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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Sounding Out the Stage: Music and Sonic Design in Robert Wilson's Theater
by Schelling, Kamala Jacobs, Ph.D., Yale University, 2017, 300; 10633264
Abstract (Summary)

Robert Wilson has been a major figure on the international arts scene for close to half a century. Whether re-imagining canonic works of theater, staging operas, crafting newly-conceived multimedial productions, or advising Lady Gaga's performance at the 2013 MI 'V Awards, his instantly recognizable visual style has led his work to be called a "theater of images." Indeed, the world of Wilson scholarship has always been image-centered, at the expense of other key elements of the director's theatrical imagination—especially music and sound. Both of the latter, however, have long played a crucial role in Wilson's work. Though he is best known, in musical circles, for Einstein on the Beach (the opera he created in 1976 with Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs), Wilson has collaborated with musicians from the highest echelons of both popular and classical music. Furthermore, over the last several decades, he has developed a palette of sonic techniques in his theatrical productions that are no less recognizable than his stage designs.

This dissertation offers the first in-depth analysis of sound and music in Wilson's theatrical productions. Through analyses of live performances, production paratexts (including criticism and programs), archival materials, and conversations with Wilson and his collaborators, it harnesses Wilson's audio-visual language to develop an interdisciplinary framework for understanding sonic media in a theatrical context. Approaching "sound" as a broad concept that encompasses all elements of a production designed to be heard—music and songs, spoken text, and sound effects—I focus on Wilson's theatrical productions where these sonic elements exist in a state of parity. Since live performances provide the bedrock of my analyses, the methodological roots of this dissertation lie in the performance-based scholarship of opera and theater studies. These fields are brought into extensive dialogue with literature, visual art, architecture, performance studies, semiotics, and sociology, as well as interdisciplinary discourses such as media and sound studies. Wilson actively avoids sounds that "illustrate" his visuals, and images that "decorate" sounds, and through this assemblage of theoretical perspectives I demonstrate that neither his images nor his sounds can be adequately understood without the other.

My starting point is Wilson's oft-stated belief that properly structured images may help us "hear better," and that carefully deployed sounds may similarly help an audience "see better." Following the introduction, which surveys the existing literature on Wilson's work and establishes the aims, claims, and methodology of the dissertation, the first chapter examines this idea as both aesthetic tenet and practical directive. Chapter One also provides a brief overview of Wilson's history as a theater practitioner and consumer, and outlines the many influences on his current work. Chapter Two, the first of four analytic chapters, considers a sound that we are acculturated to filter out while listening: the crackling of a record. It examines how this sound, elevated to a level of sonic prominence, creates ambiguity about a sound's source while engaging the divergent performance histories of a particular song (the "Moritat" from Die Dreigroschenoper) and the space of its performance. Chapter Three explores Wilson's frequent use of sounds to represent objects which are not present onstage—specifically coins and doors. Built on a foundation of semiotic theory, this chapter crafts a new understanding of audio-visual communication in the theater through recourse to scholarship on sound, gesture, and architecture. Chapter Four adopts the concept of framing (as employed in art history and literary theory), and uses it to excavate how incidental music may enable material from "inside" the performance (characters, music) to intersect and interact with material from "outside" the performance (the audience, the auditorium). In particular, it considers how music creates a time and space where characters may step out of the narrative frame while still remaining inside the diegesis. Finally, Chapter Five focuses on Wilson's production Lulu, examining how interpolated songs (by Lou Reed) disrupt the teleological flow of a canonical story by engaging intertextual experiences and forging new musical memories within the space of the production.

Like performance itself, music and sound are ephemeral. As scholarship expands to engage live performance as an object of study, this dissertation offers a methodology for incorporating sonic elements into this vital scholarly discourse. By unstopping our ears, I propose, we stand not only to deepen our understanding of an enigmatic artist, but also to expand the horizons of theater scholarship, cross discursive boundaries, and holistically engage multimedial forms of expression in theater, opera, and art.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Kreuzer, Gundula
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 78/11(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Music, Theater
Keywords: Musicology, Robert Wilson, Sounds Studies, Theater
Publication Number: 10633264
ISBN: 978-0-355-10556-8
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