[Note: This article was originally published at Acceity.org on 12 May 2011 and was revised and expanded with new sources on 18 June 2012].
The announcement in the New York Times on October 9, 1917, was straightforward and short: "WISCONSIN PLAYERS COMING." The amateur acting company from Milwaukee, which had been at the vanguard of the American Little Theatre Movement for the better part of a decade, was about to make its East Coast debut.
In bringing the Wisconsin Players to New York, producer Laura Sherry was doing her small part to turn the world of theatre inside out. Before 1910, New York had practically controlled the American stage. A handful of businessmen had held the nation's theatres in the grasp of their Theatrical Syndicate, which pushed safely profitable productions from New York across the country while locking out competitors.1 Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players represented something different: the Little Theatre, an emerging national movement of non-commercial and non-professional drama. It was now time for the actors and writers of the Midwest to bring their ideas to Manhattan.
Laura Case Sherry, whom the New York Times called "the guiding spirit" of the Wisconsin Players,2 had experienced the theatre from both sides — big and little, commercial and amateur. Born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1876, Laura Case's parents were Emily Avery and Lawrence Case, owner of the small town's leading general store. Her parents' position afforded Laura an education at the University of Wisconsin and the school of speech at Northwestern University. From there she went to study theatre in Chicago and at last New York, where in 1897 she joined the Richard Mansfield Company as an actress and toured the country as a cast member in several plays, including Mansfield's famous production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.3 Mansfield, then an opponent of the Theatrical Syndicate, spoke frequently against its stranglehold on the stage, even assailing syndicate bosses inside their own theatres.4 Though Mansfield's own self-interest later led him to soften his resistance, his early opposition to the centralized commercial theatre must have made an impression on young Laura Case.
At the start of the twentieth century, Case settled back into Wisconsin life. She married Edward P. Sherry, a lumber and paper tycoon from Neenah, and the couple made a home in Milwaukee. There, Mrs. Sherry set to work gathering a club of like-minded theatre devotees and performers.5 The group held meetings and rehearsals in the homes of members, and on April 21, 1909, the amateur troupe staged the one-act Irish drama Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge at the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee.6 The Irish play was fitting, for the Little Theatre movement in America would draw much of its inspiration from a tour of the United States by the Irish Players in 1911 — but Sherry's troupe performed Riders to the Sea years before the Irish Players' visit, demonstrating their foundational role among the nation's community theaters.7
The nascent Milwaukee association soon gained the support of University of Wisconsin English professor Thomas Dickinson. Unable to produce plays at the university in a time when theatre was not deemed a proper academic subject, Dickinson founded the Wisconsin Dramatic Society in Madison in 1910 and organized a company of players by 1911.8 Dickinson and the Madison group worked closely with Sherry and her Milwaukee compatriots from the start, so that the two associations quickly became branches unified in a statewide society.9 The Wisconsin Players had now been born in earnest.
This 1864 painting by Arthur Hughes illustrates an idealized family enjoying music together in an age before recording.
In 2008, I posted an article at Acceity entitled Music Everywhere. In it, I asked whether the ubiquitous nature of recorded music in the digital age enhanced or cheapened the role of of music in our lives. Those who read the post replied that today's abundant music is a good thing. Although music may no longer be as highly valued as it was in the past, there are now unparalleled opportunities for everyone to enjoy it.
I've been prompted to consider the value of music again after reading the results of a study released two weeks ago by Wharton marketing professor Raghuram Iyengar. The study, which aimed to determine the optimal market price for digital music downloads, is summarized at the Knowledge@Wharton web site, which also provides a link to the complete paper. Iyengar's main finding: music today is too expensive.
Online music retailers like Apple iTunes and Amazon.com currently charge customers about 99¢ per song for most downloads. Iyengar's study showed that this price may actually be inhibiting demand. He based his research on conjoint analysis, which involves offering consumers a variety of theoretical purchasing options and prompting them to choose which, if any, they find attractive. Judging by consumer's choices, Iyengar predicts that if record companies would cut the retail price of their music to about 60¢ per song, the accompanying rise in demand and sales would actually lead to an increase in their profits.
"Music," wrote nineteenth century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "is the universal language of mankind." This is a striking statement—and I fear the claims of poets are always best served cum grano salis to allow for gentle seasoning and healthy skepticism. Music is not language. Nor is music universal. It may be made by people everywhere, but the styles, contexts, interpretations and meanings can vary tremendously between cultures. Throughout this diversity, however, music remains an intensely communicative medium. It stirs our emotions, colors our stories, and even defines our identities. It isn't language, but still, it does speak to us in its way. How does music communicate? Why is music different from language? By examining one against the other, we might learn a little about each.
It's easy to demonstrate what separates the language and music. To start, music is not language, because children don't grow up learning music to tell their parents "I'm hungry" or to ask "Are we their yet?" Music is not language, because although one could write a score for The Tempest, no musical arrangement alone could reveal the story. A composer might write a piece inspired by Shakespeare's words, but no listener would ever hear it and think, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep." Fundamentally, music is not language because it lacks language's precise symbolism: its words. In English, for instance, if someone wants to talk about a dog, he can simply say the word "dog," and be done with it—even though there is no real connection between word and beast but for the symbolic association people have created. It's true in any language: dog, canis, chien, perro, hund, собака, كلب, कुत्ता, 狗, 犬; ten different languages, ten different words, none of them anything like the animal we call a dog, but all of them carrying exactly that meaning. There is no word, however—no note, chord, rhythm, or melody—that means dog in music. Music is not a language.
Music relies on different mechanisms to carry meaning. Instead of communicating by abstract symbolism, music evokes meaning through emotion and resemblance. The latter of these, meaning through resemblance, might also be called meaning by mimicry. So it is that although there is no specific musical symbol to denote "dog," a skillful composer could still use music to imitate a dog's barking, growling, scratching, and howling, and thereby convey meaning by reminding listeners of the things they associate with the animal. Antonio Vivaldi famously employed this method in The Four Seasons, imitating birdsongs, raindrops, and thunderstorms to indicate different times of year. Of course, meaning by mimicry is more complex than simply imitating the sounds a thing makes. Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, as an example, reminds listeners by its sparse instrumentation that it was recorded in the isolation of a northern Wisconsin cabin during winter. Inventive composers can communicate myriad ideas by trying to find a way to employ pitch, rhythm, and instrumentation to evoke our thoughts on a particular subject.
Tonight we have a musical treat at Acceity courtesy of my friend Alex Schaaf, a music major at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Those who know me have undoubtedly heard me comment on Schaaf's previous work with the band Escalator Dance Party. That group's spring 2008 album, God Save the Crane, is still available—you can download it from Amazon.com. Now, though, Schaaf has shifted his focus to a new band with a refreshingly different sound. They're calling themselves The Chairs, and they've already produced an EP entitled November. Here's the first track, for your enjoyment:
The rest of the EP, which includes a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea", is available for listening at thechairsband.com.
I am wearing headphones. Music is playing in my ears. The track is "Far East Sweet" by The Bruces, but that isn't important. After all, there are a few thousand tracks on my mp3 player. Whenever I'm in the mood for some music, I can just scroll through the choices. It doesn't matter who I want to listen to: Bob Wills, Queen, Devotchka, the Packway Handle Band—wherever I go, they're all ready and waiting in my coat pocket.
My situation is hardly unusual. It seems there is a wealth of music waiting at everyone's fingertips today. This isn't just because of mp3 players. There are also televisions, computers, car stereos, cell phones, and the ubiquitous speakers in malls, restaurants, and department stores. Music is so common now as to be nearly inescapable. From the moment we wake up to the melody of an alarm clock until the moment we turn off the TV or stereo before bed, we find ourselves working, studying, playing, driving, dining, shopping, and even exercising to a soundtrack that almost never completely fades.
This hyper-abundance of music is a remarkably new phenomenon. Most of the music formats people are familiar with today didn't exist a few decades ago. The ability to record and replay music itself wasn't realized until 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the first practical phonograph. Before this invention, it was impossible to duplicate a musical performance. Every musical rendition was unique, and the availability of a particular performance was limited to those people who inhabited the same time and place as the performers.
The advent of recording technology changed this by enabling people to duplicate individual performances as often as they wanted, so long as they had a copy of a recording and the equipment needed to play it. In other words, musical performances were no longer limited to a unique time and place, but were instead limited to technological availability. As technology has improved over the last century, both sound recordings and the devices that play them have become inexpensive and highly portable. This has allowed sound recording technology to proliferate widely, ensuring that recorded music music is are now available to virtually everyone, anywhere and anytime.
Our age of unprecedented musical abundance has led to many changes in the way people use, appreciate, and value music.