This article departs from an intermedial theatre production and an acousmatic sound performance. In these productions the use of audio and video technology was central to mediate a manifold of perspectives on societal challenges concerning migration and xenophobia. The multi-channel radiophonic composition Karlskrona/Malmö (2017), revolved around the fictional murder of a left-wing activist. The performance was produced at the same time as several notable violent right-wing hate crimes took place in Sweden. Quite a few detention centres were set on fire in different places in Sweden, in Kärrtorp, a suburb of Stockholm, alt-right activists attacked a peaceful demonstration, and in Malmö, a well-known activist was beaten down by neo-Nazis. Our other exemple, Arrival Cities: Malmö (2013), was inspired by the book Arrival City (2010) by the Canadian journalist Doug Saunders which described the cities that have become ports for the people who have migrated. According to Saunders, these cities are places of loneliness and misery but at the same time dynamic focal points for the transformation of most of humanity from rural to urban citizens. The performance combined theatre with chamber- and electro-acoustic music and portrayed the migrant situation in Sweden a few years before the migrant wave hit Europe in 2015 and many countries closed their borders.
The use of technology as a performative element was central for these two performances. In Karlskrona/Malmö the use of multichannel audio recordings, speaker setup, acousmatic voice and sound diffusion was in focus. Arrival Cities: Malmö combined electro-acoustic music, chamber music and pre-recorded and live-video into an intermedial theatre performance. In the article ‘Identity, Technology, Nostalgia’, the director Avra Sidiropoulou discusses how different modes of technology could help create a manifold understanding on performance. She claims that earlier “technology primarily serve[d) as a strategy of re-contextualizing classical texts” (Sidiropoulou 2018), but later the digital technology has become one of the most important tools for creating a performance. In this article we would like to enhance this understanding even further. In the examples we are presenting, technology has been essential in the staging. The different media has added to how space is experienced, and at the same time contributed to dramaturgical structure and added semiotic, affective and conceptual perspectives to the live action.
In this article we will discuss how we have used these audio-visual technologies as performative elements to mediate a political and social zeitgeist. We will depart from the use of sound in performance, and later discuss how video and the integration of technologies could add to the live performance. We will also briefly reflect on how technology could be a creative tool to perform with and on.
Performing on the Acousmonium
In the book Composed Theatre (2012), Petra Maria Meyer states that an acoustic turn can be noticed in all forms of contemporary performing arts. This has had a great impact on the development of theatre. Directors and theatre makers are using musical thinking on how to stage classical dramas or how to structure a plot, also sound design could be used as scenographic elements. Compositional thinking has also given rise to stage formats where the compositional and musical practice is as important as the different practices as acting and staging in a theatre context. These formats could for example be radiophonic art presented as an installation on a multichannel loudspeaker set-up.
In the article ‘Music, Space and Theatre’ (2010) Ewan Stefani and Karen Lauke propose that a site-specific understanding of sound diffusion could enhance these theatrical aspects of the musical performance. However, we would propose that the opposite is also true, by diffusing sound and voices with the understanding of musical composition practice could transform a multi-channel sound installation into a theatrical performance. This understanding was used in the staging of Karlskrona/Malmö. The production was presented on an acousmonium – a loudspeaker orchestra – a concept designed and developed by Francois Bayle at GRM in Paris during the 1970’s. In sound installations, the relation to the actual space where it is performed is crucial: how the pre-recorded materials are performed through the spatial placement of the loudspeakers shape the audience’s perception and experience of space. An acousmonium expands the spatial possibilities. As Jonty Harrison explains in the article ‘Sound, space, sculpture’ (1998), this technology keeps “the sound in a constant state of spatial evolution – to sculpt the sound in the space and to sculpt the space with the sound” (Harrison 1998, 126). It affords artistic possibilities which was also the case in Karlskrona/Malmö. The loudspeakers were used in an array of different configurations throughout the performance, sometimes as standalone loudspeakers for mono sounds, sometimes as clusters of loudspeakers but also as a more traditional surround system. This allowed a performance with the voices and the sounds: the reverb could be distributed to various loudspeakers to give the experience that the very physical space had been expanded but also to place the voices in specific loudspeakers and places using digital room simulations..
One metaphor to describe the artistic output of the acousmonium as a music of images that is “shot and developed in the studio, and projected in a hall, like a film” (op cit., 125). The evolving spatialisation of sound has cinematic qualities. Should we then interpret the spatialisation of voice in the same way: the speakers as specific actors having relations and being immersed in real-life situations as they were performing in a movie?
In Between Sound and language
In the book Where is Language? (2015) Ruth Finnegan stresses the need for a deeper understanding on orality:
It can be illuminating to explore the diverse ways the differing aspects of vocal utterances can be co-created in conjunction with (for example) written overtones, visual images, auditory resonances, musical enactments, material artefacts, bodily engagements. Unpicking the oral features and how they are brought into play enables a fuller understanding of the complexity of communicating.
Finnegan claims that the oral features are elusive. What should be considered language? Everything that is muttered through the mouth or just the words that could be transcribed into writing? What about pauses or silence? She suggests that a way to look at orality is not to regard it as a defined term but rather as a range of questions. One of these is: where are the boundaries between music and language? In Karlskrona/Malmö there is a constant oscillation between the voice as a transmitter of semantic meaning and as sound. The acousmatic technology helps to blur these boundaries even more when being present in the installation space.
In the following sound clip the music transforms gradually into voice and then back again. A person being interviewed by someone to learn if she knew the person who used to live in Karlskrona. She is then interrupted by a phone call which is transformed into sound. Shortly after a person is heard speaking of her life situation as if talking to herself at home.
Translation of the sound clip above:
1: I have heard rumours, but I don't know if they are true. He moved from Karlskrona after losing his job. People have said… he is either still in Malmö or has moved elsewhere. The last time I heard anything must have been several years ago. Then he still lived here. But that was a long time ago.
[A phone starts ringing]
Wait, I'm going to… Yes, it is me.
2: Why should I… when I have this loneliness… and I lost my job… I worked at Konsum … it was a good job. Good working hours, well, maybe not on the weekends but the rest of the week… you could do things in the evenings… I stayed at home a lot and it was nice. Hadn’t so much to do, but it was nice to know that you could do things when you had the evenings off. And mom is not feeling better either, so they. Then they closed down Konsum… Lidl… and then no one wanted to… and that was ok at first. It was easier if you had a car… and cheaper. Cheaper… cheap pork chops from Germany or where it comes from… Denmark. And then autumn came and then it got colder. Colder and chillier… and all the loneliness. And the employment service and the social insurance office… Well, I don't know. And the employment service said… and then I said… it can’t be true. How could I live on my unemployment insurance… if that is the regulations? And then they said and then I said… that it can’t be true. I will talk to the union. But it is not the same thing with the pork chops as the Swedish. And then I went to Lidl and asked if they had a job for me. (Dahlqvist 2017
Disconnecting the voice from the body and sound from the object allows for other modes of listening. However, this also has other implications. When acousmatic technology is used in other art fields the focus on other senses could just as well be emphasised. The visual artist Janna Holmstedt describes how in one of her artistic works where voices were presented acousmatic, “another kind of orality makes itself felt, evoked by the “loudspeaking” technology used in the playback of the recordings” (Holmstedt 2017, 42). In this description Janna emphasises the affective experience rather than an aural.
The way we used the technology was yet another, first we were interested in language as structure. In this next example the text communicates simultaneously on a structural and a semantic level.
Translation of the sound clip above:
5: In the archive. The word: help. The words: help me. The words: save me. The words: don’t hit me. The words: please save me, someone. The words: please, I don’t want to die. The words: Please don’t hit me, I don’t want to die I don’t want to die I don’t want to die please I don’t want to die I don’t want I don’t want I really don’t want to die please I don’t want to die. (Dahlqvist 2017).
We also wanted to point out how societal narratives are forming discourses and to this we used the voice as a compositional material to disconnect the utterances and statements from the embodiment of specific social actors. Traditionally, the text of the theatre is manifested through situations where the actor's actions give meaning to what is portrayed through their acting, by using the technology, where we could allow the relationships between a manifold of voices and having them relate musically afforded another way of representing society. In addition to having the voices represent relational social situations it was possible to let the discursive nature of the statements emerge and be presented.
Musical composition as dramaturgical strategy
The intermedial theatre performance Arrival Cities: Malmö was part of series performances with the ambition to discuss migration through theatre, and it enacted the precarious situations of migrants arriving to a new country. The performance showed how the discourse in political and societal discussions concerning migration affect the individual also what happens when a country abandons solidarity and closes its borders.
The three actors didn’t play fixed characters, as the social power dynamics changed throughout the performance, the actors altered between being perpetrator and victim. It revolved around different situations concerning the precarious life of being an asylum seeker. The interrogation at the border control, the precarious situation at the detention centres, the racists rants in the media, the discussions at workplaces, the right wing politician armed with an iron bar out on the streets and finally what happens when a person is to be deported back to their home country. All of these complex situations didn’t have any obvious answers. Instead we decided to allow many voices to be heard in order to learn of the different perspectives behind what could be recognised in society.
However, in order to present these different perspectives another kind of dramaturgical strategy was called for than the traditionally text based . The theatre scholar David Roesner suggests that music and musicality can be seen as many things – an analogy, a model, a working method or a way of thinking – and that all of these different attributes is credited for their potential to bring about change to the theatrical environment (Roesner 2012). One way to achieve this, is to use the dramaturgical potential of musical composition as a structuring principle when producing intermedial performances (cf. Olofsson 2018). In Arrival Cities: Malmö, the compositional thinking provided a dramaturgical thinking to handle the complexity of what was expressed on stage. It offered a concept on how situations and narratives could be incorporated with the various media. This also helped to bring forth new perspectives and to make it possible for new contexts to emerge. David Roesner states that:
The notion of polyphony carries a sense of an autonomy of individual voices, layers, and media within a greater whole in which the structural and semantic relations can be renegotiated and form new and previously uncommon connections, hierarchies and patterns of mutual impact.
This was true for our performance. All the different elements of the performance created an intermedial polyphony by juxtaposing and overlapping the narratives, the media and the various enacted situations. A musical understanding helped to structure a manifold of perspectives which added to the complexity of representing the urgent political and societal challenges of migration.
Mediating societal structures through sound and video
The integration of live and pre-recorded music contributed to the enactment of the political discourses in the performance. An example of this could be found in the sequence where the actors were mimicking a political discussion at a workplace.
The discussion revolves around the question of what can be said in the societal sphere, but it is a debate stuck in fixed positions. The conversation is intertwined with electronic music and music from the two musicians, as it was a chamber music play. The video projection shows images from Hovs Hallar, the actual place where Ingmar Bergman shot Seventh Seal, to couple this societal discourse with the imagery from a film considered to be one of the best Swedish films ever. It was a way to contrast the xenophobic slurs in society with national pride. As the situation between the three becomes more animated, the music emphasises the agitated atmosphere between them. Suddenly one of the actors suddenly starts threatening the others with an iron bar - an enactment of an actual situation where a right-wing politician roamed the streets to find someone to fight with.
When the actor throws the bar the aggressive atmosphere turns into loud, aggressive music and a huge projection of a burning car becomes visible on the screen. This sequence shows how theatre and music is superimposed in the theatre, and how a discussion can transform into something abstract through the musical expression. Here also the different media together with the acting form a chain of events which could be decoded as a societal structure. The discussions at the workplace are intimately connected to the language of xenophobic politicians, and this violence leads to marginalised citizens in the suburbs protesting by setting cars on fire.
Technology and affect
The use of video or film is nothing new, rather the technology has been used in theatre for more than hundred years. However, since the 1990’s the use of video in theatre has resulted in new approaches to the art form. In ‘How does theatre think through incorporating media’ the artists and theatre scholar Steve Dixon states that “the inclusion and incorporation of moving image projections on stage significantly expands the vocabulary of theatre, adding another element to a dual ‘text’ that opens a complex dialogue with live action” (Dixon 2019, 130). In Arrival Cities: Malmö this double exposure between the liveness of the performance and the mediated picture was very much in focus when staging the performance. The video was used as scenography, as narrative, and as a witness to events taking place on stage. In the following sequence we wanted to show the vulnerability of persons without the legal rights to stay in the country.
Here the pre-recorded video is situating the two male actors on stage outside in a factory area somewhere, at the same time the actors meet up on stage. This doubleness also signals the fictitiousness of what is presented – the same narratives are juxtaposed on top of each other. The music adds tension to the situation. However, when the men started focusing on the female actor who was hiding off stage, the projected video transformed from showing the narrative to instead starting to become a witness of what was happening. Now accents in the music were added to further signal that this might be a dangerous situation. After a while the atmosphere gets even more tense. One of the male actors was threatening the female, and the music and editing of the video enhanced the uncontrollable and aggressive feel of what was presented. The female was then laid down and covered with theatre blood.
Greg Geisekam states that “there is a shift from film being initially employed as simply another tool for telling the story to it providing a means of commenting on a story being told. Often through presenting further stories, events, or information to supplement an onstage story; eventually film and/or video contributes to a dramaturgy that moves away from telling stories of a conventional kind to tell ‘impossible’ stories or question the way stories and characters are constructed” (Giesekam 2007, 247).
It was important for us to expose all of this for the audience, to show the theatricality in the situation – but at the same time the music and video projection transformed this sequence into something else. Through the use of technology, the situation could affect the audience emotionally. In the performance the assault looked brutal and scary on screen, and the music added to this, but at the same time the liveness made it possible to reflect on this rationally. Through the mediation of technology the audience was invited to experience the construction of images as they unfold in front of them in the here and now of the theatre space.
Integrating different technologies
In the book Digital Theatre (2020) Nadja Masura writes: “Staging an idea that renders the experience of our mediated lives is achieved through all of the visual, dramaturgical, and performative elements working together to create a sort of super-stage-picture, which extends the playing space” (Masura 2020, p. 258). Through this the theatre space itself becomes a material, which technology helps to transform. This is valid for both the multichannel speaker set up, and the intermedial theatre performance: In the examples discussed above the technology is integrated with the conceptualisation and the staging from the very start. The use of speakers is not just substituting actors or musicians instead they have become performative objects which enables other ways of representing society than in traditional spoken theatre. The use of video technology both adds to how space is experienced, to add more narratives and to give other perspectives to what is presented live.
To achieve a flexible approach on how different technologies could be used in theatre it has been crucial to build ‘multimedia instruments’ which afford a creative workflow to the staging. These instruments have been constructed by different software connected internally in the computer but also externally through different digital protocols. This has allowed for working with sound-, video, and light design separately when rehearsing but having them totally integrated during performance.
Common to both the audio and video design is that there is a variety of software that contributes to different parts of the production. A well-integrated and developed sound design for theatre is both creative and challenging: the unique stage setting for each theatrical work requires, and offers, equally a unique technological set up to be created. Different technologies add to the live performance, where sound, music and video becomes contextualised and further layered with other fictional elements. The digital software has been crucial to achieve this, i.e., the configuring of a digital workflow that allows for a creative process. To have a digital setup especially created for a specific performance, make it possible to perform with technology, rather than just use it to enhance or complement what the performers are presenting live on stage. It is rather clear that there can be no single manual that will cover all possibilities, the use of technology and media must be explored through a combination of different working processes and methods.
The ambition with these performances was to present perspectives, structures and approaches to the general political atmosphere that could be recognized in society at the time. To achieve this the use of technology was central. When everything is considered as performative material mediated either through live action or through technological solutions, it gives the potential for the audience to make new connections and discoveries on society through art.
In Karlskrona/Malmö the acousmatic technology and the multichannel loudspeaker set up detached the voice from the social actors – this allowed to present a variety of voices which represented specific views on society, but also to use orality as a compositional element in the performance. The acousmonium provided a specific kind of listening, but also afforded an exploration of its other qualities, such as affect and the different features of language: the semantic, the structural, the discursive.
In Arrival Cities: Malmö the focus was on the integration of different media to represent how a political discourse informs the actions in society. Here the technology helped to present the connections between xenophobia, violence and political unrest in the suburbs. The music and video editing also contributed to the theatre machinery, where the camera became a witness to the fictive actions on stage. This mediation juxtaposed the construction of violence while at the same time project images that we are used to from other media.
The huge potential of technology today offers an extremely flexible approach to performance. There is not a single solution on how to cover the different possibilities, instead there is a need to create “multimedia instruments” to each production which are designed to do specific tasks when staging a performance.
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