This column was originally published here.
This month Emma Jane Denly speaks to Tom Penn of Little Bulb Theatre, who are currently in residence at the Battersea Arts Centre. She plays devil‘s advocate with the question of music’s purpose in theatre…
TP: Music is one of the most powerful means of communication we possess. It has the power to overwhelm and to be delicate, to sentimentalise and to be ironic. When used with due care and attention, it has the faculty to transcend immediate thought, and access a deeper, often surprisingly emotional, response. An enormous amount of my time is spent accompanied by music, be it the ‘soundtrack to my life’ that happens to be buzzing around inside my head at the time, or the more tangible mp3 player, squeezing the same old songs into my ears as I board the 345 to Peckham. Why? Because I enjoy my life more when there is music playing. Subsequently I find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine a reason I would have for not including music in my work in theatre.
EJD: Perhaps there’s a case for arguing that music has the power to distract as well as complement, in both your own life and indeed in theatrical productions. Pick the wrong song and the effect can be as small as creating a slightly jarring scene on-stage that doesn’t fit with the rest of the show or as large as being totally alienating for an audience. You wake up and accidentally play one of Enya’s less upbeat tracks through your headphones: rest of the day is then potentially overshadowed by a sense of depressive doom (no offence intended to Enya). Play a rock song in the middle of a show, and all delicacy is sent crashing to the floor. If these effects are intended, then fair enough, but isn’t all music subjective? How can you make an entire audience react in the same way?
TP: I’m not sure that you can, but I certainly don’t see that as a consideration to be taken only with music. I would suggest that any aspect of any theatre show will be viewed subjectively, and therefore it is the theatre-maker’s responsibility to understand and appreciate this, whilst using everything they have at their disposal in order to best serve the moment. When approaching a new piece of work, you come armed with your full toolkit, and you try your best to use those tools wisely. Music is just one of the means we have with which to communicate, and is as valuable to the process as any other. It comes hand in hand with the text, or the movement, or the design – there is no reason one should be separated of given greater significance than the others. If given careful thought and artistically driven, the music will form as vital part of any narrative or atmosphere as any other discipline.
EJD: Do you think then that this kind of music is different to the “conventional” type – and I use this phrase carefully, meaning only music that is not intended for narrative effect – or whether it is the same as something that we can buy or listen to on its own terms? It’s almost as though you are implying that music in theatre is a precise and exact science (the same way perhaps lighting or choreography can be viewed as such), which could make it seem artificial – or failing that then at least oppressed in some way. Do you think that theatre-music is its own art-form – or could it be listened to in the same way as Queen, Fairport Convention or – yes, I’m going there – Enya?
TP: I don’t think that an exact science exists for making music or any kind of theatre. I think there are guidelines available if you want them, but once you get past a certain point, you’re out there on your own. You try something different, something new, in the hope that it will be what you want it to be, and then as long as you learn a little bit each time, you’ll be ready to have another go soon enough. As for whether theatre music is its own art form, I’m not so certain that it can be categorised that neatly. Yes, when used for a specific purpose in a piece of theatre, that music must be precisely what was asked for and needed in that moment, whether newly composed or a well-known classic. But that’s not to say it doesn’t retain individual worth when removed from context. Take Kneehigh‘s ‘Don John’ Soundtrack – I can’t get enough of those tracks still, however many years later. I know the scores and soundtracks to countless films and shows I haven’t seen. I adore the music, and that’s it. Ultimately, in the context of the show or film itself, if that music does not serve the very moment for which it was intended, then it hasn’t fulfilled its purpose, and the final product was probably weaker for it. But there’s nothing to stop me from enjoying it separately – much like I can be satisfied, impressed and even moved by the way natural lighting occurs within a particular environment at any point in my day, music serves a multitude of purposes. Its use in theatre should be treated with the same thought and precision as every other aspect of the production, and when it works, it has the ability to colour and to lift that moment to an altogether new height. The rest of the time, it should just be worth listening to.
EJD: So theatre-music is perhaps just made to fit its definition by the selection process: the artistry lies in the ability of the theatre-maker to select and refine a piece of music for a particular theatrical moment that is utterly appropriate. I’m sure the wave of other companies who take music in theatre very seriously – Kneehigh, RashDash, Third Angel – would be inclined to agree.
Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus runs at BAC from 16 April – 11 May, and Tom is performing his solo work at Cambridge Junction’s SAMPLED Festival on Sunday 5 May.