Absolute music bores absolutely: Harry Potter and the Music of Story

Posted on November 19, 2010


For a long time, my wife was in the camp with lots of adults who refused to read the Harry Potter series. I mean, how could anything so popular actually be good, right? Well, needless to say she gave it a chance, and the rest is history. Now it’s among her favorites.

Some of the smartest, most successful and most book-snobbish people I know absolutely adore this series right along with the masses. I decided to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my wife when it came out in an attempt to see why she/everyone else loved it so much, and I was absolutely captivated by it. And I really don’t like reading (especially fiction).

So how is this possible? Don’t we live in “an instant gratification world?” Supposedly we do. Yet for Harry Potter, us ADD/ADHD Americans will sit down and read seven giant novels spread out over the course of something like ten years, we will wait with bated breath for the release of each movie, and we will discuss the books and films with anyone who is willing to discuss it with us. And all the while, we manage to do all of this without the sci-fi-geek-like stigma that usually accompanies such levels of outward passion about- gulp- reading.

In his 2005 book “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink talks about the coming of what he believes could be called “The Conceptual Age.” In this book, Pink outlines certain abilities that he thinks will be extremely important aptitudes for us to have if we want to be economically and emotionally successful in this new age. And you know what one of those aptitudes is?

The ability to tell a story.

Who doesn’t love a good story, no matter what medium is used to tell it? On the stage, in a book or on the big screen, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a good story. And with the increasing popularity of certain kinds of books and movies, I’m inclined to think that Pink is onto something with his ideas.

Of course, music can tell stories, too. But how often does that really happen anymore? Program music (as opposed to “absolute music,” or “music for music’s sake”) became pretty popular in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Where did all the program music go? And when symphonies/operas/major works DO tell a story, why do the composers always seem to choose such bizarre stories to tell (see Exhibit 1,762)?

When Bono or the “We Are The World” folks were writing music to raise money for Haiti after the earthquake, where was a classical composer writing something for orchestra that paints a musical picture of life in Haiti before the earthquake, the tragic aftermath, the initial hope and help provided by others around the world as well as the unfinished work that is still needing to be done?

When this country elected its first African-American president, where was an opera being commissioned by an African-American composer to tell the President’s story that would premiere within the first year of his presidency?

When novels or movies take a country by storm (like Harry Potter in America, for example), why can’t classical music respond with- gasp- classical music? I don’t mean by just playing the film score. Here’s what I mean: if we use Harry Potter as an example, what about a collection of short tone poems based on The Beetle and the Bard tales from the 7th book? Or what about some Arvo Pärt-esque, “The Woman With the Alabaster Box”-like choral expressions of some of those tales? How awesome would that be? Where is the epic, three-and-a-half- hour, seven-movement symphony (intermission after Voldemort is brought back to life in movement #4) that tells the Harry Potter saga that everyone has come to love so much in a way that is different than the film score yet still true to the story (which, of course, can’t always be said of the movies)?

The movies and books can’t tell the tale that succinctly, but maybe music can. Maybe the composer of Harry Potter and the Symphony That Shall Not Be Named could even find clever ways to incorporate and disguise things from John William’s film score into his/her piece that would be subtly leitmotif-esque but still recognizable. (Then maybe John Williams could see how it feels…surely after all Williams has “borrowed” or “referenced” in his film work from other composers, he couldn’t in good conscience sue someone who did it to him.) For people who have no connection to classical music and for whom absolute music bores them absolutely, is it so base, so shameful to give them something that they can relate to and that helps connect them to something they think is special? I say no. In fact, I thought making those connections was part of our job as artists.

So go on, composers. Keep writing your obscure operas about rapes and insignificant plot lines that almost no one cares about. Keep grinding out those absolute symphonies that are impressive to the mind but never given the code necessary to access the heart. Society is begging for someone to tell them a story worth hearing, but too often you respond with, “I don’t want to tell a story. But look what happens when I put a saxophone mouthpiece on this trumpet! Isn’t that a cool sound?”

I do believe, like Daniel Pink, that great storytelling is becoming more and more  important. If we tell a good story as musicians, there will always be people who will be willing to listen no matter how long the story takes to tell. But if we continue to insist on not telling stories when society asks us to, eventually they’ll stop asking us to do it and will move on to someone who will. In fact, they already kind of are. And in the year 2367 when someone decides that the Harry Potter phenomenon of the early 21st century is “worthy” of classical music and composes one of the most famous and important works of this millennium, just remember that it could have been you in 2010.