Spoiler Alert

“You heard a bit of this music and it has affected you in a very powerful way. If you heard enough of it often enough, it would affect you in other ways. […] One listening is the right amount. You’re not to listen to it more than that.”

—Jonathan Segal, The Disharmonic Misadventures of David Stein (2011)

Disharmonic Misadventures Cover

I was thrown a bit of a perceptual curve ball by a passage in Dan Visconti’s post last Thursday:

There’s a great scene in the first season of Mad Men, where a Korean War-era Don Draper looks out at a military casket and is told to “leave that boy behind” by his superior. Viewers of the series who know exactly who that casket contains will understand why it’s such a poignant moment.

I haven’t watched a recent television series in many years, so I had no idea what he was talking about. However, his brief description gnawed at me and I immediately wanted to know what happened. As I edited his words prior to their publication, I thought other readers might be in my same television-challenged position so I considered asking him to rewrite that paragraph to let us all in on the secret. But at the end of the day, the “saner” voices on our editorial crew convinced me that risking a “spoiler” was not germane to his central thesis and so we published it without any revision.

That whole episode occurred just as I began reading The Disharmonic Misadventures of David Stein, a mystery novel written last year by the jazz pianist and singer Jonathan L. Segal (which I quoted at the onset of this essay).

Reading Visconti’s unrevealed plot detail and Segal’s surreal depiction of a pianist in search of what might turn out to be a lethal listening experience has reminded me of the fundamental difference between instrumental music and other kinds of narratives that unfold in time, e.g. novels, plays, films, and television series. No matter how detailed a program might be affixed to a sequence of sounds containing no verbal content, such a program cannot propel those sounds forward in the direct way that a linear plot propels narratives based on language. Music ultimately has no story line, per se. Therefore it would never be possible to “spoil” a piece of music.

Yet during the ascendancy of functional tonality in European concert music, composers would often thrill listeners by taking them on harmonic detours through techniques like “deceptive cadences,” subverting their culturally ingrained expectations of the inevitable the same way a great mystery writer might fool his or her audience into thinking someone other than the culprit actually committed the crime through twists in the story line. Then again, discerning the identity of the culprit of a crime is the final cadence, so to speak, of a mystery in most cases, and so in following that analogy composers of that time squandered away the goods time and time again. It was commonplace during that era to have pieces of music with titles like Piano Sonata in D Major or Symphony in A Minor. If deceptive cadences truly functioned the way a plot twist does in verbal narratives, why tell people in advance exactly what key the music will resolve to at the very end? Yet, with rare exceptions, they always did. There is no overall tonal closure between the individual movements of the six sonatas that accompany Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen. And indeed listening to it after hearing other multi-movement works which preserve consistent key relationships can be somewhat unnerving, but only the first time you hear it. That’s true for just about anything. To take another classic 18th-century example, there isn’t much of a surprise in Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony after you’ve heard it once, and yet folks still enjoying listening to it all the same. (In case you haven’t heard it—spoiler alert!—the “surprise” is merely an extremely loud chord seemingly out of context.)

Of course, our 21st-century ears take for granted both the dissolution of tonality as well as the return to it, albeit rarely with the extra step of proclaiming the key of a final cadence from the onset. (I haven’t come across many pieces called “Symphony in A Minor” composed in the new millennium.) As a result, we no longer listen expecting closure either in a specific key or without one. Anything goes. And in a world which has become acculturated to anything going, creating narrative suspense in abstract sound is even more difficult if not impossible. In reality there probably cannot be any music like the music that Segal describes in his novel. But then again I’ve yet to reach the end of the book, so stay tuned.

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3 thoughts on “Spoiler Alert

  1. Colin Holter

    I guess you can’t spoil a piece of music by revealing what happens at the end of it, but surely that has to do with the nature of discovering musical content as a listener – the process of learning what happens and situating that knowledge in the context of an entire piece (let alone an entire literature!), as opposed to simply knowing it, is at issue in music.

    This is probably also to some extent true of television and movies and books, though: Imagine if M. Night Shyamalan popped his head into the frame an hour into The Sixth Sense and was like, “here’s the deal: Hudson Hawk’s been dead the whole time. Just FYI.” It wouldn’t be at all the same as discovering that to be the case.

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  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    This article affected me since I ocasionally write program notes for concerts.

    In a previous comment here in the NMBx, I praised FJO’s ear-opening reflections, which I connected to Cage, since he’s one of Oteri’s influences.

    Seriously Frank, you have a whole bunch of very interesting ideas about the simple act of ‘listening to music’. You should think about writing a book on this subject.

    Reply
  3. Jeremy Howard Beck

    I have basically never, in my own program notes about my own pieces, told the audience what was going to happen in the piece. It’s not possible to “spoil” a piece of music the way you can spoil a novel, or a movie, or a TV series–or any other piece of narrative art–but I absolutely believe that you can diminish an audience’s experience of discovering a piece of music for the first time by telling them what to expect. Plus, you can never tell someone what “happens” in a piece of music without somehow guiding their listening toward your interpretation of what happens. I’d much rather let people feel their way through in real time.

    Reply

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