Anansi, the spider, who is not evil.) The devil may appear in disguise; he offers deceptive bargains. My serpent doesn’t bargain; he does wear disguises. We link him with the Hell’s Angels through his first costume and his Harley Davidson, and in the end, he looses the motorcycle, not his legs.
What might all this suggest in the way of character? I don’t want to say ‘personality’ because Serpent is not a person.
With Serpent I did have, more than the other three characters, a sense of making a quilt from a weaving of traditional figures. His first temptation of Eve is a Broadway ballad, a promise-o-love song. The folk tradition that often gives the devil a violin to play shows up in the polka-like tag that marks Serpent’s entrances and exits. When the Serpent entraps Adam and Eve with bad accounting advice, their trio starts with a sort of drinking song rooted, I believe, in Italian opera, for in operas, the devil likes to take his victims to party. My variant has no alcohol and it’s in five’s instead of three’s or sixes; yet the waltz feel is there. Serpent’s soliloquy, his one moment of sad, inner feeling, takes a cue from late, introspective German lieder.
For sure, my tricky serpent is not consistent. With his costume and style changes, he is a player inside the play. Yet, there I am, creating a character, and like Gabe Arenshtam, who is preparing the role, I am obliged to hunt for a core. How might Serpent see himself? I came to think of him as a creature fully convinced he is the smartest guy in the room and who believes he has a mission—not to spread sin and destruction. Not to collect souls. His “truth”, his mission, is to confront Adam, Eve, and God, with their self-delusions, the weaknesses that they are hiding from themselves. (In God’s case, I got the idea from Carl Jung, but never mind for now.) Does that show up through all his disguises? If so, primarily in the first Interlude, which is spoken, not sung or rapped, and again in that soliloquy, Serpent’s solo song just before the Intermission. But I tell you, whether it shows through or not, when you work on this kind of project, you have to keep after the back stories because they keep coming back after you.
Location, Location, Location
(Post 3 of a few reflections arising as I prep for the
Drought in Eden workshop in August at Arrayspace.)
Drought in Eden has two plots. One is story that can be told in words (as it is in the Old Testament and in the Qur’an). The other plot is a sound production plan that begins lightly, rises to a climax with five minutes as loud as a commercial Broadway revival and as distorted as a rock show and then comes half way back. The two plots are coordinated. Either might be considered an interpretation of the other. But, though fundamental, I don’t yet know how far we can or should go with that sound production agenda in our one-week workshop with just a three-piece band.
All the more reason for me to want to spell out a bit of my thinking, my way of holding on tighter to what may be postponed.
The artistic contrasts in play have to do with where sound seems to come from, its apparent location, as well as with types of processed sonority. These have rarely been my central preoccupations, but I’m not entirely new to them. I heard the premiere in 1962 of Otto Leuning’s Sonority Canon with one live and 32 recorded flutes. The entering flutes gradually encircled the audience and morphed into a grand bell. In 2012, I enjoyed an opportunity to work a bit with David McKevy, who made a one-person, 30- loudspeaker auditorium for his compositions of sound images moving in three-dimensions. (Recently exhibited in Hamilton.) And the fifty years between those bookmarks continually brought occasions for enlightenment, participation and appreciation in these dimensions of music that were not quite mine.
I reflect below on three sound location encounters from 2005-8.
First in Germany, the Berlin Phil in their Philharmonic Hall. The orchestra played from raked seating. I sat in a distant balcony fairly near centre. The basses were not in the row just behind the cellos but one higher with an empty row in between. Great sound. Basses carried beautifully. The common wisdom that bass sound is hard to locate loses its rationale in a space that big. What completely surprised me was this: The empty row was evident to the ear. The spatial gap in the sound source was a palpable, sensory fact, at least from my seat. I was some hundreds of feet away. Couldn’t make out the players mustaches, but the spatial sound shape didn’t budge when I blinked. In no way did this seem a defect or a virtue. The facticity of it didn’t distract me from the Mahler. It didn’t matter except for pointing out to me the precision of aural location.
(Note that this was a prolonged situation, not the quick blip that is typically tested in a perception lab experiment.) Was the percept suggested by the eyes? Could be. But “suggest” is a deceptive word. The brain integrates data. That’s in its job description: taste and smell when you eat, touch and kinaesthesia when we shake hands. etc. What I might have then heard without sight is a good scientific question. Is it important for aesthetics? I would say not, but consider this:
Also in Berlin, at the Technical University, I was invited to a demonstration of wave field synthesis. Full wave field synthesis like an aural holograph. No “sweet spot” as in binaural or multi–channel stereo. The apparent sound source is crystal clear and does not move when you walk around the room. (The first thing I noticed was relaxation in my neck; I wasn’t unconsciously straining to keep it still.) In this case, there was nothing for the eyes to do. We listened to ‘electronic music.’ The apparent sound sources were entirely virtual – fictions or illusions, but appeared to be located in a three-dimensional field with a precision of a few feet if not inches. This was in a fairly small space with a modest array of 32 speakers. Each speaker relays a separately calculated signal. Something like a MacBook Pro per speaker. (Wiki reports that there is now a hall with 832 speakers at the Technical University in Berlin.) This technology is pricey and still problematic. We don’t know yet if it will cash out.
Maybe these matters don’t seem important to you. They didn’t to me, then. My passionate concern is the living quality of live performance. I respected those two surprising encounters with aural location simply as briefly fascinating side shows. This next raised the ante:
In the 2008 production of The Sound of Music, Toronto, Prince of Wales Theatre, Maria cavorts back and forth and side-to-side on a tilted stage as she sings the title aria. Had she only cavorted and not sung, the suggestion of the hills of Austria might have been charming. But at least three quarters of her song came through speakers at the upper sides of the wide stage, speakers too far apart for a stereo effect. The sound was nebulous and stationary. Spatially, the voice was decisively separated from the vocalist, as in bad lip synch. Live theatre is suppose to offer a more intense personal presence than the canned substitute, but for any awake listener, this live presentation, putting eyes and ears in conflict, was more depersonalized than TV & Video.
I acknowledge the record breaking box office. (The numbers suggest that 1/10th of the GTA saw the show). That’s NO excuse NOT to complain. 36 billion hamburgers sold is NO excuse for fatal doses of trans-fats. I know that for some folks, going to a live show that looks, sounds and feels like REAL! TV! might be real! exciting. But we shouldn’t be sure what people want until they have tried an alternative. In conventional theatre, wire head mikes that pretend to be invisible and crass amplification, artificial but denuded of artifice, are not “conventions”. They are merely sloppy. Poisonously, they widen the chasm between commercial entertainment and more intense art. The fault is not Roger’s or Hammerstein’s. They made a nice contribution though I don’t so much like this, their last work. For all that more challenging art is essential to us, the ecology of healthy culture also wants light, innocent entertainments that are truly ALIVE. This wasn’t, and its shortcomings cheapen us communally.
Some of my colleagues react (as I did for a long time) by wanting to avoid vocal amplification altogether.
Why amplify? Aside from the economics, more seats, there are plenty of good reasons for amplification employed critically and artistically. We all know them. By and large, amplification is inappropriate to the Bell Canto tradition where the force and beauty (high tone-to-noise ratio) of the voice is identified with the power and glory of operatic characters. But surely one might argue that, after recording per se, the finest innovation in 20th century music making was to make available to us a global panorama of vocal styles, especially quiet ones, from which we draw our main courses and our best side dishes, many pop recordings, Viet Namese court music, jazz vocals, African traditional song, etc. A thousand styles. New possibilities for clear diction. No, I don’t want to get rid of mikes and amps. But can’t we use them more honestly?
Put a guy talking into a microphone in the middle of a stage with one loudspeaker 25 feet to his right and another loudspeaker 25 feet to his left. The result depends on amplification, channel mixing, room acoustics, where you are sitting, etc. Pay attention. Maybe close your eyes. What we typically get is not the stereo effect of a sound source at the center. The all too common result is a blurry sound like the voice of a fat guy 50 feet wide. Your ears are smart. What we want in Drought is for any mike and amp we use to respect their intelligence. If we put a sound in a “wrong” place, that should be for a right reason.
 I admire, for example, the quiet, modest voice and the psychology of denial in “Hello, Young Lovers”—a game changer to my thinking–understatement and subtlety on the mainstage.
What’s the Genre?
People do ask, What’s the genre? Opera? Musical? Cross-over? Comedy? Tragedy? Tragi-Comedy? Satire? Long puzzled myself, I’m finally ready to say none of the above. It’s bandes dessinées.
My first sketches, 20++ years ago, were for an Opera—fully supported voices, recitatives, no amplification, etc. Yet, the conception was vague. I came to realize that I’d mis-identified my fascinations. Despite a life-long love for some Broadway songs, the contemporary ‘show’ with crass amplification & misplaced loud speakers*, awkward alternation of speech and song, would hardly be my alternative model.
Not to care what the genre is is not to care what language you speak; children might speak well, though, before they learn that.
Not knowing what else to call it, I’ve been calling it a ‘Show.’ This designation easily encompasses the bouncy numbers that risk turning up some noses—and I have a certain faith that the grittier stuff wouldn’t puzzle show-goers who hear it in context. That still doesn’t identify the genre.
Just now, on a short trip to Havana, I bumped into a better answer.
Enjoying a brief pause in a public library, I sampled a few pages of a Spanish language edition of Stephane Huet’s adaptation—a lifetime project for him—of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche de temp perdu as a huge comic book—but note the French term, bandes dessinées. It’s not comic! Ridiculous, yes, necessarily: ¿Proust’s prose in speech balloons? but not comic. Same for Dick Tracy. Though drawn with music, words in songs not balloons, my Drought would seem aligned in genre with the graphic novel. Highly formal, artificial, at once ridiculous & serious. Who ever questioned the credibility and verisimilitude of Superman in the comics? In a film, of course, that becomes the issue. http://www.stephane-heuet.fr/proust-temps-perdu
With their multitude of conventions, special symbols, like the light bulbs for Eureka ideas, box forms, lo-tech color, simplified but often exquisite draftsmanship, the comics, a digital art avant la lettre, are a feast of formalisms and audacious artifice. I believe Drought in Eden is, also. Ridiculous throughout, funny at first and tragic later, and compelling. Surely that is why, for example, I may want to see performers holding microphones (even if we turn them off), why Serpent can own a three-chord polka and a 12-tone soliloquy, why a tiny playing area may serve us best, why God, wailing in deepest grief alongside a rampaging electric guitar does it as a strict da capo aria. (No! da capo is NOT anti-dramatic! Depends what you do with it. Ask Handel.)
I don’t suppose my affiliation is original and I should have caught on back in the 80’s. As late as ’95, I stubbornly wondered (Elements of Semiotics) How can a culture renew a commitment to the formality of classical arts, manners, and grammars unless conformist pressure (prestige) comes top down, as it did from the court of Louis XVI and more recently through post-colonial values? The answer was staring me in the face. At York U, we used to go through a rough-hewn, underground tunnel from the Music Dept in the north colleges to the central buildings, library etc. Students would continually re-paint the off-white walls with gothic and comic book inspired figures. Here was the answer to the last question, formality surging back, bottom up, in popular art. (Yes, I see those raised hands, but no, we’re not going to have a discussion on modernism and post-m just now.) Back then, I saw in the tunnel graffiti only what seemed stale. Alas! And now? Where art thou, graffiti artist? York hath need of thee! Come. The second floor of our new, cavernous Fine Arts Warehouse. Bring spray can!
(Bandes dessinées points to the genre. But for music, is there maybe a better word?)
*I want to share some thoughts about microphones, amps & speakers soon.
There could be, maybe, as many of ten of these posts and mostly they will reflect on preparations for the Aug 25-30 workshop for my Drought in Eden at ArraySpace.
But because of an unplanned warp in my calendar, let this first one be instead a note of thanks for the just ended run of Airline Icarus, Brian Current’s new opera. Not a review, a thank you to the composer, to his librettist, Aton Piatigorsky and their production team, especially Soundstreams and Lawrence Cherney who have nurtured the project for ten years.
The ending, the last 12 minutes I’d say but I wasn’t watching my watch– is gorgeous.
I think it was Joseph Kerman who noted that wonderful operas maintain a unique unity of tone. His best example, you drop the needle anywhere on a recording of Tristan and it immediately sounds like Tristan. (Anybody out there remember needles?) The needle test would work well this Icarus. The central tones of Airplane Icarus are blends of excitement with anxiety. Excitement hiding anxiety. Anxiety blocking excitement. How does he do it? Was it the busy inner voices putting pressure on the outer voices? Hypnotic lights flashing out of the harmonies? Those tones are shaped and sustained relentlessly until their peripeteia is answered by the wonderfully pertinent contrast of the ending, with its stunning and surprising a capella pasage. That passage is the climax of the large sound design, a too rarely mentioned component of music theatre but as integral to drama as a narrative of actions. (Nothing is more purely dramatic than the change from men’s voices in the 1st Act of Parsifal to women’s in the 2nd.)
Current’s tones have terrific import. They have a lot to do with going fast (though the opera suggests moments of suspended time) and with that sense of movement that is music’s fundamental core. Elliott Carter, commenting on his own style of musical time, his composing of simultaneous multiple speeds, said once he was more interested in how it felt to move in cars and airplanes than in marching and dancing. Whatever you may share or not share of his preferences, Carter surely fingered there a boundary line between epochs. Jason Booker, who reviewed Airline Icarus for Charlebois Post (www.charpo-canda.com) suggested we wouldn’t come out humming any of the tunes. OK, I didn’t. But the next time I buckle up in the seat of an airplane, I think I will find that I am humming the tones. Brian Current and his librettist hit a nail we know well on the head. It really is one of OUR nails. For better or worse, Airplane Icarus’ musical exploration of excitement and anxiety has a lot more to do with my life than the fatal desire that saturates Tristan. I’m grateful to have a new sound-image of it.
The next two posts will be, I think, one on hearing sung words and one on genre: Why is it an Opera? Show? Comic Book?, etc.
An afterthought: It was not my first visit to Ada Slaight hall in the Daniels Spectrum Centre at but it was the first time I heard music there. I had assumed the acoustics in that big box would be impossible, but in fact, it worked. Don’t understand how or why.