Show, Don’t Tell: Reimagining the Choral Narrative

Richard Robbins

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Show, Don’t Tell:
Reimagining the Choral Narrative

As a teenager, I loved rock-and-roll album cover art. The best of it was mysterious and evocative to me, and the size of record albums allowed bands the opportunity to craft intricate visual masterpieces.

I tried to tease out a deeper meaning from my favorites. Take, for example, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America: a diner waitress with a screwed-on grin balances an orange juice on a tray in front of a plate of eggs and toast, while a surreal New York City skyline made entirely out of utensils looms in the distance.

My teenage mind imagined a whole story about this waitress, and I felt the cover told me in a snapshot something about the British band’s opinion of the United States — humorous, slick, a little gaudy, but ultimately loveable.

But look again: wait, are we seeing this from an airplane window? Is the waitress a stand-in for the Statue of Liberty? How do the people looking through the window feel?

No one has explicitly told us anything about this scene. Still, there’s a story here, and a sequence of events that must have led us to this point. We’re not told this story by the artist — we’re shown. There is no narration here, but there is narrative.

Many choral musicians seek to inspire audiences and singers with a certain message, a positive narrative, and we often choose music that clearly spells this out through narration. But as our album art shows, explicit narration is not the only way to create narrative structure. Consider the following approaches to narrative as you think about your next concert:

Program order

How does a visual artist approach color on their canvas? Would your narrative gain strength from exploring similar colors or styles in succession, or would it benefit from sharp contrast? Program order can even transform: a slow, expressive composition might serve as a suitable introduction to a concert. At the end of a concert, this same piece serves as a benediction.

Allusion

It is hard to appreciate the humor in Supertramp’s album cover if you’ve never seen New York’s skyline, or a diner. Are there styles of music that immediately evoke a narrative response from our audience, without having to resort to narration? A solo trumpet means one thing if played during one of Handel’s Coronation Anthems. It means quite another thing if played during a setting of In Flanders Fields.

Form

Instrumental music creates narrative through form. Without narration to lead the audience through the music, listeners await themes, varied keys and harmonies, and timbral contrasts.  Have you considered the ways in which different choral pieces on the same concert relate to one another musically and harmonically, creating a more symphonic dramatic arc?

Visual elements

What narrative does your choir present onstage through its appearance? Through concert attire? How would a piece of music change if you asked singers to gaze into the distance, or to look up, or to stand close together, or far apart?

Consider the text of Stephen Paulus’ The Road Home, performed with varying postures: picture it sung with an expression of peaceful resignation. Now, imagine a different expression: joyful expectation. I don’t think one is better than the other, but the narrative has changed.

The consequences of narrative

A failure to think about narrative might undercut our desired intent, working against our narration. A composition might explicitly state: “We love diversity.” But if we don’t carefully avoid stereotyping and cliché, our program order might instead communicate: “The music of certain cultures is extraneous, best used at the beginning or end of concerts. When we sing their music, we should focus on fun, because the primary purpose of this culture is entertainment.”  What is the narrative?

Or we might sing: “Bullying is bad.” But the audience can plainly see that only the most popular, talented, and intelligent students are allowed to perform in the top choir at the high school. Is this our intent? Simply saying something is wrong does not absolve us from action. What is the narrative?

Do these contradictions tell us something about the true importance of narrative? I wonder: how much suffering and conflict stems from a failure to grasp what is real among the many narratives that crowd our lives, and the lives of others?  Perhaps this modest exercise will allow all of us to begin the urgent task of rewriting the broader narratives of our world.

 

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