‘Distant Reading’ inspired Narrative Analysis

Exploring the narratives of my Music Library in a Tree

Most of literary analysis and exploration I do (personally) is oriented towards close, focused readings. Whether it’s for an artist’s album, poems, books — though I do compare and cross reference multiple sources, the interpretation of the text and its message is achieved by taking a deep dive into a source’s content.

Recently, reading Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading inspired me for a different kind of approach — a distant kind. Distant Reading, generally speaking, is to place yourself further from a specific concept and interpret corpuses from afar. It’s described as ‘understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data’. What I did wasn’t technically “distance reading” — merely inspired by it. I was not dealing with massive amounts of data nor was it computational, but I was aggregating (as well as approximating) and creating a network of messages.

Earlier, I’ve explored Bon Iver’s album For Emma, as well as symbolism in The National and Editors, as well as other haphazard narratives I’ve extracted from various songs*. This time, I decided to take a step back (literally, since I work on a chalkboard wall), sample some songs, and classify the various narratives (through subjective interpretations) that I find in my music as well as the reflections they can potentially bring about.

*Some of music-based narrative exploration I’ve done in the past are shown in Appendix A.

Result

The exercise resulted in the formulation of a binary tree 3 layers deep. My methodology was a mix between what I know from Computer Science tree classification and using ‘intuitive’ thematic distinctions. I would sample a bunch of songs from my corpus and try to find a question that would ‘definitively’ segregate the sample out into two groups — I did this for 3 layers — until I felt I reached a point where I could group the sample songs in every leaf node to bring about roughly the same reflection from me as the listener.

Why did I do this? For fun — I was just curious to see how a tree represented my music’s narrative landscape.

I found afterwards that the tree I had formulated, with some tweaking here and there, could work relatively well to categorize most of the narratives I interpret — from poems, to novels, to even the abstract story-telling behind various philosophies.

Notes:

  • Love here covers all kinds of love, not just the usual romantic kind.
  • Obviously, every layer has other nuances and each question has a spectrum of an answer rather than binaries but this is a model —and models simplify.
  • It is interesting that both ‘misanthropic woes’ and ‘unrequited love tragedy’ lead to the contemplation of ‘what is the purpose of life then?’ — both those areas are a removal of purpose in the sense that they lead to a pessimist worldview where there is no opportunity for success. It reminds me of a quote by Roland Barthes:
“Love makes me think too much. At times, result of some infinitesimal stimulus, a fever of language overcomes me, a parade of reasons, interpretations, pronouncements. I am aware of nothing but a machine running all by itself..”
— Barthes
  • In my narratives at least, to not be in love (of some kind) and not have any way towards it is to not be involved/engaged with the world — to not be a ‘running machine’ and therefore be at odds with our existence.

It was, in fact, post-formulation of the tree, that I recalled some lyrics from The Shins which had an uncanny ability to encapsulate my final landscape:

…every single story /
Is a story about love /
Both the overflowing cup /
And the painful lack thereof
— The Shins

Appendix A

Other narrative analysis I’ve done of music through focused, ‘close’ readings.

Comparison of Symbols: Arms for The National vs Hands for Editors

Narrative of oscillation between Survival and Gamble in Bon Iver’s For Emma

Some major connecting-themes across Kings of Leon’s albums

An Interpretive Detective-style Map of The National Symbols


Other writings on close readings of songs:
Belle and Sebastian’s Marx and Engels
The Shin’s Australia