Why We Want a Story
If you are a music director, chances are you have read a program note or two. We read these in hopes of gaining an insight into the minds of our favorite composers and the wonderous world of creation that is their craft. It is understandable then, to expect some level of deep thought and emotion during the creation process. How anti-climactic it would be to find out that the piece that means so much to you, and speaks so much to you as a person, was written in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon betwixt Netflix binging and bathroom breaks?
From a composer’s standpoint it is always a bit daunting to be asked where the inspiration for a piece of music comes from. There is a lot of pressure to give a substantially meaningful answer. However, most often for me, and dare I say many others (who probably would vehemently deny it) it’s all just a bunch of made-up nonsense. (Don’t get me started on titles...).
Sure, we may sit around and ponder the theoretic beginnings of our new work; and we may even craft a few things that will come back (motifs, harmonic intrigue...etc). But the notion that there is some muse leading us to the next note seems almost a little comedic. By no means am I discounting the muse mind you, but the muse in this situation is the composer. Every piece that a composer writes is in small part a culmination of all their musical ideas and experience. The rest (the bulk) is the craft. Where does this melody belong and with whom?
Enough of that! I’m sure many other composers are jumping out of their seats ready to defend their art and the deeper meanings presented in their program notes: That is not what this blog is about!
SO! Why then do we want a story? Simple: We have conditioned ourselves to NEED one.
The bulk of what I see on the marching field, the concert hall, the lesson plan all point a big finger at the word “Theme”. They do this so much so that I feel sometimes the audience is given a literal roadmap to the concepts and design of the production before the show. When a director has to come out and read 3 pages of storied-program notes for your music I think you missed the boat at getting your point across.
Granted, a smidge of back-story is not inherently a bad thing. Let’s take a famous and vividly emotional work for example: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima– Krzysztof Penderecki (1961)
This work, after reading the title and knowing the history of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima inspires sheer terror and audibly depicts the chaos experienced by the inhabitants. However, the original title of the work was “8’37”. It was only after the creation of the work did the composer search for meaningful associations.
Would you now listen to the work and feel less moved? It is an interesting question, and one I’d imagine could be applied to almost every one of the works of art that you are inspired by.
To my point (I’m sure the collective eye-roll is palpable):
Don’t wait for the composer to tell you what emotions you need to experience during their music. Don’t wait for the composer to tell you what the piece is about. The composer (I Believe) wants you to figure it out for yourself. I think if the composer has a story for a work then that is a beautiful thing. But I don’t think we need to work solely off what they provide. Indulge in the music and let it take you where it will, and then find out what the piece means to you. Your students will then hopefully do the same. We want young (and older) musicians to use music as a vehicle for personal and impassioned expression. In order to do this, they have to be free to make their own emotional decisions. They will be better musicians in the long run, and subsequently more inspired human beings.