Telling Stories


When I was in elementary school, we had art class once a week, in the basement of the school building.  I loved art.  I couldn’t paint or draw particularly well, but I loved the chance to create things out of thin air.  One day during third grade, our art teacher sat us down at a big table with humongous sheets of plain paper in front of us, along with a box of crayons.  “I’m going to play some music for you,” she said, “and I want you to draw what you think the music is saying.”  She placed a record on the player and set the needle down.  The room filled with the wondrous sound of what I now know is Tchaikovsky’s Festival Overture in E♭ major, more commonly known as the 1812 Overture.  I sat at that table, listening as the music rose and fell, and I started drawing a picture of barren trees with snow piling up at their roots.  Something in the music sounded cold and wintry to me.  Other people drew different pictures, with lots of color and movement.  When the song ended (and what an ending it is – this song has cannons, y’all!  Cannons!), the teacher told us the story of Russia’s victory against Napoleon.  I was secretly proud of myself for catching on to at least part of the story Tchaikovsky was telling with his music.  But it wasn’t just me understanding that should have impressed me – it was the composer’s skill at telling a story through the medium that worked best for him.

We tell stories with words on a page, but that isn’t the only way to do it.  Musicians do it with notes, and painters do it with color.  The best stories reach inside you and touch a place in your heart that awakens your imagination.  We communicate with stories of all kinds, and stories have become so familiar to us that we can mention a single word and everyone around knows what we mean. 

Last Saturday night, I performed in a show called Raqs Synister.  The theme of the show was dark music, and many of us tried to tell stories with our dance.  The show closing act was a duet.  The first dancer lay on the stage with a black lace bag over her head, and the second dancer joined her, removing the bag and dancing with her until the first dancer suddenly slipped the bag over the second dancer’s head, and she fell, seemingly senseless, to the stage.  It was gorgeous and terrifying, and I found myself trying to decide who I thought the first dancer had been.  A ghost?  A demon?  An evil spirit trapped by the bag and only able to achieve freedom when another took the bag instead?  That dance has stayed in my head ever since, and I may end up writing a story based on it. 

So today I’d like to hear about the non-written stories that thrill you.  A piece of music, a painting, a dance…don’t just name it.  I want you to tell us about it.  Go!


9 comments to Telling Stories

  • Ladyhawke – The first and only movie I have ever left and immediately went to the mall to find the music. Yes the movie was great, but the music pulled me in immediately. The pounding hoofs, the soaring bird, the watery swim. I can still hear not only the movie every time I listen, but so much more.

    Movie composers, like ballet composers of yore, the truly good ones – supplement, support, and enhance the stage production. Would Star Wars have stunned us nearly as much without John Williams score? We knew the villain, the hero, each and every character by their theme music. To this day, we know Darth Vader’s theme. Imagine his entry on stage without the pounding, throbbing menace music. Strangely I think John Williams music can live without the movie, but the movie would not survive without the music.

    Andrew Powell made the music to Ladyhawke.

  • I don’t know the name of the music, but I heard it years ago while visiting the Grand Canyon. The song was playing overhead in the gift shop, a haunting melody of flute and drum. The flute seemed to capture the desolate beauty of the desert and the majestic wonder of the canyon itself, while the slow pounding of the drum anchored the song in the sorrow of Native Americans forced to live on reservations, trapped in the desert. I bought the CD, but lost it somewhere along the way. Every now and then I search for it, but at this point I’m not sure I remember the actual music as much as I remember the feeling it gave me.

  • I get a *lot* from popular music. The song “Safe and Sound” by Capital Cities. Yes, the music video of clips of dancing through the ages interspersed with clips of explosions, and the lyrics that hint at such, already suggest a sense of seizing the moment and enjoying life even at dark times. Still, the song’s melody and beat just absolutely fill me with joy every time I hear it, and I feel like I could tell a much larger story based on it. It’s not the only song I feel I could draw stories from. Bastille’s Pompeii gives me a sense of urgency, like something big and bad has just happened and the world needs saving. And the list goes on… I *love* the energy I draw from it all. 😀

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Your dance story reminds me of one I saw. I’ve never been terribly fond of ballet, but I saw this amazing ballet once about the death of a woman. There were the standard dancers in black moving around her, and the woman herself was disheveled, like she’d suffered an accident or had become emotionally lost. But there’s really only one moment that I truly remember, the very last instant of the dance. The woman is limping, dancing slowly, reaching up toward the spotlight, which is now the only illumination on the stage. Just as the music ends, a black, masked dancer comes up from behind and snatches her backwards, and the light goes out, leaving the theater in blackness. It was truly breath-taking.

  • One story that has always caught my imagination was the story told in Auguste Renoir’s “Umbrellas” painting. Seen here:

    In the painting we have either the start or finish of a rain shower (art lovers debate this). I prefer to think of the rain ending. Some people still have their umbrellas, catching the last few drops of mist, while others are just bringing theirs down. In the foreground, we see a woman turned toward the viewer. Her umbrella is being held by her lover/friend who seems to implore her to come back underneath the umbrella and stay out of the misty rain even though it is not too heavy. However she is eager to be done with the rain and would not listen to him. She wants to hurry to resume their picnic by the River Seine.

    As counterpoint to that is the little girl to the right, she is dressed with bright hues which seem to scream defiance at the rain and the dark blues and blacks worn by the adults. She too is looking at the viewer in order to pair her up in the viewers mind. In my opinion, the young girl and the older girl are the same. The young girl is too eager to bother with an umbrella because she wants to play with her stick & hoop. Likewise the older woman is eager to go to the picnic. Both of them seem to fight the gloomy day and are doing their best to have a good day instead.

    This is probably my most beloved pieces of artwork.

  • Fireheart1974

    I love how music tells stories. (In fact, I think we just did this on FB.) There’s a current song out that makes me want to a write an incredibly fast paced military short story whose first and last lines are “Light ’em up.” 🙂

    A lot of my favorite songs tell stories to me…Rush has one called “Ghost of Chance.” In it, I always see a little girl pushing her widowed father into situations where he can meet someone (a masquerade, crossroads). In my head, the listener realizes that the girl can see the ghost of his wife who is helping him find love again. One of these days I’m so going to write that story down.


  • My mom is a painter. Not a great one in terms of the market, but what she does with light and shadow is amazing. I have a Weller vase that I filled with gardenias from my garden. I told her I wanted her to paint it.

    Mom let her dark side out. The vase is white, the gardenias are white, and the stilllife is on black background as if only a single candle lights it. The vase is sitting on a board with a red cloth, about a third of the way up on the painting. And it looks as if the base is floating in the darkness above the dried-blood-colored cloth. It is eerie and almost looks like a mistake until you study it a bit and you realise it’s a story about dying and a spirit leaving the plane of the earth. It is my favorite of all her paintings just because it’s a story told in shadows.

  • Razziecat

    Music often suggests stories or characters to me. One piece that I heard years ago was on an album of harpsichord music; I can’t remember the name of the piece, but it still haunts me, and may work its way into a story someday. Sometimes photos work that way, too. I have a framed photo taken by a woman I used to work with; it’s of a little lady gnome figurine standing by a lit votive candle, and the photo actually is of her reflection in a mirror. She has a little, self-satisfied smile, as though she just lit that candle herself…possibly by magic?

    Oh, and I’m sure many will remember the iconic photo of the Afghan girl with the beautiful green eyes. Those eyes found their way to a character of mine 😉

  • mudepoz

    I was going to say the flower series that Georgia O’Keeffe painted. The use of flowers and bones (two of the things that have always interested me) juxtaposed helped guide what I later became. Meeting her when she returned to the Madison area (I delivered flowers to her from the florist I worked for), even though she was very old and not totally there, was thrilling.

    But, then I thought about what guides me now, and it’s the flow of a good dog moving through the cover, doing what it was bred to do. It ties in so much, genetics, nurture, going out in nature, beauty, and peace.
    Until there’s gunshot. Then there’s dinner.