Frame by Frame

The Frame Story: a tale within a tale.

This device has been taken to dazzling scopes. The 1001 Nights comes to mind with stories within stories within stories all told by Scherezade trying to save her own life.

It’s a uniquely literary trick. While the exact definition of story within a story doesn’t transition to music, the idea of layers certainly does. That is, after all, the crux of what frame stories are made of.

Early 20th century composer Charles Ives comes to mind, especially his work Central Park in the Dark. There is the park itself represented by a mysteriously tranquil wash of strings. Overtop we hear everything from a brass band to dueling pianos. Ives stacks different frames of musical reference: the strings utilizing modern harmony to create a nocturnal park backdrop and the popular Americana of the military march a la Souza and ragtime sing above that and each other.

These frames work within each other to create the hustle and bustle of New York. It’s this that lends to the uniqueness of Ives’ vision as a composer: his ability to create intimate musical universes.

We can’t really work with tales like authors do. But as Ives showed us, many frames can coexist within the same span of time. This can’t necessarily be said of literature.

Though the question remains whether frames can be created in music that aren’t riding so heavily on the idea of quotation as the Ives did. Wagner perhaps. But then again his leimotifs are quotations in of themselves, stamps of characters and events. Frames are like quotations though, at least in the sense that what is quoted is from the said frame.

So I take back what I said earlier. Perhaps frame stories do exist in music.


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