Ideas for a theory of non-narrative dramatic structure for time-based media

Tamiko Thiel, September 1997

Why is music able to provoke powerful emotional reactions and the feeling of deep meaning in us merely by arranging abstract elements (i.e. notes) in certain structures? As Leonard B. Meyer points out in his book, Emotion and Meaning in Music: "Unlike a closed, non-referential mathematical system, music is said to communicate emotional and esthetic meaning as well as purely intellectual ones. This puzzling combination of abstractness with concrete emotional and esthetic exprience can, if understood correctly, perhaps yield useful insights into more general problems of meaning and communication, especially those involving esthetic experience." Robert Jourdain's book Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, while dealing with the physiological basis of music perception, also provides many clues as to how the visual arts could learn from music theory.

I am examining the power of dramatic structure in music, dance, drama and architecture in order to develop a general theory that will enable me to tap into this underutilized potential of time-based visual works to express meaning in time. Such a theory would also provide us with a new tool for analysis of the perception of artworks. I believe that it would describe the series of emotional states through which the "composer" wishes to take the "viewer" while he/she views or experiences the work.

We understand plot and character development that references people and human life, and how this can be used to create narrative dramatic structure of great meaning in plays, film and novels. We understand how to compose music, which although it uses very little referential content can still trigger intense emotional experiences in the listener.

There is however no general theory of dramatic structure, as far as I have been able to find, which can be used as a structure or tool to develop time-based, visual works of art that do NOT deal explicitely with human characters and as an aid in their analysis and criticism. Such a theory would be of use to people designing virtual reality spaces, installation art of all types, and non-narrative video or film. Music theory and dance choreography come close (see Meyer's "Emotion and Meaning in Music"; Humphrey's "The Art of Making Dance") but western musical theory dives off very quickly into a thicket of harmony,and dance is very explicitely involved with the human body.

I am compiling information from various disciplines and trying to collate them into a theory that would have general applicability. I am not looking for a scientific theory of emotion (although work in this field can be very useful) but rather trying to do for time-based media that which Kandinsky did for painting when he developed a theory of non-objective or abstract painting in the early 20th century. Similar to Kandinsky, I do not believe that one must find exact correspondances between the arts (e.g. music harmony = color) but am extracting concepts that seem useful when dealing with visual imagery.

My investigations so far indicate that music produces emotional affect by creating and then playing with the listener's expectations - disappointing, fulfilling, delaying or surprising them. This must of course occur within a context or structure of expectations built up by culture and the individual's exposure to that culture, which is why art that seeming to be ugly, purely conceptual or just plain BAD when it was first produced can be beautiful and move us emotionally once it has become part of our cultural framework.

If someone can point me to an existing book that describes exactly what I'm looking for, I would be delighted, because then I use it and go back to making art. If someone can suggest books or people who would be helpful in my investigations I would similarly be delighted! Pertinent works located so far are:

Music theory:
- Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain, William Morrow Press
- Emotion and Meaning in Music, Leonard B. Meyer, U of Chicago Press, 1956
- Six Audio-Visual Musical Forms, Norman McLaren and Maurice Blackburn, Jeunesses Musicales of Canada, 1967
- (Anybody know of good books on John Cage's techniques?)

- People, Paths and Purposes, Philip Thiel, U of WA Press, 1997

- The Art of Making Dances, Doris Humphrey, 1959
- (Anybody know of good books on Merce Cunningham's techniques?)

- Computers as Theatre, Brenda Laurel, Addison-Wesley, 1993
- Digital Mantras, Steven Holtzman, MIT Press, 1994

- Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, Wassily Kandinsky, Da Capo Press, 1994

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