The mechanics of musical narrative

How do you tell a story with music?

This month has me fixated on Liquid Interface, a ‘water symphony’ from 2007 that is touching down in several parts of the country.  Narrative has always fascinated me.  Works of mine before and after Liquid Interface have incorporated programmatic concepts, but this was my first big one, a kind of Symphony No. 1.

Once was a time when massive symphonic works unfolded against opium-laced stories of love and death.  Berlioz mastered the programmatic approach in Symphonie Fantastique and others, but the true beginning of ‘story music’ began with the inclusion of chorus in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.   Suddenly, a symphony had text — context, content — that enriched the musical experience with humanistic calls for peace.

The great battle of ‘program music vs. pure music’ brought out many critiques of this approach that are still reprised these days.  Camps as disparate as serialists and minimalists repeat the same macho lines about the superiority of ‘pure music.’  Brahms said as much, and he certainly knew a thing or two.  But given the choice, I’d always go with Wagner, and besides — it’s never a good idea to argue for artistic purity, simply because music has never been pure.  There is no music that exists in a vacuum.  One usually hears a title, glances at the movement titles if not the program notes, or (outside classical music) catches some lyrics of the song.

Like many artistic endeavors, the approach hinges on the execution.  And the best examples of the narrative approach are driven by the musical curiosities of the composer.

Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 is, yes, a musical conjuring of a steam locamotive.  But its wonderfully searing, grating, and sometimes electronic-sounding textures bring the train to life so distinctively, it doesn’t matter if you know what it’s about or not.  You’ll know once you hear it.

John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 is, yes, a heartfelt and heart-wrenching meditation on AIDS.  But it articulates this vision through music so utterly original and extraordinary that the narrative, even such a weighty one, is often at the service of the music.  Memories of a friend who played nostalgic piano waltzes becomes a vehicle for stylistic counterpoint (more or less invented in this piece).  Orchestral illustrations of rage become highly precise layerings of accelerating and decelerating rhythms.  In short, the music wasn’t composed to connect the narrative dots.  Rather, the story became an imaginative way to unify a hugely diverse musical endeavor.

Despite a few shining examples, however, the programmatic approach is too rare these days.  Sometimes I feel like a one-man-band trying to bring back some ancient forgotten dance, but there’s excitement in that too.  From Liquid Interface or Alternative Energy (a symphony that travels through greater and ever powerful forces of energy), from the buzzing insects of Rusty Air in Carolina to the NASA spacewalk at the center of The B-Sides, I love infusing sprawling narrative ideas with the power of the orchestra and the drama of electronics.

When the Maestro Jaap van Sweden gives the downbeat of Liquid Interface to the Chicago Symphony, we’ll be in the Antarctic hearing glaciers calve.  Yes, actual recordings of glaciers smashing into the ocean are used.  But those wonderful field recordings can’t just appear like sound design in a movie; they must be brought to life by the orchestra.  So the first movement is entirely about huge frozen chords floating up through the orchestra and exploding high in the woodwinds.

The piece’s journey through the states of water allowed me to explore morphing orchestral sonorities.  For example, what happens when water moves from the small-scale to the large-scale, from the playful to the dangerous?  “Crescent City” takes a solo melody and follows it with an ever-increasing wake.  This accumulating trail begins, innocently enough, in the manner of Dixieland swing.  But it soon masses into a huge sonic wave that ultimately floods the piece.  (“Crescent City” is the nickname of New Orleans, as well as the name of a tsunami-ravaged town in California.)

For it to all come together like this, both music and concept have to be developed simultaneously.  A key skill to develop is sizing up the musical reality of a narrative idea well before notes are written.  The sonic illustration of an image should always be fresh and surprising — but also identifiably related to the image.  My summer dawn in Rusty Air in Carolina is, indeed, twinkling with blue light — but it’s also lugubrious with low-brass humidity.

And finally, I try to know when the form can bend to the intense pressures of real notes — and when the notes need to change.  If conceived at the same time, music and narrative should survive that.  That is best when the music is tightly held together by specific musical relationships on many levels.  Leitmotifs are alive and well, thank you (and sometimes dancing to techno).

Does it always work?  Hopefully not every single time, otherwise I’d stick to some low-risk process like serialism or minimalism.  On that note, stay tuned for info about the upcoming premiere of Difficult Bamboo, a Pierrot-ensemble work that conjures an idyllic West Coast landscape invaded by running bamboo: bent-note lyricism slowly overrun by a pulsing, fast-replicating opponent.  We’ll see if it works.

And that, as the say, is the story.