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Essay

Backstory: A Musical Species

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In his seminal 2007 book Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes humans’ relationship with music in very powerful terms. “Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion,” he writes. “It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does–humans are a musical species.”  Sacks goes on to explain that as much as humans communicate through language, they communicate through music. Certainly this will come as no surprise to Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond, whose piece Iowa embodies this idea both literally and figuratively.

It’s not a new notion to compare Schwartz’s work to a piece of music. In her preface to Schwartz’s play God's Ear, Nina Steiger of the Soho Theatre in London writes that “Jenny Schwartz uses language like a composer might, blending a simple melody with harmonics.” Steiger goes on to explain that harmonics are the frequencies that enable us to tell one instrument from another when playing in unison—just as the textures and rhythms of Schwartz’s language create shades of characterization that define her patently idiosyncratic dramatic worlds. “Hopefully,” Schwartz explains in a note to future producers of God's Ear, “the audience will acquire meaning from the accumulation of the language. So, for the most part and unless otherwise noted, actors should speak fast and think on the line.” 

In composer Todd Almond, Schwartz gains a powerful ally. As her language accrues power and layers of significance over the course of Iowa, Almond’s music allows the audience to stop and take in that meaning. Unlike more traditional musicals, where a character might stop and sing through their emotions, or where a song might move a character to action, in Iowa, Almond’s songs rely heavily on music’s power to create emotional resonance through melody and harmonic arrangement. Lyrics play an important part in these pieces as well, of course, but not necessarily in any literal sense. The total effect is to provide a kind of emotional parallel to Schwartz’s tilted narrative, both commenting on and explicating the emotional landscape of the play. In this way, through rhythm, pitch, timbre, and texture, Schwartz and Almond weave spoken language and music into a complete fabric.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer considered music to be the most pure of art forms for its ability to inspire pure contemplation rather than being beholden to symbology. “Music expresses the quintessence of life and of events,” he wrote, “never these themselves.” An expression of life’s quintessence, in all its beauty and ache, is what Schwartz and Almond strive for in this daffy, rhapsodic musical play.

KENT NICHOLSON
DIRECTOR OF MUSICAL THEATER

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