Archive for March, 2012

First task in my Composition PhD is to read everything I can about narrative in music, as a background to a study of the extent, and ways, in which I write musical narratives.

There is a publishing mountain of material on narrative in literature, as you might expect, Narratology, the study of narrative, is a well established academic discipline. It arose from structuralist philosophy, and developed a range of sophisticated concepts on the way narrative functions and the devices used in it. It has gone through various iterations subsequently as changes took place in philosophical thinking. There is generally considered to be a revival of interest in the subject, with writers taking forward thinking on the subject in the light of post-modernism and post-structuralism.

So much for that. But what does this have to do with music? There are certainly differences of opinion concerning whether one can apply narrative concepts to music, particularly to abstract music. Some writers argue that music is a system of forms consisting of abstract sounds, and therefore neither represents anything, nor can it be analysed in narrative terms.

Other writers have presented analyses of either narrative concepts and their application to music, or analyses of particular musical works in an attempt to demonstrate the potential application of narrative concepts to music. This blog tries to set out some of questions which arise when anyone tries to apply the concept of narrative to music.

To start with, is there a narrator? If so, who are they? If there is no narrator, can the music be said to be narrative? Theatre, for instance, is often considered to be dramatic rather than narrative. There is no intermediary, the narrator, telling the story. Instead there are a bunch of people in front of you pretending to act out the story.

Could music be the same? There are the performers in front of you acting out the ‘story’ if there is one?

However, this idea of music as a dramatic rather a narrative art runs up against the question of the relationship between the composer and the performer(s). Who is presenting the ‘story’ to the listener or audience? Are the performers the narrators presenting the story written by the ‘author’, as in a novel? Alternatively, as some would argue, is the composer evidently present as a narrator due to the structure and character of a piece of music, while the performers are, as is often the case in novels, narrators within the composer’s narration?

Even if there could be said to be a narrator, and the narrator identified, there remains a question of whether a musical narrative can be analysed in a similar way to literary narratives, and few extensive attempts have been made at this type of analysis. There is certainly a view that narrativity in music may be a question of historical period, with baroque music consisting of musical forms, the classical era moving towards a sense of musical drama, and the age from Beethoven onwards moving towards an increasing sense of narrative, and at times representational narrative.

While there is a long way to go in my research, this gives some idea of the subject. My initial plan was to examine the potential applicability to abstract music of concepts in narrative from written literature – and there are clearly some conceptual bridges to cross first before that attempt could be seen as legitimate.


Read Full Post »