Wednesday, November 8, 2017


The first thing I think of when I think of performances in SF/F is the bard in the tavern. However, there are a lot of different kinds of opportunities for writers to put performances in their fiction. I personally used an orchestral concert as an important element of my novel on submission, because of the way that art is subversive and boundary-crossing. I modeled it on the real historical events surrounding Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, where a lot of concertgoers walked out during the performance because they were so scandalized.

We talked a bit about puppetry, specifically about the French Guignol puppet shows, and English Punch and Judy shows. They can be quite revealing of history and social biases. They are forms of on-the-street public performance where you donate to the players as you leave. Modern Guignol shows do sometimes have to be scheduled in inside venues where they sell tickets, but this is a relatively new development on top of a longer history of street performance.

When you are thinking about what kinds of performances to feature in your fiction, ask yourself, "Who attends a performance here? What class are they? What are the expectations for audience participation? Is this type of performance high- or low-energy?" Puppet shows often expect more audience participation, while orchestral concerts tend not to invite audience participation.

Our discussant Shauna Roberts told us quite a lot of interesting information about the history of orchestras. She told us that in the 1700s, orchestras were less professional and the musicians were not as good, perhaps as good as high-school musicians now. The groups were often smaller. Sometimes musicians would hire someone to show up to the rehearsals for them, and then end up coming to the final performances and sight-reading the music. The composer of the piece might be composing and revising up till the last minute. Instruments that were played might not be highly evolved. The other really key element was that the audience was usually hearing a piece of music for the very first time, because the piece was composed for the event. Orchestras in this day and age are basically playing "orchestra's greatest hits." At this point in history, it was more like improv or jazz, where you make it up as you go along.

Things changed a great deal when it became possible to record performances and hear them more than once. A change may also have occurred when sheet music first was able to be printed. One way in which sheet music has evolved is that composers have increased the detail they provide for musicians in terms of tempo and dynamic changes, etc. In the olden days the music was written without much detail and musicians would ornament.  This somewhat parallels the way in which dramatic plays have changed to give more stage instructions (since the very simple instructions of Shakespeare, for example).

Possibly the biggest change that occurred with the advent of recordings was that before recordings, each orchestra had its own style. People would seek out particular orchestras to hear those styles. However, after recordings orchestral styles converged and orchestras became less distinguishable.

At this point we moved away from orchestras. I spoke a bit about Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which is an amazing place to visit and is full of performances. There are pantomimes where you watch a show and can yell at the actors. There are violins or other instruments people play for you at dinner. And there are also full-scale historical reenactments that you can participate in.

Mimes are cool. They get a lot of ridicule these days, but they are essentially silent storytellers, and get a lot of flak these days because it became popular to imitate (badly) the mime of Marcel Marceau. My family went to see the mime troupe Mummenschanz, and we were amazed by the performance. One of the things I noticed about mime is how active the role of the audience is in interpreting the meaning of what's going on.

Shauna mentioned that in the novel Never Let Me Go, there is no emotional or facial information, and all of it must be provided by the inference of the reader. (Yes, the reader is a very important participant in the meaning of any book).

Cliff talked about a play called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, where there are thirty plays, and the audience says numbers and the performers do the performance that corresponds to the numbers. Also, someone orders pizza.

We have this concept of the "fourth wall" between an audience and a performance. Would a performance in a fictional society have this same concept? How would they relate to it? In Western theater and Noh theater from Japan, the fourth wall is generally inviolate. In haunted houses, performers interact directly with the audience.

The context of a performance matters a great deal. Cliff explained that in India pre-1947 in the Raj courts, a musician's role was to play in the court. It was essentially a palace job, full time. After independence, the social context changed, and musicians started giving performances with tickets at a fixed time. This was a tough transition for many reasons, but its influence on performance was that it cut down on the sitar ragas that could be played.

When '78 records came into use, it created pressure for songs to be short. '78s were clearly the Twitter of musical recordings.

Recordings separate the context of recording from the context of listening.

Opera could once only be seen live in the theater, but it can now also be seen in recordings and even in movie theaters.

The television show Star Trek featured quite a lot of performances, but most of them were of European classical orchestral music. Many of us would have liked to see more different selections!

Some types of performance have a fixed canon, like Noh and Kabuki, and Gagaku. Shakespeare also has a fixed canon. Noh uses masks for its characters. In all of these cases, the historical language gets preserved in the performances.

Performances aren't always short. Kabuki performances last all day, and people picnic in the audience. Shakespeare plays also used to last longer, with more songs.

Do people talk during a performance? In a nightclub, they do. In a concert hall, they don't. Dimming the house lights was a technological development that allowed organizers to signal the need for silence.

Movies made performances available to the masses because they were so much cheaper to run.

I also mentioned that there is a new type of performance out there - the YouTube video. Performers like Markiplier and Jack Septiceye are playing games, but also performing comedic improvisation.

Many fictional works have thought about the role of virtual reality performances and holograms. People like making art with whatever technology is available! Fahrenheit 451 had a participatory play that happened at home. Star Trek had the holodeck.

What kind of behavior is accepted during a performance? Talking? Eating? What is rude? Dinner theater combines eating and watching a performance deliberately. What is polite?

A church mass could be considered a type of performance with audience participation, as well as a ritual.

Cliff recommended Adam-Troy Castro's Marionette stories as doing something unusual with performance. They feature one hundred thousand aliens who all dance until they drop dead, and an instance of a human dancer joining in.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Today's hangout will feature author Spencer Ellsworth. We'll be meeting in 40 minutes. I hope you can come!