Sound Theory (The Clouds)

Aural Spectacle

Musicologist Daniel Chua makes a case on his book Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning for the entwined nature of opera’s birth and the development of stage machinery. This is elaborated along one of Chua’s prime arguments: that the emergence of a notion and practice of absolute music was inherent in the conditions prompted by the birth of the opera. Fundamentally, Chua lays the ground to consider how opera’s staging, representational practice informed the kind of attention that symphonic music would later rely upon.

In his analysis, the birth of this tradition is simultaneous with a way of using text in monody which “makes audible the disembodied bubble of the ‘invisible interior’ that is the modern subject; it negates the ‘scriptive space’ of resemblances [that informed the space of music in ancient times, and replaces it with] the sung speech of self-representation” (p. 35).

On the articulation of opera’s functioning and the role stage design, he elaborates:

How does this optic regime work? There are two stages to the process: a backstage and a frontstage. The backstage was cluttered with machines. The rituals of magic that imitate the invisible forces of the supernatural world through the descent of deities from clouds and the flying of furies from the pit of hell were controlled with an Oz-like wizardry from behind the scenes.
Such stage machinery was something of a ‘crowd puller’ that winched in the audiences, particularly with the commodification of opera in the Seventeenth Century. […]
The backstage is therefore the site of modern science; the ancient magic that the Camerata sought is only possible through modern technology. For all its magic, opera is a machine world of cause (backstage) and effect (frontstage).
So upstage there might be an ancient cosmos with rotating spheres and ethereal beings in full flight, but the magic is thoroughly modern, purely instrumental and entirely human. 1

The use of scenes “in perspective”, as they were for the first time deployed in Florentine opera, is exposed as setting in place a peculiar listening stance: “cosmic infinity has been replaced by the infinity of the vanishing point which puts the human eye at the centre of perception. With this monocular vision, music no longer looks down upon humanity but is looked upon as an object […]what is extended through the eye of the prince beyond the backdrop is the stage machinery” (p. 45-46). This is a “seminal” practice that “created the epistemological structures in which music could be objectified on stage for the perspectival gaze of the subject.”

From Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning Page 59 (D. Chua)

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