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Su Terry: BLOG

Telling A Story. . . Or Not

Posted on April 11, 2012 with 0 comments
By Sue Terry

Telling a story has always been the raison d'etre of a Jazz solo--at least that's what they told us in music school, and in practically every Jazz instruction book ever written. Tell a story, tell a story; your solo has to have a beginning, a climax, an ending. Not only Jazz solos, but whole songs, of any style, are expected to have this structure.

When you think about it, you realize most music is like this. It is linear. It follows a timeline of development. There have been many brilliant examples of this type of music, so one cannot dismiss the idea, by any means. Indeed, not only is the narrative element an important component of music, it's also one of the most notable characteristics of humanity.

Cultures, mythologies, religions, even familial and societal roles revolve around the narratives we tell ourselves daily, hourly, minute by minute. With these stories, we compose our lives. They run in the background of our minds, guiding us along trajectories we may not even be aware of.

It is our stories that program our actions. Consider, let's say, a person who suffers a tragic accident. The accident was something that happened: it doesn't have anything attached to it, it's just a fact. But in order to justify it, or understand it, the person manufactures various stories. One could tell oneself that one deserved the accident because of bad things one did. Or one could blame forces outside oneself. Or one could use the "blessing in disguise" explanation. There are many variations; any number of stories can be concocted around the facts, each story having a different slant and creating in the storyteller different attitudes as a result.

Are the stories we tell ourselves important? Of course! Sometimes we need a story more than we need food, water or shelter. Without stories, it would be very difficult to free oneself from the bonds of one's history or circumstances. Stories stimulate our emotional center, motivating us to change our behaviors and attitudes. Conversely, the story can also be a cage we build around ourselves, closing our minds to other possibilities.

We could say, then, that stories are a good thing if they benefit us in some way. Keeping in mind that even the basest story very likely presents one or two points to ponder somewhere in there. As my Auntie used to say, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Since this essay is about music, let's get back to that. My friend Derwyn Holder, the composer and bassist, says that TV shows are designed to guide the viewer's nervous system through a journey of conflict, climax, and resolution--the background music being very important to the success or failure of such a goal. The genre of film music is another situation in which the narrative of the music is subservient to the visuals it accompanies. Yet despite the subservient role of film and television music, some of our most talented composers and orchestrators have been drawn to the genre, and made significant compositional contributions within its rigid bounds. When one separates film music from the visual story, one doesn't necessarily hear a narrative thread running its musical course, but rather a series of visually suggestive musical sections.

Film and TV composer Bernard Herrmann is just one example of an extraordinary writer who was not tied to the idea of musical narratives; he created moods, textures and tone poems that fit together in a less formal way, without using a traditional structure or form (sonata, fugue, AABA, etc.) This type of composing represents the non-linear aspect of music.

Physicist Niels Bohr said "A Great Truth is a truth whose opposite is also a Great Truth." While it is true that music unfolds in time, it is also true that music alters one's perception of time. (Obviously music is not the only thing that can do this--medicines, drugs, sex, tragic events, intense experiences of any kind can do it as well).

It must follow, then, that not all composers or improvisers intend to express themselves according to a narrative line. Some of them wish to move not in a lateral direction, but in a vertical one. Such a concept allows us to make sense of music that may have previously mystified us, for example, the music of John Coltrane in his later years. If one listens to this music with the hope of hearing a melodic line, chord progression, or some other type of linear expression, one will be sorely disappointed. The object of this music is not found in its narrative, but in its feeling. It doesn't want or need to tell any kind of story. Rather, it wishes to express the depth of each successive moment in time.

Some may say, if there is no narrative, then what's the point? One might answer: what's the point of a rainbow? A flower? A giraffe?

As we ponder this, let's imagine a panel discussion amongst a group of mountaineers:

Moderator: Why do you want to climb the mountain?
Mountaineer 1: To challenge myself.
Mountaineer 2: To look at the view from the top.
Mountaineer 3: When I'm climbing, I forget about my troubles.
Mountaineer 4: To conquer my fear of heights.
Mountaineer 5: Because it's there.

It's part of the human condition to seek reasons and justifications for the things we do and the things that happen to us. But in keeping with the paradoxical nature of life, we must realize that sometimes no reason is needed. Once our emotional center has "heard" the story, it can be discarded at any time. We hold onto our stories after they've outlived their usefulness because they provide a handy focus for mind, but if mind can be quieted, other equally valid thoughts and experiences can be allowed to surface.

That said, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Studying the traditional musical forms is an indispensable component of a solid musical foundation. The old expression "you must learn the rules before you can break them" comes into play here, as we realize that progress, development, evolution and enlightenment in music necessitate that we study the wheel in order to not reinvent it. Life is short, after all.

If, after studying and gaining an understanding of the traditions of one's chosen field, one wishes to go in another direction, one's path will be dramatically streamlined by virtue of this understanding.

A student (keeping in mind that we are ALL students when it comes to music, and life) may wish, at certain points, to reinvent ASPECTS of the wheel, in order to better understand them. I recall playing flutes with saxophonist Jay Branford one afternoon long ago, during which we decided to map out all the difference tones (aural illusions produced by the frequency difference between two simultaneously sounding tones.) Little did we know that Hindemith had already done this in 1942!

In scientific circles it is common to repeat historical experiments. Much can be learned from this practice; indeed, new theories and even corrections have happened as a result. As we musicians move further into the 21st century, we will be increasingly challenged (by ourselves and the public) to raise the bar for music creation. It behooves us, therefore, to study our craft with as much intensity as we can muster. And go ahead, break the rules. Just don't leave a mess behind for someone else to clean up.

© 2012 Qi Note, Inc.