The New Music Theater:
Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body
by Eric Salzman & Thomas Desii
Oxford University Press; 2008
A few months ago, Eric Salzman kindly sent me a book that he and Thomas Desi wrote and published five years ago; the book is on a subject that I know little about, but after reading it, I learned much. The book is highly recommended if you want to become more knowledgeable about contemporary music, particularly as it applies to American and European music theater. Salzman is a music critic, author, educator, academic, and producer, says Dustin Mallory in Candence: “His work in these areas frequently overshadows his wonderful gifts as a composer and a visionary of the future of musical theatre.”
So after delving into the book, I was ready to write a review, but then I was diagnosed with colon cancer and I was forced to deal with that disease and its immediate effect. I decided to wait till I was ready to write the review, since the subject matter intimidated me somewhat. To write a short review of a subject in which the authors have devoted their lives, is no easy matter. Yet, I am ready, or at least I think I am after re-reading parts of the book. Even so, I am not sure I can give it the justice it deserves, so if there are any errors, these are due to my ignorance of the subject.
Salzman and Desi first of all define what music theater is, and by default what it's not:
This long categorical definition is necessary to explain a musical idea that still is, to a large degree, misunderstood. To a great degree, new music theater is attempting to forge new ground, in an attempt to bring about some equality in both the theater and to artistic expression in general. That it is misunderstood or poorly understood likely expresses that its still innovative ideas have not been fully accepted by the traditional modes of artistic communication.
[W]hen we say new music theater in this book, we use the term in a way that is almost always meant to exclude traditional opera, operetta, and musicals. The meaning is partly historical but mostly categorical. New music theater can be compared to modern dance and its an evolutionary place that is close to where modern dance was in the mid-twentieth century. In other contexts, it has sometimes been designated as fringe or experimental opera or even as the off-Broadway of opera, Since it is in in mid-evolution and comprises different streams and styles, it is most easily defined by what it is not: not-opera and not-musical. A slightly less negative definition would describe it as the wide and evolving territory that lies between opera and the musical. Music theater is theater that is music driven (i,e., decisively linked to musical timing and organization) where, at the very least, music language, vocalization, and physical movement exist, or stand side by side in some kind of equality but performed by different performers in a different social ambiance than works normally categorized as operas (performed by opera singers in opera houses) or musicals (performed by theater singers in "legitimate: theaters) (5).
Photo Credit: Eric Salzman
George Bernard Shaw said that all new ideas start out as blasphemies; in a sense against the established order of things. Some of the new ideas eventually take hold and become normative and accepted. So, where does that place such still-new modes of artistic expression today? Some would call it a disruptive technology, or in more literary expression, a forward moving of liberal ideas, in that these liberate the soul from past restrictions. Salzman and Desi write about this in detail: “There is a rigidity in that part of classical musical business known as 'the repetoire' that does not have the ability to deal with change. 'Experimental music' is a pseudo-scientific category created in traditional middle-class society to permit the exploration of nontraditional art forms” (51).
The exploration continues today in western society, even as it becomes more rigid and restrictive, looking to return in many ways to past traditions as bulwark against progress and change. Some, if many, fear the change; others do not. Change can be good in that it reveals something important about the past that was lacking, missing.
Music in many ways defines the era in which it is performed. Salzman's “Nude Paper Sermon,” for example, looks at our modern world. Mallory says in Candence: “The collage of sounds personifies the second half of the 20th Century as an intricate and often overwhelming experience of overstimulation and complication.” I couldn't agree more that we are now overstimulated and find it hard to distinguish a common modality of expression; such makes the world more complicated, hard to obtain a sense of self. A sense of self is always important, to distinguish the individual from the collection of masses..