Tuesday, October 28, 2008


A.C. Douglas writes:  "Every piece of stand-alone music traces out, from beginning to end, it's own perceptible, coherent musical narrative absent which what's written is gibberish, not music."  

I like telling stories; late at night, especially, I can hardly be held back.  I even like the idea that music can tell stories, or at least, may have a compelling thread holding a whole work together in the musical — read moral — equivalent of a narrative.  Some of these stories are explicitly composed into works and then either explained or kept private,  others are imagined by players and listeners, often composers, players, and listeners imagine completely different narratives for the same work. But don't confuse narrative with coherence!  Coherence, in music, is a presumption of repetition or return, and if it begins Once upon a time, you don't get a second chance to get it right.  Some narratives, whether stories told or pieces of music, don't hold together particularly well and suffer not the least for it. Indeed, the compelling element may be a failure to hold together; they simply fall apart in the way matters in real life often fall apart, but the way, the style if you will, in which they fall apart, or even the mysterious circumstances of elements which may or may not belong together or which never quite come together, can be so well done with the individual elements drawn so vividly, that we are drawn in regardless of any failure to satisfy an urge to cohere or close.  Indeed, there is as much potential for satisfaction in the episodic and fragmentary as in the through-composed and tightly-knit and, possibly, more excitement in the former.  Schumann's setting of Heine's Im wunderschönen Monat Mai  doesn't properly begin, has an ending is anything but conclusive,  and everything between beginning and end frustrates the sense of direction, yet it may well be the perfect song.  Moreover, there are extraordinary works of music in which narrative plays no role at all.  There is no common thread to holds the Machaut Mass or the Monteverdi Vespers together other than the sucession of astonishing displays of technique and grace. The idea of a common idea linking the movements of a symphony or a quartet came late and didn't really come often.  Even the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique — really an afterthought — is unnecessary, as is any knowledge of the appended fantastic story  (the same goes for the silly titles appended at a publisher's behest to Schönberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra). In fact, the principles underlying the supposed coherence of much of the work we believe we treasure for integrity and closure are actually contrast, complementarity, and assertion, the creation of facts on the musical ground with cheerful disregard for the norms of an orderly narrative, for example, those of tonal function.  Even at the most local level, music can defy an orderly progression of time (in well-ordered time, what goes up must come down, arsis is answered with thesis, but consider the Sarabande rhythm, which begins its three-beat measure with two heavy downbeats followed by only the lightest of upbeats, an afterthought, insufficent to create any restorative balance, but create plenty of forward, if halting, momentum).  It was of a night, late, lang time agone, in an auldstane eld... But I digress.  The notion of a narrative in a work of music presumes the immanence of the work's ending; but much of the time spent within a work of music, is time spent unaware of, indeed unconcerned about, such an end.  A piece of music may even forego a proper ending, segueing into something altogether different, fading off, or just stopping, without regret.  Living, as it were, happily ever after.  A piece of music can get 'round to its beginning well after it has started and end well before it stops, and that beginning need not proceed the end.  Do you doubt me?  Listen four or five times to the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and call Dr. Wolf back in the morning.    

1 comment:

A.C. Douglas said...

Not to be argumentative (I think, at bottom, we're talking about the same thing using different language, but disagree on its fundamental importance), but please do not confuse my "musical narrative" with storytelling. They're not even remotely the same thing.