Thursday, June 19, 2008

Narratives And Vignettes In Music

I have been reading an excellent book by Alex Ross (NYTimes music critic) called The Rest Is Noise. It serves as a fantastic primer and introduction into the great composers of the Twentieth century, both in terms of their work, their contexts, and how they are in conversation with one another and in history. Armed with this book, and an account which I have been using to purchase the seminal works of the book (Thus Spake Zarathustra, the Ring cycle, symphonies by Mahler and Struass and Shostakovich), I have been exploring one of the genres of music which I have previously been unacquainted with: classical music.

Classical music has been somewhat of a puzzle to me. I have very much enjoyed certain of the iconic musical gestures of classical music (the beginning of Thus Spake Zarathustra which features so prominently in 2001; the theme to Edward Grieg's In The Hall Of The Mountain King from Peer Gynt; the signature of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the 1812 Overture). And yet I find it not very fulfilling background music. Film scores (which are similar in musical gesture) did not prove quite so forbidding.

After a while of scrutiny, and with some insight provided by The Rest Is Noise, I think I have put my finger on it, and it has given me a lens, which has given me an anchor with which to listen to the music more properly. This reminds me of certain lessons I learned over the last couple of years which had given me more of a toe-hold in the world of painting, which I also confess I was not quite so interested in.

Much has been made of our current fast-paced media saturated culture. But one thing I will highlight is different between so-called "classical music" and today's pop culture is in format. Whereas symphonies were epic works spanning between a half hour and two hours, today's pop song spans between a minute and a half and five minutes--certain exceptions excluded.

There are reasons for this, mostly having to do with the early methods of encoding sound. But the difference between the musical story being told in a three minute song and being told in a three hundred minute song is a phenomenal one.

Narratives and Vignettes: Theater

Take, for example, a three minute piece of stage and a three hour piece of stage. These are known today as 'flash plays' if they are in one vein, or 'skits' if they are in another. What is notable about a skit or flash play is that (because of the constrained time) they quickly establish their premise, build this premise, and then pay it off. A beginning, middle, and end. But there is one dimension to the progression.

Take, for instance, a classic sketch by Monty Python: the Dead Parrot Sketch. The shop patron enters, and says, "I'd like to make a complaint." Upon questioning, he reveals that his parrot is dead. The shopkeep does not believe him. This is the thrust of the beginning. But this is also the premise of the middle. The patron builds in frustration, insisting the parrot is dead. The shopkeep builds in obfustication, coming up with more and more elaborate ways of dodging the buck. The conflict is finally defused (the shopkeep offers to replace the parrot) and after a brief denoument, the sketch is done with.

This is the layout of a vignette: a single image or idea established, examined briefly, and let loose. There is only one tone (in the sketch, comedy; in flash plays, any number of tones) that predominates. If the Dead Parrot Sketch had two minutes of comedy about whether or not the parrot is dead, and then suddenly the shopkeep revealed that his denial of the parrot's death was a serious grief-based reaction to losing the parrot, something more complex would have opened up--and the sketch wouldn't have the time to deal with it. So there is one narrative thrust: one tone, one plot-line, and a quick succession of events.

On the other hand, imagine a complex play. Let's take Hamlet. I will not synopsize Hamlet here. If Hamlet were able to be easily synopsized in one or two sentences, it would be a vignette. I could write a flash-play in which Hamlet is told by the ghost of his father that he has to kill his uncle, but Ophelia wouldn't be in it. Nor would Polonius. In fact, every added character and every added dimension of the play forces the play to be longer, in order to be adequately dealt with. The best example of that is Rosencranz and Guildenstern. Even after being dead, the playwright must further acknowledge the complicated link between cause and effect by having their deaths cause a war with England.

This is a narrative. There are a number of tones--Rosencranz and Guildenstern arrive, and bring with them merriment (which causes a scene in which Hamlet's "madness" is actually funny), but the same two characters betray their friend and are murdered for their role. There are competing interests, complex dimensions, etc. etc. etc. Hence, a narrative. And hence, a play in five acts.

Narratives and Vignettes: Music

I think that narrative/vignette dichotemy (which, of course, is not merely black and white) was more obvious to me in the realm of theater than in the realm of music because I am far more at home in theater than in music.

Pop music today, if you look at this narrative/vignette breakdown, is more clearly in vignettes. Usually, in three minutes, you have the establishment of an idea, its development, and its completion. A little more rarely but still common enough, you have the establishment of an idea, its development, its subversion, and its completion. Take, for instance, a very very classic song: When I'm Sixty-Four, by the Beatles. It establishes itself very quickly: the tone is kitsch, and it asks, "Will you still be there for me when I'm sixty four?" This song would more more troubling if, right after proposing a summer at the Isle of Wight, it suddenly broke into a screaming guitar solo replete with burning instruments, shattered equipment, and violent curse-words.

On my iTunes, I have my songs broken down by mood. I have loud and angry songs when I want to feel powerful, calm songs when I want to chill out, positive songs when I want to be cheered, nostalgic songs when I want to wallow in nostalgia.

So when I sat down to listen to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, I was thinking I would listen to it in the background, and that it would very quickly say what it had to say. I wanted to figure out where among these playlists I would put it. But really, Firebird, and most symphonies, have a complex narrative function. Firebird begins with what can only be described as a pastoral setting; a beautiful, calm melody, woodwinds barely audible. I slowly turned up my radio dial several times because it was faint and imperceptible. Clearly, this was going on my "calm" playlist.

And then Stravinsky hit, fortissimo, possibly the loudest and scariest chord of noise. Partly because of my expectations and partly because of my high volume knob, the surprise note blasted out and nearly killed me. Then came the angry building of music, tearing apart whatever pastoral scene we saw before. Any attempt to boil down this suite into a single mood was clearly futile.

This is the narrative of Firebird. And it goes on from there. And because these longer classical songs were in the form of a narrative, it was impossible to get into them in my usual way: "getting into their groove" lazily while my mind heads out elsewhere. The narrative begs to be followed, to be examined.

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