Category Archives: Research

Maestro or Maestra?

Mariss Jansons conducting

“Hmm, well. Well I don’t want to give offence,” said Jansons, “and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

On Thanksgiving, Classic FM published at its website an article by Lizzie Davis about the renowned Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons and his reactions to changes in the conducting world over the course of his career.  Mr. Jansons is 70 and has been conducting professionally since he was 28.  He belongs to a generation that would not have considered a woman capable of conducting a symphony orchestra or any other kind of musical ensemble. I was surprised at the amount of vitriol leveled at Mr. Jansons for this comment. He was honest. He puts his comment in the context of his world and his experience. We can disagree with what he said, but I think condemning him for being sexist is going a bit far. Yes, he’s old. He’s not caught up with the rest of the world in his view of the world and acceptance of capable women who contribute so much. He’s honest about that, too. (Mariss Jansons issued an apology here.)

Maestro or Maestra? When I was conducting research into conductors and conducting for the Perceval series, I’d occasionally hear what I considered to be rather illogical statements from conductors — a few of the men were quite well known. Age definitely influenced their thinking most often. Anyone under 40 today does not remember a time when women did not have the freedom or opportunities they have now, and were often restricted to “female” occupations like teaching and nursing when they did have to work. Men ruled, so men made the rules in society. Male expectations of women focused on sex, family, cooking, housekeeping, in other words, taking care of and obeying men. Women were not expected to go out in the world and accomplish other things. This is the world that Mariss Jansons comes from and hasn’t left, really.

Women fought hard to get to where they are today, and they still must fight, because there are still men who want to go back to the way things were. I believe that quite a lot of the sexual harassment, abuse, and rape that is now being revealed after being hidden for so long is just one more step in women achieving equal status with men in American society. The sexual misconduct has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with men establishing power and dominance over women. They use sexuality as a tool for control. And by trying to perpetuate the message that women are the “weaker” sex and not capable of doing anything but be wives, mothers, and keepers of homes, men are still trying to control and dominate women. Some women still prefer to be controlled and dominated by men because the men give them security and stability, and the women don’t have to be responsible for their own lives. Women conductors are not part of this category, clearly.

During my research, I also learned that conductors don’t generally have a lot of time to attend concerts conducted by other conductors, so it doesn’t surprise me if Mr. Jansons has not seen many women conducting orchestras. We have many more now than when I first began my conductor research years ago, and some have become famous — for example, Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, and Xian Zhang, among others. At the Minnesota Orchestra, there are currently two women conductors on staff: Sarah Hicks and Akiko Fujimoto.  Kathy Saltzman Romey conducts the Minnesota Chorale, the chorus that works most often with the Minnesota Orchestra. As far as intelligence, musicianship, and performance ability, women stand equal to men on the podium. (If you want to check out a list of female conductors, they are here, or do a Google search on “list women conductors.” You may be surprised.)

Conductors are human beings, as imperfect, flawed, subject to ignorance and misinformation as any of us. My favorite illogical comment by a conductor, of course, was about the height of conductors. That conductor (who was shorter than me) stated emphatically that tall men make terrible conductors because their height slows them down. I’m sure all the conductors out there who are over six feet tall would disagree….

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Future Classics

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Those of you who are regulars here at Anatomy of Perceval will recognize the title of this post.  It’s the title of the concert the Minnesota Orchestra gives at the end of the intense week called the Composer Institute.  Seven young composers from all over the country come to Minneapolis to work with Minnesota Orchestra musicians as well as attend seminars about the business of being a composer. The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses each composer’s submitted work, and then at the end of the week, performs all the pieces in concert. It’s my favorite Minnesota Orchestra concert each season.

While this season’s group of composers offered interesting listening and quite a variety, I’m still waiting for the composer who will feel challenged to write tonal music using melody, harmony, and maybe even a form that makes sense. The first half of the concert stood out with pieces that lacked resolution at the end.  I wanted to shout, “It’s OK to resolve the sound at the end!” The entire concert also offered a tour of sound effects, including human voices talking, interspersed with the instruments playing tones, sirens, and lots of glissando.

I thought three of the composers managed to achieve a goal with their pieces. One composer talked about being influenced by the sight of the night sky, the points of light that are the stars, the immensity of the blackness, and a feeling of being inside of that night sky. We are a part of the universe, of course. But I understood the sensations she talked about because I’ve had them myself. The night sky is an amazing and profound sight. The sounds she began her piece with were all staccato points of sound.  Gradually, the staccato sounds open into a vast flow of sound that seemed to swirl around us through the air. I was quite enchanted by this piece.

Another composer talked about his work with his mentor, the composer Steven Stucky, and how working with him had influenced how he composed the piece he’d brought to Minneapolis.  His piece was probably the most tonal of the seven, with lush strings and restless woodwinds.  The third composer was inspired by his Arabic heritage and a famous Arabic singer, Umm Kulthum. He incorporated Arabic music in his piece as well as Western tropes. It was mesmerizing.

My history with the Composer Institute begins in 2006 when I attended the rehearsals as part of my research for the Perceval series.  Evan Quinn is a conductor who encourages young composers, and he meets a Maori composer with whom he becomes good friends. I wanted to learn what composers go through to get a piece performed by an orchestra — it’s a lot harder than you’d think. It was interesting, also, to see some parallels with the writing life. What has been a near constant every year: the dearth of music I could hum as I left Orchestra Hall.  While I understand (and support) the composer’s need to be true to his imagination and what flows from it onto the staff paper (or screen), I often wonder if what they are composing is in fact what they truly want to listen to. Writers often comment about writing what they want to read and hoping that other people will want to read it, too.  It’s possible for both writers and composers, however, to produce such inaccessible works that no one but them will want to read or listen to it.

In writing also we talk a lot about “voice.” Each writer has his or her own unique voice. I think of composers having unique musical voices also — Beethoven doesn’t sound at all like Brahms who doesn’t sound like Shostakovich, etc.  When I attend Future Classics, I hope to hear a strong, unique musical voice that’s comfortable with itself. Each year, I go away disappointed (except for one year, a composer brought a couple movements from a symphony he’d composed and his musical voice sounded quite mature). It’s not easy to compose music.  It’s not easy to write fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Both demand that struggle to find the voice and that takes time.

I look forward to next season’s Future Classics. While this particular concert can be challenging, it’s never dull and usually gives me a lot to think about for days afterward. Special thanks to Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra for continuing to support young composers and new music.

 

Figuring out the questions

Every writer’s creative process differs from every other writer’s. It took me a long time to understand mine, to leave it alone, and let it do its thing. For the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aanora, trying to figure out how best to open to her and her story. Like every other part of the creative process, this part should not — cannot — be pushed.

One thing that always bothers me with the appearance of a new character is figuring out what her or his driving desire is in the story. Once I know that, more questions emerge, and the biggest is what happens now? A wise screenwriting teacher once said that after determining what the main character wants, then it’s time to ask just what that character will do to get it. This gives the writer an idea of the moral make-up of that character, if he’s passive or active, and how he approaches problems. But the question that comes next is where I’m struggling now: what are the obstacles/conflicts that the character must overcome in order to get what she wants?

As I began thinking about that, I had a shocking thought: Aanora was not the main character of the story! Oh, no. This was weird. Who was she, then? And who was the main character?

 

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole At NASA APOD)

I suppose this revelation that Aanora wasn’t the main character could have totally derailed me and my thinking, but I just kept asking questions of my imagination and waited.  I do a lot of waiting during the early stages of developing a story. Sometimes I’ll work on something else, like blog posts or book reviews, or I’ll start doing what I sense could be related to the new story in terms of research.  Since this story seems to be heading into outer space rather than staying on earth, I’ve begun researching the Milky Way Galaxy. It boggles my mind how gigantic our galaxy is, and it’s only one in a universe full of galaxies. And I’ve also begun thinking about Aanora’s original home, her backstory.

Eventually, some answers bubbled out of my imagination. Aanora was a pivotal character, a VIC (very important character), and crucial to the story and that’s apparently why she appeared in my mind first.  She is also apparently crucial to the success of the captain and crew of the space ship that finds her. I know now that they had been sent to find her, to ask for her help in a diplomatic mission. So now I have more and more questions! Where is the space ship from? Who are the beings on the ship? Who is the captain and his crew? Are they peaceful? Warlike? Well, if they are seeking Aanora for diplomatic reasons, perhaps they are also diplomats? What is the diplomatic mission? Who does it involve? Am I going to be creating sentient aliens? In this dimension or Aanora’s? Oh, and by the way, who is the main character of this story?!

Writing an outer space story makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s new for me now — when I was in elementary school I wrote maybe ten or eleven outer space sci fi stories that my teacher read aloud to the class.  I really haven’t written anything with an outer space setting since. Two things I began yesterday when I was working on this story: 1) a Notes document that contains all my questions, and then the answers when they come to me; and 2) the beginning of a very rough outline which is to say a list of plot points.

I’ve never really written about my creative process in this way before — laying it out for the world to see. I’m very curious to see if it will help or hurt my process. It could supplement my Notes file, although I do welcome comments! And I’m hoping that this process with this new story will actually ease me back into work on the Perceval novels eventually.

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.

Creating Character: Flaws

Creating flawed characters in ink

Creating flawed characters in ink

For the last several months, I’ve been fascinated by Donald Trump. Not because I agree with him and I voted for him.  No. He’s a perfect example of a character with hubris. What is hubris? Pride and arrogance, full on demonstrated by narcissists who possess absolutely zero internal power, i.e. a healthy self esteem. They make fabulous characters in fiction, especially for tragedies. Why is hubris considered a character flaw? Well, the excessive pride and arrogance tend to fuel fantasy thinking rather than reality thinking. Watching someone with hubris is like watching an out-of-control train heading for a massive wreck.

Characters with flaws are far more interesting than perfect characters. Human beings are imperfect creatures, so to have a perfect character is to strain credulity. The challenge for writers is how to create imperfect characters without going to the extreme. Donald Trump is an extreme character. I suppose his wife sees other aspects of his personality as well as those he displays in public, but his choices still point to an extreme character. For example, he chooses to respond to something inconsequential but that he perceives questions something about him whether it’s intelligence, ability, or his “alternate facts,” as KellyAnne Conway so hilariously put it regarding Sean Spicer’s comments in his first meeting with the press as Trump’s press secretary. You can be certain that Spicer, as well as Conway, was saying what Trump wanted them to say. So, I’d say that Trump would be a warning against creating an extreme character, unless of course, the writer wanted to make the point that extreme personalities tend to lead to or cause tragedies.

Writers must notice human behavior, write notes about it, study it, explore it, all in the service of creating plausible human characters. People-watching, then, is part of a writer’s work whether that be politicians or people in an airport, restaurant, walking down the street. And what of human flaws?

63-Free-Retro-Clipart-Illustration-Of-Man-Carrying-Big-Bag-Of-Money-With-Dollar-Sign

Start with “the seven deadly sins,” for example: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Greed is a wonderful flaw (Trump has this one too, in my opinion) and lust doesn’t need to refer to sex, but also could be a lust for power and/or control. It’s a good place to start. Nowadays, there are all sorts of psychological flaws that humans can have — narcissism, PTSD, mental illness whether mild or extreme. And there are physical flaws, also, of such variety and degree, and how that affects a character’s personality and/or psyche. Sometimes flaws become obstacles that need to be overcome. Sometimes they end up being what has strengthened the character to overcome the obstacles in his way. For a character to NOT have any flaws at all would nowadays be greeted with a certain amount of disdain for not being plausible.

When I was learning about the characters in Perceval’s Secret (or rather, they were teaching me about themselves), I would make lists for each character — one for strengths, one for weaknesses or flaws. Sometimes each played roles in the stories, sometimes not.  For Evan Quinn, his flaws are obstacles that he must overcome.  He is stronger than he realizes, as is true for most people. But he also possesses a flaw that is an effect from another flaw, i.e. the way he perceives the world and other people, as well as himself and what he wants. Because of this flaw in thinking, he makes choices in the moment that are motivated by the deeper flaw. So you see, writers can layer flaws, have one feed into another, and do the same thing with strengths. That will give depth and richness to the character.

Although I’m not at all happy about Donald Trump now being President, it will be interesting to see how he lives out his story as the deeply flawed main character.