This was the title of the blog post that began a class I recently took at the University of Michigan, and I have to say, I entered with a certain degree of skepticism. Not skepticism as to whether or not stories matter in a general sense, but I had reservations about the importance of the role that stories play in musical dialogue. As a musician, I have always been a firm believer that the music should speak for itself. For example, one of my pet peeves is when I go to a concert or recital, and the first thing that happens is someone walks on stage and starts talking. I always think of Zappa: "Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar."
If our goal as musicians is to communicate with our audience, shouldn't we work first to do this with our musical voice? Shouldn't our musicianship alone be enough to bring the listener in?
At the same time, my Netflix queue is full of documentaries, especially musical ones. I love learning about new things, new view points, or an aspect of music making that I had never before considered. And if I think about it, it's the stories that draw me into these films. So how am I to reconcile these two feelings? On the one hand, I feel that the art itself can and should be powerful enough to communicate the most profound emotions, while at the same time I know that I am deeply moved by the stories surrounding the creation of the art.
I think that the key ingredient, and the one that I may have been missing, is the fact that stories affect us on such a deep level that they end up changing the way in which we perceive and experience things in our own lives. As an example, let's consider a concert-goer who is not a musician. He or she may enjoy music, and may even be a music lover, but when we tell a story that relates some sort of developmental arc, this concert-goer will hear the music from an entirely new vantage point. This story could be a personal struggle that took place during the realization of the performance, or a historical fact that provides context for the music being heard. In any case, it is the communication of the arc, the process, that helps the music become a relatable, tangible thing.
With the arts and music in particular, I think it is easy for many people to see performers on a pedestal, as people with an uncanny technical ability that is unfathomable to others. Simply the fact that musicians are able to operate the instrument with such dexterity, or to not screw up during the performance, or the ability of composers to create beautiful music from nothing other than their own creative will-- these things amaze people who are not musicians or performers. Honestly, sometimes they still amaze me! But stories make artists human again. Which isn't to say that it makes artistic achievements any less remarkable; if anything it makes them more so. The point is that stories help us to realize that these great achievements were accomplished by people just like us, driven by the need to break new ground, and show us something that we could have never imagined ourselves. To quote John Coltrane:
Overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe . . . That's what I would like to do. I think that's on of the greatest things you can do in life and we all try to do it in some way. The musician's [way] is through his music.
So, while the musician is trying to communicate something profound and beautiful through his music, sometimes this fact in itself, the story of how an individual is able to express himself so fluently through an artistic medium, is the most moving story of all.