I’m building a show for Tyrone and Lesley at the Queensland Cabaret Festival. Opening night’s hurtling towards us, and I’m applying musical thinking to how this performance might be structured and presented. This isn’t behind the scenes. It’s before the scenes. You can read part 1 here.
Thematic Vats & Sonata form
Themes of romantic and musical companionship have emerged: there’s also a simultaneous celebration and lament borne of longing, leavened by ridiculous optimism. The (rather refined) raw materials are songs.
I experiment with sorting these song-drivers and grouping them into thematic ‘vats’. Like the different components of a blended wine, the aim is to combine their qualities so they have a tasty and complex palate.
Because I’m keen for the performance not to be narrative driven, or make a particular point. I’m wondering if the whole show can be like a song: with different parts that flow into and converse with one another, where the act of repetition brings enjoyment and new apprehension.
I’m thinking compositionally, and (unconstrained by anything approaching formal musical education) I look for guidance in the musical structure of the sonata, in which a ‘theme’ is exposed, developed and recapitulated. In a sonata, this theme is musical: wordless.
In his book Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama (2002:7) David Mamet draws a masterful line between musical to dramatic structure:
“..our survival instinct orders the world into cause – effect – conclusion. ….We take pleasure in the music because it states a theme, the theme elaborates itself and then resolves, and we are then as pleased as if it were a philosophical revelation – even though the resolution is devoid of verbal content.”
There’s an inference here to the three-act structure of drama we’re all familiar with, based in causality and the potential for climax. The reason we dully perceive that almost every movie we’ve ever seen seems the same. That’s not a furrow I’m ploughing. Music: emotional, associative, self-referential and revelatory, potentially frees you from those constraints.
This is not to say that language won’t have its part to play, because the songs have lyrics, yet spoken words won’t rule the roost. Lesley is likely join the tunes together with ‘music under’ the patter.
I know I have the opportunity to ‘sew’ the musical works together with what I’m calling performative patter. Bearing in mind that I’d rather ‘do’ than show or tell any day, I’ve been working with carefully composed inter-song utterances that frame the musical content and carry some of the narrative flow.
In Bear with Me I wrote this patter as haiku: I won’t do that with this piece, but I’ll pursue its spirit of poetic economy without making things seem too contrived. It’s a long-established showbiz behaviour : you use patter to talk an audience in to a song. I’m interested in exploring patter’s poetic and rhythmic qualities.
Beckett rides a Song Cycle
Will Gentlemen Songsters be a Song Cycle then? The archetypal song cycle is Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. It’s a gorgeous setting of some lyrics by a young guy called Jietteles. There’s no story, just the deep longing of the poet/singer who invokes the forces of nature in marshalling the musical message he’s sending to ‘the distant beloved’ of the title.
The song cycles of later composers such as Schumann, Schubert and many others are all lovely, but are more narrative-based and therefore of less interest to me right now.
It does what it says. It is what is says.
As a Leiderkreis (by Beethoven’s own description) “…Geliebte” is also circular in structure, returning to itself, like the ring one might give the beloved. It’s not bound by mimesis or the need to communicate a narrative. It does what it says. It is what is says. The poet/songwriter is the voice in the work and the making and singing of songs is the generative act, subtly drawing us into its themes through performance, not story.
I love this idea of the song cycle, and I like the irony of playing with such grand compositional traditions on a ukulele.
There are musical characteristics of both sonata and the song cycle here which are only subtly apprehended: the journey through various keys and motifs which begin in one place, take their own route and return ‘home’ changed from the experience. Our material could sustain this purely musical treatment, but I doubt it’d be useful in constructing a dynamic hour’s entertainment, so I’m pursuing the derivation and development of certain semic codes in the songs which evoke thematic concepts, rather than describing them.
Not to show, or tell, but to do. Given that I’m uninterested in playing with showbusiness clichés, even ironically, I’ve set myself a challenge. (Though I’ve no wish to challenge the audience.)
Why should this show describe a set of ideas and feelings when it already is a set of ideas and feelings? Here I guess I’m drawing on the work of the absurdists, and Samuel Beckett’s description of the work of James Joyce:
“…here form is content, content is form […] his writing is not about something; it is that something itself.”
This sounds heavy. It’s not. Beckett (a fan of silent comedies) had one of his characters say “…nothing is funnier than unhappiness”.
Joyce. Beckett. Beethoven. A coupla guys in Brisbane with ukuleles. That’s funny. Righto. If I do it right it won’t need much commentary: the songs will lead us through this land.