Married to Form

October 22, 2008

Anyone who works in any creative medium will agree: artists are married to form. We struggle with it every day. Even in our sleep the structural problems in our work bother us. Form nags us, never lets us alone. We deal with it, cope with it, wrestle with it. Form is a constant in our lives.

To paraphrase Woody Allen, who paraphrased Groucho Marx, ‘my novel thinks its a chicken.’ So why not just tear it up? I can’t, I need the eggs.

Starting a novel is like shoving off to sea with only the vaguest notion of a destination. All I know is it will be a long journey. I don’t know where I’ll end up, I don’t know how I’ll get there, but I know there will be storms, surprises and structural headaches. No sane person will start such a trip without reasonable confidence they won’t end up drowning (the difference between Herman Melville and Captain Ahab). I’m not going to write this book if I think the plan is unworkable.

I was wary as I approached my second novel (Skydaddy, Alyson Books). I had a theme in mind, fatherhood. But my three main characters all had complex social identities that raised additional themes inescapably. Starting with an omniscient narrator, I wanted two of the characters, foils of each other, to narrate sections of the book in first person. Also, to explore my theme from a different angle, I needed a fourth main character (a foil of a foil). Would I end up with an incoherent mess?

Multiple themes. Sound familiar? Beethoven expanded on Sonata Form by adding subjects far beyond the conventional main and secondary themes. In his biography of Beethoven, Maynard Solomon attributes “a sense of striving for diverse solutions” to the 4th Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto, what I hear as an almost gluttonous piling up on his plate of structural challenges to solve in delight. My first impression of the 4th Piano Concerto was that it shouldn’t even exist — the material was so rich and diverse, by all reason it should collapse in on itself. But it doesn’t!

I followed what I call Beethoven’s First Law of Aesthetics: any structural problem can be solved. If Beethoven could successfully weave, balance and integrate a double Theme & Variations — showoff! — in the last movement to The Eroica, then the tiny structural troubles I faced were so completely insignificant, there had to be an answer. Even if I didn’t know what that answer was, Beethoven’s First Law said there had to be one. I only had to find it. And so I set off to sea.

Not only does the Master beckon us to dare, he shows us there’s no excuse not to. Beethoven’s First Law destroys all excuse for pedestrian design. Coherence is the one artistic rule l’ll obey. The work has to hold together; if not, it fails. But the artist who achieves coherence through timidity, somnolent restraint, conformity, ordinariness, domesticated subject, and then expects us to admire his control, will impress only an indoctrinated few.

We can ride in perfect balance on the back of a pack mule, or we can hold on for dear life to a runaway mustang stung on its butt by a radioactive hornet. Well, Beethoven turned perfect pirouettes on the back of his runaway radioactive mustang — showoff! Beethoven may be unique in human history in his ability to maintain control over wild, radical material. I can’t do that–can you? But he’s a symbol for the rest of us. Before the Towers fell, I’d stand at the adjoining base of the Twins and look up to the edge against the sky. There at the vanishing point was Beethoven. I was an ant, a beetle. In the end, the only thing that matters is aspiration.


Words & Music

October 21, 2008

Many of my favorite writers allude to music in their novels. That’s not a coincidence. Walter Pater called music the art form to which all the other arts aspire.

In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison described the multi-dimensional experience of entering the physical world of a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo. Toni Morrison titled her fourth novel simply Jazz. (I suspect Ms. Morrison extended the concept of the classic Ellison Louis Armstrong passage to novel length. I’d like to ask her about that if I get the chance.)

Edmund White wrote Nocturnes For The King of Naples and The Final Symphony. James Baldwin used jazz allusions in Another Country.

There is Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, which metaphorizes Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9.

Is there a specific reason writers find inspiration in music? I can speak for myself, and there are several. A musical education is invaluable to writers. Once we get past the basics of Creative Writing 101, personally, I feel a musical education is worth more than writing workshops.

European fine arts music and scored jazz compositions are unique because of the score itself. There is no analog to the score for a novel, a painting, a photograph or a film. The score is a unique dimension to the musical art. If a corresponding dimension exists in painting or literature, it is accessible only to the creator.

As such, the score offers a unique window into the mind of genius. We simply don’t have a corresponding access to the internal methods of Mark Twain or Herman Mellville as they create aesthetic effects to move us. Reading a novel is analogous to listening to music; playing music is different. Even a doctoral study of a book is not the same as reading a score.

I tried to pin down Michael Cunningham (The Hours) on these mysteries. I asked Michael what he learned from writing his first novel (A Home At The End Of The World) that he applied in writing his second (Flesh and Blood.). Michael couldn’t help me. He said these were ‘subterranean things’ he couldn’t put into words. What Michael called ‘subterannean’ is the invisible dimension, the inaccessible analog to the musical score.

I’d guess that a composer writes primarily to be listened to; primarily to communicate with the untrained human ear. There’s a difference between the aesthetic effects composers create through sound, and the notes scored to create those effects. I hear the beauty. I want to know how they do it — to improve my own writing and design.

For example, on his Chopin DVD, Jerome Rose remarks how the striking melodic lines we hear in Chopin are actually created by complex interactions between the two hands. I discovered this myself studying the score to the Scherzos, pieces far beyond my technical ability to play. (So that’s how he does that!) I study the score to see how Chopin thinks. (I can’t see how Michael Cunningham thinks, and Michael can’t tell me.) I’ve had similar awakenings with Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. I learn more about writing from studying piano scores (even pieces I can’t play) than I have from literary criticism or Master Classes in fiction writing.