In January 2016 Peter Meanwell asked me to write a text for the Borealis festival catalogue. This year’s Borealis featured lots of work by composers where the physical, theatrical and visual aspects were as important as the sonic. This is something which is a focus of my own work and something I think about a lot, and I wrote a text about what I called “The New Discipline.” The word “discipline” in this context is not used to designate an artistic discipline; it’s used to designate a disciplined, rigorous approach to making and critiquing compositions where physical, theatrical and visual elements are as important as the sonic. I was happy to write this text because for some time now I’ve been trying to articulate my own thoughts about this sort of work, and over the last year in particular it has seemed a particularly timely topic. 

The New Discipline isn’t an aesthetic - it’s a way of working. For me, it provides a useful framework for discussion because it allows different compositions to be connected, to be viewed as differing in degrees rather than kind. It's not a school or a movement. Because it refers to a way of working, I can use the term New Discipline to talk about both pieces I think work excellently as well as those I think work poorly. For me, the term allows for a technical discussion of what is excellent or poor, because it seeks to interrogate how these pieces function on their own terms, to see the rigour and discipline and technical achievements. I’m a composer, not a musicologist - I wasn't looking to create a term which would be taken up by others, but simply to push my thinking forward and facilitate interesting discussions in my community, and I've enjoyed very much the discussions that are happening. 

To be very clear - I don't view New Discipline in terms of a dead end/way out binary. It's just one of many ways of working. 


The original text can be read below, or on the Borealis website.

The May 2016 issue of MusikTexte features my original text and an editorial, alongside texts by a number of composers (including Carolyn Chen, Louis D'Heudieres, Kara Feely, David Helbich, Edward Henderson, Juliana Hodkinson, Neele Hülcker, Andy Ingamells, Travis Just, Uwe Rasch, Francois Sarhan, James Saunders, Hannes Seidl, Matthew Shlomowitz and Steve Kazuo Takasugi) relating to the broad topic of the New Discipline. English translations of many of the texts can be read online at the MusikTexte website.  

The July 2016 episode of Liam Cagney and Stephen Graham's Talking Musicology podcast features a nuanced discussion of the texts gathered together in MusikTexte, listen here.

Steven Kazuo Takasugi and myself in conversation about the New Discipline at the Darmstadt Summer Course, August 2016. Listen here

A short feature on the New Discipline by the Writing Workshop of the Darmstadt Summer Course, presented by Andrew Chung, featuring interviews with Natacha Diels, Brian Ferneyhough, Mocrep Ensemble and myself, August 2016, can be heard here.

The original text is translated into Polish in issue 29 of Glissando


“Theater provides the unique experience of watching the body in real time, inside a story…there is reality occurring in front of viewing eyes, and the combustible mix of reality with what is being presented on stage is enticing and electric.”

— Richard Maxwell, Theater for Beginners

“…I was born with an ectomorphic body, all skin and bones. However, after being inspired by a passage from the diaries of the Pop artist Mr. Andy Warhol - a passage where he expresses his sorrow after learning in his middle-fifties that if he had exercised, he could have had a body (imagine not having a body!) - I was galvanized into action…..Hence, I now have a body.”

— Douglas Coupland, Generation X

The New Disciplineis a term Ive adopted over the last year. The term functions as a way for me to connect compositions which have a wide range of disparate interests but all share the common concern of being rooted in the physical, theatrical and visual, as well as musical; pieces which often invoke the extra-musical, which activate the non-cochlear. In performance, these are works in which the ear, the eye and the brain are expected to be active and engaged. Works in which we understand that there are people on the stage, and that these people are/have bodies.

Examples of composers working in this way include: Object Collection, James Saunders, Matthew Shlomowitz, Neele Hülcker, François Sarhan, Jessie Marino, Steven Takasugi, Natacha Diels, myself.

The New Discipline is a way of working, both in terms of composing and preparing pieces for performance. It isn't a style, though pieces may share similar aesthetic concerns. Composers working in this way draw on dance, theatre, film, video, visual art, installation, literature, stand-up comedy. In the rehearsal room the composer functions as a director or choreographer, perhaps most completely as an auteur. The composer doesnt have aspirations to start a theatre group - they simply need to bring the tools of the director or choreographer to bear on compositional problems, on problems of musical performance. This is the discipline - the rigour of finding, learning and developing new compositional and performative tools. How to locate a psychological/physiological node which produces a very specific sound; how to notate tiny head movements alongside complex bow manoeuvres; how to train your body so that you can run 10 circuits of the performance space before the piece begins; how to make and maintain sexualised eye contact with audience members whilst manipulating electronics; how to dissolve the concept of a single author and work collectively; how to dissolve the normal concept of what a composition is.

And always, always, working against the clock, because the disciplines which are drawn from have the luxury of development and rehearsal periods far longer than those commonly found in new music. Then again, the New Discipline relishes the absence of that luxury, of the opportunity to move fast and break things. In this way, it is a *practice* more than anything else. And the concomitant: the New Discipline is located in the fact of composers being interested and willing to perform, to get their hands dirty, to do it themselves, do it immediately. 

The New Discipline thrives on the inheritance of Dada, Fluxus, Situationism etc but doesnt allow itself to be written off merely as Dada, Fluxus, Situationism etc. Its a music being written when Dada, Fluxus, Situationism etc have aged well and are universally respected. It takes these styles for granted, both lovingly and cheekily, in the same way it takes harmony and the electric guitar for granted. As starting points. As places to begin working.

New Discipline works can easily be designated, even well-meaningly ghettoised, as music theatre. While Kagel et al are clear ancestors, too much has happened since the 1970s for that term to work here. MTV, the Internet, Beyonce ripping off Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Stewart Lee, Girls, style blogs and yoga classes at Darmstadt, Mykki Blanco, the availability of cheap cameras and projectors, the supremacy of YouTube documentations over performances. Maybe what is at stake for the New Discipline is the fact that these pieces, these modes of thinking about the world, these compositional techniques - they are not music theatre, they *are* music. Or from a different perspective, maybe what is at stake is the idea that all music is music theatre. Perhaps we are finally willing to accept that the bodies playing the music are part of the music, that theyre present, theyre valid and they inform our listening whether subconsciously or consciously. That its not too late for us to have bodies.

Jennifer Walshe, Roscommon, January 2016