Storytelling in various mediums

   For those not in the know, I'm a bit of a gamer. I grew up playing AD&D and other pencil and paper style RPGS. This list includes GURPS, Shadowrun, Rifts, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, and others. I was quickly known as a rules snob, but I wasn't really--just if you were going to use the core rules, you had to use the rules. If the DM was running a story where the core rules did not apply, then I was all for whatever rules the DM. Heck, I was the guy that knew the 2nd edition grappling rules (the ultimate in nerddom right there).

   I didn't play the games for the rules. I didn't play them to drink and eat pizza--that came much later. I didn't even really play them for the social interaction. I didn't have a "gaming group" and then my friends. The groups were made up of my brothers, their friends, and later on my friends. I knew these people pretty darn well, went to movies, the pool, hell I lived with most of them at one point in college.

   I played these games because I love stories. Oh man, do I love stories. I've read constantly since as long as I could remember. My parents had books, one about gnomes, another about trolls, and all sorts of other stuff like that...I remember reading those with my brother...I remember him teaching me to read with Go Dog Go when I was 3 years old. Not shitting you--it was before I starter pre-school even. He was always like that, trying to teach me shit too early.

   But I was hooked on the stories. By 8, I was reading Tolkein. As I laid in the hospital for weeks on end, I'd read The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and then onto whatever fantasy books my brothers would bring me. Having cancer was a pain in my blood (Leukemia), but it gave me time to read. And I devoured fantasy novels whole.

   Around the same time, my parents got us a Sega Genesis. I played three types of games: sports, strategy, and RPGs. The Genesis, sadly, didn't have a huge body of RPGS, but I played a bunch of them: all three Phantasy Stars (just the 3 Genesis titles, not the original), Traysia, Shining in the Darkness, Beyond Oasis, Shadowrun, Sword of Vermillion, Exile, D&D Warriors of the Eternal Sun, Light Crusader...Most of the big names. My favourites were by far the Phantasy Star games, but they were all great. They all had interesting stories (Ok, Light Crusader didn't really, but, I'll let that slide). The depth of the Phantasy Star games was insane--a coherent story ranging across four separate titles that were complete unto themselves, but amazing when stuck together. I empathized with the characters, was drawn into the action, and loved every moment of it.

   They were like well written novels. They drew me in the same way many authors did, ranging from Tolkein to Eddings to R.A. Salvatore (him not so much anymore. DRIZZT IS PLAYED OUT ALREAD!) to Terry Pratchet. I was drawn in...

   Games I play now, I'm not drawn in. I've got a pile of games for 360 that I've started and just shrugged. I finally got around to beating Rage, and while the story was at times interesting, it was unfulfilling by the end. The only two series/games that have really drawn me in? Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls.

    Beyond those five games (and the poorly put together ending of ME 3...and to be honest, I played Oblivion on PC first) I haven't found a single game that actually drew me into the story. Sure, there have been fun games to play--going through Gears of War 1-3 in multiplayer was fun, and Dark Souls makes me hate and love my life--but those are mostly game play things. They're fun to play, shoot, strategize. I've still got a couple sports games (all 2-3 years old, of course), and I inherited X-COM before my roommate destroyed it...

    But this post isn't even really about video games...

    It's about story-telling. We all know books tell stories. Theatrical productions do as well--another things I've seen/participated in more this past year than I have in many years. Video games also tell stories, and I think we're seeing a swing toward how the stories are told being far more important than the stories themselves. This is not to say how the stories are told isn't important. No, it's a wonderful balance between the two that makes a truly outstanding game.

   But, what about music?

   There's a current trend toward using literary theory when dealing with music. Susan McClary is one that jumped onto the band-wage early. If you haven't read her book Feminine Endings or at least the most famous bit where she analyzes Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, you should totally do it. This link will get you close on Google Books. Click on "did you mean Tchaikovsky, which is exactly how I spelled it...silly Google...It's pg 69 onwards for a bit.

   Large areas of musicology came into popularity thanks to McClary being unafraid to go where others dared not tread, grabbing from literary theory and throwing it onto music. It was all highly post-structuralist...kinda. maybe...I mean, mostly. Researchers these days take a listener first approach...well, sorta...except for when the composer says something, then that's important, right?

   But I digress from the problem. Research in musicology and music theory is suspect quite often. I'm absolutely no different in my own writings. But, one thing many people against the movement say is "Music cannot tell a specific story. There's no such thing as straight or gay music, masculine or feminine, or even some the deeper ideas of the struggles. It's not possible because music is abstract--researchers are just picking a theory, and forcing a piece into it."

   And, to an extent, I actually agree with those naysayers.

   There are a lot of philosophers that have tackled the issue of music, meaning, and emotions. Peter Kivy, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Nelson Goodman, and many more. Just hit up Stanford's philosophy site and check it out. The one interesting thing in all these guys who do not agree at all?

    Music is not a language in that it lacks semantics--music has no meaning on its own.

    AH, and that, my friends, is the crux of my problem.

    You see, when I listen to music, there is no "story." I can read the program notes for, say, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and listen to the piece, and try and figure out what bits fit where. The name itself implies a meaning that may or may not be in the piece itself. This is a type of psychological priming. We are given a context before hearing the piece, and that context creates the pieces story. There's one problem with priming, in this case: does it prove that the music has a story, or does it lead the listener to a story?

 Then we have reference. Any easy composer to grab for reference is Charles Ives. When I listen to a piece of his, say, Piano Sonata No. 3: Concord: Mvt. III-The Alcotts, I hear the references: notably Beethoven's 4th Symphony and The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin. Those references mean something personal to me--Beethoven's 4th was the first piece I really analyzed compositionally, and the Bridal Chorus because of its association with weddings. Take into account the priming with the title, named after Amos Bronson and Louisa May, and split into 2 sections forming a large AB form (one for each), the piece definitely creates some sort of narrative. But what is that narrative? I've listened to this piece many times, and love it, not for it's loose narrative and association to the Alcotts, but because it is a beautiful written piece. But is it narrative? Can a researcher create a narrative from what is presented musically? Maybe, with enough research, tons of connections could be made between the quotations and the Alcotts. But the ones I've read so far haven't convinced me yet.

    There's a great book out by Lawrence Zbikowski called Conceptualizing Music. In it, Zbikowski breaks down a lot of how people understand sounds, mainly from a stand-point of cognitive schemata. Basically, humans like to group things based on different categories, all overlapping into giant networks of WTF. We're a jumbled mess. There's also a great article by Ian Cross and Elizabeth Tolbert called "Music and Meaning." Both of these show just how complex this problem really is.

    All this to get down to a single point: can a piece of music, without words, tell a story, without psychologically priming the listener? Can I play a piece of music, written to my ear depicting very specific things, and create a story that can be read by people, and understood without priming or ubiquitous use of reference (which would lose meaning over time anyway, as the social contexts of the music/sounds will change over time)?

    And does it even matter?

    Pierre Schaeffer wrote about "reduced listening" in electronic music. The idea being that while musique concrete used real worlds sounds, such as train sounds in his Etude aux chemin de fer, that the listeners were not supposed to listen and say "OH, TRAIN! We're going on a train ride!" but attend to the sounds themselves as musical.

    John Cage also wrote and spoke about how all the sounds around us could be musical. Does this mean listeners were meant to not think about the relationship of the sounds? This falls into another few philosophers/linguists mentioned in the earlier article by Cross and Tolbert: Frege and Peirce. I know Peirce's ideas on semiotics best, so I'll explain briefly.

    Peirce come up with this idea of there being a signifier and signified. So, in the case of Schaeffer, a listener would hear a train sound. This is the signifier. What is signified could be "train" or "travel" or "industry." There are lots more levels regarding different types of signifiers and signified words/sounds in Peirce's writing, but this is a glib bit.

    So, in non-electronic music, researchers can deal with semitotics. For instance, in Ives, a researcher could, as I mentioned earlier, look at all the different references made by Ives in the movement. Easy enough, there's a book called All Made of Tunes that lists them all. The researcher could then easily go through the history of the Alcotts, their collective writings, etc, and find semiotic bits. Basically, the idea I mentioned before, but fitting within a specific theoretical framework. Honestly, I'd be surprised if NO ONE has done this yet. If so, any of you reading can feel free to write the paper--just give me a shout-out somewhere.

    But, this still raises a question: without all that knowledge, what is the story? And can a piece without all the priming of say Ives, through quotation and writing, tell the story?

    Do we hear Susan McClary's interpretation of Tchaik's 4th without her bringing it up?

    Storytelling is a delicate thing. It takes a certain amount of world-building, careful planning, and good syntactical skills to put together. The medium itself alters how story's are told: books, plays, video games, AR (augmented reality, which I didn't even touch), paintings, movies, and music all behave differently and are understood by the receiver in very different ways. All these mediums have unique challenges.

    And I look for a great story and storytelling in a video game. It's why while the game play of Call of Duty can be fun, I just don't like those games. I'm not drawn in. But, in music without words, do I care about story-telling?

    No, not so much. I don't listen to a 40 minute symphony and try to imagine a story through the whole thing. I don't listen for the history of the composer, the influence of other composers, or all the possible quotations. Try listening for all the quotations in Ives' 4th Symphony. It makes the piece much less interesting, at least for me. I'm just...listening.

    Not everyone listens that way--I accept that wholeheartedly. And I don't think taking a post-structuralist literary theory approach to understanding music is wrong, in some absolute sense. I just think that, sometimes, it comes down too much as taking a theory, and forcing a piece into it, rather than the other way around. Post-structuralism is nice because it lets a researcher say "What I hear is more important than what the composer wants me to hear!"

    But then, as a composer, I know very few composers that really want you to hear anything specific. We use program notes not as a "You must hear this!" but as a way to help listeners experience something when hearing a piece they may only ever hear once.

    It's all troublesome--the lack of good stories in video games, the difficulty in transmitting ideas across mediums, shoehorning theories meant for one medium into another medium that doesn't behave the exact same way in our brains. And I haven't even gotten into the amount of cultural and social priming we go through thanks to movies (high strings playing fast passages = terror? Thanks Bernard Hermann for making Black Angels either more poignant or more trite, depending on who you ask).

    This is a long post, I know. And there will undoubtedly be more, as I work through this little conundrum. Heck, there may even be a GUEST post! First for everything, right? Or a drunken live blogging session. Who knows?

    But, sometimes, it's important to think about how we experience our surroundings, and what that means to us.

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