Music is an essential component of puppet theatre. Indeed, puppet theatre in the first instance depends not so much on the text as on the active visual element and makes more structured use of the integration of sound and image than is the case with actors’ theatre. As Hans Jelmoli (1877-1936), composer and collaborator with the Schweizerische Marionettentheater (Swiss Puppet Theatre), has suggested, music is a means of augmenting the effect of illusion needed by puppet theatre. The invisible and immaterial nature of sound allows it to melt more easily into the space alongside moving forms. The evocative quality of music (and of sound and noises in general) accentuates the effect of the image and intensifies the expression of the puppet’s movement. For example, consider the puppet scene in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film Podwójne życie Weroniki/La double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991, a French- and Polish-language drama) in which the musical theme gives the figures a symbolic meaning which has a bearing on the whole film. Here the ideas of Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig are fundamental, in that they did not conceive of music as an “accompaniment” to the performance but rather as an intrinsic element of any scene in which movement is the essential element.  

The earliest illustrations of puppet shows indicate that puppeteers always accompanied their performances with music, most often playing it themselves. Thus the same individual performed several tasks: both puppeteer and musician, he would also lend his voice to the movement, making use on occasion of “acoustic props” or vocal accessories (see Swazzle). The Sicilian tradition of cunto, which has survived thanks to Mimmo Cuticchio, resembles that of the pupi (see Opera dei Pupi) in terms of the sustained rhythm which transforms the recited sections into a chant.

In other traditional forms of puppet theatre, musicians sit alongside the puppeteer: as in Japanese Bunraku (ningyō jōruri), in Chinese and Indian puppetry, and also in Indonesian wayang performance. There one finds the gamelan orchestra, usually arranged in a horseshoe on the same side of the cloth as the dalang (the puppeteer), with up to a score of musicians in the middle including one of more singers both male (pengerong) and female (pesinden/sindhen). The dalang himself, who plays all the character parts, is also the musical director, conductor, musician and singer of the performance: he/she sings the suluk (poetic texts that have an emotional and dramatic function) and also produces sound effects with his wooden tapper (cempala), which he raps against the side of the puppet box (kotak), while his bare foot creates dramatic sound effects by striking the several bronze plates (kepyak) hanging from the kotak.

In the West, the possibility of producing music by automated means was envisaged as early as the 17th century: examples include the ideas of Giambattista della Porta (also known as Giovanni Battista Della Porta, 1535?-1615) about hydraulic musical instruments (outlined in Pneumaticorum Libri Tres, 1601); Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who built complex instruments with hydraulic controls, automata which beat time and danced, and even attempted to reproduce the human voice mechanically; or Kaspar Schott (1608-1666), who also envisaged automata and instruments played hydraulically. In the 18th century, androids that could sing and play music were constructed, as music became one of the favourite motives of themes for constructors of automata.

After that, music became an intrinsic element of the dramaturgy of the puppet theatre. Numerous examples could be cited: Alfred Jarry who added songs to Ubu roi (King Ubu) when he produced a “reduced version” for puppets at the Guignol des Quat’z’arts in 1901; Massimo Bontempelli who wrote a score for his piece Siepe a nord-ovest (Hedge North-West), performed by actors and puppets, in Rome in 1923; I Burattini dei Ferrari (The Ferrari Puppet Company) which presented Il gatto con gli stivali (Puss in Boots) for burattini (Italian glove puppets) with an overture, chorus, arias, duets and dances; Manuel de Falla who composed music for El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show, 1923) and collaborated with Federico García Lorca on pieces for puppets; and García Lorca himself who enhanced the Andalusian títeres (puppets) with the help of “dark” musical sounds, dance and song in Retablillo de Don Cristóbal (Don Cristóbal’s Little Puppet Play, 1930). Moreover, music became the theme of many puppet performances such as the musicians of Varietà, a classic production from the Teatro dei Piccoli of Vittorio Podrecca.

Another fruitful area of encounter between puppets and music is provided by musical theatre or opera, which flowered in the 17th and 18th centuries. In this case, the musicians of an orchestra played in the wings or, as is suggested by l’Abbé Du Bos (1670-1742), the music emerged from an opening in the proscenium, while the voice came from the wings.

Music in Contemporary Theatre

Today, music and voices can be recorded, which raises a question about the “source” of the music. This question first arose after the invention of the tape recorder – which, for some, was the salvation of the profession of the puppeteer – and relates to production and organization (given the cost that an orchestra, musicians and singers represent) as much as to the form of a performance. Though the space of the traditional puppet theatre did not allow for musicians on stage, the situation changed in the 20th century when musical performers could now have an active scenic presence, even becoming protagonists in the performance. In this way, it was necessary to integrate the presence of the musician into the staging of the performance.

In the experiments of recent decades, the performance approaches a fusion of the performer and the instrument, as in the body/instrument of Mauricio Kagel’s music theatre (Sur scène On the Stage, 1960; Match, 1964) or the “sounding body” (corps sonore) of Michele Sambin (TAM Teatromusica) in Se San Sebastiano sapesse (If Saint Sebastian Knew, 1984), in which the artist transforms the traditional representation of the saint by substituting cello bows for arrows and blurring player and instrument. Some works, positioned between concert and object theatre, go so far as to transform the musical instrument into a puppet. In the 1970s, Divadlo DRAK, the Czech puppet company, staged Jak se na co hraje (How to Play What or What Music We Play With) in which an actor narrates the action performed by objects or musical instruments which thus have roles as characters. The most striking contemporary example is that of the Puppet Players (based in Germany) for whom the “sound puppet”, combining sound and movement, can be the starting point in constructing a performance.

One might also mention contemporary creations in which music is inseparable from animated objects, such as the sound sculptures by Jacques Rémus (who also makes use of electronic tools) or the Machines musicales by Claudine Brahem-Drouet (installations/performances which use objects of daily life and various materials). There are many examples, especially given the tendency of contemporary theatre to mix codes specific to various artistic languages. All these experiments, which are related more or less directly to the inventions of John Cage, performances by members of the Fluxus movement, the mobiles of Alexander Calder or the “meta-harmonic” machines of Jean Tinguely, have their distant origins in the historical avant-garde, from the Futurist Intonarumori (“Noisemakers”) of Luigi Russolo to the cinematic visual symphonies of Viking Eggeling, Walther Ruttmann, Kurt Schwerdtfeger and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, and indeed to all the research leading towards a fusion in expression and perception between sound, form and colour.

Contemporary theatre research follows a principle of construction which reflects the procedures of musical composition more than the classic narrative schema of text-based theatre: moving away from an interpretive “staging” of a text (which entails a separation between the word which precedes and the action which follows an idea), these works aspire to a representation which is “here and now”, and thus come much closer to music. One cannot create a pure abstraction from the experience of music or experimental theatre even if one remains close to tradition: Gerhard Mensching combines expressive performance with his bare hands with non-verbal vocal sounds without meaning, creating a stylization of both his puppet and his voice, aiming at the essence of language. This rarefaction of sound poses an important question about the role of silence, since in contemporary music, silence is more and more considered as an element of the score which is both significant and constitutive. Carmelo Bene’s work on the notion of phoné and on the actor as a puppet, identifying “absence” as part of the staging, should also be mentioned here. The case of Bene’s 1961 work Pinocchio is emblematic: voice is not given to the figures, but rather recorded and played back through speakers; thus the “doubling” of the puppet also occurs on the level of sound. This doubling has its roots in the voices singers lent to the bambocci of the 17th century, with the important difference that in this case we are talking about an artificially produced voice. Other companies are following similar routes, as for example in the Iliad of Teatro del Carretto (1988).

The Instrument-Puppet

There is an interesting theory about the origin of the word “marionette”: in a treatise on the origin of music, De inventione et usu musicae (Naples, 1480-1490), the Flemish composer Johannes Tinctoris (c.1435-1511) mentions various types of instrument in fashion at the period, among them the rebec, a small three-stringed instrument of Arab or Byzantine origin with a piercing sound resembling a female voice, which was introduced into Europe sometime after the 10th century. The rebec was used by minstrels in both court and popular festivals, and seems to have been derived from the lyre. Called ribeca by some, and marionnetta by others, it had a rounded body (like that of the lute) and the strings could be plucked like those of the viol or played with a bow. At the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, there is a Venetian ribeca known as the Rebec de Vénus because a figurine of Venus is carved into the belly of the instrument, the resonating chamber. One could say that it is a small puppet animated by the sound of the music and connect this with an image often used by puppeteers when they say that manipulating puppets is like playing a string instrument. Prefiguring the close links between music and puppets, and also containing the figure of the double, this object anticipates Man Ray’s Violon d’Ingres and other “sounding bodies” (“corps sonores”).  


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