Sunday, September 03, 2006

Innovation and genre

It's often overlooked, but in the common practice era, music theatre, both opera and ballet, was a major source for innovation while concert music was largely a domain for the conservation and perfection of established forms. Opera and ballet, while never dispensing altogether with conventions of their own (after all: singers must breath and dancers must land after leaping), were natural testing grounds for new possibilities in orchestration, texture, figuration, harmony, and even spatial effects. In the music theatre, the attraction of finding new and dramatically useful effects simply overruled any prior constraints on form or content.

I don't think that it's mistaken to observe that these roles have largely been reversed in contemporary serious music, and this is acutely so in the US. This probably wasn't a necessary development, especially when one notes the importance of making challenging music for the stage for composers from Debussy and (at least early) Strauss to Thomson and to Philip Glass and John Moran in the opera, as well as from Stravinsky to John Cage in dance. I'd add to that the experimental music theatre of Kagel and his students, the "theatre piece" of the 1950's and '60s, the theatre and television works of Ashley and perhaps a handful of contemporary European operas (Zimmermann, Rihm, Andriessen, Lachenmann). All of these connections between music and theatre pushed the envelope in both domains but, as far as I can tell, none of the "major" US operatic premieres of the past couple years can be characterized by significant musical innovation. In fact, the typical characterizations are in terms of lyricism, narrative and dramatic effectiveness, a high level of competence in orchestration, and a generally conservative tonal language, and seldom, if ever, for innovation in musical technique. While one can easily speculate about the causes of this conservatism -- one suspects that marketing, institutional structure and identity, and private networking each play a role -- and there is some precedence for new work to be created in parallel in both conservative and progressive idioms, the dominant presence is a conservative one and should be recognized as such.

I must admit that I come basically empty-handed to this topic. The only concrete suggestion I have is that music theatre might usefully investigate the innovations in narrative complexity and episode structure currently taking place in television and other electronic media. In any case, the possibility that further innovation might be closed is a disconcerting one, and the topic should be open to discussion.

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