Yo La Tengo? Es Muss Sein!

August 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Last night I was so very happy because the bands Yo La Tengo and Wilco came to the minor league stadium in my minor city and put on a major outdoor concert. Look, there’s Yo La Tengo now!

A few years ago I told myself I wanted to write a story that was like a Yo La Tengo song — melodic and dreamy and drony, with an edge of dissonance and a ripping anti-climactic climax.

I never wrote that story, which may be for the best, but these qualities have certainly shaped my stories and my thinking about narrative, which might be summed up along the lines of: style has substance; plot can be plodding, but there must be movement and modulation.

Wilco writes perfect short-story songs with sing-along lyrics and a catapulting climax. Yo La Tengo writes long, narrow poem songs with jabberwock words and few capital letters or punctuation marks.

All of this gets me thinking of how Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being was influenced in form and content by Beethoven’s quartets:

Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, opus 135, provides a powerful musical motif for this novel. It was the last significant work that Beethoven composed — in October 1826, just five months before his death — and it was not premiered until a year after he was gone. Kundera refers mainly to the final movement of the four-part quartet.

As the narrator explains, Beethoven wrote some words in the manuscript to illuminate two of the musical motifs: “Muss is sein?” (must it be?) for the introductory slow chords of the fourth movement; and “Es muss sein!” (it must be) for the main theme.
[Taken from Book Drum by author David Loftus. Emphases are mine.]

So Beethoven was telling a story through his music. It works both ways.

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