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.

 

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Writing in Pieces

Yesterday, while cleaning out e-mail (I am forever cleaning out e-mail! Who isn’t?!), I found a blog post by a blogger, Lindsey Gendke, I’ve been following for several years now. She’s a writer, a mom with 2 pre-schoolers, and published author. Her blog post that I read yesterday was from October 23, and she wrote about how to get unstuck when stuck in the mud of writing and life. She suggested writing ideas on index cards. I confess, I’ve done this at times. Not to come unstuck, but just to organize projects.  It’s a good way to keep up with idea generation, though — carry a pack of blank 3×5 index cards and write one idea per card.  Then the ideas are preserved for later scrutiny and development.  After dutifully turning back my clocks and watches last night, I went to bed.

This morning I woke up thinking about writing in pieces.  Using index cards is one way to write in pieces.  It’s the method I used for keeping track of research for a paper in school, and it’s something I’ve done occasionally to map out plot points. Although I think the index cards idea triggered my thoughts about writing in pieces, it’s not what I mean when I say writing in pieces. I mean breaking a writing project down into manageable pieces to work on.  For a novel, that might be chapters, or even sections of chapters. Or scenes, which I did when I was writing screenplays — I wrote scene by scene (usually handwritten on a legal pad).  Prose fiction can also be broken into scenes. And they do not necessarily need to be written in order.

My work this past week on the Aanora story involved a lot of thinking about several different scenes (Monday through Friday), and then yesterday working on the rough outline to capture my thoughts about those scenes. I’m surprised at myself, actually, that I’m fleshing in an outline before I’ve written very much, but it’s helping me organize my thoughts, reveal what I need to research, and helping me see just how viable the story idea is, i.e. well worth developing and writing. As I was working on the outline, I realized that I was starting to break the story up into pieces that did not necessarily relate to plot points but involved 1-2 scenes for each piece. So when I woke up this morning thinking about writing in pieces, I realized that this was the way to go for the Aanora story, and perhaps I could write on it during the work week as a result rather than waiting to the weekend.

So my task today, after I finish this post, is to figure out the specific pieces, open a separate Word file for each, and then see if I can figure out how I get from the place I managed to outline to yesterday to the ending I have outlined. I’m very close. And I realized also this morning that this is the first story I’ve written in which the main character really doesn’t get what he thinks he wants, but he gets something better.  That was a surprise to me, a happy one.

The Aanora story is gaining momentum, folks! And I’m feeling quite happy about that.

A Week Off

I’m taking off this week from writing a full blog post.  The Aanora story has been demanding my time and writing, so I’m focused on that this weekend.

Hope all of you are writing well and reading all the time, too!

Truth in Fiction

Photo: Marina Shemesh

This morning, I read a really interesting article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about how demagogues use lying as propaganda (“Trump may not be Hitler, but he has the techniques”). It’s difficult especially when a large portion of an electorate believes lies as truths and believes that anyone else is lying. Demagogues are good at creating that Big Lie, too. Reading this commentary, however, also got me thinking about truth in fiction, and how writing fiction, by definition, is actually making stuff up which could be called lying.

In Perceval’s Secret, indeed, in the entire Perceval series, none of the characters are real people. It’s set in 2048 – how could I possibly know what really happens in that year now? The story is not real either, i.e. nothing that happens in the story actually happens.  How could it?  None of the characters are real. I made it all up.  Why?

At the time I began writing the very first draft (and I thought it was a short story, not a novel), I was interested in the experience of exile, of being forced to leave a home country in order to have a better life, or pursue an occupation, or be free. I didn’t think that the average American really had any conception or comprehension of what that experience is like for their fellow humans on this planet (I still don’t think they do). Then Evan Quinn appeared in my mind while I was listening to a live orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and I had my main character. As I began writing and the story developed under my fingertips, it changed a bit from a straight story of exile to one of voluntary exile and what Evan Quinn would do in order to be able to leave an America that in my mind resembled the USSR of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

I found with each revision that Evan and his story was revealing things about how Americans think about their country and the world, how they perceive people in other countries vs. how they perceive themselves, and that American Exceptionalism would eventually damage if not destroy American democracy. Nothing destroys exceptionalism faster than oppressing the population of a country the way the government in the Perceval series oppresses America. At the same time, the government must wage a relentless propaganda campaign assuring the population that what they have now is better than what they had before and they are stronger and more powerful in the world as a result. The propaganda campaign is all lies. This is something Evan discovers when he arrives in Europe on his tour. Demagogues and fascist governments usually cannot risk their citizens having a lot of outside contact because then their citizens will have access to the reality and see the lies.  Unless, of course, the citizens are so indoctrinated that they don’t believe what they see outside their own country.

So all my made up stuff in writing the novel, this fictional story, was revealing things that struck me as being true about humans, true about Americans in particular, and true about oppression. It is in agreement with what another writer once said (I don’t recall who now) that writers lie to tell the truth. I think it’s also the reason why humans need stories in their lives.

 

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?