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Rage Dive: Scott Brown Rants About Incidental Music

Keep it down, will ya?

This week, when most normal people are firming up their New Year’s resolutions, critics — fat from a holiday season spent drinking the blood of virgins — begin polishing their Projected Gripes. Okay, one critic (me) begins, and will continue to so sporadically throughout 2011. These theater gripes come from the gut. I won’t even pretend to call them properly researched or even justified. They’re just itches I want to scratch. In public.

Let's start with the tinkly incidental music, on Broadway and off, that is being used for scene changes and transitions in non-musicals. This aural siding usually incorporates either a driving beat (to over-illustrate Motion, Distance, Effort, Anguish, and to distract us from the normal dramatic infarction that occurs when you stop a show to move set pieces around) or a shimmery curtain of patterned sound that might have been downloaded from Philip Glass’s ringtone archive. I first noticed this during the 2006 play Three Days of Rain, watching Bradley Cooper march purposefully across the stage to what sounded like a dutiful sample loop from 24. This is no mere transition, the score yelled in my ear! He is upset! This is intense! Essential! Emotional! More recently, I sat in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, bathing in a pleasantly vacant harmonic water-feature — in keeping with the fool’s paradise the show was trying to evoke, perhaps, but so over-amped and overdone, it dwarfed the human voices that followed it. Then, a few weeks later, I had a very similar spa-spritz washing over my eardrums in The Language Archive. Magic! Possibility! Highly digestible sophistication!

Now, I don’t mean to pick on David van Tieghem, even if he did write all the scores I just mentioned. He just happens to work a lot — and for a good reason: He’s excellent. (I loved his dreamy work on Irondale’s Passion Play last year.) But this isn’t a composer problem. This is a director/designer problem. The same sounds and sound patterns — patterns that are distinctly and apishly cinematic, I’d add — feel like they’ve been tessellating through show after show for years now, which means that audiences are experiencing the same emotional sound cues (the crack-of-doom bass rumble, the high glockenspiel “pling!” of revelation or spiritual awakening) over and over.

I’m no fan of lazy “playlist” soundtracks, either: Nothing irks like a sound design that makes desperate use of last year’s indie-rock sensation. (In other words, casting Zach Braff doesn’t authorize you to pipe in his iPod dock.) I just don’t want to see the theater paved over with Hans Zimmer–ish musical emoticons. Good theater ought to challenge our dopamine cues, not reinforce them, and music, as a tool, is simply too powerful to be wasted on window treatments.

I'm finished ranting. What is currently stuck in your theatrical craw?

Photo: Joan Marcus