Sunday, August 26, 2007

Writing & Composing: Getting Organized

Back in 2003, when I was finishing a string quartet, I realized how difficult it was, given only a few hours a day to compose – a luxury, according to one composer friend of mine busy teaching at a major conservatory who can only look forward to extended writing time in the summer, maybe – to get back into the creative flow of things the next day. I would write myself little notes, scribble something in the margin, slap a post-it note over the last thing I’d written down, but sometimes even that didn’t help. If I had four hours to write, often two of those were spent trying to figure out where I was coming from the day before. Though there may have been an idea of the piece as a whole, it often didn’t translate into the smaller details of this present passage, a measure here or the start of the next phrase.

Writers often say the same thing: ending a chapter or a scene often is like stopping the process and it’s now difficult to pick up to head off into the next one. Several ‘how-to’ books suggest ending a day’s work in the middle of a paragraph, even in the middle of a sentence, where the direction you’ve been going will help inspire you with what comes next. If you’ve already reached that destination, it’s like starting out fresh all over again, and sometimes that’s very hard to do. It’s important to jot down some ideas that will help you pick up the thread.
When composing sometimes takes several hours just to produce a few seconds of music, it’s always like ending in the middle of a sentence – it’s not the same luxury as working with words, perhaps. And sometimes the obvious direction a phrase may have been going in one day is not always so obvious the next day. Considering how often I find myself wondering where I put the car keys, chances are pretty good that I’m not going to remember the next day where that line in the viola was headed. Maybe I’ll come up with something better – maybe not; maybe it will take several days to get back on track.

The second movement of the quartet was the light-bulb when I realized how much I really needed some kind of solution, here. I’d described writing this frenetic and frightening music that changes, often violently, on less than a dime as being “dipped daily into a bowlful of piranhas.” So from a psychological standpoint it was difficult to put the pen down, say “okay, done for today” and then get ready to go into work. I needed something to distance myself from the fear of the piece, without needing to put myself back into that frame of mind to come up with another handful of notes (it lasts only a couple of minutes but it took, I think, several months to write).

I had already diagramed how the whole quartet would evolve with a few descriptive phrases for each one to serve as a guide. But that still wasn’t enough. I also knew the overall form of the piece – dominated by the Golden Section – but I had not really refined this to the more “localized” levels of the work: if the movements were the equivalent of chapters in a book, then I’m talking about the paragraphs and sentences, even the subordinate clauses that add up to make the larger structure. So I continued this graph from the over-all piece down to this micro-structural level until I knew exactly how many beats of music I needed to fill before this phrase ended and whether this cadence was more harmonically weighted, more important that the next one.

Part of the problem with the “eternal novel-in-waiting” was just sitting down and writing, letting it unfold in any direction the mood strikes me that day. It was annoying to go one way only to find out I didn’t like where it took me and then have to go back and delete, like, 10,000 words or more... This time around, I started thinking, since I don’t compose music that way, why should I write fiction that way?

The problem is, I know how to organize music, using whatever 20th Century system to coordinate pitches and harmony and of course musical forms and procedures (whether simple like A-B-A or complex like fugues) that go back centuries: how do you organize words into some kind of structure?

A novel is not really a “form” beyond the usual generalization it is prose with some semblance of plot divided into chapters. A sonnet, however, is a form, setting up a pattern of lines and potential rhyme schemes. So I need to find some kind of pattern I can use to create a larger structure which I can then fill in, starting like I did with the symphony and the string quartet with a macro-structure (the over-all view broken into movements) and working my down to some level of micro-structure (phrase-groupings and “harmonic rhythm”). And of course, there’s my old friend, the Golden Section, to help determine what the dividing lines and where the “structural points” should be. And I had tried applying them to David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” which seemed to be more organized than just a haphazard trip through a pastiche of styles.

It was a year ago that I’d found a copy of Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” which I’d picked up at a sale somewhere. I had no idea what it was about before I bought it and after paging through it at home had not much more of an idea about it than before. But it intrigued me and occasionally I’d pick it up and read a few pages. A collection of nothing but short chapters about people who lived in an apartment building seemed designed for the occasional dip rather than a long-term swim-the-channel plunge.

It wasn’t till I started reading a little about it that it became more interesting. It was designed around “the knight’s tour,” a mathematical puzzle based on the way a chess piece moves across the board. Now, I was never a chess-player, even proving a pointless challenge to my brother who wanted to play when we were kids because I just didn’t think in terms of strategy – I just moved the pieces around accordingly, reacting to what he would do. Eventually I realized by the second move, usually, I was already doomed. But as a way of organizing something, this fascinated me, and I spent many hours long into the night sorting this out.

Perec made a ‘map’ of his fictional building and superimposed on it a graph of one hundred blocks, each one representing a different room (also including halls and stairways). Finding a starting point, he then mapped out how a chess knight would proceed until it had landed on every single block without duplicating a single one. The outline of his novel, simply put, would then develop along this tour – an episode in the life of the tenant whose order in the greater scheme was determined by the knight’s passing back and forth across the map. There’s much more to it than that, of course, but for my purposes, this was enough to start the juices flowing.

He places a number of other “constraints” on it – you can read more about it in the Wikipedia entry – which reminded me of the restrictions placed on a composer by different systems, something pre-determined (even in tonal music) that limits you in the number of possibilities available to you. As a student, I always thought the greatest freedom was anarchy – free-for-all creativity – but as I got older, I began to realize Stravinsky was right. I’m not sure any more of the exact quote, but something along these lines: the more constraints you impose, the greater freedom you give yourself. And so I decided to see what this could do for my novel.

In the previous non-cat post, I described how the “echoes” of the title “Echoes In and Out of Time” have come to work: as the narrator’s story unfolds in the present, memories from the past weave themselves through the narrative. In the sense that our memories rarely come to us in an orderly succession, the question was “how do I make any sense out of these different echoes?” Like the old expression about “how your whole life passes before you at the moment you’re dying,” I decided to have the narrator’s whole life do exactly that not in chronological order – too cheap a solution – but in a way determined by this “knight’s tour.”

Suddenly, the old linear approach was no longer interesting to me – but the challenge was to make it work in some intelligible way that wasn’t just a clutter of memories with no seeming connection, one to the other. Though I disliked the old-fashioned linearity of a narrative tale, one of the things I missed from reading Perec’s novel was some sense of a tale being told: it’s there, but it requires more work on the reader’s part. In my standard dialectical approach, I wanted to see how I could somehow contain elements of both.

So I drew my table of 100 blocks and numbered them 1 - 100. I didn’t want it to be 100 little episodes, so I figured I would need to group them in larger and larger units like phrases and sections of music in order to create elements of form – meaning there will have to be some common thread to connect them, But for the moment, I came up with a series of patterns to determine what period of the narrator’s life these memories would originate in. This gave me a pre-determined order which I then applied to the blocks.

Without wanting to bother finding another tour pattern (being neither a chess-person nor a math-geek), I simply borrowed the one Perec used (that’s not exactly plagiarizing since he was using an already existing pattern in the first place). This gave me a whole different set of order which would become the episodes of the novel. The order of the episodes would be determined by the knight’s tour pattern; the content of the episodes was already determined by the other patterns I’d put in place over the blocks 1-100. While Block #1 was actually going to be Episode #59, it was Episode #1 I wanted to start with, which happened to be Block #56. As the knight moseyed along, the next episode was Block #77, then the third episode was Block #96, then #75 and so on – until I reached episode #100 which took place on Block #6.

By looking at the content I had superimposed on these blocks, I then had a time-frame from which to construct the memories: the knight’s tour gave me their order. (I can now forget about the Block Numbers: they’d served their purpose.)

For the content, I needed the usual stuff of a story, the who, what, when and where of narrative: if I chose a pattern that would give me the narrator’s age and I divided those into periods of his life (childhood, school, middle-age), this would automatically supply the place (where he was at that time of his life) and make available the different people who could be involved in his life at that time. For variety, I added patterns about the seasons of the year (originally thinking four seasons would be the equivalent of a man’s life before I remembered the Shakespearean pattern of the Seven Ages of Man) and about the days of the week and the times of day these would occur. However, they couldn’t all be patterns based on the same number of details because then they would always coincide, so they had to be in different multiples in order to keep producing as much variety as possible.

Having now created an outline for the “story,” I decided to place the most climactic episodes at key points – the episodes that would be the most significant events that would still drive the narrative. These, I decided, should be determined by the Golden Section. And so several more hours were spent with a calculator figuring out where, out of 100, these ought to go. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour and the relative deadness of the brain, but it wasn’t until this summer that I discovered I had made a few tactical errors, here, mostly in not being consistent with rounding off fractions.

But once I determined what those ought to be – and I had already worked out the details of my narrator’s life in previous drafts – it left only the details to be filled in in between. But then, I put it off. There were other things to do and other distractions that took precedent: while I was intrigued by the idea of “National Novel Writing Month” where people sign up to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November (“NaNoWriMo”), I knew that November was not going to be the time I could focus on a novel. With the company’s move to the New Building and then some ensuing health concerns plus, eventually, my mother’s death and the on-going move into the house, the novel was all but forgotten.

And then the other week, I found the folder and got hooked on the idea once again.

Now, I had determined, if I could write 45,000 words in “The Schoenberg Code” last year (not counting several thousand words left on the edit-room floor), this novel should probably be more than “a mere” 50,000 words. If I’m only going to write one novel in my life, it might as well be a larger-scale one, never mind it is my first one and I don’t even have a collection of short-stories to my name. This is like a composer saying “I know nothing about composing but I think I’ll write a symphony to get my feet wet.” If I had determined the structure of my symphony and the string quartet by arbitrarily deciding each should be, oh, so many minutes long, I decided, ultimately, I might as well go for a 165,000 word novel which would be the equivalent of something between 450-500 pages in a trade-paper-back format (for instance, David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” is 508 pages). That seemed a comfortable goal. I just wrote a symphony that’s about a half-hour long and it took two years, so I’m not looking for a quick fix and an easy sell, am I...?

Making some other corrections to the plan, I found I needed to tweak the various patterns since so many similar combinations were now cropping up, one simple correction creating more and more ‘mistakes,’ of course. It was much easier to realize a pattern does not have to be a chronological list of days of the week or seasons of the year as long as there’s some logic to its creation. After all, in writing a serial piece, composers would tweak the notes they had come up with for the 12-tone-rows in order to obtain better results. And of course there is always the creative prerogative to just fudge things that don't quite work: I wanted the first and last episodes to take place within the same context of time and place. By placing those elements into the continuum, I fashioned the necessary patterns around them, and so it worked out.

Then the fun began: I made a graph 100 blocks long, marked out the structural points according to the Golden Section, then took the same structural graph I’d made for the symphony and superimposed that onto the novel, more or less: a five movement symphonic structure thus produced a five-part novel (chapters? not sure yet) though whether those in the 2nd and 4th parts will create a lighter-hearted kind of scherzo remains to be seen. But it pointed out how, focused around Episode #62, the Golden Section of the novel, various points can parallel or “mirror” each other – similar events or similar ideas perhaps in different “time-zones.” I started thinking what kinds of events could take place, given the narrator’s age and the time of year the pattern had pre-determined. Suddenly I see myself now being more creative with what before were “too many choices.” And now I could sit down and just start writing it!

But for now, that’s 2700 words for this post and there are things to do, cats to feed, work to accomplish, you know the drill...

Dr. Dick

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