Stockhausen and Story Telling

Not so long ago I found myself listening with fascination to a radio piece by Tom Service in which he explained, as I felt to me personally, what had happened to serious music in the 20th century. I've always felt guilty that I have so little understanding of the work of so many celebrated composers, of whom Stockhausen is a prime example. Little understanding, and no love. Worse than that, I react with a dislike that is downright suspicious. Tom Service explained all to me. Stockhausen and others were attempting to free themselves from the stale grip of the musical tradition they had inherited, which, they felt, condemned them to repeat old patterns ad nauseam. They wanted to make new music, but found themselves trapped by the existing musical forms. Every arrangement of notes seemed to be no more than an echo of a composer from the past. Stockhausen's solution was to banish the very basis of melody itself: repetition. He ordained that in his work no note would ever be used more than once. At a stroke this put an end to what we had understood to be melody. One simple rule - no repetition - killed all patterns that, for example, begin and return to the same point.

In effect, what Stockhausen was removing from his compositions was narrative. As I listened, I was struck by the application of this thinking to the business of story telling. There is a kind of narrative that is also a dead hand on a work: formulaic, easily predicted, lacking in authenticity and vitality. All of us who write stories for a living can too easily, too lazily, fall back on such formulas. Hollywood, some believe, raises the formulas to the level of a religion. There must be an inciting incident, a character arc, a redemptive resolution, and so on. Is it possible, I found myself thinking, that Stockhausen's flash of insight can be applied to my work? Reject all repetition. Abandon narrative structure. Make every moment of the story unpredictable and fresh.

But, I thought to myself, I hate Stockhausen's music. I feel threatened by it. Somewhere deep inside I seem to need both melody and narrative. I love music that has structure, that sets out on a journey whose end is in its beginning. Does this mean I'm trapped, mentally, in a world of cliché and formula? Am I simply recycling the comfortable forms of past writers, for the comfort of present day consumers? What is it that happens when a writer works on material that has already been worked on by others?

Returning to the analogy of music, I asked myself if I felt that Mozart was merely re-working Haydn, or Brahms performing as a second-rate Beethoven. Of course not. Each composer works under the shadow of those that have gone before, and works in his own manner. The combined effect of the inherited tradition and the new talent creates the most subtle, complex variations. I, the listener, already understand the rules, and can be excited by the development of the music within those rules. For Brahms to decide that he must eliminate from his work all echoes of Beethoven would be absurd.

So what was Stockhausen up to? The shock of the new, yes, but also a kind of vanity, a demand that his music be perceived as owing nothing to anyone but himself. The egotism of the 20th century artist.

I think the same applies to story telling. Just as Shakespeare took his plots from Holinshed and Plutarch, but made his stories into something entirely his own, I believe that each writer builds his work out of the stories of the past. That tradition is the great shared treasure house, for writers and readers alike. So I rejoice that readers instinctively seek out patterns in the story as it unfolds. A boy has met a girl - he loves her, but fate separates them - of course we expect, we demand, a later meeting, a resolution. A man commits a crime - he seems to get away with it - we wait eagerly for his unmasking. These patterns are strong, and have immense value. Our job now is to work within the tradition, with the patterns, to make something of our own time, with its own unique taste and smell.

So I leave Stockhausen to those more musically educated than me, and I embrace repetition, and narrative, and the long tradition that has formed it all. Real life has no pattern, no meaning, no justice. That's why we love music. That's why we love stories. They bring shape to our mental lives.