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.