This essay is the first in a series of essays describing the composition of my work, The Young Son, which will be premiered by the TAK Ensemble on June 3 at 8pm at St. Peter’s Chelsea in New York City.
I used to describe this piece, The Young Son, as a ‘theatrical’ work of music. I’m not wild about that word, partly because it’s difficult to say exactly what ‘theatrical’ means. Sometimes it’s used disparagingly, a fill-in for overwrought or histrionic. Other times it seems circular, indicating only a resemblance to theatre: on a stage, with lighting, costumes, blocking, etc.
A few years ago I started trying to formulate a working definition for ‘theatricality,’ and eventually these thoughts led to my writing The Young Son. I’m not sure if I’d still call The Young Son a theatrical work, but that’s the first path I went down in writing it. So here we are, somewhat begrudgingly starting where I did, trying to define ‘theatricality’.
What I initially found at stake in theatricality was not the stagecraft per se, but the way a relationship to representation can be managed within an artwork. Every artwork is either comfortable with representation — your landscape, your bowl of fruit — or tries to eschew it. One way to attempt the latter is to aim toward a ‘pure’ non-representational theater, wherein everything conveyed on stage (movement, sound, etc.) is meant to be taken as-is, without any representational meaning — raw, pure experience.
It occurs to me now that many of the works of art I find most powerful tend not to be so pure. The nature of their relationship to representation isn’t worn on the surface. It’s deep and mixed in, needing to be excavated. This opening scene from Michael Haneke’s Code Inconnu is a perfect example:
More recently I’ve re-articulated these thoughts by conceiving of art-forms as having centers of gravity which lie on a spectrum from total non-representational, worldly reality to good old fashioned bowl-of-fruit representation. The idea here is that the constraints of any given artistic discipline will make it easier to create one kind of artwork — at least in how the artwork relates to representation — over another, creating a pull which the artist must either resist or succumb to.
For example, I’d argue that the center of gravity for the art-form of photography hovers somewhere around the ‘snapshot,’ that is, around the kind of photograph which purely documents the world. This is not to say that it’s easy to make a good snapshot, nor even to suggest that a ‘pure’ snapshot is possible. But I think there is something about this ‘ideal’ snapshot which weighs on the rest of photography.
If this is right, Jeff Wall’s ‘cinematographic’ photographs can be seen as resisting the non-representational pull of his medium, and Thomas Demand’s meticulously designed and photographed paper sculptures as resisting it further still. This helps explain why one could conceivably argue whether Demand’s works are indeed photographs, sculptures or, as he would put it, works of conceptual art. It’s due to Demand’s works falling so far from photography’s center of gravity.
The art-form of music, on the other hand, seems to have an opposite charge. To appreciate this, one need only consider how trivially easy it is to take a snapshot of an apple and how incredibly difficult it is to convincingly write a melody about one. One way to describe this difference, then, is to say that music has a center of gravity opposite photography’s. But this doesn’t seem right either, as it isn’t exactly easy for music to ‘do’ representation, either. That horrible melody you just tried to write about an apple? Not only does it lack a causal or indexical relationship to an actual apple, it doesn’t resemble an apple at all! It’s abstract.
This requires a new ‘abstraction’ pole on our spectrum, flanking ‘Representation’ on the other side. So, just as one might describe some photography as grasping toward representation, so too might one describe certain musics as grasping toward the world. In fact, that’s very much what composing feels like to me.
By this account, Serialism doesn’t attempt much grasping, but Program Music does. And newer musical art-forms like Sonification (music involving audible data) and Affectivism (ie: artworks like John Cage’s 4'33", which attempt to consist entirely of raw experience or affect) move well past the representational middle-ground, aiming to achieve the same indexical relationship to the world that weighs so heavily on photography. Again, it’s not surprising that the ‘musicality’ of Cage’s work — far from the musical center of gravity as it is — is often contested.
While this spectrum I’ve been describing may be useful for categorizing or comparing artistic relationships towards representation (try some of your own comparisons — it really can be illuminating) it’s perhaps not clear how this ties back into theatricality in music generally, let alone in my work, The Young Son. We’ve seen that some artists pull away from this ‘center of gravity,’ resisting or embracing representation to one degree or another, but we haven’t yet answered why an artist like Demand or Cage would situate their work as they do.
But I don’t think it is hard to understand why a composer like John Cage would want their work to reside on the right side of that spectrum, where it might capture the kind of concrete and worldly reality — even honesty — one finds in the snapshot or in a pure, unadulterated experience.
Similarly, one can easily imagine the frustration of the photographer, never quite able to sever that indexical relationship the camera has with the world, always abdicating control. It’s no wonder, then, that the corners of the world Thomas Demand chooses to photograph are the ones he’s meticulously hand-painted.
What is really important to notice here is that these grasping frustrations — for reality in one case, for agency in the other — are not just the frustrations of an artist, they’re distinctly and universally human frustrations. They are a testament to our simultaneous embedment in both the space of reasons, language and culture and the space of causes, forces and materiality. We are stuck between the two poles of that chart, so to speak. So much of our life relies on the abstract — using concepts and language, reasoning and conversing — but at the same time often find ourselves being pushed around by concrete physical forces, be they meteorological or market. We exist with one foot in the oceanic forces of nature, the other on the dry land of reason.
We are amphibious.
Please, scroll back up to the top of this essay and rewatch the opening scene of Haneke’s Code Unknown in this light. Its realism is astonishing, isn’t it? But what makes it a truly beautiful scene is that it is so much more than just a convincing copy of reality. Notice how Haneke harnesses a bit of everyday performativity — a game of charades at a school for the deaf — inside his own constructed filmic performance. ‘Meta-’ has become a scoff, but self-consciousness in art can afford the artist and the beholder a much-needed foothold amongst the amphibious muck. It’s a delicate balance, of course. We’ve all been turned off by an artwork which winks incessantly. But when handled well, as it is here, a performance within a performance can be deeply connecting and humanistic.
In this particular scene we are reminded both of the staggering task that is communication — the enormous potential cost of being misunderstood, the importance and beauty in our being able to be misunderstood — and, crucially, that the same normative stakes which exist for the characters in this narrative also exist for the actors on the screen, and for all the rest of us as beholders, creators, and communicators. In this scene one can recognize, in however fleeting a glimpse, the amphibious entanglement of meanings and forces, of intention and movement, of conversation and violence.
Music can be similarly revealing. Regardless of your knowledge of music theory or music history, two things are consistently available for you to notice at any musical performance: 1) that something is there to be understood, and 2) that your understanding of it is not exhaustive. In other words, musical performance is one of the best ways we have as human beings to feel the force of our capacity for understanding and misunderstanding, for being understood and being misunderstood. Haneke has to go to considerable lengths within the representationally-comfortable medium of film to excavate something—again, the difficulty of communication and its normative stakes—which music rather naturally wears on its sleeve, albeit often awkwardly. To me, the most frustrating thing about writing music — how hard it is to make yourself understandable — is for these reasons also the most valuable thing about it.
In pursing a definition of theatricality, I found an opportunity to carve into this amphibious space, and to put the difficulties of communication and their attendant normativity into relief. I resist the gravitational pull of an abstract music — and its aspiration to Platonic estrangement — by putting the communicators in-play alongside the communicated. To theatricalize music in this way is to turn music into people making music, people expressing, people representing, people experiencing, people turning pages, people making mistakes, people emptying their spit all over the floor, people paying attention, people understanding and misunderstanding, and on and on and on.
Furthermore, to theatricalize music is not to commit oneself to any particular relationship toward representation. Quite the opposite, the entire point is to open up the artistic space such that it can fit any relationship — from ‘absolute’ to ‘affective.’ And the acceptance of a self-consciousness in my art (that of the stage, of the frame, of the audience) which might seem to an Absolutist or an Affectivist like a capitulation to something unacceptably artificial is in fact a practical solution for the creation of art within a rationally-entangled world, as well as a commitment to the impossibility of (and undesirability of) human-less art. Impossible because of our amphibiousness, and undesirable because of the eschewal of normativity it entails. That is, the ideal of Absolute music is impossible, but if it were it would be solipsistic, and therefore meaningless. Likewise, the ideal of Affectivist music is impossible, but if it were it would be entirely unintended, and therefore meaningless.
So, just like like Thomas Demand, whose considerable skill as a sculptor is not aimed at making sculptures, so too am I utterly uninterested in creating theatre per se. Instead, what I am seeking is an artistic practice with broad enough scope to wrestle with the totality of a world saturated with meaning.
I didn’t have any of this in mind, not exactly, when I started writing The Young Son, but I did have a simple and related goal: to figure out what theatricality was and to build it up from musical performance, piece by piece. The way I’d put that now is that I wanted to compose a work which moves gradually away from music’s center of gravity and toward the world.
The first movement of this work — titled Clepsydra, after a John Ashbery poem — begins in darkness and shadow, and immediately encourages an awareness in the audience that something is missing. In Clepsydra, what’s missing, or at least what seems to be missing, is precisely what theatricality requires: people.