Strategies in The Underhe(a)rd: Listening in to New Compositional Queer Performance-making

Peta Murray*, Alyson Campbell** and Meta Cohen***


In Sonic Agency (2019), Brandon LaBelle draws on the thinking of both Judith Butler (1990) and Sara Ahmed (2006) to put forward an argument for queering the acoustic, or “giving accent to the ways in which acts of compositioning assist in processes of (re)orientation that may additionally upset the dominant tonality of a given place” (190). Here we draw on LaBelle’s work to think into sonic elements of Practice as Research in a new work of music theatre on queerness and pandemics, HERD. Through a speculative essaimblage sub-titled: “Fantasia on A Debrief We Have Yet to Have,” we draw out the underherd and the underheard through the interplay of individual and collective experience and propose an emergent glossary of terms for queer dramaturgy. This, we propose, articulates nascent methodologies for queer performance-making, while providing a touchpoint for thinking through how we negotiate queerness and sound in our work, and in our methods of collaboration.

Keywords: Queerness, pandemics, musical thinking, dramaturgy, music theatre, collaboration, composition, sound, queer methods

How to Approach this Article

This article is peppered with lexical interventions. Many pre-date the HERD project. Others have their genesis in different phases of our collaborative process, and are, in essence, purpose-built. To assist readers, we foreground a GLOSSARY of the pre-spoke, bespoke or we-yoked coinages that will be encountered herein.

Pre-spoke neologisms appear as hyperlinks and/or with references to connect them to an earlier source in which they have appeared. Many come from mmmmyCorona, a blogsite maintained by Murray over two years of serial lockdowns in the State of Victoria, Australia, where all three authors reside. See:

Bespoke words, referred to as uberneologisms for the sheer excess of them, arrived during the writing of this article and are denoted with an asterisk in the glossary.

We-yoked terms appear as what we term hyper-bole-phenations. These are words in which prefixes, suffixes and other portman-towed parsings are tethered together with an over-abundance of hyphens to prompt fresh readings through the lens of prepositional thinking.



artfoolness: mucking around with materials you like in a playful and unskilled way to make something pleasing to you and yours

af-front: where public noise making meets the foremost part or surface of a thing

after-words: words following other words

after-thoughts: thoughts following other thoughts

(anti)-musical: a genre-bending, relatively unknown variant of the stage musical, so-named for the purposes of a Masters by research project. The (anti)-musical as a work “regularly promises, yet declines to deliver the traditional release and uplift of music and song” (Murray, Things 26)

audicle: a particle of sounds, disconnected from their sources, and entirely unique


bloggery: any queer, deviant or sp/rainbow-coloured form of blog-keeping that departs from an accepted norm

bruize: the hip colour of 2020, applicable to skies, skin, hearts and hopes


co-herd-nerding*: collaborative research work conducted by members of our creative cohort so as to ensure that the making of HERD is documented as a site of practice-based inquiry

co-labberation*: an experimental approach to collaboration whereby a creative process itself becomes a locus of investigation or observation


essaimblage: an orthographically-fluid, non-binary portman-tow of essai and assemblage first (f)used in 2020. Elsewhere spelled essamblage and essa(y)mblage.


herdage*: a state of fluidly ushering things together before seeing them disperse again

hyper-bole-phenation*: obvious, extravagant and intentional over-use of the hyphen to yoke words or parts of words into new compounds for particular effect


in-scribe*: to write into, as opposed to onto something


kiltlessness*: a quality of nonchalant misshapenness or insouciant disorganisation that allows exposure of understandings that might otherwise remain concealed, erased or invisible


mi-la-noté*: queerly flamboyant and musically inflected pronunciation of the proprietary name, Milanote, a software company based in Melbourne, Australia, whose eponymous project management design tool has been integral to this project


paracademic: either a parody of an academic, or one who works alongside rather than within the academy (Murray et al. 13)

pla(r)tform: site of unintentional, serendipitous moments of performance, visual, audio and live art that spontaneously occur when online platforms mix, meld, combust, distort, mess up and implode

portman-towed*: punful play on the word, portmanteau, turning it from naming word into active neologistic practice whereby new words may be coined by blending sound and meaning.


quamaturgical*: queer dramaturgical

quamaturgy*: a queered theory and/or practice of dramatic composition

q(u)antata: a queer counternarrative of modest proportion composed of music for voices and instruments

quarely: to behave in ways that flout normative ideas of sexuality and gender

quavoodling*: queer doodling of a quaversome musical kind

qubble: see also qubbler and qubbling

qubbler: the queer person you invite to join you for qubbling in your queer bubble or qubble

queerelous: a queerly arch, camp or playful manner of inquiry or critique (Murray et al. 258); see also queerelously (Murray, “MmmmyCorona” 809)

queertet*: a company of queer and/or gender nonconforming singers or musicans, or a genre-bending composition

queerum*: a majority of queer-identifying or gender nonconforming members of a collective, or ensemble

quire*: an informal, pop-up queer choir


re-act*: an arbitrary division of a work for the purposes of responding, reflecting or otherwise re-actioning proceedings

ro-coco-composition*: a musical style marked by elegance, charm, excessive or extravagant ornamentation


salutary confinement: Remaining contained and physically distanced for one’s own wellbeing.

sociable dis-dancing: The practice of dancing with others, despite being alone and/or in the privacy of one’s own home.

songwrighting: The construction of songs in a workpersonlike manner, with a focus on the manual and the material, as opposed to the lyrical or the melodic

stucknexcesses*: an excess of standstills rendering progress impossible


tendence*: any exaggerated inclination or leaning towards

textract: any fragment of textual or lyrical materiality made of verbiage of unknown origin (Murray, “MmmmyCorona” 806)

texture-building*: playing with the relationship between sparseness and density in music

trumpled: weariness accompanied by a sense of defeat when confronted with the reality of LockDown 2: The Musical!!! (NOT!!!)


uberneologising*: an irresistible impulse to make up new words, even where existing words suffice, accompanied by the compulsion to make a bespoke glossary for each and every scholarly or creative work one undertakes.  

uberneologism*: a new word made up under the above circumstances


verbandalism: the pleasurable practice of putting a wrecking ball through words and smashing them to smithereens

virtigo: a sensation of profound exhaustion and loss of work-life balance associated with interacting on screens all day long with people you used to know as three-dimensional.

In Sonic Agency, artist, writer and theorist Brandon LaBelle draws on the phenomenological thinking of both Judith Butler and Sara Ahmed to put forward an argument for queering the acoustic, or “giving accent to the ways in which acts of compositioning assist in processes of (re)orientation that may additionally upset the dominant tonality of a given place” (190). We draw on LaBelle’s work in thinking specifically about the sonic elements of our Practice as Research collaboration on a new work of music theatre on queerness and pandemics entitled HERD. In this article, we deploy an array of performative modes and playful devices in an attempt to articulate the nascent methodologies we are finding that strike us as particularly queer and queering. In doing so, we have played with the rich territory of crossovers between (queer) herd and its homophone heard. Here LaBelle’s idea that

listening is often tuning us to the interplay of meaningful layers that constitute the world, bridging the seen and unseen, foreground and background, things and bodies . . . listening . . . draw(s) out the underheard into greater volume.

161; our emphasis

has proved a touchpoint for thinking through how we negotiate queerness and sound in our work, and above all in our methods of collaboration.

As such, in this article we build on this notion of the underheard in response to the invitation to contribute to methodological and presentational innovation in academic publishing. By adopting the form of a speculative essamblage fancifully sub-sub-titled Fantasia on a Debrief We Have Yet to Have, we offer a fictional exposé, in ten re-acts, regarding the making of HERD. We outline particular queerings of collaborative methodologies through quamaturgical—as in queer dramaturgical—strategies including excess, uberneologising (see glossary), the revisiting and re-using of past work, queer autoethnography, queer musicking (Gray 133) and general queer doodling, henceforth quavoodling. In doing so, we hope to add a new perspective, or orientation, to the fields of queer dramaturgy and queer Practice as Research (Campbell and Farrier 83) while also crystallising some new lexical contributions towards that endeavour.

Jane Murphy. HERD logo, digital image, 2021. Photo: Used with permission

Created by a collective of queer artists, and with playwright Lachlan Philpott’s 21-year-old play Bison undergirding initial explorations, HERD sets forth to extend the original metaphor for the gay male herd by considering herding and herdlike behaviours, kinship, discrimination and isolation within a more diverse LGBTQIA+ community at large. Our intergenerational, all-queer creative team includes established artists Lachlan Philpott and Peta Murray (writers), Alyson Campbell (director/dramaturg) and emerging artist Meta Cohen (composer/dramaturg).

HERD mobilises the underheard in the supposedly rousing heteronormative COVID rhetoric of “we are all in this together.” In choosing to see both what unites us and where we diverge, HERD asks, “When and how do many voices become one? What happens when they do? And how do we tell communal narratives for an endlessly diverse group of people?” We also wanted to know if invisible lines of queer kinship across time would be drawn between queer experiences of the AIDS epidemic and the COVID pandemic, without us naming either in any explicit kind of way.

At the time of writing, our project is entering a middle phase. Since its initiation in early 2020, the team has somehow—miraculously—given Melbourne’s all but serial lockdowns, managed a creative development and the presentation of one public showing in St Kilda’s Theatre Works before an actual living and breathing-through-masks audience on 25 April 2021. The rest of our collaboration has, by necessity, taken place by Zoom and email. COVID permitting, we are working towards a world premiere production to take place in late 2022 at Theatre Works, with further performances anticipated in 2023.

We are, therefore, still at an early stage of the work and so documenting, within this article, processes that are very much in motion and formation. To this end, we offer snippets of work in progress, sharing unfinished or unrefined workings long before we would usually (if we ever would). This revelation of an underheard of our collaboration may itself be understood as a queering of academic methodology (which typically demands we write from an end point, almost as if there was no process). Articulation and refinement of the compositional strategies supporting such artfoolness requires slow work affording space for experimentation, iterative practices, feedback loops, dreaming, grant applications, report-writing, acquittals and, if and when circumstances permit, face-to-face, nose-to-tail debriefs. These last remain undone.

We ask readers to receive this paper, then, as a dreamscaping of a post-Theatre Works Showcase debrief we should—indeed, would—have held months ago, had not illness, overload, deadlines, viral variants, lockdowns and other twenty-first-century incursions got in the way. Instead, in the ten purpose-built re-acts that constitute this paper, we shall endeavour to curate and interpose the traces of our queer dramaturgical and de-compositional thinking through sound, image and digital after-words and monological and dialogical after-thoughts. In doing so, we hope that what seems underhe(a)rd will be found to be quite audible.

At the same time, we are at pains to illustrate our capacity to draw out the underherd along with the underheard through the interplay of individual and collective experience using such queer means as prepositional thinking, uberneologising and quavoodling. These approaches, we contend, expose fresh possibilities for developing a queer sociality within which, be it around the tables of Millner-Larsen’s “queer commons” (399) or within the thrum of queer “swarms” (Wilcox 4) new multi-modal methodologies as both generative processes and archival practices may emerge, along with a new language through which to rehearse them. 


Kindly imagine that I am writing this in Studio 7 at the Victorian College of the Arts (University of Melbourne), on an unseasonably warm autumn day, sometime in May 2021. It was here, around a Yamaha grand piano, that composer-dramaturg Meta Cohen first worked with performers Maude Davey, Ibrahim Halaçoğlu, and Willow Sizer on a song called “Vultures” back in March. And it was here, too, that we began to sense the value of quavoodling our emergent methodologies via a notation and mapping process, using an innovative Australian-made platform, Milanote.

This adaptable and intuitive online space will go on to become both our playroom, a safe place for bumping skulls (Manning and Massumi viii), while also serving as a pla(r)tform for making exhibitions of ourselves, should the need arise. But we don’t know any of this yet. We are far too focused on the novelty of being able to meet in real life to make something new.

Meta has already set some actual words by playwright Lachlan Philpott as a sombre chorale, harrowing, yet beautiful. Lachlan, on this day, is actual too, as we gather in this generous room, complete with sprung floor, soundproofing and pianoforte. This is a novelty; for once, he is not being beamed in via computer screen from another sequestered part of the country, or, worse, from another hemisphere, as the voice of our lead vocalist on “Vultures,” Ross Anderson-Doherty, will be, when he sings for/with/to/us from Belfast in our digital-live take on pla(r)tform-based performance. But more on that anon.

On this day, we are playing with sonic suspension. Meta wants to hear what will happen when phrases sung by our live performers, Ibrahim, Maude and Willow, are abandoned in the air; when words are left hanging, to dissolve and decay. Occasionally the writers, director and composer lend our voices to a “cloud” of dripping sound. Meta calls this texture-building.

Meta Cohen. Rough score for experimentation on Vultures. 2020
PETA:  Sound a tucket, if you will and let me step into an aside and out myself here, as current custodian of the metaphorical pen, wherein to introduce and enlarge upon some of the key concepts to be toyed with in this essaimblage. As a constant neologiser, recovering playwright and emerging paracademic a devotion to the notion of prepositional thinking (Rendle-Short 84) has become one of my preferred means of practising queerelously. Typically located in the field of creative writing, prepositional thinking affords a relational agility such that one need never settle or lodge in any fixed position. Things may remain slant, askew, ex-centric, endlessly off-kilter. This kiltlessness in turn supports a dramaturgical dexterity, allowing one to work the gaps and the angles, the hyphens, sub textualities and slippages of “meaning.”


A second methodological fealty/allegiance (BREATH) attachment/dedication (BREATH) enthusiasm/fervour, from the field of language-based arts inquiry goes beyond my fetish for the Thesaurus towards an all-but-obsessive practice of uberneologism, whereby I forge—in all possible ways—an excess of queer words and phrases expressive of new meanings specific to circumstance. My initial point of entry to this practice was thanks to COVID, and a daily work of devotional bloggery where I delivered a neologism a day for the duration of our salutary confinement. In our quibbling. With our vertigo.


Over 2020 and into 2021, this durational divertissement delivered stockpiles (PUN ALERT!) of fresh words that now feed other creative works and research outputs including Murray’s COVIDICTIONARY and Glossalalalarium Pandemiconium. These non-traditional research outputs, such as that modelled in a collaborative sound-inflected work, Sonic Dystonic, underscore a dedication to Practice as Research (Skains 82) and to other sites at the intersection of the creative arts and related un/disciplines where socially-impactful critical inquiry may be conducted, while ways of being in, and with the multiplicities and complexities of the world are acknowledged, charted and problematised.

Our next discussion point, more principle than precept, might have been our shared commitment to revisiting and re-covering our early and/or pre-existing works. This is a pushback against a disposable approach to theatre in Australia in which any new work is developed to death, has one premiere production and is seldom seen again. By re-turning to Philpott’s work Bison, and re-fashioning it for the realities of changing cultural moments, Campbell and Philpott’s theatre company wreckedAllprods cultivates an ethos of resistance to this fetish for the new. Perhaps this recuperation of material that has not been exhausted, in the hands of an intergenerational group of collaborators, may also be read as a gesture of queer kinship? As Elizabeth Freeman has suggested of “belonging” or “being long”:

to want to belong, let us say, is to long to be bigger not only spatially, but also temporally, to “hold out” a hand across time and touch the dead or those not born yet, to offer oneself beyond one’s own time.


Murray’s take on this is her conscious choice to value-add so that any one source may become fodder for multiple projects. She sees this as both a contribution to the discourse of queer autoethnography wherein it becomes not just “a bid to assemble queer spaces and the ‘we’ that needs and remembers them” (Holman Jones and Harris 46), but an act of queer defiance by an ageing writer who managed to eke out a living as a professional theatre-maker for almost three decades. 

But is there not also, plainly, a dramaturgical element of queer excess and polyphony in these makings as we voice and re-voice, re-voke and in-voke the same material in new guise? This time, the garb is music and song as our queerum of two writers, Philpott and Murray, and two dramaturgs, composer Cohen and director Campbell, set out to make what we pronounce a q(u)antata, well before we know what such a thing might be.

In the absence of a definition, or a debrief, and in the spirit of good scholarship, we might have described what happened next, taking our lead from Gray, as a process of queer musicking.

Queer musicking has grown out of a powerful history of independent, socially conscious media, and is founded in a DIY ethic, feminist ideology, queer transgressions, and trans theory. Queer musicians acknowledge change and fluidity as a given in the pursuit of social justice, and employ frameworks of intersectionality, multiplicity of identity, collaborative inquiry, interdependence, and non-hierarchalized (sic) modes of engagement in their musicking.


Thus, a lone BISON may make way for a collective HERD


Music, like identity, is both performance and story, describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social, the mind in the body and the body in the mind; identity, like music, is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics.

Frith 110

As one of the most useful conjunctions in the English language, the word “and” thwarts the binaries of either/or, inviting an accumulating, even hectic, plurality. Taking our cue from Frith, we might add that the collaborative creative process is material and mysterious and mutable and mundane and more. It is not trackable, so much as it is modular, stackable, with its elements coming into their own through conditions that favour playfulness and flexibility of re-arrangement and display. As noted above, the application Milanote has become integral to our queer musicking process. Milanote is designed for creative collaboration in fields such as theatre and screen production, but we have come to rely on it for everything from the preparation of grant applications to a space for co-mapping work-in-progress to a means of disseminating backing tracks for singers to co-herd-nerding this journal article for Critical Stages.

All this without ever being able to convene in the same room.

Meta Cohen. Material and image on the HERD Milanote

Our Milanote platform—or as we like to call it, the mi-la-notéhas become an archive of compositional strategies with its own evolving aesthetic. It houses genealogies of audicles and textracts in ways that allow makings to be traced and mapped, and processes of “compositional thinking” to remain, if not explicit, then at least extant. It has become a proliferating anthology of incipience, arrayed through, around, between and beside imagery and commentary, scraps and snippets, fragments and inklings. 

This, we propose, is a queered dramaturgy or quamaturgy, capable of describing, even while in-scribing the backstories of its own af-fronting matter. So that, even as words continue to desert and disappoint us, we are still able to catch something of the drift, the synchronicities, the jolts and paradoxes of a collective creative process. 


Music plays. Stops. A bundle is passed from hand to hand. Whenever the music stops, a fresh layer of wrapping is removed. Music resumes.

Dianne Toulson. Theatre Works HERD showing, Digital Image used with permission, April 2021

For purposes of any such debrief, HERD would have been defined as a modular work-in-progress, disposed through a range of units—texts, variously arrayed as song and un/song. It is a work for voices and in this too we worked quarely, with three live performers on the floor in Melbourne, and a fourth in Belfast, delivering his part of the queertet in pre-recorded and post-mixed fragments. In the absence of a chorus, our professional artists were backed up by the writers and dramaturgs as a four-part quire.    

For our public showing, we gave our textual and choral units names and arranged them in sequence: 

              The Bias of Infection 
                                  Is This How It’s Done (Disco)
                                                                Tasty Monologue

This is an arbitrary way to array the compositions for display. Nothing need be read into it. In fact, in our debrief we might have observed that, as they are almost in alphabetical order, a randomising-instrument might serve just as well. There is no chronology, no storyline, no logic to HERD; nor are there “characters,” per se. There is no concerted bid for sense-making, no hidden meaning to be unearthed, no uplifting message or public service announcement to be delivered. 

HERD is, instead, a herding of textracts and audicles that somehow keep or are kept together, albeit briefly. The act of herding—bringing/keeping together—is quamaturging, and while we do not yet know how the herding becomes the HERD, we intend to find out through our further re-versioning into 2022 and beyond. Our emergent process engages with ideas of queer dramaturgy’s exuberant “messiness” (Campbell and Farrier 1), both in terms of form and boundaries between artistic roles and disciplines.

Meanwhile there is a pleasing cyclical form to this process not unlike the circle of a game of pass the parcel.

Meta Cohen. Material and image on the HERD Milanote. 2020
PETA:Forgive me a further interjection, but dare I venture that such herdage also infers arrangements that give pleasure in brief and ineffable ways? They may be pleasing to the eye or ear, or through alternating momenta or through contrary motionswhose affect declines to be ‘read’ or decoded like a typical textual composition (Campbell 310).
In creative collaborations of yore (group devised, co-created and more), collaborators worked to nut out a trajectory for the work. A throughline might be narrative or thematic or didactic or stylistic; regardless it prescribed and proscribed edges of a field within which collaboration would take place. With HERD, there are no such edges. In this expanded field, collaboration becomes co-labberation whereby co-making itself becomes a site of experimentation and research.
Songwrighting, such as it is, is neither composer-led, nor lyric-based, but phonic-meets-sonic. There is a blurring of boundaries and of roles, a porosity affording lateral passage of possibilities back and forth. Play and whimsy dissolve any sense that words are my department or music is M’s. Rather, songs accrete, gathering mass and form around a word or idea that serves as with other life forms that accrete, as irritant or provocation.
META:(ASIDE) Is This How It’s Done?
PETA:(BENEATH) And so what is underhe(a)rd becomes gradually audible. Textual and sonic remnants leave aural stains and written traces of process across surfaces of the digital archive, to be re-herd and re-herded in any order. Perhaps these impressions constitute a truer, queerer record of the vagaries and happenstance of creative process, while also serving as a response to the inadequacies of language to speak to, or capture pre-scrivenings and pre-soundings, makings and becomings? If so, this is where prepositional thinking will come into its own. It allows us to consider compositional dramaturgies of between-ness so that we need not seek to synthesise, distil or to unite.
Nor need we look for resonances, crossovers or touchpoints between MmmmyCorona and Bison, even if they are there to be found in attuning to queer temporalities, a shared sense of world-weariness, or a plethora of animal metaphors. Instead, through a flipped, playful process that is a kind of dramaturgy-of-the-moment—we are led by dispositions of words and sounds as morphemes, collisions of vowels and consonance on the ear, certain comportments of pausings and phrasings in the mouth and certain pleasures in and of the textual (Barthes 3), so that a queered erotics of practice gives rise to compositional possibilities that would never have arisen had we started with idea or gesture, concept or story.

Let us revisit all this in the concrete setting of one of the songs, “Bruize.” This ro-coco-composition exemplifies an accretion process in the way it gathers substance, ornamenting and elaborating itself around a single nonsensical neologism towards profuse and abandoned tonal dynamics that carry what we find ourselves striving to express.

The notion of verbiage as overabundance or superfluity might have been deployed here to describe how a word soup was Murray’s first lyrical offering to the composer. A word soup is a chunky broth of potentially settable clumps of wordings and phrases. Seeing words not as units of language for carrying meaning but as phonological packets filled with dissonances and essences allows for malformed/preformed/deformed inklings of felt experience to drip through. The making of a word soup, composed of random extractions of words and phrases from Murray’s bloggery becomes one such gesture. Then, as the next quamaturgical stage, Campbell and Cohen arrange and gift these back as chunks-within-chunks served up as pleasing or curious or otherwise appealing to them. Hearing these aloud, in a kind of call-and-response or antiphonal manner, delivers further layers of possibility as certain strains and refrains emerge or converge.

It was via this method that we first he(a)rd, through the action of passing words back and forth, repeated reference to tensions between actual and virtual, or online and real lives. We also he(a)rd insistent but inadequate attempts to account for or translate some kind of sense of what each of us was experiencing as an instability, or doughiness of time.

We he(a)rd inadequacies and failures of language to speak to so-called unprecedented experiences of pandemic. Certain neologisms—for instance, sociable dis-dancing—pointed to a further strand specific to queer experience under lockdown. And a completed blogpost in which Murray had coined and elaborated upon the nature of bruize as the look of 2020 pointed to a song in its own right. 

These observations delivered leaping off points for the next experimental phase: a de-compositional quavoodling. For Murray as wordsmith, this meant slicing and dicing chunked text into lyrics with no obligation to meet any metrical or rhythmic constraints or conventions of versification. Cohen’s sonic bent was to explore text that was rhythmic or musical in some way, yet not constrained to conventional patterns or consistent metre. 

META:(ASIDE) Here is an early idea that formed the basis for the phrase “this year is all about.”

Liberation from prosody or scansion, syllabic accentuation or lack of it, caesura or pause, saw Murray soon stray beyond notions of free verse and familiar patterns of utterance to play with language in all its sensuous plasticity. Cohen, meanwhile, is conducting musical experiments, some on Murray’s untuned upright piano and others on an unassuming MIDI keyboard. The addition of sonic effects with vocal effects pedals and loopers is captured alongside an almost synaesthetic approach to composition via quavoodling visual maps, audicles and sketches with pen on paper. This visual scoring practice—which takes place in the lineage of composers such as Cage and Ligeti’s use of graphic musical notation—allows Meta to explore and share musical and visual shapes poetically. This process gives vibrancy to Cohen’s approach to dramaturgical practice in not being bound to defined notes or a stave and in allowing for an attitude of musical openness to remain inclusive and welcoming of collaborator input.

PETA:(ASIDE AGAIN) In writing this fictional debrief up, down and out, do we observe these flips in practice? Do we discuss what it means to find Meta working as I might as a writer, building structural ideograms from lines and shapes that bear a resemblance to written words and sentences? Is it observed that I am working with phonetics, from and within sound?
META:Yes—and there was a mutual curiosity, I think, in the permission to meddle in each other’s artforms. I suggest that there was something queerly hybrid (Freeman 305) in the decision to work this way: it disrupted rigid boundaries between text-writing and music-writing, and perhaps also allowed us to re-imagine our artistic identities.
PETA:Is it noteworthy that assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and other poetic techniques have come to the fore, allowing me to exercise or exorcise a musicality and euphony a playwright rarely gets to indulge? Even one with a love of the lexical? A tendencefor the taxonomical? A bias towards the cunning lingual? A weakness for the rhetorical? A leaning to the terminological? A hankering for verbandalism? A yen for the idiomatic, a passion for phraseology? For yes, I am a wanton for wordage!
Meta Cohen.  Material and image on the HERD Milanote

And so it is that “Bruize: A Rhapsody in Blurgh” accretes itself around a neologism from a blogpost. Neither music-driven nor text-led, it arrives via queer acts of passing-between. Each takes a phrase or a word and does things with and to it, before passing it back to the other. There is a playfulness in this, like a game of cat’s cradle, defined by as: “a children’s game in which two players alternately stretch a looped string over their fingers in such a way as to produce different designs.” At the same time, there is talk of music and of words, feelings, influences, forms. There is speculation about what it might look like to queer the cantata. Is this how it’s done? Milanote enables these processes of bartering and exchange. Songs and sounds are played at one another. Spaces appear and remain open for new lyrics in later blocks if or when the song asks for them. For, as a word like verbandalism suggests with its mashing together of ideas of the verbal, the vandal and the abandoned, there is shared joy in putting a wrecking ball through words while attending to what voices may or may not want to do with, and in their dust.

META:[LINK] This is another early setting made using Murray’s words.
PETA:This song asked for more and more voiced and plosive conso-dissonance. To allow this it is detonated and re-constructed in response to Cohen’s sonic offers.
META:These include an exploration of the idea of bruising notes through sighing glissandos, the use of quartertones and experiments with stacked diminished chords moving in parallel in the choir parts. These prompted me to consider relationships between compositional choices and convention, opening further provocations: how might the song keep delivering us to places we have no expectation of visiting, and how might we go about disrupting this expectation? The process allowed us to think both compositionally and dramaturgically.
PETA:  It also amplifies our insight into the inability of any singular genre to hold the immensity of what the song is attempting to express—the toll of a year, or indeed, of an era. 
META:Yes—the song’s inability to contain itself to one mode became its dramaturgical drive.

Only now does it dawn on us that all this toying with form and genre is not mere subversion for subversion’s sake but, rather, a dialogue with convention. This song asked us to play with the act of listening itself so as to interrogate how a heteronormative ear might want it to take us somewhere and how a queer composition might decline to do so. Through departures from parody and satire of beloved music theatre and operatic diva expectations and other guilty pleasures in Gilbert and Sullivan, Sondheim and beyond—Juliette Noureddine, Dresden Dolls, Max Richter—we pushed this bruiz-èd song beyond camp into the political realm of “the (anti)-musical” (Murray 24) in its disruption of musical rules. It is worth nothing that, rather than merely a complete refusal to comply, this approach relies on establishing conventions in order to depart from—and unwind—them. 

The resultant song is wracked with instabilities, multiple modes, falsities and faux, excess to the point of asphyxia, beauty that is ugliness, failures of mastery (Halberstam 11) and more. All of this is mirrored in the wordage, with its excesses and stucknexcesses, its chaos and incoherence, and an all but unsingable coda that re-dresses any Model of a Modern Major General as a Drag Artiste on Speed so that by the time we reach the final finale after a seemingly endless series of endings, it is with a question for the listener: how on earth did we end up here?

META:[LINK]. How on earth did we end up here? (Click to listen to the current iteration of “Bruize”).

When we presented our one-off showing at Melbourne’s Theatre Works, we made the considered choice to share fragments only and were at pains to emphasise that the sequencing of the extracts as song-text-musical interlude-text-song was arbitrary.

We wanted to find out how our exploration of the resonances between AIDS and COVID landed, particularly with queer audience members; we wanted to know if listeners could themselves hear the underhe(a)rd, the under-spoken, the over-looked parallels between times and worlds and experiences of stigma, loneliness and loss when bodies, fearful of infection, are sent back to their rooms to take a long hard look at themselves.

We counselled ourselves that we had no obligation to polish the work; we wanted to share and show our workings and invite an audience to peer into the innards of the beast. And peer they did, as, in one further flip, we maker-performers occupied a perspex booth—one of several terrarium-like tanks built to house audiences at Theatre Works in the name of a COVID-safe theatrical experience. Onlookers remained safely dis-danced in the open space that would otherwise have been declared a stage.

Dianne Toulson. Theatre Works HERD showing. Digital Image used with permission, April 2021

The showing began with “Bruize” which saw Willow Sizer deliver a melodic meltdown of trumpled proportions. In its ambition to disport, only to discard what LaBelle has called “the illegible and the unrecognizable” (275) it attempts to push at and to extend upon what is counted as identity.

The Bias of Infection, Murray’s trialogue, was next. This is a kind of spoken word canon, in themes and variations. Is This How It’s Done provided a musical bridge to Maude Davey’s delivery of Philpott’s Tasty monologue. And we closed—or more accurately suspended—the showing with “Vultures,” a song that emerged through yet another revisiting and reimaging of Philpott’s play Bison. With the repeated refrain “Each day one of us will drop,” its resonance seemed only to emphasise the pain of the physical absence of Ross Anderson-Doherty, along with so many others across time and space.


In this debrief-as-essaimblage we began with Brandon LaBelle’s call to reconsider the potential of listening and sonic practices as “social acoustics,” capable of housing “reflections on the distribution of the heard and the underheard, the reverberant and the withdrawn, materiality and energy” (272). We dipped our lids to Doty in a bid to make both dramaturgical and musically theatrical accompaniments “perfectly queer” (1). Finally, we sought mixed and multi-methodological means to sound, or more accurately, to resound queerelously and in the name of scholarship “an alternative framework for thinking about the sharing of research, one that poses more questions than answers, one that privileges our capacity to wonder over our need to know” (Taylor, Murray and Sempert n. pag.).  Soundings and re-soundings of this kind have been and will remain an integral part of HERD’s dramaturgy beyond our now retro-debriefed development phase through to further iterations for public presentation.

Through adaptive methodologies and innovative approaches to junctions between theatre and performance, Practice as Research, queer musicking, lyric and language-based methods of inquiry, we generate possibilities for compositional thinking as a queer herd. Such a quamaturgy emboldens us to craft new forms for creating “collective and experimental socialities” (LaBelle, 272) while underscoring a politics of listening as a queer social act.

Acknowledgments: The authors wish to thank writer Lachlan Philpott and performers Ross Anderson-Doherty, Maude Davey, Ibrahim Halaçoğlu and Willow Sizer for their participation in the development phase of this project which has been supported by Theatre Works, Creative Victoria, RMIT’s Creative Agency, and the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne.


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*Peta Murray is a playwright, writer-performer, librettist and dramaturg. Best known for Wallflowering and Salt, she was awarded an Australian Government’s Centenary Medal for Services to Society and Literature in 2003. Peta is a Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University in Melbourne.     Her research focus includes queer and art-based activism, new secular rituals, and innovative methods of collaboration based on “radical joy”, associative leaps and communal meaning-making. 

**Alyson Campbell is an award-winning director and co- artistic director of queer performance collective wreckedAllproductions with Lachlan Philpott. She has made work in Australia, the UK and Ireland since the late 1980s. Alyson is Professor in Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne.     She teaches and researches dramaturgy, directing and  gender and sexuality in the arts, with a focus on queer dramaturgies and performance around HIV and AIDS. 

***Meta Cohen is a queer composer, dramaturg and sound designer with work spanning music, theatre and interdisciplinary art. Meta’s music has been performed in diverse venues ranging from London Synagogues to the Sydney Opera House, and in theatre work, Meta specialises in sonic dramaturgy and musical thinking in theatre-making. An associate artist at wreckedAllprods, Meta is passionate about queer, interdisciplinary and sound-driven work, and is currently undertaking a PhD at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Copyright © 2021 Peta Murray, Alyson Campbell and Meta Cohen
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