What Musical Theatre is to me: Part 1, actual music

A few weeks ago I participated in the Summer Musical School at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. For the past few years they’ve been performing shows written by their staff. This year the show was directed by award winning song writer Charles Teo (he’s taken ladies) and written by Louisa Caraffi (she’s also taken). (No not by each other you sick person).

The musical was called “New Kids on the Block”; a jukebox musical featuring memorable songs such as the not-annoying-enough-yet “Let it go” and classics such as “Big, Big, Girl” and “What Makes You Beautiful”. Usually I try to stay away from dance heavy musicals because I can’t dance, but in all honesty I had no idea what type of show this was, just that it would be good work experience for me. No seriously, I didn’t know what character I was auditioning for, good thing I got through eh?

Anyway, I’ve watched quite a few musicals, I’ve listened to a lot of musicals, I’ve been in a few and I’ve written one; so although I’m not professional, I’d like to think I have a leg to stand on when I talk about them. For me, NKotB was barely anything like anything I’ve seen before.

*disclaimer: sometimes I might go a bit too far with criticisms, in all honesty I really enjoyed being in the cast and I would do it again. The songs too, I didn’t like the song choice but GOD I loved the arrangements…*

Despite not being the most amazing show I’ve been in or seen, having a different experience on a topic I’m familiar with really made me think about what musical theatre really means…to me.

Our playwright and director, Louisa talked in rehearsal once about how to think about performance in a musical: “you have to deal with the acting which already a whole lot, then the music which is another lot, then the dance which is also a whole lot”. Yes, in a musical is a whole lot of lots. But seriously, it is. For me dance was never an integral part of the musical theatre genre, but I guess it still is for many people (see dance heavy shows such as: Chicago, Starlight Express and Cats vs Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop Of Horrors). However, this is just the practical side, what about the expressive side?

This question might come as a surprise to some common-goers of Musicals because the genre isn’t usually attached to being a vehicle of expression or criticism, contrary to a lot of modern art. The question therefore is, why can’t it be? I’ve said before that I totally believe, beyond reasonable doubt and to an overly enthusiastic and borderline insane degree, that music in itself can be treated as a language with the ability to express meaning. Theatre has often prided itself also in the ability to express, in fact a lot of modern abstract Theatre exists for this reason (see: Theatre of Creulty, for example). Postmodern Art, yet another example of how Art is used nowadays to express meaning and criticism; just a few days ago I was at an exhibition of Chinese artist Xu Bing who, using pictures, tried to create a universal language (I don’t think it worked but that’s a story for another day).

book from the ground

So back to Musicals. This genre, unlike any other, combines Drama and Music…minimum, often dance too. Sometimes, if particularly ballsy, visual Arts, electronic media etc also come into play. So why can’t Musical Theatre be used as a vehicle of expression? Personally, I would argue that this view is simply a social mindset that Broadway is for gays but then I look at the Musical Theatre boom and I get worried. On one hand, I’m happy that more people are looking into Musicals as an expanding Art form, on the other hand…everything has a Musical now and very few are particularly profound Musicals.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say expression. Compare the ethical dilemmas of Les Mis. or Ms. Saigon against some more modern Musicals such as Matilda or Shrek. Take for example when Javert, after having his life spared by Valjean jumps into the river Seine and dies; of course Victor Hugo wrote the plot, but the expression is just as strong Musically. The song itself is instrumentally almost an exact replica as Valjean’s Solioquy, by sharing the same music but changing the lyrics, the audience contrast what is essentially Valjean and Javert’s inner monologues. The song then ends with an instrumental reprise of Javert’s solo song “Stars” playing as he jumps to his death, the lyrics of “Stars” was when Javert swore to never back down from finding and putting Valjean in jail, even to his death the music shows this. Here, for your perusal:

Now, a more modern Musical: Shrek (Jeanine Tesori, 2008), not a bad musical in it’s own right but not sharing the same musical strength as Les Mis. More often than not, what the song says shares little with what the music says: take for example the song “Build a Wall”, this song is sung after Shrek hears Fiora say “Who would love a hideous ugly beast” and subsequently leaves Donkey and Fiora (in the movie I believe this is during Hallelujah). Have a listen for yourself:

The song, like most of the musical, has a distinctly 70s feel to it although this one might crossover a little into punk rock. One could argue that the grungy feel of the song aids in showing Shrek’s displeasure with Fiora, that’s a valid argument but there’s not much more to say. The ending of the song does bring to mind the overture:” Big, Bright, Beautiful World” which is ironic of course because Shrek is putting himself essentially behind bars away from the world. However, this is barely scraping the level of musical expression that Schoenberg and Boublil were writing in Les Mis. This is just the musical side, without being lucky enough to watch either Musical, this is what I gathered from listening to the album alone. Now let’s add some Drama.

*Second disclaimer: I’m really not saying that all modern musicals are bad, I actually really like Shrek, I just find that some of the more famous shows express a bit better. There are also some old ones that I find express nothing at all, but that’s a story for another day.*


Ist Musik eine Sprache?

Vorstellung: Interessanterweise hat Tiffany meinen ersten Artikel nicht übersetzt. Jedenfalls ist hier die deutsche Variante meines Artikels: Is music a language?
Die englische Version ist hier: https://composingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/05/18/is-music-a-language/

Ist Musik eine Sprache?
Uebersetzung von Tiffany
Also dachte ich, ich könnte nur eine meiner Ahnungen dort hinausgehen. Ich glaube ernsthaft, daß Musik eine Sprache fähig ist, von selbst mitzuteilen. Deshalb war ich in der Tat gegen Strawinski in meinem Beitrag von gestern. Ich dachte, daß er absolut Unrecht hat, wenn er sagte, Musik kann nicht ausdrücken. Das liegt daran, daß jede Sprache fähig ist, zu äußern. Selbstverständlich ist es lediglich meine Meinung.

Sowieso dachte ich, ich könnte eine Unterredung anfangen, durch das Hochladen meiner Abhandlung, die ich vor ein paar Monaten für meinen Internationales Abiturkurs von Sprache und Literatur schrieb. Ich stritt grundsätzlich hier, daß ein Musikstück genauso ein Stück der Literatur ist, aber auf einer anderen Sprache. Ich verglich Mozarts Totengedächtnis mit einer modernen Seelenmesse von Herrn Paul Barker, der nun Musik in Kellett Schule Hong Kong. Nach ich beide Stücke aufführte, dachte ich, es würde interessant nebeneinanderzustellen, wie das Totenamt im Verlauf der Zeit verändert hat.

Die Abhandlung war allerdings ein Misserfolg, weil einige von den Englischlehrern, die meine Kursarbeit moderierten, daß der Aufsatz nicht sprachbedingt genug war dachten. Ich benutzte tatsächlich sprachliche Fachsprache 😦 Ich gab sie anschließend als ein Einzelteil meines Portfolios zu Oxford Brooks ab, und bekam ein Angebot (obwohl ich es für Birmingham Universität ablehnte). Nimm das, Internationales Abitur Studienprogramm!

Zweifelsohne werde ich mehr von Musik als eine Sprache in der Zukunft reden (es ist eigentlich ein von den Gründen, warum ich diesen Blog anfing). Sowieso, genießen Sie bitte den Aufsatz, wenn Sie wollen. Er ist nicht sehr lang, weil es eine 1000 Wortgrenze und 300 Wort Zusammenfassung gibt. Manche Leute, die meine vorherigen Beiträge lasen, schienen sich beleidigt zu fühlen, durch die gänzliche Menge von ungeprüften grammatischen Fehlern, die ich letzte Nacht hatte (Horrorschocker). Ich überprüfte den Aufsatz wieder nicht, also lesen Sie bitte auf eigene Gefahr 🙂

Link zum Herunterladen ist unten.

Wie pro letzte Nacht, sind Besprechungen immer offen.

Is Music a language?

Edit: This post is now in German as well

So I thought I might just get one of my main ideas out there, I sincerely believe that music is a language capable of communicating on its own. That’s actually why I was against Stravinsky in my post yesterday, because I think that he was absolutely wrong in saying that music can’t express….because any language is able to express. Just my view of course.

Anyway, I thought I might start discussion by uploading an essay I wrote for my IB English LangLit course a couple of months ago. I basically argued here that a piece of music is exactly the same as a piece of literature but in a different language. I compared Mozart’s Requiem with a modern Requiem Mass by Mr. Paul Barker, who’s now teaching music at Kellet School Hong Kong, having performed both pieces I thought it would interesting to compare how the requiem mass has changed over time.

The essay was however a failure because some of the English teachers moderating my coursework thought it wasn’t linguistic enough. I did use linguistic terminology 😦 I subsequently submitted it to Oxford Brookes as part of my portfolio and got an offer (though I turned it down for Birmingham University). Take THAT IB syllabus.

No doubt I’ll talk more about music as a language in the future (it’s actually one of the reasons I started this blog). Anyway, enjoy the essay if you want. It’s not very long because there was a 1k word limit + 300 word abstract. Some people who were reading my previous posts seemed to be very offended by the sheer amount of unchecked grammar mistakes I had last night (shock horror), I haven’t proofread the essay again so read at your own risk 🙂

Download link is below.
As per last night, discussions are always open.

Requiem WA 22

Igor Stravinsky: “Music is…essentially powerless to express”

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”

Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p.53-54.

First actual post: some food for thought.
For those unfamiliar Igor Stravinsky was a 20th Century Russian Neo-Classical composer who wrote some of the biggest ballets of the modern ballet repertoire such as “Firebird”, “The Rite of Spring” and “Petrushka”, considering his great composing skill and the timelessness of his art, it came as a surprise when I first read the quote above.

Stravinsky here says that music by its nature as a combination of different sounds and lengths of said sounds, are unable to perform artistic expression. From my interpretation of this, he doubts the very nature of music as an art. However, I don’t think you can divorce art from it’s expression. Though that is, of course, debatable. It’s also quite interesting how he holds the idea that music is expressionless because of it’s “very nature” and that expression is by no means the “purpose of its existence”, yet I’m not personally quite sure what he thought the “purpose” of music to be. It could be possible that he thought that since music, by itself, is unable to express, it has to be paired with other arts. This would explain why he wrote so much for ballet because by combining the physical theater, the visual aesthetics of the performance and the music, the music can aid in the expression of the performance and the plot itself. Yet, he still wrote music for solo instruments such as his Elegies for strings. Perhaps then he means music, when not used in context of a performance, is to be purely for entertainment reasons and not to make statements. This would actually seem to also fit in with today’s musical contexts: if you want to express something through music, you make lyrics that fit your theme, the music itself doesn’t seem to be enough of an expression. I have a theory on why this happens, but I’ll go on about that in another post.

It’s also interesting how Stravinsky says that we only gather expression from music due to a “force of habit” or a “convention”. There’s something to be said for people forcing analysis onto art (perhaps Stravinsky himself did not mean at all for his art to be understood outside of its overt contexts), but isn’t all Art partly understood through convention? Take for example if an artist paints a red and black square and calls it death, by convention we would understand the red and black to be symbols of death and hence the piece of art has ‘expressed’ itself by drawing on cultural conventions. Is it really that different when a pianist plays a major chord followed by a diminished 7th and we understand it to be a change of mood? I argue that it’s the same social convention in play. In a musical context dominated mostly by the western tonal scale we ‘understand’ a major chord to be ‘happy’ while a ‘minor’ chord is ‘unhappy’, juxtaposing the two create a contrast – though different variations of the chords would produce different results. So if music is unable to express due to us attaching “labels” and “conventions” to the sounds, then does that mean that all art is unable to express? Seems slightly far fetched to me.

Thoughts and opinions?

(Point to note: I’m personally not a huge Stravinsky fan, it’s not because I don’t like his writings, I’m just not as familiar. I prefer the grand, lyrics Tchaikovsky when it comes to ballet)