Shostakovich and the Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves
by Margaret Rowley
Ethnographers tend to like stories, as do many non-ethnographers. Much of the point of ethnography is simultaneously to hear people tell their stories (interview) and watch them live their stories (observation), and then try to critically analyze what’s happening (theoretical intervention). At least one ethnographer, Clifford Geertz, has suggested that the definition of culture is “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” This awards a tremendous amount of importance to stories, particularly if we recognize that they shape who we are in the present and who we may become in the future.
And so ethnographers, myself included, eventually try “turning the tools on ourselves,” as my anthropology professor put it this week. Asking what “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” is usually a fruitful venture, at least where self-exploration is concerned. For me, recognition facilitates adaptation as needed, which can help provide a fuller and clearer representation of who I am and who I aspire to be. Therefore, I’d like to share a story that I’ve told myself, and how this story has changed over time. Call it my “narrative.”
For about fifteen years, I told myself that the first thing I wanted to be was a musician. This is a handy narrative to have for someone studying music, not only because it helped me justify my goals during those inevitable quiet moments of panic, but also for the practical reason that people were always asking. “You play flute for a living! What made you want to do that?” My response, initially, was concise enough to be bullet-pointed:
–I remember recording myself singing self-composed songs for my kindergarten teacher into a cassette recorder (they were … not good).
–I remember drawing pictures of myself on stage as a child.
–I remember seeing an orchestra for the first time, and I can’t have been older than four.
Another response was slightly more complex, and eventually evolved into an intertwined narrative, both mine and that of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, a mid-century “Russian composer of the Soviet period,” as Wikipedia carefully puts it.
When I was fourteen, my family visited my grandparents who had built a house near the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. My grandfather was particularly interested in music, and as a result, he and my grandmother took us to a number of concerts. Among them was a program including Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, sometimes known as the “Ghost Quartet.”
This quartet, I would find out years later, was written in 1960, at a truly terrible time in Shostakovich’s life: he was noticing increasing weakness in one hand (always devastating for a musician) and was under a great amount of pressure to join the communist party in the U.S.S.R., something he had been resisting. Soviet rhetoric at the time of the quartet’s composition posited that this may have been Shostakovich’s way of siding with “the victims” (of the communist dictatorship), but many musicologists agree that this quartet is obviously, tragically autobiographical; that Shostakovich himself was the victim. This is partly corroborated by Shostakovich’s unrelenting use of his musical signature: D-Eb-C-B (D. Sho. in German musical transliteration, after a motif used by J.S. Bach to musically sign his works). Peter Rabinowitz has suggested that the “ghost” behind the quartet’s nickname is actually Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen, the former work being autobiographical, and the latter being Strauss’s “late response to wartime destruction.” (1) This reading allows for even more depth to the work, a story-within-a-story.
The liner notes of the Borodin Quartet’s early recording tell another story about the composer re-hearing his work, offered here without any attempt at unpacking: “The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room.”
Again, I didn’t know any of this at the time. But I was a teenage literary fanatic with a penchant for the somber, and I was enthralled. By the time the quartet on stage began the piece, it was dark outside. The musicians sat elegantly in a very inelegant venue-shack, in tuxedos and red satin. The venue-shack was open to the woods on three sides, and rain was dripping sadly through the black pine trees on either side of the stage; it was cold, and I was underdressed, shivering in my seat. But, I felt that this music was doing something glorious: it was communicating without words. I may not have known the specific story, but I was convinced by the anguish. I thought, this is what I have to do. I went back to my grandparents’ home that night humming the theme, which I later found out was Shostakovich’s musical signature.
This story eventually became the main part of my narrative, the story I told myself about myself. I pursued music, in some way, because of that night, and whenever I would feel doubts about my path, I could direct myself back to my story to remind me of my intent. These doubts surfaced regularly in college, as I suspect it does for most music majors, but it became even more pronounced during the coursework for my two master’s degrees, one of which was in ethnomusicology.
I drifted fairly aimlessly after graduation, unable to reconcile my story with the slowly increasing ambivalence I felt about performance. Half a decade later, I decided with a kind of forced finality that my narrative had been correct after all, and performance had to be the right path for me. With the help of my extremely organized partner, I learned repertoire, made recordings, and flew to seven schools to audition for a Doctor of Musical Arts degree. I ended up in Boston with a life-changing sort of teacher, in one of the most exciting cities for art music performance in the country: the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The 200-year-old Handel and Haydn Society, and the James Pappoutsakis Memorial Flute Competition.
I was ready to jump in with both feet, and when I did, I quickly realized that I was trying to make my Doctor of Musical Arts into a PhD in ethnomusicology. I was enrolling in music history seminars intended for PhD students in the academic music disciplines, voluntarily taking on huge writing projects that ate into my practice time, and submitting more papers to conferences than recordings to auditions. Once again, I felt like my narrative was at odds with my direction.
After much thought, many long walks, and a more than a few listens to the Shostakovich quartet, I stopped deliberating about my direction and started wondering about the completeness of my narrative. Of course, my memories about that night at Brevard were (and remain) true, whatever “true” means when it comes to memory. But I started to wonder if I could construct a different narrative out of the pieces that would work better for this new direction.
As it turns out, the old “story I told myself about myself” was missing a few elements.
–I started keeping a journal at five years old.
–As a child, I would pore over books with biographical information about composers, seeing if it changed my own concept of the music.
–In high school, I averaged seventeen book per week.
–During my undergraduate education, I could always talk myself out of practicing if I had reading to do.
These snippets were already enough to start constructing a new narrative. In this story, which is “true” in the same way that the old narrative was “true,” music wasn’t my first love: text was. I could supplement whatever thing a piece of music was saying with language, offering specific meaning for myself and other listeners to grasp when music’s meaning became too ephemeral.
I still had to be convinced to take the complex step of dropping out of my DMA, re-applying for PhD programs, and committing to the years the degree would consume. There is more complexity to this specific narrative, as there is to every story. Suffice to say, allowing my narrative to consciously and organically change eased the cognitive dissonance I felt when shifting my focus. This allowed me to explore the literal stories behind music, as well as what is now becoming my primary interest: why we tell the stories we – musicians, musicologists, composers, humans – tell ourselves about ourselves, what the telling means, and how the stories shape us.
- Rabinowitz, Peter J. “The Rhetoric of Reference; Or, Shostakovich’s Ghost Quartet.” Narrative15, no. 2 (2007): 250.