Tricky Rhythms


Sarah Hatsuko Hicks, over at the Inside the Classics blog, has written again (“Preparation Throes” Tuesday, April 22, 2008) about preparing a music score for conducting in a performance, this time breaking out the tricky rhythms and the big mixed-meter section in the middle of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.  I love reading her posts on this subject because she is so clear and descriptive.  I always have Evan in mind so I love learning from a conductor about how conductors work.  Thanks, Sarah.

In Perceval, Evan travels to Amsterdam to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra during their American Music Festival.  On his all-American program, he’s included Copland’s Appalachian Spring.  While writing the initial drafts, I listened to this music over and over, even though I already knew it quite well.  But I didn’t search out a score to use as reference.  I wasn’t interested in focusing on the technical aspects of conducting.  First I wrote Evan conducting this piece in concert and suffering a memory lapse in the middle of it — right where the meters get all mixed.  That version remained through several more drafts until I realized that for narrative purposes it wouldn’t work that way.  Then I decided that he’d have the psychological fugue moment at the end of the previous piece on the program, Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  And that clicked for the narrative.  So, I ended up showing/writing Evan conducting the Barber instead of the Copland.  

When I write/show Evan working on the podium, I am mindful of narrative purpose: how does this scene move the story forward or reveal character?  So, it is less about the conducting than about Evan.  I spend a lot of time listening to the music he’ll conduct, but much less time reading the score.  It is my challenge to describe in general Evan’s conducting but create the illusion that it is specific regarding his gestures, thoughts, etc.  The purpose for Evan on the podium is always: how does this reveal Evan as a person?  Not necessarily his stick technique or if he missed that cue for the flute.

Score study and preparation consumes hours of Evan’s time.  Again, writing about it needs to serve narrative purpose, so I approach these scenes much as I have the concert or rehearsal scenes.  The difference is that I do use scores as references so that I can write Evan thinking about the challenges of specific sections of music, making notes on the score, etc.  In Perceval, the score that he’s working on through most of the story is Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.  Since I am not a conductor, I sought out a conductor to help me identify passages in the score that might concern Evan.  Then I used the Mahler to also reflect back through music what Evan was experiencing in his life through Evan’s reading and understanding of the score.  Hard work for him.  Hard work for me, too.

Why spend so much time and space on Evan’s conducting?  Early in the novel, he thinks about the podium as his home and music as his heart, his motivation for living.  It is all he has in the world.  Showing that is important to his character and its development, and how he behaves in other situations in the story.     

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