Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Wassily Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound:
A Stageable Composition

Geraint D'Arcy


Lissa Tyler Renaud

Editor, KANDINSKY ANEW series




From the page proofs for the publication of The Yellow Sound in
The Blue Rider Almanac,
eds. Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, c. 1912


Even people who know that the painter Kandinsky wrote plays and theory for the theatre—even those who know that his contemporaries admired his theatre works for decades—even they may suspect that Kandinsky didn't really know anything about the practical theatre.


But of course he did.


We have seen it in this series, for example in Tableau VII of his Violet (1914). Here, he has cleverly parodied a play's "tech rehearsal," the part of the production process that focuses on technical aspects such as cues and timing for lights and sound, and coordinates them with scene changes and props. Scholars and writers introducing this play, who were themselves unfamiliar with this tech process, have not recognized the process in Tableau VII and have relegated to "abstraction" (read: without logic) a scene that is a precise depiction of what goes on in theatre practice.


We can also be assured that Kandinsky knew the practical requirements of the stage from a note he made for his staging of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1928). For this, he paid particular attention to, "of course, the necessity of dismantling it." Working from the music's structure, he created scenes expressed in form, light and color. But we are interested here in the fact that his designs for sets, props, and costumes are the renderings of someone with a substantial understanding of the theatre's practical matters.


And when choreographer-sculptor Oskar Schlemmer left his position as Director of the famous Bauhaus Theatre in 1929, it was to Kandinsky he turned to replace him. This invitation suggests Schlemmer's faith in Kandinsky's ability to mount a complex production not only artistically but also practically.


For the current entry we are looking at The Yellow Sound, for which Clay Gold's A Contextual Look at Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound gave us a sensitive evocation a year ago.


This month's "Kandinsky Anew" Guest Writer, Geraint D'Arcy, takes my train of thought about the feasibility of the plays much farther. Having designed and co-directed an important production of Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound in London, D'Arcy has an intimate understanding of the "stageability," the viability of the staging of Kandinsky's play. D'Arcy draws from the play text as well as from knowledge of the historical theatre structure.


Almost nothing has been written on the actual, practical staging of Kandinsky's plays as written, by anyone who knows the theatre as Geraint D'Arcy does. It is a privilege and a rare treat to have his article in this series.





Wassily Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound:
A Stageable Composition

Geraint D'Arcy


Kandinsky considered the theatre of the early twentieth century to be an aesthetically fractured art form in that its component parts of ballet, opera and drama had been estranged and enhanced separately until they appeared to be art forms in their own right. He argues in his writings "On Stage Composition" that as a consequence of materialistic gravities they had become 'petrified, separated by high walls' and one dimensional with no depth and no internal resonance. Kandinsky saw the drama, opera and ballet of the early twentieth century as deeply flawed products of a nineteenth century materialism. His response was to write Der Gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound), a stage composition that reunited the theatrical forms to serve the inner values and the souls of those who watched it. 


A composition for the stage (and therefore Kandinsky's vision of theatrical art) should contain three elements:  


1.  The musical sound and its movement,

2.  The physical-psychical sound and its movement, expressed through people and object,

3.  The coloured tone and its movement (a special possibility for the stage). The Drama finally consists of the complex of inner experiences (soul = vibrations) of the audience (Kandinsky, "On Stage Composition").



Kandinsky's handwritten stage directions for
the end of The Yellow Sound.


These three elements can be very clearly seen in The Yellow Sound, though the 'complex of inner experiences of the audience' during performance are a little harder to pin-point. The Yellow Sound is very precisein its textual demands—at times the text reads like an extended stage direction, at other moments it focuses very specifically on choreographic or sonic nuances. It resists a linear narrative structure, preferring to present a series of stage pictures rather than dramatic scenes. The score of colours is of equal importance to the score of sounds, choric voice and physical movement. These demands 'play equally important roles; they remain externally independent and are treated equally' in order to enhance their inner value, that which enriches the souls of the audience.


Even so The Yellow Sound is as difficult to access for an audience today as it was in 1912.  Even when viewed as a kinetic painting or a study in synaesthesia, the content of that painting is unusual: figures in brightly coloured costumes, five yellow giants with indistinct faces, red flying creatures that flitter about the stage, shaking flowers that vibrate in sympathy with different shrill notes and tiny people who walk across a colour-changing hill. All of the visuals are underpinned by an aural score in which sounds contract and shrink in towards themselves, single notes sound shrilly from the orchestra and voices cry loudly single sounds and odd words. Despite these often bizarre visual and sonic requests, there is something very conventional about The Yellow Sound:  it is clearly written for a proscenium arch theatre.


The first indication of the use of a familiar proscenium space is the inclusion of the only stage direction 'Curtain' in the Prelude of The Yellow Sound. The lack of any other such directions could suggest that this is merely a convention of scriptwriting and production where the expression 'curtain' is often used to indicate the opening and closing of a performance. However, Kandinsky uses several other directions of a similar nature within the flow of the action which indicate the use of a proscenium stage. He makes references to the colour of back drops used in the first descriptions of each Picture; there are several references to back-stage and to the appearance of figures from the left or the right of the stage which also indicate, at the very least, the use of proscenium type wings leading to an off-stage or back-stage space. Perhaps the most telling descriptions in the text are those requesting the transformation of scenes such as when 'the backdrop turns suddenly brown. The hill becomes a dirty green'. The appearance and disappearance of rocks and the entrance of yellow giants and figures in coloured robes also indicate production demands most easily achieved in a well masked theatre with a fly tower and under-stage machinery. 


In fact, most of the staging requests made by Kandinsky that seem the most difficult to stage can be easily achieved by mechanical means. A particularly good example of this is the action centred on a 'completely round hill, intensely green and as large as possible' which shrinks and grows, then sprouts a gigantic dancing flower before '[g]oing from right to left, tiny, imprecise figures, vaguely grey-green in hue, walk very slowly over the hill.' The theatre of the nineteenth century was familiar with spectacle in proscenium arch theatres which could produce any thing of wonder, from fairy presentations to entire train wrecks. The demands on the rapidly changing colour and focus of lights were not impossible for the early twentieth century theatre. Even if the request for 'dazzlingly coloured rays [...] alternating rapidly several times' would have been expensive and difficult to achieve, it would have still been technologically possible.


Those elements which seemed farfetched or impossible to achieve may have been Kandinsky measuring the capabilities of form and the available technology: the appearance and sudden changes of colour of a 'thick blue fog' which 'completely obscures the stage' at the end of Picture 1 before 'dissolving into an intensely white light' at the start of Picture 2 would test the limits of technology and stage-control today. The playful request in the same picture that 'the dazzling white light by jerks becomes progressively greyer' is simply impossible without rewriting the laws of physics and would certainly test the humour of a contemporary lighting technician.


Kandinsky was not just writing his composition for an audience that needed to reconnect with the art form of theatre; he was deliberately writing the composition for a conventional theatre more than capable of staging it. Hugo Ball (the Dadaist responsible for sound poetry) began to stage The Yellow Sound in the M眉ncher Kammerspeile, one of the most successful German theatres of the time, constructed by Richard Riemerschmid with the most modern stage technologies. Due to the outbreak of the First World War the production never opened, though there is little doubt that he would have managed to stage it because along with its technology the Kammerspeile is a rather fetching art-nouveau theatre with a proscenium stage.


*    *    *



Geraint D'Arcy (PhD 2011): performance poet and Lecturer in Media Practice at the University of East Anglia, UK. The author of Mise en Sc猫ne, Acting, and Space in Comics and Critical Approaches to TV and Film Set Design, in 2011 he designed and co-directed The Yellow Sound at Tate Modern in London. 


Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in BST Journal in 2013.


Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Lissa Tyler Renaud, lifelong actress, M.F.A. Directing, Ph.D. Dramatic Art (thesis [with Art History]: Kandinsky and the theatre), U.C. Berkeley, 1987; founded the Actors' Training Project studio for training based on Kandinsky's work. Since 2004, training actors, directors and scholars; lecturing, and publishing widely–as visiting professor, master teacher, invited speaker, actor-scholar, recitalist–around the U.S. and Asia; in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2020 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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