The Stories Music Tells Us

What Lyrics Can Be Written About This?(Photo: wartburg.edu)
What Lyrics Can Be Written About This?(Photo: wartburg.edu)

A couple of days ago I attended a fiction writing event led by noted local author and educator Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld at the Riffe Gallery downtown.  The event was an offshoot of the Riffe Gallery’s current exhibition New Narratives: Paintings by Ohio Artists, curated by the Columbus Museum of Art‘s Dominique Vasseur.

About twenty of us gathered to explore the exhibition’s paintings from the perspective of written narrative.  The experience got me thinking about the stories musical works tell us.

First, let me say that Mimi Chenfeld is not a noun.  She’s very much a verb.  You cannot be in the presence of this  inspiring, creative leader without feeling her dynamism seep into your pores.  She literally had us dancing in the Riffe Gallery, with God and High Street looking on.  She had us trooping about the gallery looking at canvases and panels, recording in our tattered notebooks the sensations, conversations, and illusions they conjured in our minds.

No passive learning there.  We were Mimied.

Every Painting Tells a Story

Every painting has multiple stories.  One story could be that of its painter’s life as he/she was creating the painting.  Another story could be that of a certain overarching political or cultural context from which the idea for the painting and the symbols and techniques used in it emerged.

Yet another story could be that of the physical object of the painting–was it hidden in a warehouse by the Nazis?  Was it destroyed by the Soviets?  Did it live for decades in obscurity in someone’s private collection only to come to light in a miraculous bequest to a museum?  This kind of story–often called history–will keep art historians occupied until the end of time.

But the other day at the Riffe Gallery, we weren’t so interested in the historical contexts that gave birth to the paintings.  We were more interested in exploring and recording the narrative resonance each painting produced in us.  We looked at the figures in the canvases, at what they were doing, at the physical sensations the colors, textures and shading evoked in us, and filled in the blanks with verbal narratives.

Every painting is a song without words.  Chenfeld had us writing lyrics.

Classical Music Also Tells Us Stories

Works of classical music also tell us stories of the historical and personal varieties.  I remember as a teenager listening to recordings of the majestic slow movement of Brahms‘ Fourth Symphony and imagining that parts of it accompanied a beautiful wedding in a grand cathedral.  Was Brahms thinking about weddings when he composed that movement?  I highly doubt it, but it doesn’t matter.

Ascribing a narrative to a musical work is nothing new: much–maybe even most–nineteenth-century music criticism consists of its authors’ narrative flights of fancy, especially where the music of Beethoven was concerned.  What’s wrong with that?  Nothing.

In fact, everything’s right with it, for it proves that one truly need not know an ounce about a musical work’s history in order for the music to be relevant today.  All we need to do is use our imaginations to invent a story about the work that has meaning to us.

All art needs an audience–we know this.  When those auditors and spectators aren’t just warm bodies, when they get up and wander around in the stories the artworks tell them, they continue the creative process and keep the artworks alive.  In other words, we’re all artists, and when it comes to art, we’re all storytellers.

Do certain pieces of music tell you stories?  I’d love to hear them.  Please send them in.

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