Every time I play a classical folksong arrangement, I think of something I once heard baritone Sanford Sylvan say in a masterclass. He was coaching a singer on a Britten arrangement, trying to get her to do all the things that classical singers do—inventing a subtext, imagining a dramatic situation with personal resonance—in order to communicate the emotional content of the song. And then, as an aside, he pointed out that this is pretty much the opposite of what real folksingers do. Folksingers don't create the illusion of emotion; they just tell the story.
This isn't to say that folksingers don't worry about the emotion of the song, but that they trust the lyrics to carry that emotion. Here's Joan Baez singing the old labor anthem "Joe Hill" at Woodstock in 1969:
If I was going to do an arrangement of "Joe Hill," I would be inclined to try and musically portray the emotional content—shift the harmony, or dynamics, or texture to capture the mystery of Joe Hill's appearance, the violence of his downfall, the defiant hope of his legacy. Baez doesn't do any of that; the verses are musically indistinguishable from each other. She's just telling the story. It's brilliantly effective on its own.
There's an interesting historical divide in the difference between folk music and classical music. Most classical music does tell a story of a sort—even "absolute" music can be thought of as a series of emotional evocations onto which the listener can project an imaginary narrative. But the emotional arc is what matters. Nevertheless, there's a smaller group of classical works that, in a curious way, have a sensibility closer to that of folk music, and those are pieces that tell the story of their own construction, that act out their own assembly. Now, a few weeks ago in this space, there was quite the to-do over the relationship between, and primacy of, compositional "process" and emotional effect, so I'm going to try to avoid the loaded word "process" here as much as I can. Let's just say that such pieces fall under a general category of what I'll call construction narratives. You can find them in just about every period of music history.
Construction narratives in general are pretty common. Basic examples range from the rather cut-and-dry—cable standbys like the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel are full of programs like "How It's Made"—to the downright sublime, as in the books of David Macauley. (If you're my age, you remember this precursor.) But variations abound. The Food Network is nothing but construction narratives: the dramatic arc of every program goes from raw ingredients to a finished meal, with close-ups of each successive transformation along the way. Heist movies are basically construction narratives. So, in fact, are a lot of backstage musicals. Over the weekend, my lovely wife and I caught a broadcast of the Fred Astaire-Judy Garland vehicle Easter Parade, which is built around a theatrical construction: build the dance, build the act, build the show—fall in love along the way. (Skip to the 5:00 mark of this clip and you can see the scandalously underrated Jules Munshin satirize the Food Network, still a half-century in the future.)
Even high-concept self-referential construction narratives aren't all that unusual anymore. Pirandello and Ionesco spring to mind in theater, not to mention James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George (the bulk of whose second act, after all, consists of a song called "Putting It Together"). There are movies about movies—Singin' In the Rain, 8½. There's the visual arts—here's Richard Dorment talking about Jasper Johns' early paintings in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:
Whereas Rothko's floating expanses of dark color seemed to offer the possibility that art can provide transcendental spiritual experience, Johns's work was down to earth. A flag or target by Johns is a real object occupying a real space, which the artist made by using certain procedures in a certain order. In his paintings you don't find anything that Johns didn't deliberately put into them—and that the viewer can't see that he put into them. This is the moral center of his art. It doesn't lie, it doesn't deceive, and it doesn't signify anything other than what the viewer can see in front of his eyes.That's a description that could easily apply to a lot of non-programmatic serial music, or more austere examples of minimalism—or, indeed, a traditional fugue. (William Walton made the fugue-construction connection explicit with his musical accompaniment to the manufacture of Spitfires in the WWII film The First of the Few.)
I can't vouch for all those other media, but I've always had the sense that construction narratives in music are definitely a minority taste. Now, I could make the case that all music necessarily communicates aural information about its own construction—you need to be able to hear at least some of how a piece is put together in order to make any sense of the form. But pieces that put such information front-and-center generally get tagged with such criticisms as "arid," "academic," "intellectual," &c. I myself tend to like such works—maybe since I fancy myself a composer, I have no trouble imagining the emotional aspects of creation, and superimposing that emotional narrative on the unfolding construction I'm presented with. But I have a sneaking suspicion this is yet another hangover of that that ultimate emotional-cultural bender, 19th-century Romanticism.
I've written before about one of the main differences between Classicism and Romanticism, the knowable process vs. the unknowable leap. There's a certain amount of that dichotomy in the devaluing of musical construction narratives—Romantics thought that rational artistic forms and processes obscured the sort of emotional effects they were after—but really, it's far more complex and interesting a situation. Particularly in music, Romantic freedom never completely eclipsed Classical order, and ever since, the two have been circling each other like dogs. One could write a fairly deep history of art since 1900 based around tracing the tension between formal propriety and emotional promiscuity.
That's from a creator's standpoint, though. What about the audience? I wonder if a steady erosion of musical literacy has taken its toll on the viability of construction narratives. If you've never played an instrument, never translated musical ideas into notation, never worked through the coordination of a piece of chamber music, you can certainly still end up a music lover—it's strong stuff—but the emotional experience of working with the building blocks might remain foreign, unavailable for reference. Such music has the most traction when an emotional narrative is layered on top of it, as in opera—minimalism proved well-suited to the genre, and Wozzeck, for example, never seems to fall victim to the alleged serialist box-office curse.
Musical construction narratives will still be created—composers, after all, have a built-in emotional connection to the act of creation. In a way, pieces that revel in their own process are like folksongs for composers, the vernacular music of a land inhabited exclusively by pitch and rhythm. It's kind of ironic that the Romantics seized on folk culture as a lifeline, a balm for Classical formality—such "untrained" art was a more direct pathway to emotional communication. But the result, in "high" art, was a premium on emotional expression that relegated a big part of folksong's sensibility to the background. Of course, in order to do that, music still needs to be built—even Wagner's operas are intricate clockwork, their leitmotif construction guiding the listener across the carefully delineated landscape. Unnoticed servants, nevertheless setting the table in plain view. Reversing the upstairs and downstairs of the musical house on occasion is not, on the face of it, an invalid narrative strategy.
Art has gotten so mixed up in the past century that even trying to separate out each impulse is tricky. Sondheim's George is an artist, and a musical, concerned with (as the character says) order, composition, and balance, yet the core of that show is the inchoate, inarticulate nature of creativity, and the difficulty of integrating that into everyday life. Serialism reimposed classical order on musical expressionism with a result that, to many listeners, uncannily evoked violent chaos. The mechanical, repetitive discipline of minimalism can carry waves of emotional power.
In 1950, Jean Cocteau released quite possibily the most perfect depiction of the Romantic ethos, his film Orphée. The poet Orphée thinks he has found his artistic salvation when he finds a car radio broadcasting a narrated stream of seemingly random numbers. For him, it is a Romantic ideal, a creative source completely unmediated by process or model. But numbers imply order and instruction, and Orphée's new creative routine—in the front seat, diligently taking dictation—is a model of monastic discipline compared with his brawling colleagues. It's also a movie explicitly about creation and the mechanism of the artistic method. Orphée has discovered a new process he thinks will be his salvation. He ends up crossing between the upper world and the underworld, a passage marked by ritual and rules, a bureaucratic tribunal, and the consequences of violating order are too terrible to mention. The philosophy is Romantic—the movie is not only Classical, but almost folk-like in its everyday realism. Everything is matter-of-fact: the ban on Orphée looking at his wife bursts into the real world with sitcom absurdity, and the logistics of death are translated into mid-century plausibility, with motorcycle delivery and a checking of the files. Towards the beginning, a critic tells Orphée—and, implicitly, the movie—to "amaze us." Cocteau does so, it turns out, by just telling the story.