A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy? The eponymous Norman Jewison musical from the 1970s, based on a series of stories by Shalom Aleichem may be high schlock to most contemporary audience members, but it retains its status as a modern classic, for a whole rash of reasons, ranging from the fit of lyrics and music to the way in which narrative touches history.
Having rewatched it again – after a childhood which was determined by listening to the LP a million times – there’s another bit of quirky magic which I believe ties the work ineffably to the traditions of Chagall and Yiddish storytelling, but which also lend it a sense of the unexpected and the unequivocally beautiful and skilled that so little of what we see on our contemporary stages has the ability to emulate. I speak of the fiddler. On the roof. He’s performed by violin virtuoso Isaac Stern in the musical, and the skill and the wisdom of this one little instrument sets a whole huge musical with a million values quietly and directly on fire.
What is it about the commodity of music in a contemporary environment that makes people think that louder is better? I’m not talking of those people who drive little cars with big speakers, leaving the “doef-doef” rhythm all over the street, like a bad smell, late at night. I’m talking of educated artistic practitioners creating a work for an audience to watch. So many of them punctuate their precious, honed, sacred work with noise that, as you sit in the audience, vibrates in your teeth and your bowels. And you take it home in your head like a pall over your face.
No one has been able to explain to me why music for contemporary dance needs to be so very loud that it is actually distorted. I daresay I should be thankful that the trend of doing contemporary dance to ‘white noise’ has passed. Enter the trend of loud music, so overwhelmingly terrible and unashamedly bad that it affects your ability to actually see the work.
Money, theatre practitioners might bleat. We can’t afford orchestras. We don’t get funding. So they put in piped noise attached to speakers that don’t fit properly with the space that it’s supposed to fill with sound. Does it work when the auditorium is empty and do the sound designers forget that a full auditorium resonates differently? It’s a mystery to me. What’s wrong with having one instrument on stage? Like a violin. Or a penny whistle. Or a clarinet? Most of the venues that are used in urban theatre settings in this country have some modicum of acoustics in their structure. But even if they don’t. Why is it that young and sometimes even seasoned practitioners feel the insufferable urge to scribble away any nuances and subtleties in a work with music that has the volume ramped up as far as it can go?
Last year, there was a work on Johannesburg and Grahamstown stages that featured a ‘cello. A simple unadorned ‘cello. No ‘doef doef’ in the background, no slaughtering of a European composer through bad acoustics in the foreground. It was a ‘cello in all its humble directness. It became a character in the piece, a beautiful monster that moved and swayed with the words that flowed over it. This is a country replete with musicians – many of them do not have regular work – is there a real reason why theatre and dance directors are not able to collaborate or converse with musicians?
Bring back the hypothetical fiddler on the roof, I say. Sanitise him of schlock. Let him be eerie and moving and witty and bold. Let him sit precariously and develop a persona and a voice on stage and allow us, in the audiences the chance to breath and listen and respond to a work and not be flooded out with noise that makes our noses bleed.