A few months ago I had the privilege of hearing Denver composer Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD performed by the Playground Ensemble at Regis University. As I sat in the concert hall and watched the composer approach the podium – about to deliver a prepared talk as a preface to a panel discussion of postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – I had my doubts about the appropriateness of conducting a mental health discussion in a concert setting. A few minutes later, however, I was fully engaged, listening to Notareschi and the other women on the panel share their stories of struggle with postpartum mood disorders, and eventual healing with the proper support. Much to my surprise, I was in no hurry for this personal storytelling to end and the music to begin. Yet, when the music did begin, it felt like an organic continuation of the stories I had just heard, a way for my intuitive brain to engage with the information about postpartum OCD that my intellectual brain had just acquired. It was a poignant experience that challenged all my previous notions of what music is and how it functions; Notareschi’s quartet – presented in the context of this postpartum mental health event – demonstrated that a piece of music can function as a vehicle for conversation, creating a safe space in which listeners can grapple with concrete ideas. This realization raised a number of questions for me about the writing of socially conscious music, or music that involves personal storytelling.
Just a week after the Notareschi concert, I heard Nebula Ensemble premiere a new electroacoustic work by my colleague Stephen Bailey called Love Story, created in close collaboration with soprano Emily Gradowski. Like Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, Love Story addresses a serious issue that affects many women in our culture and does so by telling a deeply personal story while inviting listeners to construct their own stories. The storytelling and the music are fully integrated in Love Story, as the pre-recorded voice of Gradowski poses several personal questions to the audience, and then answers a few of the more difficult questions, constructing a truthful narrative that reveals the body image and self-confidence struggles affecting an overwhelming number of women in our society. As the story unfolds in the electronic element, the acoustic instruments help to create an emotional environment for that story, a space in which the audience can ponder the questions Gradowski and Bailey pose, and contemplate Gradowski’s answers as well as their own (unspoken) answers.
Several weeks before the premiere of Bailey’s work, and shortly before hearing Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, I had an email conversation with Bailey about his goals in the creation of Love Story. Bailey expressed the opinion that music must be allowed to tell these kinds of intensely personal stories in order to be relevant in today’s culture. In his view, then, the benefits of writing this type of socially conscious music – music that strives to inform and provoke an audience to wrestle with a particular issue through the sharing of a personal narrative – outweigh the potential risks. I agreed with this view; an important lesson I learned during my time as a creative writing major was that the telling of stories that seemed weird or extremely personal to me would always earn peer comments along the lines of “I totally know what you mean,” whereas any deliberate attempt on my part to write something with “broader appeal” would leave my readers cold and indifferent. It’s a lovely paradox: the more particular and personal the story, the more universal it actually is.
This conversation with Bailey was in my mind during the performance of Notareschi’s work. Prior to the performance, Notareschi explained that one audience member at a previous performance of the work had confessed to initially “hating” and “judging” the composer as she spoke about her personal struggle with postpartum OCD, and then “loving” the composer – in other words, being reconciled to the personal story and gaining a better understanding of it – after hearing the music. Clearly, if a composer chooses to make difficult personal disclosures through a piece of music, there is always the risk that listeners will find this off-putting. For that matter, a listener’s preconceived negative idea of a composer’s personality could lead them to judge the music unfavorably before they even hear it. That Notareschi was able to win this audience member over through her music is a testimony to her compositional skill and judgement; the risk was mitigated by the high quality of Notareschi’s music and its ability to serve as a compelling and comprehensible emotional context for her personal story.
It isn’t difficult to find less successful examples of this type of personal storytelling through music. For instance, I once heard a microtonal “protest” piece (written for a specially constructed electric guitar with quarter-tone frets) that told the story of the composer’s unfair arrest and time in jail during the 1970s. At the conclusion of the performance, I overheard another audience member – who had found the piece painfully long and grating on the ears – comment that they wished the composer had remained in jail to prevent him from writing the piece. If the composer’s intent was to illustrate his experience and protest his incarceration by plunging the listener in the same monotonous suffering he endured, then he succeeded. If his intent was to raise awareness about unfair arrests and gain sympathy for other individuals in his position, however, his musical efforts failed to reach his audience. The audience as a whole remained unmoved by his story, and several audience members made unflattering jokes about the piece during intermission; sadly, the audience member who wished the composer had remained incarcerated was not the only person I overheard expressing such sentiments.
So, I suppose the takeaway for me is that a successful effort to write socially conscious/deeply personal music of this type must achieve two things: the telling of a personal story with profound honesty and humility (hubris must be left outside the door), and the creation of a high-quality musical representation of (or context for) the story that a listener can readily connect to. The composer who chooses to write music of this type undertakes a far more difficult task than the composer who writes “absolute” music, or the composer who is inspired by less intensely personal ideas related to nature, art, or spirituality. Notareschi’s and Bailey’s efforts in this arena are exciting to me because of the hyperengaging cognitive-emotional experience they created for me as an audience member, vastly different from the usual experience of hearing new music. Let us hope that they and other composers will continue to make successful experiments in this genre.