Sunday, March 23, 2014

Thoughts on Hearing Ann Schein & the Harrisburg Symphony Playing Chopin

Comments on hearing Ann Schein play Chopin with the Harrisburg Symphony on March 22nd. She will be offering a master class on Friday at 5pm at Messiah College and will perform a solo recital with Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center Saturday at 8pm.

Ann Schein performs Chopin's 2nd w/Harrisburg Symphony
Sitting in the Forum last night, listening to the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina with pianist Ann Schein playing Chopin's 2nd Concerto, it occurred to me “this is what music is all about.”

And by that, I don't mean that the playing was beautiful (though it was) and the piece was pretty (which it is) which meant the audience could find it entertaining (which it did) but that somehow this mystical arc from what-the-composer-wrote-down to how-the-performers-played-it to how-the-listener-responded-to-it completed an equation of communication that transcended time (in this case 184 years) to make a moment in our lives leaving, at least for that moment, the rest of the world oblivious and unnecessary.

If that makes Art escapist, then so be it, but what I feel it succeeds in doing is not to make us forget what's going on outside this concert hall but rather how we can deal with it and not be swallowed up in the reality. As the great acting teacher Stella Adler once said (a quote you can find on the home page of my Market Square Concerts blog), “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

If this concert communicated anything to me last night (and hopefully others, whether they recognized it or not), it reminded me that I had a soul and it needs nourishment like this and that nourishment needs to be supported and sustained.

Now, I'm not a critic nor am I writing a review of this concert. In fact, I'm rarely tempted to put my thoughts about something I've heard into words. As a “trained composer” (and only moderately, at that), I listen differently than most people would. In fact, I'm not even sure how I could just “listen” to music without thinking like a musician either as a performer or a composer: most of the observations I might make would be of no interest to the usual listener, certainly to the casual listener.

I've often described this like eating a dinner and one of the other people there is a chef. Lets say she responds to nuance and flavoring and how it affects the palate and how well it follows the recipe (“too much coriander”) and how it compares to other dishes, perhaps by other chefs (“Now, Julia Child would do...”), plus how the wine complemented the entree and so on. Then, on those bases, she would reach a conclusion about the success or failure of the meal.

Me – I'm thinking “okay, I'm not hungry now, that was good.” If the steak was burned or the salmon still not thawed out in the center, that I might notice, but why I didn't like it – or even why I did – might not be something that mattered much to me.

And criticism is often considered to be about the mistakes – “yes, but did you hear that wrong note in the last movement?” “Yes, but did you not hear a few thousand perfect ones?”

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I attended the Friday night rehearsal not sure what there would be to hear, how musicians rehearse a piece like this. Chopin's concertos are infamous for being “orchestra light” with nothing much to do and I've heard two conductors (not to mention Ms. Schein's own experience with George Szell) who'd tried to talk a soloist out of programming them (and in one case succeeded).

But it became quite clear that Stuart Malina was not going to be giving Chopin the short-shrift during the rehearsal. He approached it just as he does every other piece I've heard him rehearse and he worked very closely with the soloist on getting the nuance of Chopin's famously difficult style – the flexibility of tempo within a phrase we call rubato – just right. Without it, the “joins” between soloist and orchestra often sound clunky and whether we know it or not become the equivalent of the proverbial hair in the soup.

When did I first hear this piece? Probably when I was a child – we didn't have many classical music recordings in the house when I was growing up at first, but most of the piano recordings were with Arthur Rubinstein, one of the great pianists of the 20th Century and with whom Ann Schein studied (and since Rubinstein took on few students, this is quite an endorsement). I heard Rubinstein play live only once – an all-Chopin program in the early '70s when he was already in his mid-80s. And I watched a broadcast of him playing the Chopin 2nd on television in the late '70s, recorded when he was around 88 and had been playing the piece for probably 80 years.

I'm not sure how many times I've heard it live – not often – but often enough to always be disappointed whenever I did. Pianists who played to the scoreboard, trained to win competitions, make a hash out of the spirit behind Chopin's intimate, intricate music. I remember passing up an opportunity to experience Lang Lang (considered one of the most acclaimed pianists today) because why would I bother with someone who plays to the crowd play Chopin? Chopin is not a crowd's composer.

Lang Lang always reminds me of a circus clown with lots of talent: when he is 60, if he lasts that long, I will listen to him play Chopin because by then maybe he will have had one of those epiphanies that Rubinstein had when he was young – how he realized he was just coasting along on his talented laurels but suddenly found it empty; how he took a year off, completely reworked his technique (it's not just hitting the right notes) and came back a completely different and astoundingly greater interpreter. It is not easy to do – it's not even easy to admit to – but it is something every artist sometime has to do to survive. It is too easy, these days, for young artists of any kind to believe their own hype.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons Ann Schein survives – she recorded the Chopin 2nd when she was around the same age Chopin was when he wrote it: 20. But there was never any hype about her the way we see today (Lang Lang, fresh out of conservatory, already acclaimed as “The Horowitz of Today”). She made some brilliant, well-received recordings, performed all over the world, but rather than pursue a career chose to raise her family and teach. But she has never stopped performing – she has, after all, played the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto over 100 times – but she has somehow stayed under the general public's radar.

There have been other pianists who are better known and more frequently recorded: to name a few, Alicia de Larrocha, Martha Argerich, or from earlier generations Dame Myra Hess (with whom Schein also studied), all of whom are regarded as giants. But even at 5'2”, Ann Schein should be regarded as just such a giant. And anyone hearing this performance at the Forum had an opportunity to realize that.

I thought I would never hear playing like this again.

Rubinstein and the great pianists of his generation(s) have all passed, now. Emanuel Ax and Krystian Zimerman (both, like Chopin and Rubinstein, Polish) may be the best Chopin interpreters we have today – and that's not too shabby, by the way – but this is becoming more and more a thing-of-the-past as we hear Chopin metered out by performers who search for audience approval the same way we determine winners on American Idol or what movies won big at the Box Office during their opening weekends (how many of those have won Oscars? How many of those end up as the Top 100 Movies of All Times?). I shudder to think of some future generation looking back on the present as a Golden Age and not just in the interpretation of Chopin.

Chopin himself had what critics called a “small sound,” meaning the sound he produced at a piano did not carry well to the back of a large concert hall – and that was before the days of 9-foot concert grands. Chopin was at his best in salon performances, not great halls, and “specialized” in writing miniatures for solo piano.

Perhaps this “small sound” was the reason for that, why he didn't pursue a career like his friend and rival Franz Liszt (who, disagreeing or not, at least understood Chopin's genius) and why he wrote no more concertos for himself after the age of 20.

Brahms had a huge, easily over-powering sound – and all you have to do is compare the B-flat Piano Concerto Markus Groh performed here in January with the Chopin F Minor Concerto Ann Schein performed here last night. They are as different in sound as they are in intent, Brahms writing a vast symphonic concerto while Chopin looked at the concerto from the other end of the telescope.

Yes, the focus is on the soloist – Chopin's concertos are part of the “virtuoso tradition” that also gave us Paganini and Liszt, in one sense, as well as a whole generation of long-forgotten pianists and concerto-writers like Kalkbrenner, Moscheles and Thalberg. Chopin's inspiration wasn't the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven (keep in mind this concerto was written only 3 years after Beethoven died) but the human voice, particularly that of Bellini's bel canto style which means literally “beautiful voice.” His piano writing sounds more like an aria in which the pianist's right hand becomes the soprano's voice, complete with all the nuanced varieties of the style – the “ornamentation” which, unfortunately, makes it sound like a frill in the wrong hands, or the use of rubato which pianists often take to an extreme and ignore the fact that, underneath this, there is still a pulse.

Pianists who love to play loud and play lots of notes as fast as possible – and the audiences that love them – will never understand Chopin.

But that still doesn't explain why I could be brought to tears during the slow movement of this concerto, last night, during this gorgeous aria for piano with incredible if minimal support from the orchestra.

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In addition to her own heritage, studying with great Polish pianists like Rubinstein and Mieczysław Munz, Schein stresses in her teaching the importance of color – listen to the radio interview given at Aspen in 2012  – again, more than just playing (much less “hitting”) the right note, but how you play it, how you make it part of the line, how you voice it within a phrase, how it balances with the harmony supporting it and so on.

When I heard the rehearsal the night before, the first thing that struck me was how unfortunate the piano sounded, a few notes fractionally out-of-tune (that can be fixed, hopefully) but, more problematically, poorly voiced. Her opening passage from the higher to the lower register and back again, sounded like it was played on three different pianos. How could she make bel canto out of this?

Since pianists do not carry around their own instruments, they learn to deal with what they're given at each and every performance venue. One piano can be a fine instrument and another one can be miserable (depending on its care and maintenance) – plus it also depends on the acoustical environment it fits into, a resonant hall or a dry one, for instance. And all this could be different from one pianist to another. So they learn to adjust. By giving a little more to this note or less to that one (intonation is something you can't compensate for but if it's on the high-point of a phrase, you adjust the phrasing so it doesn't sound so jarring, for example), you can make a listener believe the instrument is perfect.

By the time we had gotten into the second movement, I noticed the piano was sounding much better. And by the end, I had forgotten all about how poorly this piano sounded a half-hour earlier.

Now, after a good working session with piano technician James Hess, Ms. Schein gives him the credit for making the adjustments she wanted (these would vary from performer to performer, the bane of many a piano tuner's existence). If there were any doubts about the instrument, they were gone.

On rare occasion, I've had the experience of listening to one piano in one performance played by different pianists. It amused me to hear a new Steinway at the University of Connecticut which I had played myself and found immensely stiff and unresponsive (I am not, admittedly, a pianist, though I did, at that time, play the piano – and there's a difference), a problem I had to overcome by a few hard hours of concentrated practicing so that we could both become used to each other. I heard a teacher sit down and play, as I recall, a Beethoven sonata on it and thought this piano was only going to be “so good.” This was followed by one of his students playing, I believe, some Chopin, and I remember thinking, “When did they change pianos?” She wasn't a better pianist than her teacher, but she somehow was able to overcome the challenges of an instrument that was difficult to respond. So it's not necessarily the piano's fault – and how does one teach something like that to a student?

Ms. Schein said that Jorge Bolet, another great pianist of the last century who I heard play two Rachmaninoff concertos with Harrisburg back in the '80s, had a knack for memorizing how each note on a piano responded and could adjust his technique accordingly. She laughed that she didn't have the ability to memorize stuff like that, but yet she was able to achieve the same thing.

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But that's only part of the equation, getting what Chopin wrote to what I heard last night and how it affected me.

I am constantly amazed at how incredible an accompanist – collaborative artist is a better word for it – Stuart Malina can be as a conductor. This is not easy for anyone who picks up a baton: it's much more than “stick technique.” And while it may have gone unnoticed in the performance, hearing that rehearsal proved he is no conductor to think “there's nothing for the orchestra to do” in this piece.

Chopin was, after all, 19 or 20 when he composed this piece (it was premiered when he was 20) and he was not an experienced composer or a writer for the orchestra. What exposure he had to orchestras in his native Poland could not have been a great influence on him. Composers I know have laughed at his “orchestration” – the skill of writing well for the instruments – and granted, there are times when the orchestra plays soft sustained chords supporting this wonderful voice that is the soloist. Looking at the page, it is easy to think “this is easy.”

The difficulty comes in the phrasing – the music is, after all, between the notes, not the notes themselves – and the coordination of that phrase between where the pianist places the beat and where the chord played by 60 musicians needs to change. Given the style, this flexibility of tempo often means the tempo “changes” from beat to beat, sometimes several times in a measure, and surely as it approaches the cadence (again, the technical mumbo-jumbo that musicians need to make things work).

Conductor & Soloist Before Rehearsal
So many times, Stuart would go back and work on a simple-sounding phrase to get it just right. At one point, there was a question from the principal cellist about when they resolve that chord – on the lowest note of the pianist's arpeggiated chord or on the top note when the chord is completed? They agreed it should be the bottom (first-heard) note. Otherwise, ten cellists might play that one note of theirs at two different times – granted, a fraction of a second, but enough to make it sound sloppy. Now coordinated, that phrase and its resolution sounded perfect. Moving on...

A conductor follows the soloist and extends or pushes a beat as needed to ensure everyone reaches the downbeat of the next measure together. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Someone who keeps the beat strict will quickly make a hash out of Chopin – I've heard it often enough – and an orchestra that doesn't follow what its conductor is doing will be adding their own ingredients to this hash.

And it's not just a question of the conductor “watching” the soloist and the orchestra “watching” the conductor. There's a sympathy that evolves between everyone that is a kind of musical sixth-sense: no amount of rehearsal will ensure that it couldn't (and perhaps shouldn't) happen differently at the concert. And everyone has to be right there.

There were times when I found myself smiling because just such a moment happened flawlessly. The music breathed like it was coming from one player – and it was saying what, I think, Chopin wanted to say.

And then there were the tears welling up in the slow movement, which was beautiful beyond words. And the audience felt this, tears or not: it was only later I realized how quiet this audience was during that performance, the ineluctable modality of the audible.

It helps that Stuart is a fine pianist in his own right and also plays a great deal of chamber music. Too often, conductors find themselves needing to concentrate on conducting and let their playing slide. Or give it up entirely. A string or wind player who's conducting an orchestra would have a different concept of this than a pianist might, pianists who have to struggle to do whatever the person they're accompanying wants to do (for better or worse).

But there is this sympathy that comes with being a chamber musician, where everybody collaborates and communicates to each other in ways so mysterious, listeners who have never had the experience can never understand it and those who do can never adequately explain it to them.

This is what happened last night. Over 60 musicians in the orchestra responded to a conductor in complete synch with a soloist who completely understood what Chopin was trying to say.

Something like this should happen to every concert-goer more often than it does, but it was a thrill to sit in the Forum and experience it. I can't say I've felt it so strongly before, myself, as many concerts as I've attended in my life, both here and in New York City or Philadelphia. But it happened last night and it was nothing short of enlightening.

Malina & Schein share a bow after the Chopin

Now, if I were writing a “review,” I would never have been able to write as much as I have. My blog-master isn't standing over me with a deadline or a word-count limit (“really, 3,000 words?”). I should also include pithy observations about the recent piece by Guillaume Connesson that opened the program and certainly about the 40-minute symphony by Rachmaninoff that concluded the concert, but it has, alas, gone on too long (and for that, I don't apologize).

When concertmaster Peter Sirotin mentioned in his opening remarks that, over the summer, the State will be undertaking a major renovation of the Forum – new seats (applause), new restrooms (cheers from the women in the audience) – changes long overdue (I would be happy if they would just vacuum the place once in a while), but it was his comment about how important Ann Schein was as a mentor to him and his wife, Ya-Ting Chang, that made this concert special above all others he's played in Harrisburg since he first arrived here in 1996.

We all have people in our lives who believe in us and offer us those special insights that help us develop as musicians, as businessmen, as people.

It was the perfect fitting, in a sense, that at the end of the concert as I'm getting ready to leave, feeling so full of the soul of life that great music-making can bring us, that an elderly woman (older than me) leaned forward and said “I don't think you recognize me.”

I did, but couldn't place her.

She was the wife of my junior high school music teacher, Al Bethel, who had played trombone in the Harrisburg Symphony when I was a child, who played in a lot of jazz bands in the area and was an incredible Dixieland musician and a good friend of my dad, well known in his day playing the Hammond organ when he wasn't working at The Boston Store.

Al nurtured my interest in classical music and, along with another local musician, Al Morrison, a dance-band musician but also a pianist who played percussion in the symphony, help my parents contend with the challenges of raising a kid who wanted to become a composer. He gave me advice, suggested music I should listen to and above all took me seriously.

He also gave me my first manuscript pen, telling me (in those days before computer programs do it all for you) I had to develop good calligraphy, that art of clean, precise music-handwriting which performers, working from manuscripts, will appreciate. Though that pen had long since deteriorated, I still think of Al – and here was his wife, at this moment, asking, “do you remember me?”

Everyone should have an experience like this – everyone should have a mentor like this – everyone should be a mentor like this.

Then perhaps more people would continue to have experiences like this and be able to enjoy those rare moments when music communicates something beyond what we can only hope to comprehend.

Dick Strawser

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photo credits: the 1st and 3rd were taken by Kim Isenhour, marketing director of the Harrisburg Symphony; the 2nd was taken before the Friday night rehearsal by pianist Terry Klinefelter, principal keyboard player of the Harrisburg Symphony.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Classical Grammy Winners for 2014

The winners of the Grammy Awards in the Classical Music division were announced this evening. (For the complete list of nominees, please check this earlier post.)

For Best Orchestral Performance:

Jean Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4
Osmo Vänskä, conductor (Minnesota Orchestra) on BIS Records

This was especially nice to see, given their recent history after a 14-month lock-out which included Osmo Vänskä resigning because the management could not settle it before the necessary rehearsal schedule before a Carnegie Hall concert and recording date. You can read about it in the morning paper, here, and at the musicians' own blog, here. Fortunately, no one from the board or orchestra management was on hand to pick up the award which will now be delivered by mail. I'm curious who it will be addressed to. This was the second recording in a projected series leaving the remaining three symphonies in jeopardy. (Here is the earlier recording of the 2nd & 5th Symphonies at iTunes.) A very sad state of affairs, so there is an extra kick of Schaddenfreude in announcing this particular win.

for Best Opera Recording:

Thomas Adès: The Tempest – Thomas Adès conducting, Simon Keenlyside &c, Metropolitan Opera on DG

for Best Choral Performance:

Arvo Pärt: Adam's Lament – Tonu Kaljuste conducting the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Sinfonietta Riga & Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Latvian Radio Choir & Vox Clamantis on ECM New Series

for Best Chamber Music or Small Ensemble Performance:

Roomful of Teeth – Brad Wells & Roomful of Teeth on New Amsterdam Records

for Best Instrumental Solo:

John Corigliano: Conjurer – Concerto for Percussionist & String Orchestra – Evelyn Glennie, with David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony on Naxos

For Best Classical Vocal Solo:

Winter Morning Walks with Dawn Upshaw, various conductors and ensembles on Artist Share

for Best Classical Compendium (listing only the conductors):

Paul Hindemith: Violin Concerto, Symphonic Metamorphoses and Konzertmusik – Christoph Eschenbach conducting on Ondine

for Best Contemporary Classical Composition:

Maria Schneider: Winter Morning Walks – with Dawn Upshaw & the Australian Chamber Orchestra on ArtistShare

Congratulations, for what little it's worth, to the winners of this year's Classical Grammy Awards!

P.S. Here's a thought-provoking article from Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, "The Classical Grammys (Remember Them?)"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Behind the Scenes: Torke, Bartok & Brahms with the Harrisburg Symphony

This is the script for the pre-concert talk I gave before the Harrisburg Symphony's January (Thaw) Masterworks Concert this weekend. You can read my posts on the orchestra's website about Michael Torke's Javelin, Bela Bartók's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin and Johannes Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto.
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Who would have believed, after living through the coldest weather in 20 years, it could be almost 50° five days after the Invasion of the Polar Vortex!? But that's the way weather works, sometimes – as Mark Twain said about New England, “if you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes.” When they talk about “climate change,” I didn't think they meant every few days...

One could say the same about musical styles, though it may take a decade or two to see real change, historically: whether the pendulum swings back and forth or whether it comes full circle is immaterial. The fact is, every generation since, say, 1700 (as a handy cut-off point) has decided the previous generation was yesterday's “old hat” and anything that needs to be said should be said our way, only to become tomorrow's old hat. Today, most of us are not that conscious of the difference between Haydn and Beethoven or even – at least aesthetically – Brahms and Wagner, lumped together with the Great Romanticists, who in real life were arch-rivals and at the opposite ends of the classical music spectrum.

But in a period of a single concert, you can, however, experience several changes in this musical weather – all within a span of two hours. For some, a piece by Bartók could be the musical equivalent of the dreaded Polar Vortex which, after intermission, will be warmed-up by the sunny familiarity of Johannes Brahms.

Or you might find the newness and even strangeness of the unfamiliar on the first half of the program exhilarating – the way people talk about “a bracing chill” – just as others might find something as overly familiar as Brahms (an old chestnut, to be sure: one of the Three B's, after all) capable of inducing “lazy listening,” unaware there could actually be another way to listen to something you're already well-acquainted with.

If I tell you the first half of the concert is all-20th-Century, you may react one way – positively or negatively – just as if I tell you the second half is one of the great 19th Century Romantic war-horses (“oh, not that again!”).

But if I tell you the first half of the program was written by composers in their 30s and the second half by a composer in his late-40s – does this change the way you might... think about what you'll hear? How many people in our audience are within this age-range of, say, 33 and 48...? ...How many here are older than 48?

What if I told you Bela Bartók finished his ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” when he was 38 but was still hoping for that first big break-through that would turn him into an internationally recognized “great composer” of the 20th Century? And what if I told you that when Johannes Brahms finished his 2nd Piano Concerto, he was 48 and at the peak of his popularity, having completed his 1st Symphony five years earlier and in between wrote his 2nd Symphony and the Violin Concerto? His 3rd Symphony was a couple years in the future.

What if I tell you Michael Torke was 33 when he composed the first piece you'll hear tonight, called “Javelin”? He'd written a series of color-inspired pieces with titles like “Green,” “Bright Blue Music,” “Purple” and “Ecstatic Orange,” but he seems to have passed a little beyond his youthful popularity, now, even though he's still alive and writing – he's now 51, three years older than Brahms was when he wrote this concerto. It's a little early to question whether he'll be forgotten in the next decade – or if he finds himself on the comeback trail as he reaches a new maturity.

He certainly writes very pleasant music – as one critic put it back in 1996, around the time “Javelin” was first heard and frequently performed, Torke writes "some of the most optimistic, joyful and thoroughly uplifting music to appear in recent years” – which is certainly saying something in the 20th Century. But, when we consider some of the music we consider “Great Art” – is being “pleasant” enough? Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto didn't become a war-horse just because it has nice tunes.

What if I tell you Michael Torke is one of a generation of composers who grew up listening to rock-n-roll and feels that is as much a possible resource for his own style as Leonard Bernstein devoured jazz or Antonin Dvořák absorbed the folk music of his native Bohemia?

Brahms at the Piano
Brahms once signed an autograph book by writing down the tune from Johann Strauss' “Beautiful Blue Danube” which he signed “Alas, not by Johannes Brahms.” We think of Brahms as this big, stodgy, cigar-chomping man with a big beard, but he was a big fan of Johann Strauss who might be the equivalent of today's “pop music” back then. Brahms would often be found hanging out in the smoky taverns of Vienna listening to gypsy bands which were the equivalent (both musically and socially) of New York City's jazz clubs – and this gypsy music found its way into his concert music quite often: not just the Hungarian Dances but also the finale of the Violin Concerto, the one he started writing in 1878 just as he'd begun sketching what would soon become his 2nd Piano Concerto.

And this Hungarian music Brahms loved and brought into the concert hall was not really folk music, as it's often considered. It's more like Urban Popular Music – the gypsies (who were not ethnically Hungarian) had a style of their own which has little to do with authentic Hungarian Folk Music, despite the popular perception of it, thanks to Brahms' dances and Liszt's rhapsodies. It wasn't until the early 1900s that Bela Bartók, himself a Hungarian nationalist, first heard what he realized was the authentic musical voice of the Hungarian people. He would quickly absorb this into his own style and create the voice we recognize as Bela Bartók.

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When Bartók began writing “The Miraculous Mandarin,” he was still virtually unknown: but there was another influence on his music, the economic and political realities of Europe, especially Hungary, after the 1st World War.

And even if you've only followed the trials of the Crawley Family on Downton Abbey, you'll realize what a change this event made in the social fabric of the time – now, imagine what it did to the people who lived where these armies fought, who lived in countries that, after the war, no longer existed or, more importantly, like Hungary, hadn't existed before and were now faced with a whole new and blank chapter in their history. Once a more-or-less autonomous part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – politically, maybe; culturally, not so much – what did they do, now that they were an independent nation?

All these questions were big news around the time Bela Bartók read a story by Menyhért Lengyel about a trio of thugs, a young girl and the strange appearance of a wealthy Chinese man.

It was published on New Year's Day, 1917, and was a scenario for a “grotesque pantomime” – rather than a fully danced ballet. The story goes that Ernst von Dohnanyi – in the Germanized form of his name: his Hungarian name would be Ernő Dohnanyi – was approached to write music for this pantomime but he said the “grand guignol” aspects of the story were better suited to Bela Bartók who'd just had the first real success of his career with the ballet, The Wooden Prince in April of 1917. (He'd written Bluebeard's Castle but it hadn't been staged, yet.) Whether Bartók had already started work on the music when Lengyel approached him or not, I'm not sure, but the music was sketched between the summer of 1918 and into 1919. (By the way, “Bluebeard” would be staged in May of 1918 but after one performance was banned and not staged again until 1936.)

Given the aftermath of the War, getting the ballet (or rather, pantomime) staged was going to be a problem so, meanwhile, Bartók went on composing other, more practical pieces.

He didn't finish the orchestration until later and the full ballet wasn't staged until 1926 in Cologne, Germany, where it became a scandal, causing a riot that lasted ten minutes: it was closed down after one performance. As a ballet, it would only be staged two more times before Bartók died in 1945 – he never saw the work on stage.

Shortly after that disastrous premiere, Bartók created a suite out of the complete work, basically the first two-thirds of the score, with a brief “concert ending” tacked on. This Suite received its first concert performance in Budapest in 1928, finally – ten years after he'd started working on it – with, ironically, Ernő Dohnanyi on the podium.

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George Grosz, The Explosion (1917)
With the Industrial Revolution, the Big City became an attraction for many young people – looking for adventure and success, looking, primarily, for a job. The Big City was exciting, teaming with humanity and endless opportunity – but many others viewed it with fear and loathing, feeling it was dehumanizing to the spirit and man's dignity.

In one sense, the optimistic view of the Big City might be reflected in the jazzy, up-beat opening of George Gershwin's 1928 “American in Paris” so full of joie-de-vivre, complete with taxi horns; the pessimistic view would be heard in the opening of The Miraculous Mandarin with its whirring wheels and clanging machinery, the noise and hubbub of the factory and how it was grinding humanity down to being just another cog...

As he wrote to his wife when he began work on the music in mid-September, 1918,

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Its beginning—a very short introduction before the curtain opens—a terrible din, clattering, rattling, hooting: I lead the Hon[orable] listener into the apache den from the bustle of a metropolitan street.
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From there, we hear a theme that has, at its root, a folk song, possibly a lament, one way it represents the three thugs and then, with a more tender treatment, the girl. Cold and hungry (as Bartók often was himself during this time), they need money so they force the girl to stand in the window to attract a man to come upstairs – the plan is, then, they'll rob him. Sounds easy: what could go wrong?

The long, unaccompanied clarinet solo – almost like a snake-charmer's chant – represents the girl at the window. Her first responder is an old man – we hear him trudging up the stairs as the thugs go and hide. She is repulsed by him and his pompous little shadow of a march underneath an English horn solo. When they realize he has no money, they throw him down the steps.

She returns to the window and we hear the clarinet solo a second time. Her second respondent is a young student, shy, embarrassed, but she likes him and tries to get him to dance with her. But he also has no money and when the thugs appear, he runs down the steps and back into the street.

The third “siren's call” becomes a little more involved but then her third responder makes his entrance to some terrifying brass fanfares in a pentatonic scale – basically, the five-note scale you can create by playing on just the black keys of the piano. This is the mandarin, a wealthy Chinese man, richly dressed – awesome if not exactly miraculous, yet. He stands in the doorway and stares at the girl. She is, understandably, terrified.

But he doesn't respond to the girl who hesitantly begins to dance. Only eventually does she warm up to the task and only gradually does he seem to notice her. But instead he begins to pursue her around the room, in one of the great chase scenes in classical music.

And why, basically, a Mandarin? Why not an industrial tycoon or an Austrian general, representing the economic or political enemies of Hungary? Why, in the language of the day, a "Chinaman"?

Fu Manchu, film villain
Keep in mind Western Europe was in the grip of the fictional villain, Fu Manchu, created in 1912 by the English writer Sax Rohmer with a series of novels that eventually would become a series of films. He invented the phrase "Yellow Peril" and the character's mustache alone was enough the conjure up the image of pure evil.

But in Hungary, this dread of the mandarin's "otherness" is less brutal. There is a kinship sensed between Hungarians and Asians traced back to the arrival of Attila the Hun who rose out of Central Asia to forge a mighty empire that reached across modern Hungary from central Germany to the Black Sea in the 5th Century. The pentatonic music we associate stereotypically with Chinese music is also at the root of a great deal of Hungarian folk music. There is more in common between the aspect of the three thugs and that of the mysterious (if not yet miraculous) Mandarin who ends up as their victim.

Basically, this is the end of the suite – but since the ballet continues for another ten minutes, I'll give you a run-down of the rest of the story: the thugs attack the Mandarin, knock him down and rob him but they can't get rid of him, so they decide to kill him. They smother him on the bed under the blankets. But he regains consciousness and starts chasing the girl again. Next, the thugs take a knife and stab him, but he doesn't bleed. Again, he comes to and again he goes after the girl. This time the thugs bind him, then hang him from the overhead light and he dies. When they cut him down, he comes back to life but the girl takes pity on him, caresses him – it is only then that his wounds begin to bleed and he actually, finally, dies.

Again, that part of the story is not part of the suite but it is how the Mandarin got his title...

It's interesting to note that just a few days before Lengyel's story appeared in print, an event happened in St. Petersburg, Russia: the murder of the monk Rasputin who had had such a scandalous hold on the Imperial Family of Russia. The Empress hardly made a move without consulting her Rasputin who had prophesied that if he should ever be “separated” from them, the House of Romanov would fall.

Rasputin, 1914
In December 1916, various patriots decided it was time to rid the tsar of Rasputin's control, and so the monk was offered cyanide-laced pastries at the home of Prince Yusupov, presumably eating enough to kill a man quickly. But after an hour, he showed no signs of illness. So Prince Yusupov shot him 3 times in the chest and back, penetrating his stomach, liver and a kidney. When Yusupov returned moments later to check the body, Rasputin opened his eyes and grabbed at the prince, pulling off an epaulet and trying to strangle his would-be killer. He got up and stumbled outside into the courtyard where Yusupov again shot him – four more shots were fired – and also clubbed him over the head till he dropped. There is a grizzly photograph of Rasputin's body with a bullet hole in the forehead – no doubt that stopped him... A couple hours later, Yusupov and his fellow conspirators dumped the body into the river.

As Rasputin's prophecy foretold, only two months later the tsar abdicated the imperial throne during the first Russian Revolution in 1917. The second revolution occurred that autumn, led by the Bolsheviks who had the tsar and his family imprisoned and then executed in July of 1918.

That summer, Bela Bartók began writing the music for Lengyel's story about a Mandarin who wouldn't die.

According to Bartók's letter to his wife, he'd begun working on the music by September, 1918, but the 1st World War didn't officially end until the Armistice that November. The official treaty ending the war wasn't signed until late-June, 1919, around the time Bartók finished the first draft.

There was a revolution in Budapest in October of 1918 – again, before the armistice but while Bartók was composing – which overthrew the autonomous government under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, forcing the Emperor Karl who had only just succeeded to the throne following the death of the old emperor Franz Josef in 1916 at the age of 86, who was also nominally the King of Hungary. So, with him gone as the de facto ruler of Hungary, by mid-November, just days after the Armistice, a Hungarian Republic was proclaimed.

Hoping to remain neutral, the new nation found itself being invaded by its neighbors Serbia and Romania – but the United States and Woodrow Wilson had forced the disarmament of the Hungarian Army, leaving it with no defenses.

By February 1919, unable to control popular dissent or manage the economy, the republic fell in a second revolution backed by Lenin and the Russian bolsheviks, forming a Hungarian Soviet Republic. But the communists had never been popular outside the big cities and so a civil war ensued in which the Hungarian Red Army murdered hundreds of scientists and other intellectuals – some 590, many in Budapest – between March and August of 1919, mostly led by a gang called “Lenin's Boys” who were basically street thugs roaming the city.

Again, this was during the time Bartók was completing The Miraculous Mandarin.

The Soviet Republic fell in early-August when Romanian troops captured Budapest. The Reds fled the city (escaping to Austria after looting the banks and taking numerous “national treasures” with them), leaving now the conservative, pro-royalist faction, the Whites, as the sole fighting force, who managed to defeat the Romanian Army. But with no police force or national army, chaos ensued under the “White Terror” which lasted for almost two years and which aimed much of its anger against the Jews whom they blamed as supporters of the previous communist regime.

A former Austro-Hungarian admiral took charge of the Whites, formed a national army, tried to restore order and created the Kingdom of Hungary with himself as “Regent.” However, no one wanted the actual former Austro-Hungarian emperor as king nor could they find another likely candidate, so somehow Admiral Miklós Horthy served as Regent – that is, royal place-holder as care-taker – until he was ousted by the invasion of his former allies, the German Nazis, in 1944. By that time, Bartók managed to flee Budapest for the West and eventually New York City, but that's another and longer and even sadder story.

Meanwhile, in Paris in 1920, the Western Nations carved away at Hungary, slicing off some 72% of the original country and giving it to Romania, to what would become Yugoslavia and to the new country of Czechoslovakia as well as to what was left of Austria, once a vast empire sprawling across central and eastern Europe, now this small land-locked nation, a shadow of its former self. These divisions were done along ethnic and linguistic lines rather than political and historical lines – but from the standpoint of a Hungarian, it was humiliating, and now almost 3½ million ethnic Hungarians no longer lived in Hungary. Bartók's hometown was now in Romania; the largely Hungarian village where his family moved after his father's death later became part of Ukraine; the city he grew up in was now in Czechoslovakia (and presently in Slovakia).

So perhaps this brief summary of the historical background with its political and social turmoil not to mention the economic instability during the times when Bartók was composing The Miraculous Mandarin might give us an appreciation for the violence of the story and the music he wrote for it. Harrowing music from harrowing times.

Thinking about Bartók's dystopian world, it might bring to mind things we see on our news every night: this growing game of “knockout” or a man shot to death in a road-rage incident, school shootings, drug-related killings... As Bartók wrote to a friend following the horrors of World War I, “all art should face the unspeakable and the horrific without fear.” To someone who wanted to protect himself from such reality, he wrote “why do you want to be protected like a child from what is hard and harsh? The doors of your heart would be closed to human feeling. Do you not want to struggle, to be shocked, to experience life-threatening situations? How else will you understand Beethoven, Goethe, Nietzsche? Whoever wishes to experience ideas which are born from suffering must himself suffer.”

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Johannes Brahms had died in Vienna about 20 years before Lengyel's story of the Miraculous Mandarin. Generally, Brahms had a fairly dull life as great artists' biographies go, and he was fortunate to live in a fairly stable society both politically and economically. He was, by the time he composed his 2nd Piano Concerto, at the height of his fame – his conductor friend Hans von Bülow had already coined the Three Bs, Bach Beethoven and Brahms – plus he was quite well off, enough so he could set royalties aside for a secret fund to help his old friend Clara Schumann, who wasn't having that good a time of it toward the end of her career as a solo pianist.

The day after Brahms premiered his new Violin Concerto, Clara lost her youngest child, her son Felix – she had been pregnant with him when her husband Robert had attempted suicide only five months after a 20-year-old Brahms had introduced himself to them. Brahms' 1st Piano Concerto in D Minor had started out as a theme sketched a few days after Robert Schumann threw himself off a bridge into the River Rhine. Now, Clara was celebrating her 50th year as a concert pianist but arthritis, hearing issues and the failing health of some of her children made it difficult for her – for one thing, she found she could no longer play Brahms' D Minor Piano Concerto. She would never accept outright charity but somehow, through his publisher, Brahms managed to see Clara would get a steady income she thought was from her husband's music.

In April of 1878, Brahms and a few friends of his took a vacation – not a tour, just a trip, tourists in the sunny land of Italy, the first of nine such holidays he would take there – the only country he visited purely for pleasure. It was there that he sat down and sketched some ideas for a NEW piano concerto – but the next month, when he began his summer's composing, he put it aside to write a violin concerto for his friend Joseph Joachim which was premiered on New Year's Day, 1879.

Brahms hated touring as a performer, in fact hated performing, probably almost as much as he hated practicing. Joachim complained frequently about their being under-rehearsed while they were on tour. In the spring of 1880, with Clara Schumann unable to play because of her arthritis, it was Brahms who played Robert Schumann's piano quartet at the unveiling of a Schumann memorial in Bonn and Clara wrote how she suffered listening to her friend “grope and growl” his way through her husband's music, a piece she often played. “It was like I was sitting on thorns.” Joachim, she said “cast despairing glances at me...”

Brahms was often one to keep his work to himself: during the summer of 1880, he composed two piano trios, one of which never saw the light of day, as well as some piano pieces, the 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79, and the 2 overtures – the “Tragic” and its companion, the “Academic Festival,” musically the equivalent of the theatrical masks of drama and comedy. He also was working on a new piano concerto.

Standing over Taormina
Before he finished it, there was another trip to Italy in April, 1881, where three friends had trouble keeping up with him, he was enjoying himself so much. His doctor friend, Billroth, wrote that one of his favorite places was to stand on the cliffs overlooking the village of Taormina on Sicily, in the shadow of the volcano Mt. Etna, and gaze out over the sea and he found the wine of Venice so much to his liking, when a fan recognized him on the street, he was enjoying himself so much, she had to grab his arm to keep him from walking off into a canal.

It's an interesting image to keep in mind – this idea of Brahms the bon vivant enjoying himself in Italy – during the last movement of the concerto, which if it doesn't paint musical images of the places he visited, gives us an idea of how he felt when he was there, certainly one of the happiest times in his life.

A few months later, then, Brahms announced to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg he'd completed a “tiny concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.” Now, if you know the piece, it's hardly tiny – in fact, at about 50 minutes, average, it's probably one of the longest concertos in the standard repertoire. A scherzo, which makes this a four-movement concerto rather than the typical three-movement form, is usually a light-hearted dance-like movement (it means “joke” in Italian), but this one is neither “tiny, tiny” nor a “wisp,” but a full-throttle drama with a full-bodied dance in the middle to... sunshine? Or wine, perhaps? Brahms explained he felt the first movement was so “harmless,” it needed something passionate between it and the slow movement. We know he'd originally planned for an added scherzo in the violin concerto – so this is where that idea (if not the music itself) ended up.

Brahms, of course, would often have his little self-deprecating joke about his music – not that he was ever modest about it (in fact, he could be one of the biggest jerks in classical music when it came to that). But unlike the D Minor Piano Concerto which had been a failure at its premiere in Leipzig – where barely three pairs of hands started to applaud before the hissing began – this new concerto was a huge success and Brahms quickly took it on tour both as soloist and as conductor (he and his conductor/pianist friend Hans von Bülow often traded places on the stage).

Clara Schumann wrote in her journal that “Brahms is celebrating such triumphs everywhere as seldom fall to the lot of a composer,” not easy for her to admit, given her own husband's lifetime of neglect. The spring before he'd first sketched the concerto, he was given an honorary doctorate degree and was even offered the job as music director of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where he would've become the successor to Johann Sebastian Bach – an honor he quickly turned down, however (imagine, the city where, 19 years earlier, they'd hissed his 1st Piano Concerto!) – but Clara also knew him well enough to know that whatever his triumphs on the world's stage, in reality Brahms lived a sad life... and always would.

So in the condensed period of one evening, you can explore three different musical eras and worlds – stylistic, personal, historical... Starting with Michael Torke's javelin-like rise to what promised to be an exuberant career (“Javelin” is, after all, only 20 years old) – to the dystopian dysfunction of a world of violence and inhumanity in Bartók's “grotesque pantomime,” to some of the happiest music a lonely man could ever write at the peak of his career.

Enjoy the ride!

- Dick Strawser

Monday, December 30, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 4

(This is the last - I promise - in a series of posts about writing my November Novel, An Ineluctable Modality. You can start at the beginning with Part 1 here; you can begin reading the entire novel, here.)

One thing I've learned from reading about writers or their styles, no matter what somebody comes up with, somebody'd already come up with a term for it. No matter how natural it may seem to you the reader (or you, the author), finding an academic term applied to it makes it sound like one of those “write-a-scene-using-one-of-these-three-techniques” assignments. I suppose it's the way many people speak – without being conscious of what tense, what grammatical or syntactical rules, or whether they're spelling and punctuating it properly. We do it automatically, speaking, having absorbed rules, examples and influences in the process of our education and experience, knowingly or not, without knowing “what it's called.”

It's the same thing in music where critics and theorists can spill a lot of ink trying to tell us about what composers have written or what we're listening to. It often doesn't make compelling reading and often isn't going to help the average listener enjoy it any more. And appreciation may be a different thing than enjoying, anyway: we can appreciate what might have gone into it but, frankly, if you don't like the sound of it, chances are understanding the technical details or the historical background isn't really going to make you like it. If you do like it, then yes, appreciation can deepen your response to it. Or not.

Listening to Frank Delaney's weekly podcasts about James Joyce's Ulysses may seem like a lot of detail (excessive, you might say) and an incredible amount of additional information. (As of Dec. 25th, 2013, three and a half years after his first post, Episode #185 is about a passage in Chapter 4, p.67 to be specific, barely 11% of the book, so far.) “Do I need to know this to understand Joyce's book?” It depends on the depth of understanding you want, I guess.

As someone who drives, I always use the analogy that I don't need to understand the physics behind the combustion engine to get from my home to the grocery store. If I'm trying to figure out why my computer is screwed up (again), do I really need to look up dozens of technical terms that explain the science behind the software?

On the other hand, developing an awareness of what interests me will increase my enjoyment of something I already enjoy. Otherwise, our enjoyment remains purely superficial: some people expect deeper understanding when it comes to certain things that we deem important in our lives but art, no matter what kind of art, is fine at the “I-know-what-I-like” level.

So I'm not particularly interested in dissecting my own writing style and applying the appropriate technical terms to describe this and that. There are things, however, that an author's insight can help explain and would be better than – should it ever come to that – having some third-party thirty years down the road guessing what I might have meant by that.

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One of the things that drew me to writing this novel was the challenge of paying dialectic homage to two of my favorite novels, neither of which are typical novels: James Joyce's Ulysses (begun by 1914) and Proust's In Search of Lost Time (Swann's Way published 1913), both originating around the same few years that Schoenberg wrote his Pierrot Lunaire (premiered in 1912) and Stravinsky was composing The Rite of Spring (premiered in 1913), two of the most important musical works at the beginning of the 20th Century.

And since my starting point was Proteus, the idea that things can change (and suddenly) as Proteus could change, the idea of changing my style – as Joyce did from chapter to chapter – became a given. I wanted the style to change between Joyce and Proust as the novel unfolded or as my narrator's mood changed with the course of a day.

In opera – at least in the standard 17th-to-mid-19th Century operas – if you were telling your story, advancing the plot, you would use a musical approach that, if not outright dialogue, was musically one or two steps beyond speech (called “recitative”); if you were allowing the characters to react to events, to describe their responses (their emotions) to these events, to develop their characters in these responses, you used more poetic language sung to more melodic music, sometimes where the words took second place to beautiful music, where repetition didn't really matter and where, basically, the action came to a halt – but that was okay as long as the music was beautiful or thrilling to listen to.

So I have certain episodes in my novel which are stories, where the narrator is relaying events in a fairly straightforward manner. Then there are episodes where the narrator dwells on the implications of these events or characters in language that might become more poetic, ambiguous, often filled with personal references (not to mention literary allusions). These might, at times, overlap or occur as if shuffled together. Or he might be thinking about creativity – his, in most cases, or how other people react to artists, since this is a very central part of his identity.

Early in Joyce's “Proteus” chapter, he mentions two German words: nacheinander and nebeneinander which ought to be spelled with capital-Ns since they're technically nouns. “Nach-” means, in this case, “one after another, (in time) and “Neben-” means “one next to another” (in space).

Whatever Joyce meant by this, he'd apparently read (and Frank Delaney said it's very likely he knew the essay) Lessing's 1766 essay on the ancient Greek statue Laocoön in which he discusses that fiction is good at describing the “Nacheinander,” as in a tale told sequentially where events happen one after another, and that painting or the plastic arts like sculpture are good at describing the “Nebeneinander” where things (objects) occur side-by-side in space but which can be seen “all at once” or – and I'm not sure if this was Delaney's take, another Joyce scholar's or mine, entirely – where the eye can start on one object and move spatially around to other objects, in other words, non-sequentially to take in the whole piece in a way that might be different from another viewer's.

My own use of these two words – which for me recur frequently throughout my novel – is to imply how one can be sequential and another one can be non-sequential in a quantum physics kind of way, not necessarily in chronological order, the way our own thoughts often sweep through our mind (consciously or otherwise) not always in “correct” order.

In my narrator's mind, ideas, events, people, associations, and the odd word-or-phrase-that-pops-up-unexpectedly can occur either way: since he's writing it down, it's told through his perception, not as a direct observation. And so, in the middle of a “nacheinander” passage will appear a flash of “nebeneinander,” which brings to mind an Italian term used in painting – pentimento – something from the past appearing visible through the present either as a faint imagine behind the surface (as a painter might paint over an already used canvas) or, by way of some “tear-in-the-fabric,” peeking through the surface.

While Proust essentially tells his life-story in chronological fashion once he's past the opening sequence usually called “Overture” - you can read Part 1 here - there are frequent passages that are clearly from other time-planes, past or present. His rich curlicues of historical name-dropping (familiar to his readers in the early-20th century, perhaps, but requiring footnotes today which still don't do anything more than identify who these people were) and references to great paintings of the past (most of them, at least, unknown to me in such detail) are similar instances of this “other-timeness.” One of the most famous of these (and most difficult to explain) is the whole “Swann in Love” episode, nearly half the first volume, which has a viewpoint that isn't Swann's but can't be the narrator's because these events take place long before the narrator's birth. But Proust is fully capable of switching gears in the middle of a phrase with a seemingly additional two hundred words explaining an event, a vision, an emotion experienced in his childhood that can already occupy a hundred words of its own. And even the events he's describing cannot be the same ones seen through the eyes of the narrator as a child: while Swann visits them in Combray, we learn details about Swann's presumably double existence as the son of a stock-broker and the friend of princes, about the various attitudes of the narrator's family – the grandmother, her husband, her well-meaning but completely air-headed sisters, as well as Great-Aunt Leonie and the parents – all in great detail, all the while the narrator is obsessively concerned about the depressing realization his mother will not be coming up to give him her usual good-night kiss.

Compare that to the way Joyce opens A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which, when I was in high school, I thought was the stupidest stuff I'd ever read – and yet here he's telling it from the vantage point of a five-year-old child, intrigued by the moocow, not as the adult narrator looking back fondly on his childhood. While he'd begun working on it in one fashion or another as early as 1904, he didn't begin rewriting it as the novel it became until 1907, and it wasn't published until 1914 (presumably he went on from there to begin work on what eventually became Ulysses published in 1922). Here, he is “baby tuckoo” whose life-philosophy seems to revolve around wetting the bed – first it's warm (pleasant), then it gets cold (unpleasant). A far cry from Proust's tendril-entwining loops of memory even if at the root of it lies his desire for his mother's kiss.

Since my novel would only be about 50,000 words, there was no need to go into such detail, both past and present. It was merely a short chunk of the narrator's life – the month of NaNoWriMo – in which are embedded memories from the past but nothing so consistent as a life-story though eventually there are sufficient memories to begin forming the idea of one.

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As Joyce plays with words and makes oblique and often inscrutable references (some, in foreign languages) to everything from other writers and an often arcane and unspoken bibliography, I decided I would try this as well, though I'm more likely an imitator badly showing off rather than creating anything nearly as virtuosic as Joyce manages (the whole trick of a virtuoso is to make it seem effortless; those who play at being virtuosos merely imitate and show us, inadvertently perhaps, how difficult it really is).

Though the opening is fairly straight-forward, it is, immediately after the Joycean title, entirely a parody of Proust: instead of going to bed early, as Swann's Way famously opens, my narrator used to wake up early. Here is the idea of changing things, of using (or implying) the opposite. Things contradict. Time, aging and the clock are all quickly presented (with a Joycean interpolation, “tick tock”) but with the appearance of the narrator walking on the beach (wearing borrowed boots) is pure Joyce (Stephen Dedalus on Sandymount Strand in Dublin, wearing boots and trousers borrowed from Buck Mulligan). My narrator inherited his boots from the uncle whose house he also inherited. It is as if the narrator is thinking as much about the same thoughts Joyce's Dedalus is thinking as he walks along his own beach which, eventually, we find out is in Maine.

Mythological references abound – his own name, Proteus; the identity-changing names he assigns to others – come not only from Homer but also Joyce's chapter: the narrator's father is Joyce's Adam Kadmon, the “first man” by way of the Kabala (I had initially thought it had something to do with Cadmus). Since his father would be the “first man” in the narrator's experience, the other fathers in his family tree must be given other names (what comes before “father” in our perception?): grandfather, Adam's father, becomes “Pater Hemon,” from the Greek for “Our Father” and at least is someone the narrator, as a child, meets. The other, even earlier but unexperienced fathers are all faded photographs (see Chapters 8 and 11) – or a memory that his father had of his own grandfather's funeral, Grandfather Khronos (the God of Time, not to be confused with the Titan Kronos, the father of Zeus, who killed his own father and ate his children). There is mention of the Union Ancestor, Great-Grandpa Logos (the Greek for “word,” as “in the beginning was the Word”); his wife is called Bereshith (the first word in the Hebrew Bible, the account of Creation, means “beginning”). What comes before the beginning? There is neither memory nor photographic proof.

On the other hand, the narrator's uncle, his father's older brother, is known only as Junior, even when he dies, a man in his 90s, the family nickname that robs him of his own identity. It is assumed he is Father Hemon, Jr. but it is never mentioned.

The quip about maestro di color che sanno is also quoted directly from Joyce who borrows it from Dante's reference to Aristotle (who was not bald, by the way). It means “master of those who know.” I also use, later, the expression maestro di color che sente, changing it to “those who feel (or sense)” and together refer to the left-side of the brain and the right, regarding an artist's creativity (if not our own non-artistic personalities).

There is also a playful exchange between the Narrator (now introduced as Proteus courtesy of the opening line stolen from Moby-Dick) and Henry Jordan, the would-be author, who addresses Proteus as the “master of those who know.” Proteus calls his friend Herr Liebhaber, “those who have love.” In Goethe's day (if not before) scholars (or professionals) were referred to as Kenner – “knowers,” in other words – and amateurs (from amat, Latin for “he loves”) were Liebhaber or “love-havers.” It is only more recently that this division was made by quality than by training. I have often been tempted to name two contrasting and argumentative characters Dr. Kenner and Mr. Liebhaber, a Dickensian touch.

Among Joycean puns, I would point out those about omphalos (Greek for “navel”) in Chapter 5, especially the umbilical “chord” which resonates throughout the world. From Homer comes Achilles but here, courtesy of Zeno and his paradoxes, he is forever chasing the Tortoise. Later, as a boy, in Chapter 20, the narrator observes a box turtle his elders have named “Achilles.” It is a moment of idyllic happiness and ends with a reference to Goethe's Faust, the moment Faust discovers true happiness: “Stay a while, you are so fair.” With this, as part of their bargain, Mephistopheles can then claim his soul.

In Chapter 6, over dinner, Proteus and Henry are talking about creativity when Henry stumbles on an explanation: “it's like... like a...” and Proteus adds “What is Semele standing in the meadow for?” Semele, the mother of Bacchus, stands in for Henry's unformed simile and what is the difference between that and a metaphor? (You may groan.)

When we first meet Sybil, a discourse on religion turns into her latest crisis and ends with Proteus admitting, yes, he could understand how she feels about it (experiencing someone else's thought through one's own mind), but it ends with a reference to the final line of Joyce's Ulysses, the orgasmic conclusion to Molly's long soliloquy, which suggests a slightly different turn of events as the chapter ends rather abruptly.

The chapter for Veteran's Day begins with a reference to Virgil's Aeneid but focuses mainly on the warriors in the narrator's family and the rivalry between the narrator's father and his older brother, Junior.

Creativity and Experience are frequent topics – how the artist thinks, how the listeners or readers or viewers respond – with frequent references to familiar and unfamiliar pairings (like the styles of Joyce and Proust, often contradictory elements) as well as how the non-artist perceives how the artist works (how one can experience something through someone else – again, a riff on the opening lines of Joyce's “Proteus” Chapter). We (the listeners to music) are comfortable with the traditional forms, for instance (Chapter 26), these “long sonatas of the dead.” This is a line with a somewhat different emphasis taken from Samuel Beckett's Molloy. The narrator's creativity is a “hobbled Prospero” (a reference to Shakespeare's Tempest by way of Beckett) leads to a Latin quotation, Oportet me pergere, non possum pergo, pergam, which is really a (possibly) bad translation of a purposely misquoted line, “I must go on, I can't go on, I will go on” [originally “you must go on...”] which concludes Beckett's Joycean whirlpool, The Unnameable. Later, this changes to “O ineluctable modality, I must see, I cannot see, I will see,” harking back to Joyce's opening lines from the “Proteus” Chapter that set my own novel in motion:

= = = = =
“The ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.... Shut your eyes and see.”
= = = = =

In the next chapter, one other reference might need explaining: in this chapter, Proteus sees Joyce Diotimopoulos, the new librarian he has long been thinking about but has yet to work up the courage to meet. She is leaving the library with a friend (in a rather Henry James-like turn) “not just two people but people sharing an intimacy.” What he has thought possible (introvertibly) he now sees as a likelihood (extrovertibly) followed by a play on the word “hypostasis” (from hypothesis to the observation of Aristotle's “material substratum underlying change” as well as the psychological use of the term to describe aspects of a personality exhibited through its internal and external realities). Proteus imagines them as Joyce's “red Egyptians” (near the end of the “Proteus” Chapter) and he includes a musical reference to a famous and quite “modernist” madrigal published in 1611 by Don Carlo Gesualdo – “E chi mi può dar vita, ahi, che m'ancide., more or less” – “she who can give me life, ah, kills me” from Moro lasso (“I die, I mourn”).

The chapter in which Proust meets Joyce – the 28th, Thanksgiving Dinner – is not so much stylistic as physical, as referential as it might be irreverent: they share the same space as the narrator, his son Stephen and his friend Sybil (all three of our dramatic threads combining in one space at one time).

Proteus takes his son to dinner at the Balbec Inn, preesumably one of those old grand hotels (fictionalized, of course) typical of the Maine seacoast. This one, however, takes its name from the fictitious seacoast town in Brittany where Proust spent many vacations. In the dining room over by the windows overlooking the sea sits a grandmother speaking quietly in French to her pale grandson, looking out wide-eyed to the sea beyond (Proust's young narrator); meanwhile, at the bar is a tall thin man wearing coke-bottle glasses – clearly, James Joyce who suffered from bad eyesight and wore glasses with very thick lenses (sometimes an eye-patch). When he leaves, he stumbles past the narrator's table, complaining incoherently about gas.

Proust and Joyce, the two greatest literary figures of the age, both lived in Paris but met only once. Instead of being this great discussion of the novel and their respective aesthetics, neither would admit to having read the other, and if they did converse, it went along slowly until Proust (a notorious hypochondriac only a few months before his death) responded to Joyce's complaints about his health. From there, Proust apparently asked him if he knew various aristocrats in Paris society, none of whom Joyce would ever have been able to or be interested in knowing. So my chapter ends with Sybil asking Stephen, Proteus' son, if he knows any of his father's friends, to which Stephen replies, one after another, “no.”

It was pure irony that on the morning of November 1st, setting about to begin my new novel, I was troubled by an attack of “floaters” in my left eye, those wafting dark spots and filaments that create an annoyance more than anything else (scary though they may be, especially to one who cannot afford health insurance). More distracting than anything, waving in slow motion, back and forth, like lace in a breeze – “diaphane; adiaphane,” I thought, from the opening of Ulysses' third chapter – I found myself improvising a patch to place over the left lens of my glasses. Then I picked up my copy of Ulysses which has on its cover a classic photo of James Joyce with his eye-patch. Fortunately, for me, my floaters gradually dissolved rather than required the ten eye surgeries Joyce required during his lifetime, but it was a little too close an homage to be comfortable, however humorous.

When I wrote the novel's last lines – not sure even that morning quite how it would end – I found myself almost unconsciously tying in so many lines from Joyce after one more reference to Goethe's Faust-moment:

= = = = =
...I watch the clouds come in from the east – the sign of a storm: snow, maybe – still. Home. Stay a moment.

Creation here from nothing, the past (historic, personal – the same), pentimento of the future – visible, audible, ineluctably forging the cloud as others see it, hear it, over the living and the dead.

Old man, old creator, stand me now in good stead evermore. The ship comes in, homeward, silent, a way, a lone, and yes, I will say – yes –
= = = = =

There is the pentimento once again looking out from the past, the ineluctability of the visible and the audible from the opening of the “Proteus” Chapter in Ulysses, the cloud as seen by him (is it the same as seen by others?), the coming of storm clouds (from the end of the chapter) with the possibility of snow falling over “the living and the dead” (the final line from “The Dead” which concludes Dubliners).

Then, it's the final line from The Portrait: “Old father, old artificer [Daedalus, of Greek mythology, is an inventor], stand me now and ever in good stead.” Then back to the “Proteus” Chapter, ending with the appearance of the three-masted schooner – earlier references to the ship coming to take away our souls when we die, referring to the flag “Blue Peter” which means the ship is ready to sail, but there's no reference here to that.

Instead, it's off to the final line of Finnegans Wake – “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” – which stops without punctuation, but here morphs into Molly's final “and yes I said yes I will Yes.” (which does end with punctuation).

When I looked at this, I couldn't figure out if Proteus died – between the Faust reference, the quote from “The Dead” and the image of the ship (used already several times, most notably after his “panic attack” at the end of Chapter 19, as an image of Death's possible arrival) and the open-ended dash (accepting death as a door opening to a new journey?) combined with the circular infinality of Finnegans Wake – or if he just fell asleep. Personally, I'm not sure, so I'll leave it up to the reader to decide (or not) for himself.

There are many lines from Joyce's chapter that find parallels in my novel. One I hadn't been aware of until the last day as I finished the first draft is a few pages from the end of the “Proteus” Chapter, and might be overlooked in passing:

= = = = =
“Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words?”
= = = = =

Then I recalled in my second chapter, still writing on that first day, where I'd written the typical blogger's lament:

= = = = =
“You don't know me, probably won't, and since no one will likely read this... it is a way for me to express myself without actually telling anyone. It's the internet equivalent of a note-in-a-bottle.”
= = = = =

When finishing something, it is not so much a sense of relief that a work is done – a composition or a novel, in my experience – but a sense of loss. I wait a few days before reading through it, trying not to be too critical (does it hold together?) and a few days later, I go through and take a few more swipes with Occam's razor, cutting out paragraphs that don't fit, tighten things that seem too baggy, reword things that don't flow as well as I'd like, then a few days later, do it again. I'll fuss over the right word (or a better one), adjust a rhythm – put it back, take it out, move it around, leave it alone – wonder if I don't explain this, why would I spend so much time explaining that, keeping in mind a spontaneous bit of “streaming-of-consciousness” is not always so fresh on the third or fourth pass.

As if writing a novel weren't bad enough, it's a bit more hubris to then write an essay about writing the novel, as if anyone not interested in reading my book would be remotely interested in reading about how it was written.

Yet, curiously, there have been slightly more hits on the first two parts of this essay than there have been on the whole novel combined, so far. Maybe I should write more about writing novels than actually writing novels?

Anyway, this is where I now put the essay and its accompanying novel aside and, if I can muster the courage, get back into writing Part Two (of four) of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben.

To recall Samuel Beckett, “I must go on, I can't go on, I will go on.”

End of story.

Dick Strawser
© 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 3

(Initially, I'd set up this blog to cover (among other things) stuff like creativity, being a composer and writing frequently about music. But since I'm not composing any more (and I say that in order to goad my creativity into jump-starting a new piece of music, with any luck) and instead writing novels (usually about music), I can still write posts about the creative process (at least, my limited experience with it) since this seems to be something people who are not composers or writers are sometimes curious about if not exactly interested in.

These posts are about the process behind writing my most recent novel,
An Ineluctable Modality: you can read the earlier posts here and here, and you can begin reading the novel here.)

One of the things I like about the NaNoWriMo experience is the fact many people who might never try it will actually take the time to find out what it's like trying to write a novel. Those of us who read novels might think it'd be easy to write one – you start at the beginning and keep writing till you're finished. How difficult can that be, right?

But once would-be writers have taken a shot at it, they might realize “just because you speak the language doesn't mean you can write a novel.”

One of the things I don't like about the NaNoWriMo experience is the fact there are an awful lot of bad novels as a result and people who've met the 50,000-word challenge may feel, now that they've written a novel, that the next logical step is getting it published so they can make enough money to retire to that summer beach house they're going to build from its royalties.

There are certain realities of the business that go far beyond the ability to put words on the page to tell a story. Quality of the end result is not the point but unfortunately quantity is not the end of the process – in many cases, it's only the beginning.

While it's fun to reach that goal, I'm not sure receiving an e-mail from somebody on the NaNoWriMo Team congratulating you on becoming An Author (one that is usually rife with grammatical and spelling errors) makes you one. But at least you're finding out what it takes to become one.

And while I don't need to get into the whole American Idol mind-set that society foists on the Arts these days, let's leave it that coming to terms with a dream is good for the soul and sometimes that is success enough.

Rather than sitting down and starting a novel “from scratch” on November 1st and seeing where it went by November 30th (all the while keeping track of my word-count), I decided to do some planning beforehand – though this time, I gave myself less time to plan it because until the day arrived I wasn't even sure I was going to write it. I needed to get to a point in The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben where I could put that one aside to say, “and now for something completely different.”

After all, I spent months working out the details of the plot and the setting and many of the characters before I began writing the opening paragraph of The Labyrinth which will be a novel of less than 150,000 words. As a mystery, it has to have a particular flow to keep the reader's interest going (“and now, once again, our host, Paige Turner”) and, like a piece of music, there needs to be some variety and contrast to keep it together and give it a sense of rhythm. For my taste, too many page-turners are so high-speed – where not only ever chapter ends in a cliff-hanger but almost every paragraph – they leave you breathless, exhausted by the time you reach the goal.

This time with NaNoWriMo, I really only wanted to write a “short” novel (considering my others were planned to be between 130,000-180,000 words – figure the difference between a 50,000-word novel of about 120 pages, and a 180,000-word novel of maybe 425 pages), but I wanted it to be complete, not just the start of a longer novel I would continue working on for several more months beyond December 1st. None of my previous November Novels were intended to be complete in themselves.

Since I had decided my “story” (or “plot,” using these terms loosely) would be told basically in the format of daily blog-posts (a modern-day “epistolary” novel), I felt these episodes (chapters in a more traditional sense) needed not only to be complete but have a place in the overall “arc” or shape of the novel, the usual beginning, middle and end of a traditional story (the exposition, development and denouement – or in music, the recapitulation – that ties it all together).

Now that I had my characters and a setting to place them in, I started fleshing them out. Fortunately, not everything needs to be understood from the very beginning. Notice that my narrator doesn't even introduce himself by name until the opening of Chapter 2. Other characters only hinted at may not show up until considerably later. Others, mentioned in passing, may never show up at all. It's possible that some of this may change – but how: in the way the narrator perceives them or by discovering things he hadn't noticed before? Or is it something that doesn't explain itself well – aside from having blue eyes in Chapter 5 and brown eyes in Chapter 29 – and may need to be rethought? That is what the editing process is all about – checking for inconsistencies and correcting or explaining them if needed or, as happened a few times with me, weeding out things that had nowhere to go (one thing I've remembered, now, is giving the narrator a sister but then never mentioning her beyond that: if she's not going to become a character, that's one thing, but why would he never mention her again?).

Characters may come and go as the story-line requires but why are they in these settings? Why did my narrator end up in Maine? What happened to his wife? How did he become estranged from his son? Why is his friendship with Sibyl such an annoyance? What purpose does Henry and his on-going novel-project serve? How do these lines evolve or intertwine?

As it turned out, Henry's line receded considerably as my writing progressed: eventually, it was there more to remind the narrator his friend was working hard to do something he'd never done before while he's working hard to overcome his own creative issues as a composer who finds himself unable to compose. But no, I didn't want to have Henry calling up and saying “I wrote 3,000 words today” or “at this point, I decided I need to kill off my heroine's friend – how can I best do that?” That was not important to my narrator's thread.

Lots of these details can be left till later – the problem is finding yourself backed up into a corner without any idea how to make the reader believe what's happened unless, of course, the old deus ex machina works for you (it happens more often that it should even in the best of stories and films, the hero arriving in the nick of time against all odds, for instance). But it is sometimes fun for a writer to let his characters (as well as the plot) reveal themselves in the process. How do they react to this situation? Why did they make the choices they've made?

And of course there's always the wonderful “what if” method, wondering what might have happened if they'd made different choices or if something else had happened instead. We all have doubts: why can't our characters have some, too? A novel is as much a personal journey for the characters as writing it can be for the writer.

So given all that, what was I going to do with my handful of characters?

As a composer aware that music either fits into a pre-existing form or creates it own, I started to work out a “form” for my novel, how that beginning-middle-and-end would unfold. Since I like pacing things according to the natural divisions of the Golden Section, I decided there would be three individual threads for my narrator – his own personal concerns; another regarding his son; and a third regarding his friend, Sybil. The main climax of this arc, then, would be his own personal concern about his health which in essence is the result of his creative crisis, his fear of aging and his dread of stagnating, of being useless.

If there are 30 episodes in this story – a month's-worth of daily blog-posts – that means the Golden Section falls in the 19th Episode (not the half-way point). This creates two “halves” of the arc and I chose to put the son's conflict primarily at the Golden Section of each of those sub-segments. The son is a distant figure (in more ways than one) but Sybil is “local,” and so he rubs against her tension more frequently; the Golden Sections of these further sub-segments are given over to various encounters with her. Sometimes they're combined; sometimes they are not the focus of the whole chapter – and then, too, each chapter basically has its own proportionally divided arc.

In between these specific chapters are those needing less tension, the contrasting “release” chapters, which perhaps might not have any character or plot-thread associated with it. These might be more lyrical episodes or, in the manner of one having a creative crisis, meditations on what it takes to be an artist. These might have no “action” in the sense of driving the story forward but they give the narrator, in particular, a chance to evolve. If the other chapters, the “action” episodes, are what the characters do, these episodes might be where the characters think about what they'll do or might do or might not do or why they won't do something or how they reacted in the past, consider their historical legacy to better understand themselves. If we the readers have a chance to watch them act and react to something, we get a better chance to understand “where they're coming from.” And also, eventually, where this novel is going.

Now, because I wanted it to have some sense of “shape,” I decided my series of climaxes (great and small) should somehow reflect each other in the way they build and recede. This was not a mystery where the final resolution needs to happen on the last page – solved it! – but the delineation of a process in which my narrator comes to terms with himself in some way during the course of one month of his life.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Time, of course, is an important part of this novel, even as short as it – by comparison to Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time – and the flowing of tides (living near the seacoast) is as much a part of it as our perception of the speed with which time flies (or doesn't).

I didn't want to have a strong and tidy resolution at the end – the son doesn't solve his problem, Sybil doesn't find the Man of Her Dreams and the narrator isn't going to wake up with the solution to that elusive new composition he's been trying to get started. At the end of 62,000 words, the son is only taking what might be one step in a possible direction but at least he seems to be taking a step; Sybil is making plans for a change in her life as well, though there's no indication it will work or even happen – again, it is only one small step away from the hamster-wheel of her frustration.

As for the narrator, I'm not even sure how his works out, if it does, since he's writing this himself. It's one of those things that doesn't end as much as it stops – or like Finnegans Wake goes back to the beginning again to start over (the famous last line which, unpunctuated, recirculates to the novel's opening line some 600 pages earlier, a thought overheard in the middle of a sentence).

Even in Proust, the plot is ultimately circular – the whole time Proust's narrator is describing (in often excruciating detail) the story of his life, it is only at the end he discovers he has the necessary life-experience if not the skill, finally, to write the great book he has always dreamed of – and it's the book you've just read.

In Homer's tale as well as Joyce's riff on it, Odysseus and Leopold Bloom reach their destinations – the conjugal bed, beside their wives – but Stephen Dedalus' own journey is not yet resolved: his search will continue past his final appearance, past the final curtain of Molly's famous soliloquy, whether the novel you've just read will actually be the one he now feels mature enough (as a person but more importantly as an artist) to write.

In this sense, I drew two parallel lines, one from the opening to the main Golden Section (phi) which will include 19 chapters, the other from there to the end, which will include 11 chapters. The beginning and the ending are therefore parallel points on the now potentially connectable lines.

Then, I marked the various levels of climaxes, given Greek letters to distinguish them – the narrator's at phi, the son's at the two alpha points and Sybil's at the four beta points – at corresponding, parallel points. These should be related if not necessarily in some mirror-like fashion as they approach and recede from the central phi-climax.

The chapters in between these climactic points could be about almost anything, but I decided, however they fit in, they would also follow this structural mirror. The content of these non-climactic episodes may change in the writing process (and usually did), but I knew that whatever topic I chose for this early episode would be met again in the corresponding later episode. In the process, these correspondences may become more ambiguous than initially planned; on occasion this outline only became a point-of-departure. The whole thing, after all, is only meant to give the writing process just that, a point-of-departure, rather than starting each day from scratch and wondering “what next?”

So now I have a kind of graph for my novel – a skeleton, more than a map. Within this – rather than thinking of it as hills and valleys – are sections that increase tension and others that resolve it or, as often happens in music and many other novels, disperse it with contrasting material: another plot thread, a different sense of rhythm and energy, reflection rather than action, background rather than forward motion, perhaps even a change of style.

Now comes the flesh. I was ready to begin.

(You can read the next – and final – installment, here.)

Dick Strawser