Incidental music as a dramatic character
(April 2000, USITT Denver conference, U.S.; this text was published
in the Theatre Design & Technology magazine, summer 2000)
Musical examples used during the lecture are not available here.
My honorable friends, ladies and gentlemen,
In the first place, let me express my sincere thanks for your invitation,
which I welcome not only as an appreciation of my work in the field of
incidental music and drama in general. Moreover I see it as an expression of
your admirable commitment to an eternal cultural search and of your effort
culturally globalize our planet. Once again, thank you.
I have been working for drama in the field of incidental music for twenty
by now, and I percieve my work primarily as a service. I do believe that an
author aware of his mission of a servant cannot -- unlike an author involved
some sort of a loose creative process -- be misled by his pride and lose a
measure of the space confined to him.
As my own loose creative process concerns, I do monumental paintings and I
compose classical music. I do not believe these two languages of exploring
secrets of the world exclude one another. On the other hand, I do not
believe that they should necessarily influence one another or that they
be considered condition to one another.
When painting, I am interested in those places in the countryside which had
been once civilized and consequently left to themselves. Zones like this
more strongly than others to remove traces of human presence. I look for
that what holds this particular sort of energy within the countryside: like
secret of darkness beneath the stones or the grass devouring the remains of
buildings. I strive to record the strength of the land, as well as that what
remains of the man and his actions. The wells left after former villages,
rust-eaten plows, swarms that moved to hollow trees. I am after the soil,
and water, blended together in some sort of cosmological vision in a unique
product of energy. And I see all that towering above the depth of historical
memory and historical conciousness. To put it shortly: I'm after the path to
In my music, this path is manifested in revealing the dramatic principles of
musical drama. I am trying to find the frontier, where the ritual ends and
dramatic artform sui generis starts. My greatest achievement in this effort
an oratory opera Ludus Danielis, finished last week. In this opera, the
dramatic tension produced is solely an outcome of an arrangment of features
a musical drama. I composed this opera to a libretto of one of the oldest
medieval dramas preserved, the Daniel's play, written in 12th century in the
French city of Beauvais. On basis of a libretto several hundred years old, a
piece was created which takes almost two hours and involves 5 soloists, 2
choirs, a narrator, a symphonic orchestra and an organ; a piece that brings
the medieval world mystery to our time. In its theme, there is a question of
conscience and responsibility on part of the rulers of this world -- and
a question of whether this problem is still considered relevant.
Unfortunately, we cannot listen to extracts from the opera, as it will not
recorded before the premiere, which is going to take place within three
under patronage of Czech President Havel as a part of the annual musical
festival Janacek's Hukvaldy.
Chamber cantata Tractatus Pacis is another work falling within the cathegory
of my loose musicwriting. This is actually a historic document, written by
George of Podebrady, King of Bohemia, put to music. In the document the king
addresses rulers of neighboring countries and suggests -- in mid 15th
century -- that an European union should be formed. Aside from the peace
agreement proposal a quote from biblical Apocalypse is included in cantata's
I sincerely don't have much against European union, so that is not the point
here. The dramatic quarell of the two themes is meant to manifest the fact
that too many good intentions never materialize and moreover, that their
materialization frequently exceeds human capabilities.
That is the bit I wanted to say about my painting and loose musicwriting.
Next, we can move on to the main topic of my speech, incidental music.
The idea I have of working for drama and occasionally for film and
is that of a work in a laboratory of dramatic sensations. This is where you
can freely choose procedures and means, build up dramatic arches or, if you
prefer, arrange dramatic still lifes.
Incidental music forms the emotional and dramatic backbone of a drama, and
together with the plot it complementarily produces the tempo-rythm of a
At the beginning, there was a ritual, where spoken word and music had an
equal standing and they were mutually balanced. After these two components
became distinct, their function differentiated. Spoken word, the pivot of
literal meaning, was raised to become a dominant component, and music was to
serve it in form of dances, intermezzos or preludes.
In times of Romanticism and Neo-Romanticism, the goal was to bring
of a staging closer to one another, and "literalization" of music was one of
its outcomes. One of the ways to do this was the Richard Wagner-type drama
declamatory singing. The process continued with full-length melodramas
written by Zdenek Fibich, a Czech composer, and further on, with the
melodization of the spoken word, as found in Schonberg's "sprechgesang" or
Janacek's notation of speech.
The music created in this way was -- and that is important -- interpreted
live. As an outcome, it could not be present everywhere, that is, it could
be performed continuously through the staging. The situation changed
with the development of recorded music in drama, and more noticably, in
Due to this development the melodramatic principle substantiated, but more
importantly, it also degenerated and lost much of its original value. We
cannot seriously imagine someone speaking on the stage with a live symphonic
orchestra in the background, but with music in present day film and drama,
is only a matter of the right mixboard button being pushed at the right
As a result, we nowadays live in a permanent melodrama, not only in film and
drama, but in our everyday lives as well. There is no restaurant, bar,
mall, without something being played back in the background. This
must not hold our attention or disturb, its sole purpose is to create a
coulisse, because silence apparently is hardly within capabilities of modern
person's imagination, and if it is, it is something to be afraid of. Music
concepted as a coulisse vulgarizes our emotional life, and conseqeuently, we
lose our musical taste, impose limits on our emotions and perception. Such a
person permanently and unconcioussly desires melodrama, even though he or
has no idea what melodrama is about.
This can be well demonstrated with the present tremendous popularity of
Esmeralda TV series in Europe (I must admit I don't know what the situation
in the U.S. is). In this series, a silly dialogue, resembling dadaism
unwantingly, is blended with cascades of absolutely disfunctional symphonic
music: the product probably serves to drown and erase any thought present in
consumer's mind. As a result, one finds it more easy to identify himself
the characters and less vigillant to the lack of logic in the plot. Human
civilization becomes infantilized and the consumer feels like he is part of
Indeed, Richard Wagner used much simmilar means, yet the difference in their
quality and usage is tremendous. Of this sort of music -- and this is music
major motion pictures as well --- govererned by the scheme: the main theme
the beginning, somewhere in the second third and at the end, the rest being
filled by the mass of simple sounds corresponding to "rush", "calm",
"tension", "danger", etc., well, of this music I am not going to speak. I
might only point out that its origins in style are easy to count on one hand
-- Wagner's Twilight of Gods, Holst's Planets (namely
Turandot, free movements in Bruckner's and Mahler's sympohnies,
late operas of Rimsky-Korsakov -- and the fact that these authors where
countlessly exploited and mutilated in various movies.
The music I am interested in is not of the background-forming type, but that
which specifically characterizes, the music which forms a dramatic and
tempo-rhytmic counterpoint to a staging or to a movie, the music which can
partner to the actors, the director, the set designer. That is, the music
which can be a character of the drama on its own.
For such a music to act, a body is needed. This body is formed by a specific
key, a clear melodic theme, carefully chosen harmonic procedure, and by a
fixed dramatic principle. Before I start my work, I always ask the director
"What is the dramatic function of music in the staging going to be?" Indeed,
there is a diversity in possible dramatic functions. The music can confine
space, form frames, lead an inner dialogue with the key character, or even
bring a poetic or kinetic solution to specific situation and in such a
exchange roles with set designing. It can precede a situation, summarize it
and reach the final verdict. The more venturous and open is the director's
conception, the more venturous and open can the musical counterposition be.
Whatever the staging or the film is, virtually any music can be used for it,
if -- to put it vulgarily -- played at the right moment. This moment of
creative freedom strikes me as frightning. The music and the correspoding
situation simply need a point in common.
Let's a look at the beginning of John's Passion by Johan Sebastian
believe this is a perfect choice of music for a wide screen shot of the
disembarking at the coast of Normandy in 1944. What is the common point of
image and music in this case?
In the first place, there is a relentless double motion: in the image,
this is the surf and the motion of the boats. The outcry "Gott!" ("God!") is
of both desperation and hope.
Secondly, both music and the image have this specific greyish local color.
So where does the dramatic counterpoint come from? It comes from the
interaction of the relentless war machinery and the limitless compassion of
I took an analogical approach when composing music to the opening scene of
Wandering (Bloudeni) drama at the National Theatre in Prague.
The opening scene
describes the execution of 27 Czech noblemen at the Old Town Square in
in 1621. This is a rigorous scene, bare as if taken from Kafka, iluminated
chilly light. Well-dressed men come and mechanically undress the convicts.
put this into music, I used a pure baroque script: "Be well, the lanterns of
heavenly palace." To this script, full of diminutives characteristic of
baroque, I composed sort of a quasibaroque cantata in style of a small town
holiday with clear inconsistencies in vocal parts, as if it was composed by
some country author in late 17th century. Hence the music stands in
to the chilly scene.
I used a simmilar principle, this time based on the conflict of what's
countable and what's not, in the same staging, namely in the scene depicting
the city of Magdeburg being burned down, the most appaling massacre of the
Thirty Years War. An uproar cannot be multiplied. The director chose a
detail: a crowd of people, with buckets on their shoulders, approaches a
gateway. The gateway opens up and armed men stand motionlessly behind.
Finally, they slowly approach the people and take the buckets of their
shoulders. The people fall dead on the ground.
It's up to the music to slow down the motion and to bring on the sense of
as it relentlessly increases in volume. For this reason, I chose a
minimalistic musical solution. On its top comes an ironic quote from
hymn "A sturdy castle our God is". The script of this hymn is put to music
three times in the play -- in Czech, German and Swedish --- this
characterizes the armies which took part in the Thirty Years War.
A typical characteristics of a setting is given for the city of Cheb
the place where general Valdstejn was murdered in February of 1634. In
February, Masopust, a folk carneval opening the Lent, took place in Central
European towns. Valdstejn, seriously ill, lies in his room, with crowds
bustling outside. Musically, I chose sort of a ritual formed by rhytmic
of randomly chosen German words, with each verse concluded by a shout in
Occasionaly, music can form a loop in time. One of the key characters of
Wandering is kidnapped and dragged to a distant foreign country.
about the ransom go on, the captive is moved from one castle jail to
Seasons pass, the captive falls in love, becomes sick with fever and he does
not get home until three years pass. I solved this situation through a vocal
intremezzo to folk lyrics: "There will be war, who's gonna fight? Our little
son's who's gonna fight."
I could analyze the entire staging, including lot more other worlds and
- Catholic Spain, native Peruans, love songs and war anthems. But I will
rather mention the key principle, common for all the music for
principle is: any musical form collapses if its limits are penetrated.
In the following extract I try to respect the baroque principle, where the
heaven opens but beneath all the joy and pomp, death and decay waits in
This fugato is slowly joined by one vocal after antoher until it chokes and
turns in a sort of death dance.
Incidental music must have the power to call by name, to be concrete. Let's
listen to a ball scene from a play titled Master and Margarete, based
A ball, that means a fast waltz. Here it comes.
Yet that would be to unconcrete, too romantic. We need to aim the music more
We also need to give a name to a frame of the action, let's call it "The
at Satan's Place".
I will show you a different method of characteristics. This time it uses
a detail based on motion. The story of Master and Margarete is
set in Moscow of
1930s. As we all know, everything was controlled by secret state police, the
KGB, by that time. So here is the motif of the KGB:
Move and stop, move and stop -- take just a few steps and listen to hear
someone saying something against the government, few more steps, stop and
listen once again.
This motif is well applicable to an ordinary citizen, who's been either
or who has cooperated with the KGB. Thus: a few steps, check if someone's
following me, few more steps, listen to what my neighbor says, etc.
It is important to be aware of a concrete detail.
A month ago, I finished music for a staging of Hamlet. In this
the dramatic function of music lies in building limits for actors, which
ammounts almost to set-designing. Some scenes, like the funeral ceremony for
the dead king, are actually staged outdoors, in front of the theatre.
When composing music, I was inspired by arts of totalitarian governments,
particularly by the Soviet war monuments, Czechoslovak Spartakiad ceremony,
the Congressional stadium in Nurnberg or the statues of Arno Brecker. The
result is a brutal, slightly vulgar music, marked by occasional excursions
the land of evil.
In this funeral march, percussion instruments are very important. They make
the march a mass event, since they depict horses. Without that detail, this
could be an ordinary country funeral.
The use of vulgarity further graduates. The following polka (somebody would
say: "What does music like this do in a staging of Hamlet?") slowly
until only the breath remains.
Some spots in Hamlet are an essence of evil, however there is a need
compensate them with humor. The music, as I have mentioned earlier, forms a
frame, in some parts it ritualizes the sitation and confines a relatively
space for the actors, not standing in their way at the same time.
The musical arch can live independently, but I have also mentioned the need
common point. In this case, it is the theme of sad love, included in many
variations. This theme also ties the entire mass of music back to the drama.
In The Red and The Black, a staging based on Stendhal's novel
of the same
name, a very simple key theme is repeated over and over. It is important to
realize that the theme needs the capacity to play a key role, otherwise the
principle I am about to discuss will go away unnoticed. Shortly, the theme
repeated too many times. Naturally, not in the same form. Once from the
beginning, once from the middle, crescendo, decrescendo, with a hall-effect,
from various places in the space, etc. What comes out of that? At the
beginning we hear the theme full of eagerness and romantic fluttering, then
resembles love and adventure, later on freedom and travelling. The original
contents will become entirely exhausted and theme simplifies to a specific
feature, which will annnoy us more and more until it becomes totally
unbearable. For such a musical solution of the staging one more theme is
needed. You use it at the time when everybody expects the already unbearable
previous theme will be repeated the last time. This is a card player's
principle: an ace hidden in the sleeve, that nobody knows about until the
I have touched the ritualization issue a couple of times already. I
ritualization in drama as one of the forms of returning to the roots.
Naturally, there are various types of roots: I believe a man should identify
himself with those roots he chooses for himeself. Ritual is a graduated
rhytm-based realization of that what extends beyond us, or of that what we
expect to extend beyond us.
In staging of Její Pastorkyne (this is the drama which Leos
his opera Jenufa upon), a courting takes place. Simultaneously,
recruiting is carried out by the army. I used percussion instruments for
scene, partly played back, partly live -- actors on the stage use metal
barrels. Something really savage came out of this.
As a European I could not quite get rid of the tradition, so a fugue of
vocals is heard through the percussion instruments, however the viewer
not notice this.
I don't use solely Moravian folklore, since the folklore -- which is just a
relation of a man and nature crafted in a rhytmical form -- is identical all
over the world.
At the beginning of Gazdina roba drama (a play written at
the end of 19th
century about a fallen peasant woman), I use instruments typical of Moravian
folklore (a violin, a clarinet, a dulcimer, a double bass), arranged in an
unconventional manner. Iggy Popp's song along with a historic recording of
the author's voice is blended into a scene where villagers dance with their
flails phosphorescing. It is worth noting that the there is nothing strained
about the result.
Even a very tense drama must have a point where everything turns into humor
- this only increases the dramatic point.
In staging of Marysa, I use a very ascetic choir. Out of its theme,
symphonic music materializes. Through the symphonic means of late 19th
century I try to make the features of late 19th century decorative art
authentic. The wistfull nature of the entire piece requires its compensation
in humor. So there is the principle of contrast, coming out of one musical
Marysa, doubtlessly the best Czech drama, tells a bleak story of a
forced to enter an unfortunate marriage and consequently led to poisoning
husband. In a tense scene shortly before the end, where sort of "Dance
takes place in a pub, the same substratum is used to form a small
which I gave a working title "A hedgehog and a shrew are off to hunt
mushrooms". Needless to say, no little animals take part in the play, but
contrast to a dance of death, which follows, is substantially strengthened.
Marysa's husband drinks the poisoned coffee and leaves for work in the
The scene, as opposed to the script, is static and bare, only the music can
heard and in the background, an iluminated field shining with silver, made
80 thousand nylon threads, arises. In this field, a black figure of Marysa's
poisoned husband lies muffled. Sort of Passion.
My honorable friends. Here it is not my goal to describe all the dramatic
principles I worked on in 85 stagings of drama so far. The few examples I
mentioned have been meant to introduce you to some of the key principles
governing the incidental music when percieved as a dramatic character.
What I have been trying to do here is to manifest that, if there is will,
applied art does not have to be something inferior, it does not have to be
reduced to an industrial semi-product, that is, to something that seems to
flood us from everywhere these days, something that kills human originality
and uniqueness. I have been trying to point out that concious service to a
broader concept can, together with multiplication of various types
of energy, give the art once again its vital moral function, which is, to
us all survive.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for listening.
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