[Smt-talk] Narrative/analysis (was theory of film music)

Stephen Jablonsky jablonsky at optimum.net
Tue Jul 8 07:08:33 PDT 2014

Dr. Stephen Jablonsky, Ph.D.
The City College of New York
Shepard Hall Room 80D
New York NY 10031
(212) 650-7663
sjablonsky at ccny.cuny.edu

Let us remember that music is both magical and mysterious and, because of that, untold amounts of energy and intelligence have been spent trying to explain it with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I wonder if musical analysis is a fool’s errand best kept to yourself. Music, because it occurs over time, is narrative in the sense that it presents a sequence of musical events that may or may not be related to each other. It is narrative in a language that is perceived and understood in different ways by each listener. Our brain processes the incoming aural data relative to what it already knows about other music. It also operates on various levels of cognition based on prior musical training and experience. It is even possible that we listen to the alternative “realities” of music simultaneously, but focus or unfocus our attention depending on our purpose of listening.

I have always contended that a musical masterpiece is greater than the sum all the theories that try to explain it. I sometimes find myself reading the most erudite of scholarly reporting only to realize that all those diagrams, charts, and verbal descriptions are like analyzing the muscle and tissue of a cadaver. The magic and mystery of music is analogous to the spark of life that animates the body, and like doctors, music theorists marvel at its indescribable beauty. Great music bristles with the spark of genius and its effect stays with us long after we experience it.  Music of lesser quality merely survives during its performances and is soon forgot.

Great films (and great music) are great from the first scene to the last and never flag. We are swept up and carried through time without any awareness of its duration. It holds our attention the way a hypnotist controls our awareness. Good luck to all those who attempt to explain the power of the trance.

I close by sharing with you a visual experience very much like listening to music—watching clouds float by on a warm summer afternoon. The exquisite aesthetic of that experience defies description and has, to my knowledge, not yet prompted the formation of a Society of Cumulus Theorists.

BTW: My twelve-year term as chair of the department ended on June 30 so the position of America’s Greatest Chair in the Low-Priced Field is now unoccupied. Feel free to nominate yourself.

On Jul 8, 2014, at 8:57 AM, Nicolas Meeùs <nicolas.meeus at scarlet.be> wrote:

> We probably need to better define what should be understood by "narrative analysis". 
> On the one hand it is true that music has its own 'narrative', one that should be rediscovered. On the other hand people claiming to perform "narrative analysis", in Europe at least, understand by that evidencing what the music narrates, the tale that can be deduced and reproduced in ordinary language – say, the turning to D major at the end of Mozart's Fantasy in D minor as expressing the final victory of the hero, as Eero Tarasti once claimed in a paper read in Paris (unaware, apparently, that this ending is not by Mozart).
> There are works that do tell stories. For instance, the fact that Liszt reproduces Victor Hugo's poem before his Symphonic poem Mazeppa may allow one to deduce that the music somehow tells the same tale; and one may even consider that the change from D minor in the beginning to D major at the end probably relates to the tale told.
> On the other hand, one may consider that the fact that Mozart's KV397 ends on a dominant (rather than on a tonic in major) has to do with its musical 'narrative', but this one is of an entirely different nature, one that needs not be translated into words.
> Even in the case or Liszt, accounting in words with what the music narrates is, in my opinion, only a very restricted part of what a musical analysis should be – and perhaps should not be considered "music analysis" properly speaking.
> Nicolas Meeùs
> Professeur émérite
> Université Paris-Sorbonne

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