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Storytelling Through Music

Yesterday evening, I attended a concert at Strathmore Hall Arts Center. Intermission was followed by a modern symphony making its world premiere performance for a concert band. As part of his introduction, the evening’s conductor, Lt. Col. Jason Fettig, said that the composer intended the piece to be a journey through the ups and downs of human emotions, and the challenges and joys of our connectedness, person to person.

In other words, storytelling.

Strathmore Hall

From the moment I learned that the composer of American Symphony was in the audience, I couldn’t help but wonder what thoughts were going through his mind, what feelings were in his heart, as he sat in the audience, listening as his own creation came to life. I wondered if his family was there, by his side, awed by the realization that every note experienced during the twenty-four-minute work was chosen and arranged by one of their own.

I wondered, too, if any of the audience members could fully understand and appreciate the time, thought, sacrifice, doubts, and joys Schoenberg likely put into constructing the five movements of his American Symphony. Maybe, but are they meant to?

When forming an opinion about a story, is an audience supposed to take into account all the drafts, all the discarded plots and edited out characters, re-imagined scenes, and sacrifices the author (or composer) has made while bringing the words (or notes) to life?

I don’t think so. And that is easy for me to say now, I’d like to point out, but I was of quite the opposite opinion when my first novel debuted: I wanted everyone to understand the hardships, the mountain-scaling I had done to create an entire novel. I wanted a “pass” for all of the flaws it contained, because I felt the journey of writing was more precious, more important.

Just writing the above sentence makes me sigh with relief. I’ve come a long way from that eager, insecure, wildly emotional debut novelist, and the realization thrills me. While American Symphony was by no means Schoenberg’s first work, it was, nevertheless, a result of his inspiration, talent, time, and all the unique filters and layers of emotion that live inside a creative mind.

He is in his music in the same way we novelists are in our pages. Some part of us is in there, and that part makes the sharing of it personal, always.

With the notable exception of present-day genius Patrick Doyle, all of my favorite composers were topping the classical charts back in the 1720’s, thus ruling out me being present for the debut of any of their works.

In a way, I did feel a touch of envy, knowing the composer of last night’s symphony was able to receive real-time, live feedback on his work. As an author, I don’t have that same opportunity to experience a large audience’s reaction to the fruits of my labor. My closest equivalent, doing a reading in front of an audience, shares only a small portion of the larger story and so it cannot become the success meter for the entire book.

When storytelling through the movements of a symphony, a composer draws from the sounds, moods, and pairings of many different categories of instruments, including woodwind, brass, percussion, strings, piano, and concert harp. For us novelists, these categories translate into plot, setting, pace, dialogue, and character development.

When I’m structuring a story, I know I need to add elements that will disrupt the status quo, the fluid path of happiness.

It seems music composition is no different.

There was a movement in last night’s symphony that I found genuinely irritating. It stood out from the rest, creating discord and evoking a rising sense of chaos. Frankly, it was a great set-up for a powerful finish to the symphony – the relief of experiencing harmony, at last.

Isn’t that what a novelist does with a story? Adds conflict, and obstacles, and “Don’t go there!” moments to a novel in order to strengthen the reader’s understanding of the protagonist’s true journey?

And without those antagonizing passages – whether written with music, or with words – could a story’s ending achieve the same level of impact? Would it have a real chance of echoing in our minds and hearts for days, or longer, afterwards?

Unlikely.

In real life and in the arts, there exists an unspoken promise in discord. A soul-deep human understanding, an instinctive knowledge that perfection cannot exist without imperfection. As I sat in the audience, listening intently to each note, each twist and turn of the story Adam Schoenberg’s symphony was telling us, I found myself caught up in the plot, wondering what would happen next, and if I would like it. (I did.)

Adam Schoenberg

Composer Adam Schoenberg

The talent of the musicians – each of whose instrument became an actor, the notes his lines – was especially pronounced during several of the more complicated tempo transitions.

For all the technological achievements of the recording industry, there is simply no comparison to hearing music performed in person. Perhaps, on the subject of books, a correlation could made between the reader holding a printed book in her hands, touching the words, the story, each time she turns a page, and the less personal experience of holding an e-reader.

One thing that occurs to me as I write this post is that the symphony, while truly beautiful, was not an obvious fit with the rest of the evening’s selections. In book terms, I would compare it to being classified in the wrong genre. For example, the composer describes the third movement of his American Symphony this way: “Influenced by electronica, my goal is to create a strong pulse that resembles club-like beats.” Cool plot twist, but not necessarily a match for a program focused on honoring World War II veterans.

As a writer, someone who finds story inspiration in unlikely moments and seemingly ordinary situations, I was surprised at the sheer number of new book ideas that went swirling through my head while the music played. I did not go into the evening expecting to come away with a new cache of characters and story angles. Once the final note of the evening’s program faded from the concert hall, I raced home, determined to type out as many of those new – and unexpected – ideas and details as I could remember.

One thing is for certain: If one of those American Symphony-inspired plots takes shape as a novel, Adam Schoenberg will be finding himself the deeply appreciated subject of that book’s dedication page.

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