Specialization in Performance – Why?

In my recovery I’ve been reading a lot: online and books. I am trying to keep up with my “professional” reading as well as some reading for enjoyment. However, being a multidisicplinary artist my professional reading includes reading about music, writing, theatre, movement, and performance art. That makes for a lot of reading.

An issue that keeps coming up with much of this reading is the idea of specialization. Being a multidisciplinary artist I have mixed feelings about specialization in a creative practice. In our culture there tends to be the label of “jack of all trades, master of none” if someone is working in more than one area. I most often run into this when I am dealing with groups that focus on one of these areas. Writers see me as a writer (though crossover between written forms is generally more accepted in that community than in others), musicians see me as a musician (sometimes arguing whether I am a classical or “other” musician), composers see me as a composer, yoga teachers see me as a yoga teacher. Most theatre people, to be fair, aren’t really sure what to make of me quite yet!

I work in areas of writing (poetry, fiction, non-fiction and performance texts), music (composition and performance on multiple instruments), theatre and movement. There are some visual elements in there as well, but they generally (but not always) pertain to the theatre work as far as costume and set design goes. Lately this has resulted in some video work being used as backdrops. There are a lot of areas here, and much of my practice over the past five years has involved integrating these areas into works that include all aspects. I don’t know what to call this work: Opera? Sung physical theatre? Theatre of Confluence? (That’s a term from Murray Schafer) Total Theatre? Corporeal Theatre? (That’s related to Harry Partch‘s work). The integrational aspect of my work and work related to it is something that I dealt with in my MA Devised Theatre dissertation: “The Liminal Phase in Contemporary Music Theatre/Total Theatre”:

“The type of performance that I am most interested in with regards to liminality is “total theatre.” I am defining “total theatre” here as a type of performance mode that attempts to equally combine music, text and movement and that maintains an effect of embodied voice, especially in the mode of “total theatre” that follows the genealogy of opera into contemporary music theatre. I am using the term embodied voice to describe a type of voicing in performance wherein the performer speaks, sings, and moves in the course of the performance, each being equal in their practice and performance. In my mind it is embodied voice that signifies “total theatre” and that, through its use in such performances, can create liminal space-time.” [from the Introduction of my dissertation]

My frustration with specialization related to this is that there seems to be a belief in Western performance practice that one person cannot create and perform a show that combines music, text and movement despite the genealogy of “opera” works created and directed by one person (Wagner, Schafer, Partch) and, more recently, works that are created, directed and performed by one person (Monk, Anderson, Galás).

Despite the above practices, the greatest sense of specialization that I have come across is in the music world. When I read my SOCAN magazine I am struck by how, when talking about singer/songwriters, there is mention of both aspects of and the combination of their talents, but when talking about “classical” composers, there is only mention of their compositional work. There seems to be an expectation that, if one is going to become a composer, one must focus on the composition of music above all else. I ran into this attitude in my undergraduate program at York, not from my professors (most of whom were composer/performers) but from other students who I was attempting to form some sort of pre-professional allegiance with. I have since run into this attitude in my professional composition life: composers who are only composers not directly telling me but giving me the sense that to perform my own work isn’t as serious an endeavour as having it performed by someone else. Admittedly, I have, at times, performed my own work badly (usually out of nervousness—it’s often more harrowing to perform my own work as opposed to someone else’s—something I think I have overcome in the past four years), but I have also listened to my work being performed badly by professional musicians. I have had my work performed well too, but the bad experiences tend to stick out more than others!

What I am getting at is there is a pervasive attitude that a composer must compose, a performer must perform and heaven forbid that someone writing “serious” vocal music use their own texts!!! (This last statement was framed in a talk about opera given by John Estacio I attended in the mid-90s. Read my thoughts on Frobisher if you are wondering more about my opinion of Estacio & his current libretto partner, John Murrell). It is for these reasons that I have been attracted to works by composer/performers who combine all these aspects. Interestingly, most of these artists are female and are not always recognized as composers by the music academia but are instead recognized as performance artists by the visual arts academia. These artists include (an someone please tell me if they know of others!) Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and Diamanda Galás. I cannot help but wonder at how they came to the necessity or choice of performing their own work. I have often performed my own work out of necessity as I find if I want a singer to perform my work they will often require training in specialized techniques before attempting to do so. Part of this requirement is because I am in a small city where singers are most often not trained to 1. read contemporary scores or 2. performed extended techniques (which can be as simple as turning their vibrato off and on at will to techniques as complex as multiphonics).

I dealt with this issue of female composer/performers in my dissertation as well:

“[…] one of the main differences between the works of Schafer and Partch and the works of Galás, Monk and Anderson [is that the] two men are primarily known as composers and theorizers, while the three women are known as performers of their own work. Perhaps it is only through their performative work that these women were able to become known in their field, because while it has often been difficult for women to become recognized as performers, it has been more difficult for them to become recognized as composers. Anderson has commented on feminist issues, saying that “Women have rarely been composers. But we do have one advantage. We’re used to performing. I mean like we used to tap dance for the boys—‘Do you like it this way, boys? No? Is this better?” (Anderson quoted in McClary 1991: 139).” [from the section “Embodied Voice in Practice and Performance” from my dissertation]

Years ago I had a short conversation with Philip Glass while he was signing the CD of “Low” I had just purchased. I told him how much I enjoyed his opera works and that I hoped to work and perform smaller scale shows, somewhat in the vein of Meredith Monk. He told me that she was an exception and that sort of work was very difficult to which I replied that I had done one show (Mother Maker in 1992) and was planning to do more. He wished me luck, but reiterated that it was difficult work.

And yes, it is challenging work, but it is the work that I am most passionate about. Since that conversation with Philip Glass I have gone on to write, produce and perform three more shows in this vein (The Descent of Inanna in 2000, Baba Yaga’s Hut in 2001, and splanchnologies in 2006) as well as a couple other performance works that could be considered related work (Triatrix with Paulette Bibeau in 2001 and Crossroads with Ed Pas in 2002).

I suppose that my main point in all of this is that we are no longer in an era of specialization. Symphonies are dying out and orchestral musicians are having to find other performance work, the recording industry and computer technology has vastly changed the landscape of composition, and visual arts seems to be the only “institution” that seems wholeheartedly willing to embrace multidisciplinary work. Is what I do “performance art”? Perhaps. But again, my work doesn’t quite fit into that box either. Performance art is generally performed in gallery spaces, which I’ve done, but I love the ability to create an environment that a stage with a full set of lights allows. My work, being highly musical, often demands acoustics that are more easily found in a theatre than a gallery. There is also the often unspoken issue in performance art that training in an actual performance modality “cheapens” the work as it is not “raw” enough. I disagree with this statement, but that’s it own essay. Monk, Anderson, and Galás have had to fight to have their work taken seriously in particular circles and though they have started to break some ground here, there is still work to be done.

What I would love is to be able to create and perform my work with the type of support offered to those who specialize. Yes, granting bodies (at least the Canada Council and the Saskatchewan Arts Board) now have Inter-Arts and Multidisciplinary categories, but there are still boxes to try to fit my work into because of the administrative necessity of grants. I would love to find performance venues supporting such work that had the necessary spaces and acoustics. And most of all, I would love to find performers interested in performing such work. I know they’re out there, I’ve met a few…if any of you are in Saskatoon, contact me!