Lies, damn lies and clarinettists: writing “My Life in Ventriloquism”

1 September 2014

Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

This is an edited version of a paper I gave at the RMA Student Conference in January 2013.

So often in the concert hall, music is prefaced by writing. Or rather, reading. The music I am talking about here will be no exception: I fully expect most audience members to read the programme note for My Life in Ventriloquism, a piece I wrote between 2011-’12 for clarinettist Jenny Stephenson as part of my practice-based research at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This programme note is deliberately terse, however, and only the title hints at how I borrowed a few ideas from the world of ventriloquism during the composition process:

My Life in Ventriloquism is a virtuosic piece for solo clarinet in three continuous movements. It lasts about eleven minutes.

As you probably noticed, there is a performance element to this piece. In case you missed it, it appears at times that Jenny is playing things that are impossible on the clarinet, either because they are polyphonic, too high, too low, or performed at a super-human speed. These effects were all reproduced live simply by playing pre-recorded samples of real and MIDI clarinet sounds through a hidden speaker located in the darkness behind the performer. However, this performative element is such that if you were to listen to the piece on CD, for example, it would make musical sense but you’d lose the visual clues which create a disjunct between what you, as an audience member, see and what you hear. Any meaning the piece has, therefore, is not fully realized until it is experienced in performance.

It’s this relationship between composer, performance and meaning that is my area of research. Traditionally this relationship is based on a simple model of meaning concerning composers, performers and listeners: the composer is placed at the head of a chain of Chinese Whisperers, their original, brilliant utterances are finally handed-down to listeners via a cohort of performers who do their best to realize the composer’s intentions with studious exactitude. However, this model fails to consider the very act of musical performance as significant in its own right. Also, there is the implication that musical performance is a form of pedagogy, the audience remains passive at all times as they receive meaning from the concert-platform.

My research project assumes that meaning is reception-based. That is, any meaning a work has is created in the minds of the audience and is not intrinsic to the notes on the page. Furthermore, meaning can be influenced by non-musical elements of performance which could include physical gesture and elements of theatre, all of which can be designated by the composer. Consequently, the act of composition is seen as the creation of a musical performance in its entirety rather than than the writing of a score which is presented within the context of a pre-existing performance grammar.

The model of meaning fundamental to Vaudeville-style Ventriloquism (that is, ventriloquism as comedic entertainment) has given me some ideas on how to balance the role of the composer with the desire to grant agency to the audience in a performance-led artform. My first interest in ventriloquism with regards to music was metaphorical; having written a piece in 2011 about authority (in which a recording of my voice issued occasionally-frantic instructions to an ensemble of five instrumentalists), I felt in some way all composers are ventriloquists — we are forever forced to speak through others, an instrument or singing voice sounding on our behalf. There is some evidence of this metaphorical approach in the piece you’ve just heard — rhythmically the piece is constructed like written-out rubato over a steady pulse, all expression having been allocated in advance by the composer, a sort-of master puppeteer. However, it was the ability of a ventriloquist act to be perceived in several ways simultaneously which influenced my composition the most.

In this short clip from 2005 the British ventriloquist Nina Conti, with Monk the monkey, plays with the two ways of perceiving a ventriloqual exchange. As outlined by philosopher David Goldblatt, the ventriloqual exchange can be viewed either as Conti talking to the monkey, or as Conti talking to herself. Crucially, both modes remain identifiable during proceedings even when one is foregrounded over the other (such as when Conti talks to her own hand). The act continuously slips between privileging one way of perceiving proceedings and the other; much of the routine’s humour derives from the jolt we feel when the gear suddenly shifts and we remember that the monkey’s words are in fact spoken by a ventriloquist.

Despite appearing like a right-on post-modern deconstruction of the artform, Conti’s routine is only an exaggerated form of the traditional Vaudeville ventriloquist skit in which the dummy, or “figure”, acknowledges its true, inanimate nature. Seemingly, comedic ventriloquy has always been incredulous towards its own believability. The legendary American ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was often chastised by his acerbic dummy Charlie McCarthy in this way. “You don’t know what you’re saying”, says Bergen, “Yes I do, I can see your lips move” replies Charlie. Bergen, like many comic ventriloquists, regularly undermined his own routine to force an interplay between the two ways of perceiving the act.

Although Bergen’s implicit self-criticism may have been justified, his technical shortcomings did little to detract from the accomplishment of his act, perhaps because, somewhat surprisingly, he first found widespread appeal performing on American radio from 1937–1955, the allure of his act being not a physical display of basic ventriloquy but the rapid interplay between ventriloquist and figure; the kind, long-suffering Bergen versus the rude, argumentative Charlie McCarthy, whom the audience knew were voiced a single performer.

For David Goldblatt, the dual modes of perception indicate the uniqueness of ventriloquism as entertainment. Unlike magic shows or special effects in films, ventriloquism is “illusion without deception” — we may not be able to replicate the act ourselves but we at least understand how the effect is achieved. If we were truly deceived by a ventriloquist, if we believed that the fibreglass humanoid held by the entertainer was really alive and capable of independent thought and speech, the logic of the act, along with some of the humour, would be compromised.

Crucially, the ventriloquist act only comes alive in performance: if we were to examine a script of Conti’s routine, which would be the equivalent to our musical score, it would just read like two people having an amusing argument. It lacks the nuances encoded in the act’s binary perception.

These two modes of perception enable a complex, fluctuating relationship, or “slippage”, between the dramatic narrative (say, a sketch where the dummy goes to the shops…with hilarious consequences) and the meta-ventriloqual narrative that explores the logic of the act. Furthermore, because these two modes persist at all times, the final meaning of the routine is constructed entirely in the minds of the audience who are free to prioritize a reading of one mode above the other, or both simultaneously. Like music in our tradition, this ventriloquist sketch uses a pre-scripted text but the meaning gleamed through performance is not limited to just that text. The ventriloquist’s script is not ventriloquy in the same way that our musical score is not by itself music. By it’s very nature, the ventriloquist’s act has an element of enforced performativity.

To translate, as it were, this model of meaning into musical performance I conceived my solo clarinet piece with two narratives; the musical narrative and a theatrical narrative that concerned the dislocation of sound and instrument. It was the theatrical narrative that was written first by deciding when the audience might be able to notice the illusion and how striking the illusion should be at any one point. Naturally, these two narrative strands made demands of, and imposed conditions upon, each other during the composition process but both were granted equal status. This method creates the possibility of slippage between these two layers, the “pure” musical content, and the metapraxical element of the miming illusion, during performance.

Despite calling this presentation Lies, damned lies and clarinettists, there is, I believe, only one (white) lie in this piece; the programme note. Programme notes are a very powerful thing and tend to shape how an audience perceives a work, how they understand the structure of the composition and interpret the meaning of the music. In the programme note for this piece there is no mention of the electronic soundtrack that allows the clarinettist to perform out-of-range musical material or at superhuman speed, and certainly no indication that the clarinettist is miming to this soundtrack some of the time. This programme note doesn’t contain spoilers.

Because of this secrecy, the audience is left to discover the two distinct narratives in the piece by themselves. In keeping with my desire to grant agency to the audience, rather than have them receive handed-down pre-determined meaning, there is no obvious indication as to where the first “throwing of the musical voice” takes place or as to how much of the performance is “real” and how much “fake”.

By creating musical performance which is capable of multiple modes of perception you invite the audience-spectators to partake in the construction of meaning as a dialogue with the work; an active communication with it, not simply a subjective reaction to it. However, this is quite unlike the relationship between audience and ventriloquist. Unlike the ventriloquist’s illusion without deception, where you go into a ventriloquist show complicit with the act by knowing about the theatrical conceits and mechanisms that propel the one-performer double act, the “lying” involved in my own work creates a very different relationship between audience and piece. This piece is still only ventriloqual in the metaphorical sense, it is not a piece of ventriloquism in the truest sense. Instead, Vaudeville ventriloquism has been a vehicle for exploring how to create an enforced performativity in a musical work.

Categories: Audio, Musings, Research

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