Percussion Theatre: Mastering Inter[nal]disciplines

Jennifer Torrence, research fellow at Norwegian Academy of Music

The contemporary percussive art is innately and increasingly theatrical, but can we go
so far as to call it “experimental theatre”? Though firmly placed in the context of the
concert hall, instrumental theatre is classical music’s response to experimental theatre
traditions extending across the 20th and 21st centuries. Instrumental theatre embodies
an in-between-space where the work is not quite music, not quite theatre, and not
quite dance. This research will explore how far instrumental/percussion theatre and its
performers can move away from classical music’s concert tradition and towards other
performance media while still maintaining the integrity and sensibility of a classically
trained musician.

The artistic research includes developing four evening-length solo productions with
composers from Norway, France, Russia and the United States of America. By creating
long-form productions instead of short solo pieces, the composers and performer are
able to move beyond the classical concert format and to shift into the frame of dance
and theatre productions. The new works will utilize percussive arts as well as theatrical
and movement-based performance techniques, forcing the performer to actively engage
in the development and performance of extra-musical skills. In addition, each work will
prioritize staging, lighting, costume, and diversity of venue.

The roots of instrumental theatre stem from the work of Mauricio Kagel and his
contemporaries John Cage, George Aperghis, and Vinko Globokar. Today, the tradition
continues through voices such as Trond Reinholdtsen, Francois Sarhan, Johannes Kreidler, Carola Bauckholt, and Manos Tsangaris. As the compositional roots grow deeper, so do the demands on the musician. It is up to the performer to develop her theatrical
“instrument”, to rigorously investigate her singing and speaking voice, her movement,
her awareness of the stage, and to develop new work that reflects this specialization.

Instrumental theatre holds a permanent place in the percussive art and currently boasts
dozens of works firmly set in the percussion canon. The majority of solo percussion
theatre works hold a duration ranging from seven to fifteen minutes. The creation of a
body of full-length solo instrumental theatre productions could revolutionize the way
the instrumental theatre artist approaches commissioning, the development process,
and their artistic practice in terms of trans-disciplinary training and exploration.

Research and scholarly writing on percussion theatre has historically focused on works
from the percussion literature rather than the creation of new work, and often feature
analysis, explanation of notation, and historical context. My research poses a new
question: how can the focused development of long-form works which actively demand
extra-musical skills affect the instrumental theatre performance practice and new
instrumental theatre works? Ultimately, the goal is to move instrumental theatre beyond
classical music’s concert tradition and to uncover the potentials of a trans-disciplinary