Pop music and Theatre A mingling of cultural worlds

The Sun Ra Arkestra, performing at the Alien Disco, Münchner Kammerspiele
The Sun Ra Arkestra, performing at the Alien Disco, Münchner Kammerspiele | Photo ⓒ Jörg Koopmann

It’s nice to experience pop in your theatre seat. You don’t have to flounce about and can instead enjoy what is now no longer commercial but apparently high culture. But who here is helping whom is not yet clear.

Subsidized culture as pension substitute for aging rockers? This is how you could provocatively misinterpret old punks à la Schorsch Kamerun of the Hamburg band Die Goldenen Zitronen (Golden Lemons) taking to the subsidized stage. Yet artists like him, like Knarf Rellöm and Bernadette La Hengst, have always been doing theatre alongside their work as musicians. And sometimes these and other artists have performed theatre even in their roles as musicians; Udo Lindenberg, for example, who, with Ben Becker and Meret Becker in supporting roles, guest-starred in a revue at the Munich Residenztheater that presented a musical treatment of the fate of German emigrants.

Recently, Lindenberg’s rock show was even staged by the renowned theatre director Peter Zadek. Other pioneers were the Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing Buildings) who, for the very same Peter Zadek, performed the soundtrack to the musical Andi live at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus in 1987 in the most expensive “cheap gear” (custom-made by the in-house tailor), suggested by the band as its outfit. Mind you, this was not about music theatre as it has been understood since Monteverdi, but about music in the theatre, about importing sounds and attitudes that usually have their place in clubs and concert halls.

A different audience and a different flair

The trial balloons soon became an inspiring community of interest based on reciprocity. Theatres pay the musicians’ rent; musicians bring a different audience and a different flair to the theatre. Ideally, both sides benefit: new faces and fresh approaches afford musicians artistic inspiration, and the novelty mobilizes a fan base that would otherwise probably never set foot in a theatre. When the musicians in question are already famous in their own right, this may even draw attention to the piece they are helping to stage, as, for instance, when Micha Acher, bass player of the pop band The Notwist, arranged the music for Brecht’s and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, even if the tight corset customary for this work allows the musicians hardly any freedom of movement.

It is more exciting for the fans of course when The Notwist themselves perform on the stage of a theatre. For example, in Alien Disco, which took place at the Munich Kammerspiele in December 2016. Some see in such actions the attempt to recruit a new audience for the theatre. Christoph Gurk, who has worked as curator and dramaturge for independent theatre and music at the Kammerspiele since September 2015, also sees the festival curated by the Notwist singer Markus Acher, with the support of the local organizer Club Zwei, as a cultural event that would have barely had a chance in the free market without the funding of the Munich Department of Cultural Affairs. “By itself, such a production would have become much too expensive”, said Gurk on the day after the festival, “and takes even the subsidized municipal theatre to its limits”.

An abundant supply of earplugs was distributed

It is not his intention, emphasized Gurk, “to establish a competition to independent events”. That the 2016 Tindersticks concert took place at the Kammerspiele, for instance, was owing to the tour specification to prefer lecture halls with seats. Of course the interiors of stadiums could also be provided with seating, but the ambience of a theatre is all the more exciting because it is so unlike that of the usual pop concert. Pop concerts also worked at the Kammerspiele, by the way, when the seats were removed before the Goldenen Zitronen or the band Die Sterne performed there.

When Bianca Casady, one half of the duo Coco Rosie, gave her concert at the Ruhr Triennial in 2015, the audience in Bochum was standing again. Similarly two years before, when Massive Attack and the film-maker Adam Curtiz performed at the Kraftzentrale in Duisburg. Pop music was seen here as theatre even apart from all conventional theatrical accoutrements and enjoyed accordingly by a very different audience. To wit, an audience that before the performance was repeatedly warned of the production’s dangerously high volume. For protection, an abundant supply of earplugs was distributed. Then the audience experienced a practical application of Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” with all its technical possibilities.

Artification against encrustation?

In times when pop discourse has long been intellectualized and pop music can even be studied at university, we may speak of an academicizing of the popular, so that it is no longer provocative at all to think of pop in the context of theatre. Not even the converse – turning theatre into pop and casting Romeo and Juliet as punks or hip-hop kids – can jar anyone today. But a hierarchy becomes clear when we compare the amount of money invested in the maintenance of theatres with that invested in pop concert venues. For the latter, there exists hardly any budget, since pop, according to prevailing opinion, should be able to pay for itself. Not least therefore the structure of subsidy models makes the mingling of cultural worlds look like a reasonable move. After all, pop is no longer the jaunty money-maker it used to be.

The performance of classical music and classical jazz in the theatre has never been a problem. What is new is that pop music, which until now was expected to operate exclusively in accordance with the laws of the market, now sometimes receives public funding. Through the back-door of institutional acceptance, subsidies could place pop on a level with so-called high culture. Bob Dylan has recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sting sings in the opera, the experience-culture of the baby boomers fills the seats previously reserved for noble tradition. The context of theatre will make possible pop music projects like Alien Disco, which will change the social status of a genre once perceived as purely commercial: a development whose upshot is still open.