Mixed Media Music

Mixed media (or multi-media) music. Music which incorporates one or more additional modes of expression, eg, speech, action, film, light effects, sculpture, dance.

Mixed media (or multi-media) music. Music which incorporates one or more additional modes of expression, eg, speech, action, film, light effects, sculpture, dance. The idea of a 'total art work,' promulgated in the music dramas of Wagner, underwent a transmutation in the anti-romantic climate of the 20th century. Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat and Oedipus Rex, with their purposely startling juxtapositions of singing, narration, and mime, dealt in a kind of theatric polyphony remote indeed from the monolithic euphony of a Wagner opera. Their fundamental intention, 'intensification through mixture,' was not very different, though, and in a sense all staged musical pieces, including opera, are mixed media. This article, however, concentrates on music which incorporates uncustomary extra-musical presences, rather than on those ensconced in tradition.

Rooted in the bizarre refreshments of surrealism and dada (1910-20, Breton, Apollinaire, Duchamp, etc) mixed media flowered in theatre, music, film, and the visual arts after World War II. As the trend became a movement, John Cage emerged as the prime musical mover and his 'happenings' influenced both composers and other creative artists.

In Canada, Norman McLaren's experiments, starting in the late 1940s - drawing with coloured inks directly on film and on optical sound tracks to create in effect a unification of sound and light - were essentially cinematic studies, for the most part using fairly simple images and sound sources. Among more sophisticated and musically oriented works, Mercure's Structures métalliques, I, II and III (1961-2) were pioneer essays, mixing electronically manipulated real sounds with the sounds of metal sculptures struck onstage. Other mixtures of media occurred in Beckwith's radio collages Wednesday's Child (1962) and Canada Dash - Canada Dot (1965-7), Joachim's Illuminations I and II (1965 and 1969), Somers' Improvisation (1968), Charpentier's Orphée (1969), Weinzweig's Around the Stage in 25 Minutes during which a Number of Instruments Are Struck (1970), Schafer's Patria II (1972), Joachim's Mankind (1972), Tremblay's Oralléluiants (1975), Cherney's Tangents I and II (1975-6), and Deschênes-Harvey's Moll, opéra lilliput pour six roches molles (1976).

These examples employ elements of theatre (in what otherwise would be concert pieces); or mechanically or technologically produced effects; or - in the case of Mankind - slides and incense, four synthesizers, and four readers (ordained priests of four established religions), in addition to piano, timpani, and organ. Few of these would be considered hardcore mixed-media works, but they do represent Canadian composers' substantial, if conservative, response to multi-media possibilities.

The foremost exponent of mixed media in Canada probably has been Udo Kasemets who, in Toronto in the early 1960s, devised improvisational works for various combinations of performers (singers, instrumentalists, and/or dancers). Kasemets was the director of a number of concert series, culminating in the Synergetic Theatre at the Isaacs Gallery where happenings of a duration sometimes exceeding 24 hours took place in the mid-1960s. He lectured on music and mixed media at the Ontario College of Art 1970-87.

Other Canadian works of the 1960s and 1970s incorporated mixed-media techniques, eg, Don Druick's sound sculpture Tennessee-Buffalo Run (1971); John Fodi's Musick Bockxd (1969) for three actors/dancers and seven music boxes; Clifford Ford's Living Space (1973) for two dancers, lights, and 4-track tape; and Michel Gonneville's Guide (1976) for five performers - voice, flute, clarinet, piano, and mime - whose task is the unification of five works of different eras.

By the 1970s the financial difficulties of mounting such happenings reduced the number of mixed-media proponents. One notable exception was R. Murray Schafer, who produced several works in this genre, including Apocalypsis and several works in his Patria series. However, the marked increase in mixed-media productions throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s was perhaps facilitated by the improved quality and cheaper cost (hence greater accessibility) of various technologies (videotape cameras and players, computers) which could be used to generate music and/or to synchronize it with slide projections, or to control lighting, etc. Mixed media composers active during this time include Steven Gellman, whose Universe Symphony involved orchestra, synthesizers, and lighting effects, Jean Piché (Song of Late Summer for mixed chorus and tape, commissioned for Vancouver's Expo 86), Alain Thibault, Diana McIntosh, and Henry Kucharzyk.


Further Reading

  • Gregory, Carol. 'When is a happening not a happening?' Maclean's, 16 Apr 1966

    Austin, Larry, et al, eds. Source: Music of the Avant-Garde (Sacramento, Cal, 1967-)

    Kasemets, Udo ed. Canavangard (Don Mills, Ont, 1968)

    Salzman, Eric. 'Mixed Media,' Dictionary of Contemporary Music