Can music tell a story?
Well, of course it can, as generations of pop music crooners have demonstrated. Telling a good love story with a musical sound track is a wonderful thing. Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, and Sarah Bareilles are three of my favourite musical story-tellers.
But can music without words tell a story?
In the classical and romantic eras, composers of orchestral and chamber music often either attached a poetic or narrative title to their works to attract attention from publishers and performers, and/or wrote in a popular genre called “tone poems.” Impresarios also liked this kind of programmatic music, because they believed that if the audience had a story to think about and listen for, they might not be as put off by the new and unusual things that they might hear. For example, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony was given the sub-title “Pastoral” because music critics described it as a pictorial “jaunt through the German countryside,” and the first movement of his Piano Sonata #14 is called “Moonlight,” because it reminded another critic of the moon on Lake Lucerne.
This week I came across a work of chamber music (a string quartet) that was composed by a student in geography at the University of Minnesota. He wrote the piece to explicitly tell a story through music; the story of climate change. His composition is an aural graph of a true story about the increasing temperatures in four specific areas of the planet. I was fascinated to bring my best listening skills to this performance and try to let it tell the story that the composer intended.
What’s interesting in this performance is that the composer is using an existing language (music) to describe the reality of a different language (meteorology). Information that is typically expressed in words and numbers is translated into pitches and note lengths. This creates an interesting “artistic” experience. Does the audience need to know the story before hand in order to understand the language? Are the specifics of the story necessary? How will the performers convey the music, or is that a secondary consideration to the notes themselves?
Any time you create new art forms or new expressions of art, and each time you try to use a new or novel metaphor to express a truth, you run into translation issues. How will your audience respond to the stretches in their understood “languages?” Is your artistic expression robust enough to carry the new metaphor? What can you learn from experiments that push the boundaries?
This week’s listening includes “titled” story-without-words-compositions. There are so many excellent examples of story-music from classical music, you might see more of these in the future. But, if you know of any other new examples, along the lines of Mr. Crawford’s quartet, tell us in the comments! And also let us know what you think of his brave experiment.
Quartet from the University of Minnesota
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Nigel Kennedy, violin with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
The recording begins with Vivaldi’s Concerto #8 and concludes with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins. The Four Seasons begins at minute marker 09:57.
The New York Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta