NET/TEN Shareback: Pig Iron Theatre Company & Troy Herion - Collaborations between musicians and theater makers

2015-2016 Exchange Grant Recipient

Pig Iron Theatre Company (Philadelphia, PA) and composer/filmmaker Troy Herion (New York, NY) came together for 10 days to exchange improvisation and composition techniques related to the devising of original music-theater. This exchange laid the groundwork for a new work of symphonic theater by Herion and Pig Iron. 

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This interview is intended to be useful for musicians, especially those coming from the classical music world, who might be interested in playing in the world of devised theater, and for devisors who might like to have musicians involved in their process.  Composer Troy Herion and director Dan Rothenberg talk about their assumptions, obstacles for interdisciplinary collaborations, and what worked for them. This radio interview about a Pig Iron/Bowerbird performance took place the month after our exchange with musicians, and the performance was one outcome of our NET/TEN collaboration time.  This interview discusses scripts and scores coming together in the context of Samuel Beckett's Words and Music.

Listen to the interview below:

Q: What assumptions did you come in with?

Troy: One of the biggest things is that musicians are trained to receive a completed score and to then rehearse that score.  It was a big unknown how it was going to work where musicians who are trained to have something already completed before they get there were showing up at the beginning of the writing process.  So we started with trying to adapt some of Pig Iron's structured improvisations for musicians.  We would give a prompt and break musicians into groups so they could propose creative solutions to a question and then come back and share those.

I tried to model my job as a music director or composer similar to how Dan would direct devisors.  Once the musicians returned with a prompt, I would help sculpt that and turn it into something that we could all coordinate together.  There was definitely a big learning curve.  Even with regular Pig Iron ensemble members, you have to go through a lot of bad ideas before you get to some good ideas.  With musicians this was even a bigger learning curve, because it was brand new for them.

Q: How did you find musicians who were game to try these experiments?

Troy: Dustin Hurt helped us; he works with Bowerbird and we pulled instrumentalists from Arcana, a new music ensemble in Philadelphia.  If we were choosing between two clarinetists, for example, and it was between technical ability or openness to this process, we chose openness to the process.

It was a challenge to find the right people.  We wanted the classical vocabulary, but the openness to improvise.  And that's very rare.  The ideal musician [for this project] is somebody who's trained in both jazz and classical.  Usually we would take people from the classical world and we broke them into improvisation.  A few times we had jazz people who we tried to break into classical, and I don't think that worked as well.  It was harder for a jazz person to play in a classical style than it was to get a classical person to just break down their assumptions and be more open.  But of course the jazz people were already, right off the bat, really good improvisers.

Q: What does it mean for a composer to work as a devisor?

Troy: I would come up with the prompts that I thought would be the best parameters for musicians to work from, that's one way that I composed.  I would give them parameters that I thought were going to be fruitful, and then when they came back, I was essentially a curator of what I thought was promising that we would continue to develop, and others that we wouldn’t.  And then the third stage is that I would record some of our improvisations, and then I would go back and turn them into compositions, and they would play from a notated score at the end.

Q: What was most exciting in the room for you?

Dan: The most exciting thing happened in the last couple of days.  I feel like we just touched on and could have spent another month playing with this idea that came out of a very simple prompt to devisers who had folk music backgrounds.  We had some Pig Iron people and some Teater Slava people from Sweden, and we were working with folk songs.  We started with a Bob Dylan song and then we wrote our own folk songs based on the book of Ecclesiastes, really simple.

We started alternating between verse-chorus-verse-chorus.  Then came this idea of trying to replace the chorus with something which isn't music, but that fills the same amount of space.  I thought this was a pretty amazing devising muscle to try to work on, and it could also give rise to a new way of organizing an aesthetic that I think would go one way if I was in charge, and one way if Troy was in charge, and a third way if we were both in charge.

To get into it, let's say you do the chorus and then instead of the verse, you think about what the amount of theatrical plus musical energy is that's hitting the audience, and then you invite the devisers to match that.  But they can match that with everything from language to shape to story to muttering.  It just created a way into devising and total theater that I thought was pretty exciting.  I could imagine chewing on that for a while.

Troy: I think what this nexus was between the two of us was the notion of visual music, which is music that can find its equivalent in some other form, whether it’s visual or physical, like a gesture.  Can music be translated into a silent medium?  If you listen to a melody, can you take that same melody and just translate it into a motion?  And then go further with that--can you translate that into not only a gesture, but maybe an exchange.

Dan: Right, so somehow this language of ‘let's replace the verse with something else’ got us away from the first step of that, which could be too illustrative.  Like if you take a melody and translate it into a gesture, you could imagine sort of drawing the melody, and matching pitch to height.  And that's fine, but I think we're interested in something more unexpected, or more sophisticated, and these devisers were able to bring some moments that I was really excited about.

Troy: It was very exciting for me to do devised work with musicians.  It was also exciting for me to expose musicians to some of the theater that Pig Iron does that I've been exposed to; not a lot of people are part of that creative process of doing something from so early on.  Especially when you're doing it in a short workshop environment like this, it just leaves people inspired with new ways to see something that they aren't normally familiar with.  So it was exciting for me to just share that with musicians and see how it affected them.  They all processed it in their own way, but it definitely affected how they were musicians.

I personally am an artist who's often positioning myself at a nexus of disciplines, and that has always really energized me.  But I don't find that many people out there like me.  I don't find other people that are nexus artists so much.  There are a few, but not that many, for many reasons.  So I get to have these nice moments where I get to bring this nexus together and I get to see it.

Q: What gets in the way of interdisciplinary collaborations?

Troy: There are a whole lot of categories.  Some are very practical, like just the economics of the discipline.  People get paid by different rates and different measurements of time.  A music concert is usually a day, and you have a few rehearsals before then, and a lot of the work is done by the musicians on their own time.  So they get paid their project fee for really only showing up two days or something.  That’s very different from a theater situation where they get paid a project fee, but they do all their work together, especially in Pig Iron’s world.

Dan: And that seems like something that you'd be able to navigate.  You say, ‘oh, i'll just explain how the rules work here’, but there's a lot of different forces reinforcing those economics.  Once they’re set up, your whole life and career is based around those economics.  So if you're the performing artist trying to get involved in a collaboration like this, we did a week of work modeled after the Actors Equity work week, but that is very unusual (except for musicians who work on Broadway or regional theater, who are their own category).  So once we're looking at folks who are concert musicians, their lives are set up differently.  When you ask them to block out a week, there's opportunity costs for them.  Similarly, if we're going the other direction, if we're going to rehearse once a week or twice a week with musicians, from a theater perspective, Pig Iron has to invent a new mechanism to pay those folks.  It really reduces the number of usual suspects from the Pig Iron Theatre world who can take on that kind of a project that is only once or twice a week since their whole career is set up around a different economic model.

Q: What about on the creative side?

Troy: We did some due diligence to get the right people in the room, and then they were excited by the process.  But certainly our due diligence was informed by the idea that some people were just not going to be right.  If I was just writing a piece of music and they were going to come in and rehearse it, I would just look for the best musicians.  I crossed a lot of those people off the list, right from the get go.  I didn't want to have people who were going to be upset about not knowing what to do upfront.  So anybody who expressed that uncertainty at the beginning, we said, this is probably just not right for you.

Q: How did you test for openness?

Troy: Just by talking to people.  A lot of musicians are totally open about this, or at least the people who I talked to.  There were definitely people who were like, ‘this doesn't sound right for me.’  There were a number of singers who were like, ‘this isn't what I want to do’, flat out.  And then others were like, ‘this is exactly what I want to do.’

Dan: I would say we were working with an interesting range of singers.  It's interesting to me to watch folks get a little unnerved.  If you are a searching artist whose excellence is in creative expression and presence, then you haven't put in the 20 years to do one kind of singing really, really excellently, according to a pretty narrow set of values.  It's not always easy to bring all that together.  Sometimes the notion of mixing those sounds can be confusing to the performer, like why am I singing my ragtag kind of singing right next to this elite kind of singing?, and I think that's a very particular thing to ask of a performer.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

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