A Personal Narrative

I was up in Woodstock, New York, for the final weekend of this season’s Mavericks Concerts. Alexander Platt led a performance of his reduced orchestration of David Del Tredici’s Final Alice. It’s a work I have always treasured, but I’d never heard it live and I also hadn’t listened to my recording of it in quite some time. While I resisted the temptation to come up with music that provoked opposing degrees of love and respect in response to Carl Stone’s challenge, experiencing Alice once again brought to mind a similar issue for me.

I was completely transfixed for over an hour by Del Tredici’s surreal and obsessive musical rendering of Lewis Carroll’s familiar children’s story. But then it dawned on me: This piece has a narrator.

While I make every effort to keep an open mind toward whatever it is I’m listening to at any given moment (and therefore I write this with an extremely heavy heart), I’ve never had a particular fondness for music with narration. Unlike vocal music—whether bel canto or hip-hop—where words flow in musical time, narrated pieces of music place the superimposed words somewhere else, usually at a distance that competes with (and all too often distracts me from paying attention to) the music. And while I’m not really an advocate of ambient listening, narrated music defies the listening modality of music without narration: Narrated music forces itself to be listened to as foreground, and that’s a choice I’d rather make for myself.

Yet I really love and respect Alice. Why? Might its seemingly seamless melding of music and narration be so effective that in fact Alice‘s narration doesn’t actually sound like narration? There’s definitely a reason never to say never about liking or disliking anything. In that spirit, what other piece of music with narration offers untold rewards for the open-minded listener?

9 thoughts on “A Personal Narrative

  1. Leos

    re: narration
    I’m not sure I can shed any light on your enjoyment of Final Alice, except that, as you stated, you obviously found it to be seamless in the way it brought the seemingly irreconcilable elements together. I do know that my own attitude about narration changed when I was asked to write a piece that incorporated narration. I was asked to write a piece that incorporated spoken text in some way, and I was at first unsure if i could do it convincingly. I wound up really enjoying composing the piece, and others seemed to like listening to it as well. I also found my attitude even toward pieces with narration that I formerly would have regarded as a little hokey–Lincoln Portrait— had changed as well, though I had always liked a lot about that piece musically. I actually find I often don’t find unabashed narration as clumsy as the incorporation of spoken or half-spoken text in an otherwise sung piece. I actually find that much harder to pull off, though some, like Berio, cerrtainly have done so. I was always very fond of those late Stravinsky pieces, such as A Sermon, A Narrative and a Prayer, or The Flood, that used narration and spoken dialogue juxtaposed with singing. Maybe he gets away with it because juxtaposition was always part and parcel of his technique. I guess I’m bothered in a vocal work if I feel that the spoken text happens because the composer couldn’t think of anything else to do at that moment or couldn’t rise to the occasion with a great sung phrase. Like lots of other special effects, speaking can quickly become gimmicky.

    Reply
  2. rtanaka

    I was lucky enough to have several opportunities to work with several theater productions, and theater is usually very narrative in nature. Western culture is very much rooted in the idea of narrative (TV, Movies, Books, Cartoons, Comics) so it’s something that we’re all trained to understand on some level. I’ve found that new theater productions tend to draw larger audiences than new music or dance, despite the fact that they both claim to deal with issues within contemporary society.

    It got me wondering about why this was the case, but I’d have to wager that it has something to do with the understandability of the narrative form. Understandability doesn’t have to imply simplicity, since even Elliot Carter’s music can be thought of as a form of musical theater where every instrument is representational of human characters or factions. (Which is what the function of the orchestra has been for many years to begin with.) Even using the same method, pieces can be dense or fluffy depending on its content.

    Narration also doesn’t necessarily have to mean restricting the audience’s ability to interpretation either, and I think this should be clear if you’ve ever had the opportunity to read a good book. Maybe the problem a lot of people have with narrative texts used in musical settings is more of a matter of quality than the process itself, because it’s actually pretty difficult to make the text and music compliment each other in a meaningful way. (There seems to be a lot of interest in the blurry grey area between the text and music in recent years, which is sort of related.) It doesn’t quite work if they’re just thrown together autonomously, though, which seems to happen sometimes but they tend to distract each other..

    One of my favorite narrative works is George Lewis’ works on his Changing with the Times, which should be interesting if you’re into something that deals with social issues and such…

    Reply
  3. sarahcahill

    narration
    Frank, what do you think of Rzewski’s classics like Coming Together or De Profundis? Or Copland’s Lincoln Portrait? Or Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra? In those cases, do you also find the narration distracts from the music?

    Reply
  4. Chris Becker

    “There seems to be a lot of interest in the blurry grey area between the text and music in recent years…”

    And there seems to be a lot of precedent for musical accompaniment being inseparable from poetry and the harmony of speech in the the surviving tragedies of the Greeks. The combination of these elements – narration with music (and acting and dance) isn’t new. It’s actually very very old. And it was an art inspired by mythology (putting it very simply).

    Maybe David is just tapping into that source?

    Reply
  5. rtanaka

    The combination of these elements – narration with music (and acting and dance) isn’t new. It’s actually very very old. And it was an art inspired by mythology (putting it very simply).

    Sure, it really is a very old process — but in a lot of ways it really defines what western culture is about because it had adhered to it very strongly. There’s the idea of representation that western culture has cultivated, related to the idea of the narrative because actors become symbolic of something or someone else.

    The idea that symbols and abstractions can “point to” certain things that might exist in the world, like maps and signposts, is a very powerful thing — it creates a metaphysical relationship which allows us to sense things beyond our own individual situation. Myths and metaphors aren’t really meant to be taken literally…often they’re just a way to distance the audience from the reality of things in order to make a social or moral statement of some sort.

    Being too literal with this stuff usually is off-putting and gets labeled as being “too heavy-handed”…It’s kind of strange because you can say the same thing but how you say it makes all the difference in the world.

    Reply
  6. mmcginn

    While we’re on the topic of narration:

    Anyone know of a decent recording of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat. I just can’t stand the narration on any recordings I’ve heard (Jeremy Irons, etc.)

    Reply
  7. Chris Becker

    What I was trying to point out is that the creative combination of narration (not necessarily narrative story telling) and music isn’t some new incongruous combination.

    “Myths and metaphors aren’t really meant to be taken literally…often they’re just a way to distance the audience from the reality of things in order to make a social or moral statement of some sort.”

    Not to be argumentative, but I believe the opposite to be true – especially in a Greek tragedy’s audience where everyone except the people onstage knew the myth and how it was going to end. And so much myth is tied to very fussy and sometimes bloody rituals…there may be a “healthy” distance we experience today that is/was alien to the Greek audience and playwrights I’m thinking of…

    I’m not convinced either that symbols as described above is a unique Western invention either. There are similar precedents of artistic forms combining talking, singing and musical performance in African and Asian history.

    By the way, I enjoyed reading the Earl Brown interview! WNYC is doing a 24 hour marathon of Cage’s music. Started at noon.

    Reply
  8. rtanaka

    No, your point is well taken. As you said, symbolism isn’t unique only to Western culture. But I think it’s the culture that cultivated its technique the most (in the visual arts, perspective and realism)…and if you think about it, it’s really everywhere from the maps we use, the books we read, the shows we watch, the games that we play…

    Reply
  9. Frank J. Oteri

    Hi Sarah,

    I’ve been thinking of an appropriate response to your query which is both accurate and fair: what do you think of Rzewski’s classics like Coming Together or De Profundis? Or Copland’s Lincoln Portrait? Or Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra? In those cases, do you also find the narration distracts from the music?

    I have been captivated by performances of De Profundis live, but not as much on recordings. Whereas other works of Rzewski’s, such as People United.. and The Road, to me will always be more effective since their impact is completely musical. For the same reasons, Coming Together is a composition with which I have yet to have an epiphany, so I will keep listening. Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, on the other hand, is perhaps too much in my consciousness to think about objectively. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, it is a work that is very difficult to listen to without it conjuring up one’s zillion prior encounters with it which is a listening problem that transcends narration, I think. The period instrument movement enabled me as well as many other listeners to experience standard repertoire with fresh ears and still Beethoven’s Fifth is a difficult objective listening experience. Dunno if a similar thing could ever be done for Lincoln, probably not, since I’ve even heard the recording of Copland conducting it himself, which, I suppose, is as period instrument as it could ever get.

    However, Kitzke’s music is so wonderfully weird and quirky that it doesn’t strike me as narrated in quite the same way. Perhaps, in that sense it’s more like Final Alice. Maybe I don’t respond to narrated music when the energy of the words comes from their meaning exclusively as opposed to how those words are delivered. But then again, that would make a more compelling case for me to love the Rzweski pieces you cite since I’ve heard many extremely compelling narrations of Profundis live over the years. I also have no problem with pieces that feature narration in languages I don’t understand, since then all I can respond to is the sound.

    Alas, opinions are wonderfully inconsistent which is why I find it difficult to use them as a filter for listening to music and was reluctant to initiate this discussion. I know that I will continue to listen to all of these pieces and many others with narration no matter what my personal response to them is at the present moment. And inevitably, in some cases, that response will change with greater familiarity, hopefully for the better.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.