Narrative Drive

Narrative Drive

A few months ago, I went to a concert to hear a piece by an old friend of mine. Although I hadn’t seen him in several years, our shared experiences from a summer music festival secured a bond that we happily renewed over music and drinks.

He reminded me of a dinner from our student days at which I had, according to him, pontificated at length about how I was drawn solely to music that told a story and that evinced a strong narrative drive. After vociferous protestations that he couldn’t possibly be talking about me, because I certainly would never have ruined a quiet repast with blathering about wonkish musical ideas, I finally accepted that his memory was probably accurate. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past several months tracing the steps on this aesthetic journey because not only did I have no recollection of this conversation, but the views that I had espoused seem very different from my current predilections.

At the time, I was obsessed with the idea of music as conveying meaning. Although I understood that it’s impossible for absolute music to be universally denotative, I always undergirded my compositions with a hidden yet specific story. I hoped that my beginning with a theatrical element would allow individual listeners to experience the music as a drama. By refusing to reveal the generating narrative, I hoped that each person who heard the piece would find a distinct story within the musical details.

With each new piece, I attempted to create a beautiful Aristotelian arc that would also have a unique structure. Over time, I began to realize that the surface variations between pieces disguised an internal anatomy that was shared across my entire output. Meanwhile, I kept finding myself drawn to preexisting music that deviated from conventional compositional designs. I became fascinated with songs containing unusual codas that shift the mood in unexpected ways and might end up doubling the length of the song itself. I returned over and over again to other tunes quilted together from verses, choruses, and bridges that don’t seem related to each other. I began listening to pieces that change subtly over great spans of time, and compositions that vacillate unpredictably between quiet repose and horrific outpourings. These seemingly anomalous works led me to reconsider my definition of what constitutes good form.

As soon as I began to think about form beyond the traditional models, I found a teeming mass of great art created outside of these molds. These abnormalities date at least all the way back to The Odyssey, which describes most of Odysseus’s adventures as a tale within a tale sung by the hero himself, a character we don’t even meet until Book V (of XXIV). Eventually, I realized that aberrant structures are truly normative, that the standard forms exist mainly as theoretical constructs and are rarely evinced in interesting and successful works of art.

This realization allowed me to liberate myself from my erroneous belief as to what constitutes good storytelling. Instead of forcing my ideas to follow from exposition inexorably to dénouement, I began to permit myself to create individual models that allow the materials to express themselves more fully and freely. The music still tells a story, but the telling doesn’t always need to be linear. I might enjoy the feeling of inevitability as one idea flows into the other, but I no longer slavishly adhere to logical development as the only way to create narrative drive.

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4 thoughts on “Narrative Drive

  1. Brighton

    Good movie screenplays are supposed to have an unexpected third act that surprises and enthralls the audience. I think you expose a timeless truth here. I can’t think of a more unconventional, nonlinear composer than Bach.

  2. Gregory Klug

    Beethoven contrasted extremes, but always reconciled them somehow. Extreme contrast within overall unified ”story.” Bach did the same, e.g. gm toccata. That’s nonlinear, but all the lines converge.

  3. Michael

    Reading this article brought to mind the following relevant words by the brilliant writer on poetry, Helen Vendler: “Form is content as deployed. Content is form as imagined.” The quote is from her 2001 Charles Homer Haskins Lecture titled, “A Life of Learning,” available to read online. (It would be wonderful if Vendler wrote a book about music, and I have encouraged her to do so.)

  4. Smooke

    Dear Brighton: I am very intrigued that you cite Bach as a nonlinear composer. Certainly he heard confluences that escape many other humans.
    Dear Gregory: And you highlight the reconciliation. I think that these two comments work well together. So much of listening is emphasizing what we need at the moment, and both Bach and Beethoven used a great variety of materials, but always within a confined space so that the variety emanated from a clearly constrained source.
    Dear Michael: I would love to read Helen Vendler’s thoughts on music! I’m certain that she would add a great deal to the literature.

    Thanks to all for your comments,


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