Tag Archives: voice in fiction

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.


The Voice

On television, “The Voice” seeks to identify the next big singer in pop music.  The “auditions” proceed with the judges’ backs turned to the stage so that each singer’s physical appearance has no influence.  It’s all about the quality and sound of the voice.  In fiction, it’s all about the quality and sound of the voice, too.  Book reviews often comment on a writer’s voice — unique, fresh, original, new are some of the words used to describe it.  But, I mean really, what is “voice” in fiction?

It’s not style.  I think of style as the way a writer uses words, which words, and how a writer strings them together.  A nineteenth century writer’s style looks dense with words to us today until you consider that during that century, books offered entertainment for them and they had few sources of entertainment.  The novel represented their version of a soap opera, with many characters, situations, twists and turns, digressions and loops.  I sometimes think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels as the last nineteenth century novels even though he wrote them in the twentieth century.  Today, television and movies can influence writing style, breaking a story into scenes and creating an episodic or pointillistic effect.  Short attention spans and a plethora of entertainment options have also influenced contemporary writing style.  Every word has to count.  Minimal description.  No digressions, please.

So, if it’s not style, what is voice?  Is it one of those things you know when you read it but is otherwise elusive?  Or can it be defined?

When I think of voice, I think of first pages.  The first page of a novel must have the power to draw a reader into the story, especially readers who may only be curious and not particularly interested — think of someone browsing in a bookstore.  That power is voice.  Think of the last time you picked up a novel you knew nothing about, started reading, and hours later discovered that you’d lost track of time because of it.  That’s the power of voice.  Voice has confidence, energy, sound, rhythm and individuality that piques your interest.

Let’s take an example, the opening paragraph of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.  His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.  He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.”

What is it that pulls us into this paragraph?  Try reading it out loud.  What does it sound like?  To me, it sounds like an adult looking back on a childhood incident and how it affected someone close to her that she loves.  To her, his injury and how it healed is more important than the actual incident, and yet the mystery of the incident draws us in.  Her tone is one of sharing a confidence, something interesting about her family.  We can relate to that.  In the subsequent paragraphs, Lee delays any mention of the actual incident.  Instead, she goes on about how they argued about where it all began, i.e. what led up to the incident that injured Jem.  She unfolds the story in the way someone might tell a story at a family reunion, sitting in the kitchen late at night, telling someone, finally, how Jem broke his arm when he was thirteen.

Style contributes to voice.  However, you can have a piece of writing that is grammatically correct, with active verbs and colorful language, but a dead voice.  So, voice is not only about the writing, but also the speaking.  By that I mean, how people speak in different situations, especially when they are telling stories.  The voice needs to fit the story, the point of view, and behind that suitability stands a sense of confidence, a resonance of life and energy that comes from the writer.  I think of it as the connection the writer has with the writing, that connection breathing life into it.

A good resource for writing that devotes two chapters to voice is Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process.  I’ve dragged out my copy recently because I’m thinking of applying “voice” to a series of essays I have in mind.  One of the things I’ve learned about writing fiction that I also apply to my nonfiction is reading the piece out loud.  It helps immeasurably to hear what the prose sounds like and that’s about voice.