Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Music of the Script

All my writing about the extent to which a musical composition may be viewed as a conversation may have obscured the fact that the complementary side of this relationship is often equally valid. It may be that one of the ways in which we shall remember the innovations of twentieth-century drama will be through its capacity for "composing" scripts in which the "drama" resides in the musical qualities of the text. I was reminded about this yesterday, while reading Chloe Veltman's review of the Cutting Ball Theater Company's production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame for SF Weekly. She described Beckett as the author of "famously abstract dramas," her first example being "Play, featuring a chorus of three heads sticking out of massive urns." Having seen this piece several times, I certainly do not dispute her description; but I also remember Beckett having written about the fact that he viewed this work as an experiment in writing a dramatic script based on musical principles. This was probably a reflection of his admiration for James Joyce, who tried to structure the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses as an eight-voice fugue. Interestingly enough, there is a paper about this chapter by Nadya Zimmerman published in the Journal of Modern Literature in 2002 entitled "Musical Form as Narrator;" and, to a great extent, that would also describe what Beckett was up to in Play. Once you recognize that the title plays (so to speak) on the ambiguity that confounds drama and musical performance, you discover that the underlying story is painfully concrete (and is basically a tale that goes back at least as far as Dante, if not further); but it reveals itself as the underlying musical form plays itself out (so to speak). In other words the way to deal with this text is not to hide behind propositions about abstraction but to deal with it as a performance of both drama and music.

One of the first American dramatists to pick up on this technique was Sam Shepard. The Tooth of Crime, for example, was about musicians, incorporated music (which Shepard composed), and fabricated new metaphors around the terminology of music. By the time we get to Cowboy Mouth, we are dealing with a script composed almost as if it were a jazz improvisation (the improvisers being Shepard and Patti Smith); and the role of "the music itself" in the performance is considerably diminished. (These days, alas, fewer and fewer people seem to be left who know Shepard from his plays, rather than his film acting work.)

I have been thinking about this approach to drama as a result of having just seen the film version of Lanford Wilson's play, Lemon Sky courtesy of the Sundance Channel. Wilson's first full-length play, Balm in Gilead, was structured both around and through music in a spirit similar to Shepard's work but going in different directions. By the time he got to Lemon Sky he was working more specifically with "the music of narration," playing out a plot through multiple narrators who weave among each other in a manner not that different from the voices of one of the fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. In the film (which is actually a video produced in 1988 at WGBH for the series American Playhouse) this musicality is further enhanced with a score by Pat Metheny and drum solos by Jack DeJohnette, which exhibit a contrapuntal relationship to the delivery of the narration texts.

The lesson I have learned from this complementary view is that it enables a more integrated approach to some of my recent writing. I have been interested in what it means to be a good listener (to music) and a good reader (of texts); but it had not previously occurred to me that these practices might be two sides of a common coin. Yes, I tried to approach both through the foundation of the trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric; but I had not yet made the connection that a commonality of foundations might imply a commonality of strategies of practice. This may change as these posts continue to reflect my listening and reading experiences!

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