The Story behind Blues, Preludes & Feuds
I’ve been trying to fold words into music (and vice versa) ever since I began putting lyrics to my tunes in my early 20s. Songwriting is, of course, just that—the art of making words get along with melody, harmony, rhythm, and musical form.
My newly released app—Blues, Preludes & Feuds (BPF)—attempts something like that. But, at least in this initial release, there are no lyrics, no vocals, no songs to be sung.
BPF is ostensibly a solo piano album, containing mostly original music, along with some idiosyncratic arrangements of well-known tunes. There are plenty of elements—melody, harmony, rhythm, and musical form—unfolding here. And, yes, there are words.
Lyrics? For instrumental music? Is this programmatic music, like some kind of latter-day tone poem?
Not quite. The music on BPF—a hybrid album-book—tells a story, even without the words. The story is part of my own, of course. Where I’ve been, who I’ve known, the music, ideas, and people I’ve loved, and some of those I didn’t. At least that’s what I assume is going on.
I like to think of melody as a form of memory. So the melodies here might be recollections of conversations from the 1970s—pretty much my reference point for everything. Perhaps the harmonies underpinning those melodies are the emotions that color the conversations. The rhythms and structures represent my travels through time and space. Or not.
Who really knows what abstract instrumental music means? It might not mean anything at all—at least in a way that can be defined with words—which perhaps accounts for its unique power. You don’t need to understand German to be moved by a Beethoven symphony.
Meaning, if there is any at all, is inherent in the interaction of sounds moving through time.It has to be that way. To try to impose some extra-musical meaning using words, images, or some other medium is to admit that music can’t stand on its own. I don’t admit that.
BPF’s instrumental music has to do its thing—whatever that thing may be—without any obvious reference to any definable thing outside of itself, other than the centuries of music that inspired it and helped nurture it into being. So who needs the words?
Bob Dylan said, “This land is your land and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by those that never listen to music anyway.” Meaning that even if lyrics mean something, that meaning is often lost on people.
Music can be about many things—most notably love (or the lack of it), pain, hope, fear, social justice, and God. But all of these pale in comparison to music’s primary subject: sound. That’s true even when lyrics are involved.
In the end and beginning, music is about music, the flow of sound, the sound of math moving through time. Unlike words—or math—it doesn’t actually have to be about or describe any identifiable thing to make sense. It is a thing.
And yet we use music, even instrumental music, to tell stories all the time. About what? Beethoven composed his Eroica symphony (no lyrics) as a kind of sonic biography of Napoleon, who ruled during the composer’s time. In his sketchbooks for that masterpiece, Beethoven works out his thematic material in intricate detail to reflect—in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—the life of his hero. It was originally called the Bonaparte Symphony. In response to Napoleon’s various transgressions, Beethoven famously tore off the title page before publication, but always called it by its original title. More importantly, he thought of it as the “Napoleon story.”
In some ways, I don’t really want to know this. Beethoven was reluctant to share the stories behind his instrumental music. He feared not only that the words would trivialize the music, but that they would rob his listeners of their right to form their own stories out of the pure sound.
Maybe that’s the deeper reason behind his tearing off the title page. It lets us use our own imaginations. I, for one, really don’t want to think about a generalissimo/dictator as I listen to this sublime music. Still, the story—vague and chimerical, as it might be—is there: Beethoven’s story and our own interpretation of the sounds he created from that story.
Having written some rather large instrumental works myself, I understand Beethoven’s need to use words and stories as an aid in their construction. Sometimes the intensity of abstract sound becomes too much and you need to tame it with words. And sometimes—as Beethoven realized in his 9th symphony, the first three movements are entirely instrumental—the words need to take leave of their hiding place in the scaffolding and come right out into the open, being heard as song.
BPF is not my 9th symphony. But for some reason I felt compelled to let the stories out into the open, adding words to the music. Yet, “add” is the wrong word. I didn’t add the words as an afterthought. The music and words organically grew up together, working off of each other. Sometimes, they fought against each other. In all cases, they changed each other in ways that surprised me.
I say “surprised me” because I tried to convince myself that my instrumental music could be left well enough alone. In larger scale works—as Beethoven and many others have taught me—that may not be possible. I didn’t plan it that way. It just happened.
You never get what you plan for . . . you get what you need.
Strangely, the words in BPF—in their tight integration with the music—have come to feel like lyrics. Unlike lyrics, they are asynchronous with the music and don’t even have to be experienced simultaneously.
That’s why there is a music screen—where you can ignore the stories—and a story screen, where you can ignore the music.
In both cases, the connected music/story is right there, waiting to be . . . connected. I think of the stories in BPF as subliminal lyrics—meant not to be heard, but imagined.