04.13.2010

Tragedy and Comedy

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:31 am

Last week my lovely wife and I completed the deal that we’d made a while back, that I would watch the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with her if she watched all three Matrix movies with me. The double wedding at the end of Pride and Prejudice reminded me of a simple, generalized classification system I’d heard of for Shakespeare’s plays: if everyone dies at the end, it’s a tragedy, and if everyone gets married at the end, it’s a comedy. My thought on the subject was also influenced by a book I read recently, Frederick Buechner’s Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Among many other excellent insights, he describes tragedy as the inevitable–what we expect to happen, happens; and comedy as the unexpected–what we didn’t expect to happen happens. This complements the Shakespearean idea, I think: we expect that Hamlet will destroy himself and everyone else, and he does; we don’t expect Beatrice and Benedick to end up together, but they do. (Of course, now we’ve come to expect that two people who quarrel in a comedy will end up together, but I think it’s only because we’ve been culturally conditioned as a society to expect it. It still creates dramatic conflict, though, so I would say it’s still valid to think of it from an objective standpoint as being unexpected.)

Although my creative art of choice is music, I enjoy all other forms of art as well, particularly visual art (not least because my lovely wife is an illustrator and painter). And as a lover of all the arts, I’m continually exploring ways to apply concepts I appreciate in other arts—such as symbolism, imagery and negative space—to music. I recently finished composing a piece (which I may post about later in more detail) about the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. One of the symbols of the pilgrimage is a scallop shell:

and the modern symbol of the way is a representation that looks like this:

One of the ideas behind this symbol is that of many people coming from different starting points but converging upon one destination. So in trying to depict that idea musically, I have each of the eight parts play the same theme–but they enter at different times and play it at different rates. Each instrument takes the same pilgrimage, so to speak, but in its own unique way, just as individuals on a journey would. And a good deal of interest and conflict is created in the way that the parts interact as they play the same theme in different ways. But then in the end every part converges into a unison note.

So I’m always looking for ways like that to incorporate aspects of other types of art into my music. And I love this idea of tragedy and comedy–of the sadness of tragedy being what is expected, and the joy of comedy being what is unexpected. But I wonder how to portray that musically?

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