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Concert Storytelling and the Gong of Seven
By Paul Conway, Voyageur Storytelling

Chris King tells me that “defining storytelling has been a topic of discussion” for as long as she can remember. I cannot imagine anything less fruitful, if the aim is to advance the art and win new audiences. Define storytelling? Why bother? Describe it, possibly. Embrace its pluralism, preferably. Celebrate it, certainly. But define it? As well define the spirit of the ages.

To define is to delimit, and to delimit is to diminish. Who wants a diminishing art? Not audiences, that is for sure, especially those who are paying full price for tickets. What they want are experiences of supreme art. In our world, they are most likely to find them in a storytelling concert. There we are most likely to perform at our best.

Notice that I speak of likelihood, not inevitability. Other environments support fine storytelling art, but are less likely to do so consistently for artistic and practical reasons too complicated to examine here. More importantly, however, storytelling concerts are highly accessible to audiences. They appear in public places. They advertise themselves. They want people to buy tickets and come, and the more the merrier. If we want to be our best, and woo new audiences, we must become virtuosi of storytelling concert art, in all its dimensions.

Storytelling concerts, like other art forms, march to the beat of their own drummer, or rather their own band, which we at Voyageur Storytelling call the Gong of Seven:

Walt Whitman (1855): You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, but I shall be good health to you nevertheless, and filter and fiber your blood. His instrument is the barbaric yawp, pounding into our ears the truth that the value of art resides in its effect on the "audience," which in our case is literally an audience — that is, people who hear — and that the process by which it achieves its effect is mysterious, not usefully subject to rational analysis.

Sarah Cone Bryant (1910): A story is essentially and primarily a work of art ... Its part in the economy of life is to give joy. Beside Walt’s urgent insistence on the resounding “You” and coeval “I” Sarah gently sets the more objective, continuing presence of the story, in its own way as much “a foster child of silence and slow time” as a Grecian urn. We notice, however, that Sarah does not sing of art for art’s sake. It has a practical purpose: to give joy, without which no other purpose makes any sense whatsoever. Her page-turner is Bertrand Russell, who adds that "the greatest joy is to be found in a profound instinctive union with the stream of life."

Marshall McLuhan (1951): Any artistic endeavor includes the preparing of an environment for human attention. The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertising or in the high arts is towards participation in a process. Marshall is sometimes confusing of utterance, but there is nothing ambiguous about this one. The "environment" in which something beautiful is experienced determines its artistic effect. Storytellers know this lesson very well, from both positive and negative experience. Remember that flapping tent, that piercing draught, those jagged seats? Concert producers ignore it at their financial peril.

Ruth Finnegan (1990): Both human creativity and the social context in which it is formed and expressed are fundamental. This viewpoint is founded in the joyful recognition of an art that is both an expressive and a socially significant aspect of human action. Ruth is talking about oral poetry, but everything she says applies equally to the rest of storytelling. The effect of ancient oral traditions derives partly from the fact that they are "oralaural," and thus affect the mind of the listener in particular ways, partly because by being so they are able to integrate with natural forms and flows of social life. Many storytelling events are organized around this principle, but concerts, being often more formal, can overlook its potential. A social dimension (preferably with food) is perhaps not essential to a good concert — exceptional virtuosity of performance can fill the hole — but it certainly helps.

Walter Ong (1982): All sensation takes place in time, but sound has a special relationship to time unlike that of other fields that register in human sensation. Sound exists only when it is going out of existence. It is not simply perishable, but essentially evanescent. Spoken words are events, actions. This reality poses the frontier for storytelling aesthetics. We are artists in narrative sound, but to reach for the heights is to abandon some comfortable supports, such as essentially literary folkloric traditions (not all of them are like that), and theatrical visual embellishments. A storytelling concert which neglects its sound may be adequate, but can never be inspired. If we want new, paying audiences we must be inspired.

Joseph Conrad (1897): It is only through the complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance ... an unremitting, never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences ... that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words : of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage. Walter Ong states the principle, Conrad shows the way. The Muses are fanatics about detail, driving us to an infinite capacity for taking pains.

W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman (1930): History (or art) is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. All other history (or art) defeats itself. What matters ultimately is not the art as a thing, object, event or experience, but people's memory of it, the effect that persists in the inner self. As Walter Ong says, "You know what you can remember."

Of course these are not the only foundations on which storytelling art can be created, but they are essential to storytelling concert art and thus, we believe, to the cultivation of new audiences necessary for growth. The first generation of the storytelling revival has done wonders, but the second, so far, has not. Without them the art will wither. To create wonders and live by them — to perform often under favorable artistic conditions for adequate pay — we must produce wonderful art in wonderful environments, and where else can we create them consistently, week after week, all year long, but in concerts?

To become great storytelling concert artists we must, like those in other fields, voyage deep into study, practice, discipline, dedication, risk, and alteration of self. It seems a daunting prospect, but well worth the effort.

Note from Paul Conway [voyageur@bmts.com]: Leslie and I have been exploring for some years the idea of the storytelling concert as a work of art in its own right, greater than the sum of its constituent stories. The ideas in the article flow out of that work. Paul Conway, Voyageur Storytelling, Northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario
www.voyageurstorytelling.ca


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