Process Notes: Tracing a Legacy of American Musical Theater

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The following writing came from a series of exercises I did after attending Larissa Velez-Jackson’s class “What is my work?”. Through a self-interview format, Larissa encouraged us to become our own provocateurs. Allowing myself to engage with my own thinking in a more fluid way led to a whole new set of ideas about the work I’ve been doing. This piece came about after consolidating a number of these self-interviews, eventually into a single piece of writing. In this consolidated version, the questions have been taken out, my narrative seamless – there are no fumbles. So though this now looks like an essay, our work as artists is never done, conceptually or in the creative process. I’m still questioning my process, I’m still vulnerable. Here is where I am right now.

I spent most of my childhood absorbed in musical theater. My grandfather was a successful Broadway producer and I grew up seeing the original productions of La Cage Aux Follies and Will Rogers Follies. When I discovered the PBS broadcast of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, I was mesmerized. I watched it dozens of times, puzzling over the impossible harmonic language and Sondheim’s playfully self-aware use of form and genre. Much later, I would be opened to the post-tonal universe of 20th century art music – a world of sound even stranger than Sondheim’s. In my college composition study, I found myself pulled in two directions. There was a part of me still trying to harness the narrative, expressive aspects of tonality (sneaking away to jazz concerts to study Bill Evans tunes), and a part of me rapidly embracing the freedom of abstraction and formalism (entering a world where music became texture, sound and space). I yearned for an approach that would honor both structural paradigms, while simultaneously affirming the contextual and imagistic power of performance.

While my mind was expanding into the far reaches of sound, I felt more and more estranged from the concert stage. There, bodies performed with a conservative elegance, performers entered and exited from “elsewhere” locations, and texts were “set” rather than written. It all seemed to be telling a story, but it wasn’t mine. I began to explore the opportunities in the dance department, and for the rest of my academic career bounced back and forth between Schoenberg and Somatics, LeMonte Young and Trisha Brown. The connection between abstract sound and abstract movement seemed obvious enough to my body. I began to participate in free improvisation sessions with other musicians, only I performed with my body, relishing a newfound kinesthetic exploration of space and time. I would never dance to the music, but with it, in conversation. I remember shortly thereafter seeing Tere O’Connor’s Frozen Mommy at The Kitchen and thinking for the first time, “so this is the physical embodiment of non-narrative events in space.” Equally fortuitous was my happening to see Richard Maxwell’s The Good Samaritans at St. Ann’s Warehouse. It had a dry, musical rhythm to it that cut the otherwise narrative structure of the play.

For a while I didn’t write music at all. I used improvisational movement structures as a way to filter formal ideas through my body. My first attempts to sew together sound and movement in some sort of even playing field was in The Near(ness), a work I made in 2010. In The Near(ness) myself and dancers Ethan Cowan & Lucinda Segar used a microphone and loop pedal to generate the sound for our dancing. The vocal textures served not only as accompaniment, but as transformations of rhythmic and textural information generated with our bodies. The states we created in the different vocal sections had distinct kinesthetic values, breathing patterns, and rhythmic structures. When we began to move out of vocalizing we weren’t representing the music, we literally were it.

Untitled 7When I got the chance to perform The Near(ness) at DTW as part of Fresh Tracks, I decided to run the sound from my onstage amp through the main house system. In my rush to fill the space with sound, I incidentally hid the loop station behind the amp. Even though I thought it was obvious that we were generating and modifying these sounds live, this fact was visually obscured from the audience. Once we stepped away from the microphone we were images pleasantly adrift in a sea of seemingly pre-recorded sound. All I had done was to effectively create my own sound track; the connection between it and my dance was, for the most part, private.

I began to re-assess what my work was really investigating. I knew I had to simultaneously go deeper into the relationship between the voice and body, while also zooming out to consider the theater that this work ultimately created. Fast-forward through two years with the Phoneme Choir – Daria Fain helped me to believe that sound really does have the silly consequences I believe I feel in my body. (This revelation actually began in college, during a semester course on experimental vocal work with Jonathan Hart-Makwaia, but I didn’t have the audacity to trust it then) I had already started to investigate physical relationships to vowel sounds as a source of choreographic research. Slowly, other linguistic structures started to reveal their potential as music and ultimately choreography.


In my recent studio practice, we have been vocalizing a lot. We have also been using touch to locate sound on each other, and to mirror and receive the physical information in our own bodies. We experiment with different modalities and structures going back and forth between movement and sound. Sometimes sound and movement inhabit a unified gesture, and sometimes they are in dialogue, like counterpoint. It can get very specific and quite brainy. When we are setting something, we pull apart the sound initiation into many stages to locate the internal spaces (where sound actually is movement), finding a sometimes precarious place for the movement to start. It’s really about the mechanics of the body and finding counterpoint and subtly between the two tasks. It gets very microscopic and almost inorganic at times. But after a lot of practice it becomes embodied, and a third thing emerges.

My entry point into this kind of work came from a fascination with vocal pitch and timbre in the spoken word. I would memorize a piece of recorded text, trying to replicate exactly the pitched intonations and rhythms of the speaker. I was working with a piece of collaged text from an interview I did with a geologist. I was obsessed with the beauty of the unexpected cadences in the collaged material. From a distance it sounded logical, but if you tried to understand, it was nonsense. The logic was in the music; the words became abstraction. This opened up for me another way of working with language. This kind of subtle deterioration of meaning is something that I always gravitated towards in the work of Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier (both whom I feel I am referencing and paying homage to in my current work).

Here is a vocal score for a study I worked on with Laurel Snyder. The accompanying music was composed later. (Ben Van Buren is the other voice in this recording, not included on this score.)


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Vocal choreography, along this continuum between spoken word and pitched singing, opened up a way for me to work with speaking as a newly* embodied state. All the while there’s this softness of tissue around that perceptual space where vibration becomes sound, but also movement. It’s a very beautiful subtle relationship. So that’s the micro level part.

(* I guess I should say new for me. Any skilled singer would be probing this relationship. I’m just exploiting it, exploring it, mining it for its movement potential.)

On a more macro level, I’m looking at the singing body as a theatrical entity. I spent a good portion of this past year reading old books about opera and also Jennifer Homan’s history of ballet Apollo’s Angels. I was pleasantly surprised – though perhaps I shouldn’t have been – to learn that many early 20th century ballet choreographers, including Balanchine actually studied music composition in the academies. Many were accomplished pianists and at least had tried their hand in writing music. I can still remember my childhood improvisation sessions at the piano. I would spend hours, literally, lost in a kinesthetic exploration of pitch, timbre and rhythm. Only later would I learn to trim the ragged edges of my unruly physicality into codified notation. Part of the legacy of the postmodern dance movement is a rejection of a certain kind of relationship to music. Having worked my way into a corner with music, I eagerly embraced an aesthetic that would allow me to experience time and space once again as pure bodily abstraction. However, I have been dancing for about 10 years now and my body has developed new habit and awareness; I realize that what I love the most, what I crave, it that moment or precipice where the relationship between expression and meaning is forged anew through the body.

And so I plunge headlong into the singing body, into unknown and fearful territory. I have felt somewhat homeless since migrating from the concert hall to the dance stage. How do I create a work that can speak fluently across forms? How do I maintain independence of layers, while still considering the sum of the parts? I am interested in the intersection between different perceptual modalities. Can one shift and gradually become the other? How can I pull them apart and put them back together again? This kind of vertical choreography, or the choreography of layers, is what I feel like I have been investigating lately on a macro level. According to the introduction in the Victrola Book of Opera, in “true opera, melody is only used in moments of heightened emotion.” Of course, musical theater already has a set of conventions for doing this. And ultimately, in exploring the singing body, I have to acknowledge these conventions.

I also read this really great book by Ethan Mordden Coming Up Roses: American Musical Theater in the 1950s. He is really cognizant of the many strains of music theater performance that existed in the first half of the century – vaudeville, operetta, opera, musical comedy, musical drama, modern dance – that each, in their own way, affected one another. But it also helped me understand what it might have been like when musical theater was still evolving, when it was breaking form. That was the stage that was set for my grandfather, as a first generation Jewish Hungarian in New York.

And so, this lineage is not just a lineage, but part of my lineage. Musical theater inhabits some of my oldest memories. The swelling orchestral notes, the titillating darkness between curtains, the impenetrable longing, the surge of emotions – these are mine to deal with and to reconcile. This is my American history, my songbook.

So, that brings me to present tense. Here I am. I am tracing form. I am looking for an answer, post-Ashley, post-Anderson, post-Monk, to the question I seem to be asking: What is the legacy of American Musical Theater?

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Tatyana Tenenbaum wrote and staged her first full-length musical As The Crow Flies at age 12. She will premiere a new work entitled Private Country at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City Oct 30-Nov 2.

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