What Are We Expecting?

I can’t listen to music when I work, because my work is music. So, listening to music is constrained to travel time, and that means I can only listen to that which is portable, and my iPod is dead and Jordana’s is one of those 4 gig-ers or whatever, so it’s been a while since I’ve been able to investigate new music coming to me. I should, and not just because I should, but because I’ve hit a wall in a way with the music I’m writing and listening to other people’s good music is one of the best ways to rejuvenate you ability to write.

But I’ve been thinking about the recording process and the audience’s process when it comes to music and theater, and I’m just gonna jot down a few thoughts.

There are art song cycles where wonderful composers have taken the works of poets and created an evening of music out of it. These are poems, set to music, usually sung by a guy in tails, or a gal in a shiny dress, standing next to a piano. If you happen to have the ability to sit and listen to this kind of music, you are in the minority, and good for you. I say this because I happen to have the ability but, much like my inability to understand anything remotely supernatural, I don’t attribute any kind of moral value to having the skill, it’s just something I was cowed into as a very young thing and I can’t help but focus on the music once I’m in the chair and uncomfortable.

Poets, I’m sure, don’t actually write their poetry in the hopes that the words will be set to music. I could ask my friend Jonathan, he’s a poet, but he’s got a real job and a real girlfriend and the next time I see him, I’m sure I’ll forget. Poets also don’t expect for their poems to tell whole stories, or even tell linear stories. I have a feeling that they are designed to be emotionally evocative and intellectually stimulating, and in the process of doing that, they may have to tell partial stories, but these aren’t stories in the sense that they have a beginning, middle, end, reversals, all that… It has characters and those characters have moments, but it isn’t a story.

Non vocal music is much the same way. Orchestral music, Jazz, what-have-you, the stuff that is purely instrumental is designed to be emotionally evocative and intellectually stimulating, but it doesn’t require a story. It’s not like if you listen to all of the Brandenburgs you will suddenly get the picture of a young couple eloping and then losing their children in the great war… That doesn’t happen in Music music. You might see marching brooms, but that wasn’t there before Disney put it there.

But, we hit a snag when we hit the guy in a tux standing by a piano. He’s, y’know, *singing* to us, surely he’s telling a story, right? And that story could be told with a guy, and then a girl in a shiny dress could also come out. And then the guy and the girl could tell a story about how they are doing stuff with each other… except it would be hard to come up with the right art songs because the poet isn’t exactly all that excited about regurgitating the one thousand bits of minutiae that make up a regular relationship when he’s writing… so the thing to do is to find a poet who will work with the musician, and the two of them write the thing together and tailor it toward the story.

All of this is obvious as hell, and I’m sure nobody is still reading.

The problem is, you lose a little every step. The poet has to sell out a little to the story, the music has to step back a little to the story, and the story is constrained by the one hundred years of rules and regulations that we’ve put on the art form known as musical theater. And the full scale debasement of the art form, the hideous jazz hands and clown smiles that have taken place of the great story telling have strip mined the musical to the point where our very best concepts are mockery.

So, here I sit, empty bar staves staring at me, wondering how I can pull off an honest story when there is nothing but tin ears waiting to hear it. I’m not saying I don’t have the same ears, I do. I walk into every theater with the same dread as a man released from Chinese prison would have entering a public shower, the drip-drips still echo in my mind of every horrible rehearsal, every nauseating turn of phrase, every chunk of public humiliation that, for some reason, was seen as the best one can do in this art form.

And I believe there is a way to communicate with this art form that is impossible to do with any other. But I also know that it doesn’t actually matter, that it won’t matter how hard we try, that success in our minds and success in the world’s eyes will never be the same and so we are still, even after I retire from acting, still playing darts in the dark. Only it’s different darts and only once you’ve hit *something* can you check with the world and see if the bull’s-eye is what you think it is.