Over the past few weeks I have been writing songs to fit stories for a teaching English as a foreign language project. As I have been pondering these stories, (many that I have read to my children hundreds of times) I have been surprised at how much of the meat of the stories in these ESL storybooks have been left out due to translation difficulties. These stories have been carefully reduced to their simplest elements to make the English words easy to be read and understood. Unfortunately, the stories lose much of their impact and flavor from too much refinement.
A good story really needs to have some kind of "problem" to make it interesting -- A little TENSION somewhere so that when the RESOLUTION comes, the readers feel relieved and satisfied. When there is no TENSION there is no feeling of satisfaction because there can be no RESOLUTION. It makes for very dull reading with no plot to follow and care about.
So my part in the project has been to create two songs for each tale that introduce the story or the characters in the story and also sum up the story lines so that it can give a good finish to the tale. One song for the beginning and one song for the end for the entire class to sing. That way they can also take part in the skit version of the story that is found at the end of the storybook that has only a few characters. The way the stories have been re-told have not given me much inspiration, so I have decided to go back to the original sources to help me figure out what I should write about in the songs. I have done some interesting research and found wonderful ideas. The problem now is how to give the songs interest without making them too difficult for early readers in a new language.
Good music is no different than a good story -- there must be some TENSION and RESOLUTION to keep it interesting. The construction of the melody and form in the music needs to have some kind of a plot. And the very shaping of the phrases also needs TENSION and RESOLUTION. I have decided to try to channel the energy of composers in the different historical style periods to give these songs some "back story." For example, in the story of "The Musicians of Bremen" I want to flavor the songs with melodic and style characteristics of 18th century German folksongs. For "Dick Whittington and His Cat," a story set in Elizabethan England, I want to explore elements of Renaissance music. For "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," I would like to channel my inner Edvard Grieg. There ought to be a way to give each of the fifty songs I am to write some interest musically through setting and genre with a bit of TENSION and RESOLUTION even when the storybooks themselves include few of the interesting plot elements.
Wish me luck!