Foot Notes : How To Write Symphonic Literature

Before delving into the specifics of the style, I feel obligated to insert a disclaimer: what works for one may only impede another, and this was designed to work for me. That being said, it is my intention to provide a guide for anyone motivated to write symphonic literature of their own.

Any ‘How To’ discussion needs a base of ‘What Is’. Symphonic stories are stories inspired by songs, while symphonic poems are poems assembled from song lyrics. The stories are the writer’s interpretation of music, lone-standing yet complementary narratives intended to provide readers with insight into another’s personal interpretation of source material. It is a writing style unbeholden to genre, without subject matter limitations; nothing is off limits. In my experience, the wide range of feelings inspired by songs actually necessitates the utilization of multiple genres and unusual imagery to meet narrative goals. The poems, consisting of no more than two lines from a single song, operate as atmospheric road signs on a reader’s journey through symphonic stories. Their intention and placement is to give the driver/reader an idea of the road’s shape beforehand, easing the burden of the journey, allowing focus to be concentrated on the mental road/progression the writer attempted to design for the reader. Though both the stories and poems pull from the same pool of personally preferred music, each has individual quirks that demand attention when considering source songs for development. Which, conveniently, is an echo of a lesson that was reinforced while crafting symphonic lit; minutia is oftentimes more substantial than its size would suggest.

To write a symphonic story a person must synthesize source songs (meditate on personal meaning) then craft a work of creative writing around that interpretation. Some songs are better suited for the process than others. As a general rule, the less abstract the lyrics, the less opportunity exists for the necessary transformative synthesis. The song trilogy Rico Story by Speaker Knockerz is, as the title says, already a story. Listening to each part reveals protagonist, villain, rising action, climax; a set narrative structure rather than abstract feeling open to interpretation. Another example of an unsuitable song would be The Offspring’s Pretty Fly (For A White Guy), due to the heavy-handed way it delivers its message about white wannabes. I’ve enjoyed the music I’ve mentioned more times than I can count, but if there is no room for interpretation, there is no room for a symphonic story. Yet if someone other than me was able to do so, I wouldn’t take issue with it; such is the individualistic nature of the form. But having provided negative examples, it is time for the positives.

The Beatles’ Octopus’ Garden is a catchy pop song with more whimsicality than any type of lyrical or meaningful depth. Which is okay; not everything needs to be deep, especially because artists dramatize everything the same. Its story, though made in the early days of symphonic lit before established rules, is a solid example of the process. A golden-hearted, overeager biologist saving an octopus only to be scolded by the cephalopod for human interference is not the same as Ringo Starr’s underwater wish fulfillment, but the former retains thematic ties to the latter: appreciation for nature, desire to be somewhere we have no business being, modifying the world to suit our whims and ideas…Another prime example is The Velvet Underground’s Oh! Sweet Nuthin, synthesized into story form in the 2020 collection of symphonic literature, Music From The Microcosm. Again, the song is no lyrical ocean, but it did make me feel; in this case, sympathy for those left behind. Expanding on the theme of celebrating the forgotten, I wrote the story of a homeless person during the Black Lives Matter protests who hides while what little he owns is taken to be used by those demanding more. In this case, the story borrows more from the song literally, but adds transformative verisimilitude and context through narrative and its placement/purpose in the overall collection that legitimizes the effort as a symphonic story. After the selection and synthesis, there remains a single factor of concern: length. 

Symphonic stories are short. There is no hard word limit, but they are written to be read in around the same amount of time it takes to listen to the source song. Maybe a little more, if it’s something like Free Bird or a classical piece, maybe a little less. Any source song already has feeling properly flowing through it, and symphonic stories are an effort to take that feeling somewhere new. Yet as with all energy, physics comes into play. Initial pressure from the source can only carry so far. Any additional creativity needs to work toward an economical yet personal redirection of energy. In other words, any narrative needs to respect the source material. That does not mean repeating it; a symphonic story is not simply a repetition of a song’s efforts on a page. They are narrative-laden explanations of interpretations of songs; stories with idiosyncratic mechanics in regards to character, its development, and progression achieved through beginning/middle/end events. 

A story without character is an atmospheric generalization of events. The symphonic story Technologic is a hypothetical depiction of a modern cell phone’s lifecycle told in the 2nd perspective (with ‘you’s.) The reader, despite being spoken to, is not a character, and the only other possibility for character to exist lies within a phone. It’s an object that doesn’t do anything in the story without ‘you’ – it is inanimate, not a character, but a main subject of the story in its place. The exclusion of character is vital in communicating the interpretation that we have no choice but to exist in some cycles; a character with any type of will or impact would work against that.

While stories without characters are generally unheard of, stories without character development are more common. These have come to be looked at as proof of an amateur, incapable writer. However, for symphonic stories, characters are one of a few means to communicate the writer’s synthesis of the source song. They are not afforded a special level of importance, and therefore, intention needs consideration here; in a story about change represented by a character, like Foggy Notion with its revolutionary storm crafter, growth makes sense. But in Seventeen Forever, a speedrunner ruins a save file, and the story ends where they would decide to remain the same or change, without even securing the cop-out of a ‘lack of character development as development.’ The reader wonders what the choice would be – realizing it is up to them to decide change is the intended message, and the lack of character development is integral in communicating that. Any development for the sake of itself is additive, and symphonic stories are pure interpretation. Characters are referred to as the vehicles they are for the story, their jobs, Hunter in The Hunter, their passions, Customer in Cash Machine, how the world perceives them, Villain in One Man Can Change The World; equally so, possession of a gender or name denotes that being of importance to the interpretation, Gretchen in Breezeblocks, She in Disaster Hearts.

The aforementioned purity extends to beginnings, middles, and ends. They can be integral to the essence of a symphonic story, such as the family driving through communion in Sunday Candy, or the caterpillars meeting their doom in Stuck In The Middle With You; these are both traditionally organized stories that are nonetheless symphonic. But in Shiny Happy People, a series of unconnected events depict the state of emotions in the future – the entirety of Slow and Low is a speech about a Patient Zero. The expressive intention allows the writer complete discretion with events, writing styles, and with anything they can think of, because what they think is what the form is. 

Symphonic poetry fulfills a different purpose than the stories, and therefore, is subject to a different rule set for selection. Again, the poems are set ups for the journey through a collection of symphonic lit. No lyrics are off limits, but as previously mentioned, they are subject to a two-line maximum per song per poem, which also extends to the use of an artist/band’s music throughout a collection (no more than two uses overall.) Creating an experience out of bits and pieces of others is walking across a tightrope, a balancing act where the writer shows off an idea whilst treading a fine line. And falling off is more than just the death of the attempt, as below wait the jagged rocks of plagiarism, capable of bleeding the writer’s creative integrity (and wallet) dry. The two-line rule is a safety measure for using the words of others with a built-in allowance for the creative freedom necessary to communicate the progression of original themes and ideas.

After a starting point for a symphonic poem is selected, lyrical perspective comes into play. This isn’t a usual point of concern while listening to music, as someone with the aim of enjoying a song has no reason to care if it’s in the first or third person. However, when using the words a song is made up of, perspective very much matters. It is often the case that, after hours of listening to find the ideal lyrics, that pronouns, the ‘I’s, ‘he’s and ‘she’s, are bumps in an otherwise smooth fusion. Instead of searching for a similarly structured song that may not exist, symphonic poetry allows for modification to lyrics deemed necessary for the flow/message/mood of the poem. This enables the writer to exert the maximum amount of personal influence on the new product while retaining the spirit of what was amalgamated to make it. The one caveat to these changes is that nothing else changes; the altered is to be treated the same as the unaltered when citing source material. This works because symphonic poetry isn’t simply reprinting song lyrics, they are poems first, references second. The message they communicate is their main concern, not an accurate depiction of the phrase’s history.

Unlike symphonic stories, the poems have no basis for length. The freedom to play with form and lyrics is the defining trait of the style; how long any poem is is up to the writer. Recently, I’ve found a sweet spot at twelve lines (again, never more than two from a single song/artist) where a thorough transition of themes can be established. If the twelve lines don’t work, the priority at that point is always to edit, switch out lines, rather than add more. While there may be an effectively infinite amount of songs to pull lyrics from, a person only has so much time to search. Even taking the shortcut of reading lyrics over listening doesn’t solve the biggest time sink, which is finding suitable music in the first place. 

And that problem exists for both forms of symphonic lit. I go about solving it by setting aside time to listen to songs at random; something, new or old, always catches my ear. Though I value the return on investment, creating symphonic lit is an inefficient use of time. Even if the process was necessary for someone to create, they could drop the poetry, change the titles of the stories and try to get them published in magazines. But symphonic lit is not written for the reward; it is written for the result. It is artistic expression. An earnest attempt to advance literature as an art form. If a writer cannot be happy with trying at that, as a guarantee can never be given, they have no reason to write this way.

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