A Farmer and a Priest walk into a Bar - Lessons in Composition
Updated: Feb 11, 2022
Let's say you're doing some creative writing and you are put to the task of writing dialogue between a farmer and priest who walk into a bar. Most people would begin with questions like "how do farmers and priests talk?" and get a result like this:
Farmer: Howdy partner!
Priest: Good afternoon my son. How goes this season's bounty?
Farmer: Not bad father, the spring showers got us a good yield and Roy has been a great hand to have on deck.
Priest: Roy, your son?
Farmer: Yep! Just turned 17. How's the flock?
This is a transcription of a conversation, which is for the most part boring and has no place in drama. Dialogue is distilled speech that serves the purpose of propelling the action of the story forward. So to think of dialogue as a documentation of two people talking is a largely unhelpful and ill fated approach. It is better to think of dialogue as the consequence of actions that unfold in a dramatic structure, and that the characters are vessels that manifest it into words - it is the plot, not necessarily the characters, speaking. Stuart Spencer's book The Playwright's Guidebook; An insightful primer on the art of dramatic writing states:
"Concern yourself less with the sound of your dialogue, or with trying to separate the dialogue from the rest of the play, and instead think of ways the language actually operates in a play." (Chapter 10, Character, Language)
So returning to the bar, let's create a story and see if we can ask more helpful questions. The driving engine of drama is conflict of interest - that characters want something and that they stand in the way of each other obtaining their goals. This kind of conflict is at its height when the protagonist and antagonist want the same thing, and don't necessarily pit good against evil but good against good (think love vs duty, family vs friendship, privacy vs security etc.). I highly recommend John Truby's The Anatomy of Story; 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller to learn more about this.
Such complex stories are out of the scope of this article, but let's see what kind of small conflict we can stir up between the farmer and priest and what it will yield for our dialogue. Let's say that the farmer has had a bad year in crop yield and business is poor, making him financially desperate. The priest comes from an affluent family and sleeps around. He is ambitious and wants to rise through the ranks of the church. The farmer learns that the priest has slept with his daughter, getting her pregnant. However, the farmer is so financially desperate that he plots to blackmail the priest with this information for money. So the question we should ask, when it comes to dialogue, is what do the characters want? The farmer wants the priest's money, and the priest wants to preserve his public image.
Farmer: Evening, father.
Priest: Joe, I'm sorry - I didn't realize.
Farmer: Didn't realize she's 17?
Priest: Please, we can discuss this civilly, but please keep your voice down!
Farmer: Why? Everyone here knows you're a cardboard boy at the pulpit already. No-one wants to see you make it to New York. Your reputation is already shot as far as most the people in this room are concerned.
Priest: Joe, I'm sorry. If there is anything - tell me what you want.
Farmer: $50,000 in cash by Friday.
I'll leave the rest of the conversation to imagination, lest I embarrass myself further in front of the writers out there. The point is, the approach of thinking of dialogue as sprouting from the dramatic structure rather than a documentation of two people speaking sparks the imagination and yields better results.
So what does this have to do with music? I can't tell you how many times I've heard conversations between composers in collegiate seminars that sound like this: "maybe you should take this part up an octave" or "consider doubling the woodwinds there" or "change the texture." This is usually within an extensive debate that never touches on the underlying structural goals of the composition as the driving reason behind decisions like this. This approach is topical and students do not walk away with a long-term understanding of why something succeeds or fails. Essentially, they ask themselves what a farmer and priest might sound like in conversation.
Successful compositions, like stories, have goals that drive the drama of the work and compositional decisions sprout from this. For several centuries in the European tradition, this goal was a tonic in another key. Modulations create tonal conflicts that yield driving forces and structural cohesion, which is why they have been such focal points of composers throughout the centuries. To learn more about this, study the classical forms such as the sonata and rondo. Such forms became archetypal because they elegantly demonstrate effective principles, not because they are formulas or a bag of arbitrary rules. A great text for this is Warren Darcy and James Hepokoski's Elements of Sonata Theory; Norms, types and deformations in the late eighteenth-century sonata.
At any point where you are debating whether to take something up an octave, experiment with a new orchestration or design a new texture, you should always remind yourself of what your structural goal is. If the idea in question compliments your goal, then go for it. If it doesn't, forget it. This entails that you need to have clear compositional goals throughout the writing process. That isn't to say that these goals must remain the same from the beginning - goals are tools for guidance, not straightjackets. But make sure you change your goals because your composition requires it organically, not because you're making a concession.
One recent demonstration of this happened with a student of mine. She was debating whether she should double a section in octaves. She had experimented with doing so already, but didn't feel the effect was successful. So, I asked her what her goal was. Her goal was to deliver a cadence in III in 8 bars. I advised that she then do the doubling in the two measures preceding the cadence to forcefully deliver the caesura she was seeking and the problem was solved. She had an intuition that she wanted a powerful introduction to the second key, but her intuition to simply use octave doubling was off - she didn't understand that she was feeling the structure of the piece act on her ear and was misplacing the location of the doubling.
So, whenever you encounter a question regarding what to do in the compositional process, remind yourself of your structural goals and ask how your ideas can help deliver them. One of the enduring fallacies in music is "if it sounds good, it is good." This is akin to saying that good dialogue between a farmer and priest boils down to "howdy" and "my son." Sure, you know what these characters sound like but don't know how to place their words into the greater narrative. In great composition, what we hear is a consequence of what we feel, and what we feel is the latent structures of a piece acting on us. Great composers understand that what is heard is the structure singing, much the same way dialogue is the plot, not the characters, speaking.
If you're interested in not only studying but also mastering and applying these concepts, consider reaching out to me for lessons!