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Composition as “Machine to Think With” (1)

Aspects of narrative within electroacoustic music

The debate surrounding music as narrative is an involved and complex one. Some musicologists, such as Nattiez (1990, 127), Abbate (1991, 52) and Levinson (1997, 168), tend to dismiss music as narrative discourse due to the absence of certain aspects of literary narrative, such as the ability to express the past tense (Abbate 1991, 52). Others seek out definitions of narrative more accommodating of music, such as Phelan’s description of narrative as a “dynamic event, one that must move, in both its telling and its reception, through time” (Phelan 1989, 18). Byron Almén in his book, A Theory of Musical Narrative, uses James Jakób Liszka’s definition of narrative as “The transvaluation of culturally meaningful differences through a sequence of action” (Almén 2008, 230).

This paper is not going to concern itself with the argument of whether music in general is narrative or not, but will instead focus on some aspects of literary narrative that can be found in acousmatic music.

Trevor Wishart, in On Sonic Art, proposed that the metaphorical use of aural images was a tool for creating meaning and narrative, without text-based sound objects. He writes:

We do not need to associate a musical object with, for example, a bird and thence with a metaphorical meaning, we may use the sound of the bird directly. … Using concrete metaphors (rather than text) we are not “telling a story” in the usual sense, but unfolding structures and relationships in time — ideally we should not think of the two aspects of the sound landscape (the sonic and the metaphorical) as different things but as complementary aspects of the unfolding structure (Wishart 1996, 165–166).

Certainly, Wishart’s use of the sound object as metaphor in Red Bird is consistent with this view in that the sound of the bird, through sonic bonding (Smalley 1994) to an actual bird, has metaphorical associations with concepts of freedom. However, if the sound object only stands for the object to which it is sonically bonded, then we might say that it is actually metonymic in that a part of the object, its sound, is being used to represent the whole. These metonymic sound objects may still be useful in generating narrative in that, as Kendall Walton suggests in Listening with Imagination, they act as props in a game of make-believe, for the imaginary world in which the narrative takes place. The appreciator uses these props in order to play a role in this imaginary enactment (Walton 1997, 69).

In Natasha Barrett’s 2002 acousmatic work, Prince Prospero’s Party, clinking glasses are used metonymically. They act as “props” in the appreciators’ imaginary enactment. However, the same sound object may also have a metaphorical association for some listeners, who may associate the clinking of glasses with the aristocracy, or ruling classes. In general, there is a relative consistency in the metonymic aspect of sound materials, while their metaphorical aspect is far more subjective.

Wishart’s metaphorical approach in Red Bird works through the binary opposition of sound objects which allows meaning to emerge through this dialectic. The sound of a bird is merely the sound of a bird (metonym) until we hear it emerging from a scream. It is through this metamorphosis that the metaphorical meaning begins to emerge. Wishart describes this process thus:

We might consider using the aural image “bird” (as in Red Bird) as a metaphor for flight (and hence, perhaps freedom or imagination). In itself, however, the sound of a bird need conjure up no such metaphorical association. If, however, we now make the sonic transformation “lisss” [as in “listen to reason”] → birdsong, the voice ‘takes flight’ so to speak; the metaphorical link with the concept ‘imagination’ is suggested. (Wishart 1996, 165–166)

Trevor Wishart has often related how his composition of Red Bird was informed by his reading of Lévi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked (Ibid., 164). Lévi-Strauss proposed that myths, at a deep structural level, dealt with oppositions, transformations and the supplanting of one cultural concept with another. In his essay, The Structural Study of Myth, Lévi-Strauss gives the following analysis of the Oedipus myth (pp. 206–231):

Cadmos seeks his sister Europa ravished by Zeus      
    Cadmos kills the dragon  
  The Spartoi kill one another    
      Labdacos (Laios’ father) = lame (?)
  Oedipus kills his father, Laios    
      Laios (Oedipus’ father) = left-sided (?)
    Oedipus kills the Sphinx  
      Oedipus = swollen foot (?)
Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta      
  Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices    
Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition      

Table 1. Column 1 = Overrating blood relations. Column 2 = Inversion of column 1 = Underrating of blood relations. Column 3 = Monsters being slain — Monsters have autochthonous origins — Monsters overcome by men- Therefore, column 3 = denial of autochthonous origin of man. Column 4 = Names indicate problems with walking — In mythology, men born of the Earth cannot walk or walk clumsily — Therefore, persistence of autochthonous origins of man.

Through this analysis, Lévis-Strauss proposed, a binary opposition is revealed between autochthony and bisexual reproduction. Therefore, the narrative of the myth of Oedipus serves the purpose of facilitating the transformation of the belief in mankind’s autochthonous origins to that of man being the product of male and female union.

Wishart’s approach here is similar in that he has one sound object transforming into another, but he forgoes the inclusion of the narrative in which this transformation takes place. However, if we view Red Bird in the light of Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope in literature, we begin to observe new layers of narrativity emerging.

In Forms of Time and the Chronotope of the Novel, Bakhtin, inspired by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, developed the concept of the chronotope as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed” (Bakhtin 1981, 84). He writes:

Those things that are static in space cannot be statically described, but must rather be incorporated into the temporal sequence of represented events and onto the story’s own representational field. (Ibid., 251)

Bakhtin’s awareness of the importance of the temporal domain in literature would seem to apply equally well to a discussion of music and particularly the narrativity of music.

It is precisely the chronotope that provides the ground essential for the showing forth, the representability of events. And this is so thanks precisely to the special increase in density and concreteness of time markers — the time of human life, of historical time — that occurs within well-delineated spatial areas. It is this that makes it possible to structure a representation of events of the chronotope (around the chronotope)… the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a centre for concretizing representation… abstract elements — philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect — gravitate to the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imagining power of art to do its work. Such is the representational significance of the chronotope (Ibid., 250).

In Forms of Time and the Chronotope of the Novel, Bakhtin begins with an analysis of the chronotope active in ancient Greek romances, which he refers to as “adventure-time”. Generally in these novels, a young man and woman are to be married, but before the marriage can take place, a chain of events are triggered that involve the couple becoming separated and having many adventures across the world until they are reunited at the end and are married. In this chronotope, we meet the two protagonists at the beginning of the novel fully formed and when they are reunited at the end they are unchanged. They remain beautiful, young, chaste and in love. Their adventures have happened to them, but have had no affect on them. It is as if the adventures never happened. If we were to remove the adventures from these novels, the narrative would remain the same; boy meet girl, they marry and live happily ever after.

In contrast to these “adventure-time” (Ibid., 97) novels are the “adventure novels of everyday life” (Ibid., 111) where the personalities of the protagonists are forged by their hardships and adventures. These novels are essentially stories of transformation.

Therefore, when we get the sudden and very real transformation of a character in literature, such as Lucius being turned into an ass in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, we actually get space-time collapsing in on itself (Vice 1997, 184). The narrative of transformation becomes reduced to transformation itself. Narrative is reduced to metaphor.

The morphing between the aural image in Red Bird of “lisss” to the sound of a bird is a collapsed narrative marking the journey from repression to freedom. In this way, Red Bird is not a linear narrative that unfolds chronologically. It is a series of micro-narratives tightly folded in on themselves, each telling the same story, or inversions of that story. It is as if we have reversed Lévi-Strauss’ process of structural analysis and reducing myth-narrative to binary opposites, by suggesting the presence of a myth-narrative itself through metamorphosis.

Here we have seen the use of metaphor to create musical narratives that withstand comparison with literary narrative. However, for centuries, composers have often relied on literary sources to provide the structure and form of their work and to produce programme music. Nattiez dismisses this kind of work as true narrative on these grounds,

When I read the phrase “the Marquise went out at five o’clock,” I don’t need the title to know what is being narrated. When I hear the beginning of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I have to know I’m dealing with a symphonic poem in order to approach the work with the intention of hearing it as narrative. (Nattiez 1990, 127)

In this case, the music can only be heard as narrative if it has the support of the text itself and therefore cannot be a self contained narrative discourse.

Natasha Barrett refers to her “sonification” (Barrett 2005, 8) of The Masque of the Red Death, Prince Prospero’s Party as her “most narrative work to date” (Ibid., 9). If on hearing this composition we did not recognise the name of the decadent aristocrat of Poe’s macabre tale in the title, then it is unlikely that we would be able to perceive the narrative of the original text. We would recognise the sounds of a party, the chiming of a clock and perhaps even the burning of a brazier, but we would not be able to discern what narrative was set within this clearly defined landscape. Without knowledge of the original text, even Prospero’s final words, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery,” would not be capable of communicating the “story” to us.

But can Prince Prospero’s Party still be “narrative work” despite the fact that merely being programmatic does not qualify it as narrative discourse?

Certainly, some themes of Poe’s original are articulated in Prince Prospero’s Party. The quotation of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre may, at first, call to mind countless horror pastiches. Yet, the title and text of the poem by Henri Cazalis, originally set as a song by Saint-Saëns, refer to the dance of death in which all men, from the lowest to the highest, are equal in death. This theme of the leveling power of death is certainly one central to The Masque of the Red Death.

The sound world of the party and the whirling violin of Danse Macabre lend the piece a rather carnivalesque quality. To Bakhtin, the carnival is a very special chronotope which echoes that of the Danse Macabre. The Carnival is “the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalised and completed” (Will 1989, 133). The carnival represents the inversion of society, the “people’s second life” (Bakhtin 1984, 8), the time when social structures are inverted and fools are crowned king (Vice 1997, 152) only to be de-crowned at the close of day. Carnival time is a cyclical chronotope, a repeating history, where “everything has its parody, that is, its laughing aspect, for everything is reborn and renewed through death” (Ibid.).

The literary version of the story and Barett’s “sonification” differ somewhat in their chronology. Only towards the end of Poe’s version of the story is the personification of the Red Death revealed to then lead Prince Prospero through the seven rooms of his palace towards his death. Yet in Barrett’s version we hear ominous footsteps making their way from room to room, past toasting partygoers and burning braziers. Are we hearing a prolepsis or is the story jumping between different temporal zones and telling the story through analepsis? We could certainly speculate on these possibilities, but without musical past and future tenses this is impossible to determine aurally. The metonymic use of sounds can only act as “props” which allow the appreciator act out the narrative in their own imagination (Walton 1997, 69).

The urge to seek narrative in music seems to be a common one among listeners, if not necessarily among composers, and much music gives us the sense of it being narrative even if it does not conform to the definition of narrative discourse. As Adorno said of Mahler’s music, it is “narrative that narrates nothing” (Adorno 1996, 117). However, rather than concentrate on re-defining narrative in order to “prove” music’s narrativehood, or dismissing the idea of music as narrative because it fails to conform to all the features of strictly defined literary narrative, there are possible new readings of music through the adoption of concepts from literary narrative theory that may enable to us to re-think ideas on structure, form, metonym and metaphor.


  1. I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (New York: Harcourt Brace), 1924, p. 1. Richards is referring here to narrative as a “machine to think with.”


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_____. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

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