no. 14

Auditory Distress as a Conceptual Basis for a New Approach to Music Theatre

Pieter Verstraete



(for the IFTR/FIRT Music Theatre Working Group, 14-17 July 2009, Lisbon: Music Theatre Research Status Quo: Paradigms and New Perspectives)


The complex developments of contemporary music theatre make it significant to look at how this continuously redefining and ‘becoming’ art form addresses present-day audiences, specifically in what it does to the listener. In my PhD research (defended in June 2009), I offer a conceptual framework for the analysis of music theatre that addresses the listener by offering an excess of intensities and potential meanings through music. I argue that this excess produces an effect of ‘auditory distress’ on the listener, which gives rise to a conceptual basis for a new approach to music theatre.

In the present paper, I explain and elaborate on the main thesis of this newly developed approach: Sound – including music or any other sound experience in the theatre –produces a level of auditory distress. This distress calls for a response in the listener with which she or he tries to control the auditory distress. I argue that this reaction forms the basis of each auditory perception. In the listener’s response, then, processes of signification (like narrativisation) play a considerable role. As such, perception and signification cannot be understood as separate from each other. I propose therefore to carefully investigate the responses of the listener to auditory distress in different music theatre performances. Among those responses, I deduce three specific types: the modes of listening, narrativisation and auditory imagination. Once a response is established and conceptualised, I focus specifically at how this response contributes to meaningful listening experiences in the theatre. I thereby assert that the listener’s response is key to an understanding of what is at stake in these music theatre performances, in particular in the ways they produce meaning.

My hypothesis that auditory distress always plays a significant role in how we experience music theatre (or any operatic form for that matter) also sheds light on the tradition of music theatre. Traditional opera or music drama, especially in the vein of Wagner’s model of the Gesamtkunstwerk, was construed in such a way that it did not confront the listener with an awareness of the distress created by the music. Rather, the listener’s auditory experience was supporting a narrative, a dramatic action, a sense of coherency or synthesis between the different elements, etc. which would channel the distress and make it unperceived as such. The music theatre I discuss in this paper particularly disrupts the evident mechanisms that would compensate the auditory distress. In this way, this music theatre highlights particular qualities in the sound or music that cause awareness for the distress in listening. This awareness, in turn, gives rise to a mode of relating and positioning of the spectator as listening subject. I will support these claims by means of a case study of The Wooster Group’s recent music drama interpretation of Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone (2007-2009), in which the disturbing qualities of sound are highlighted through juxtaposition and excess.



Pieter Verstraete holds a PhD in Theatre Studies from the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam. His research employs an interdisciplinary approach to investigate theories of sound, the act of listening and aurality in relation to contemporary music theatre. He has published articles on theatre, music theatre, opera, installation art and interactive dance in journals, such as De Scène, Urbanmag, E-View, Etcetera, De Theatermaker, and in books, such as Theater & Technologie (Theater Instituut Nederland, 2006), Performing the Matrix (Epodium, 2008) and Sonic Mediations (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His newest book, The Frequency of Imagination (see cover image above) has just been published and can be purchased through the author (pieter_verstraete at


(published here with kind permission of the author)




Texte und Kommentare zum Labor 2009 werden hier veröffentlicht

Texts and commentaries on the 2009 lab and related research subjects will be published here.