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Friday, November 20, 2020

Stories in music

I was driving to work yesterday, listening to classical music on satellite radio, and I heard Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Lennart Sikkema, Canyon River Tree (165872763), CC BY 3.0]

Pretty cool piece of music, but to me the fifth and final movement is something really special.  It's called "Cloudburst" and is a musical depiction of a thunderstorm in the desert.

And the thought occurred to me that you don't need words to tell a story.  Grofé gives us a picture in sounds -- the approach of the storm, lightning, thunder, wind -- then its subsidence (and just like in a real storm, afterward you can still hear the thunder in the distance as it recedes).

This is a pretty well-known piece of music, and is far from the only one that tells a story using music.  Another famous one is Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre, depicting the devil playing the fiddle and summoning the dead to dance in the cemetery (xylophones for the bones knocking together!).  Listen at the end for the church bells ringing in the distance to signal the sunrise, and the little musical shiver the devil gives when he knows the day is coming -- followed by a sad, mournful solo.  But then, the last few notes seem to promise that he'll be back once night falls again.

Beethoven drew his inspiration from stories as well, and I'm not only thinking of pieces like the Pastoral Symphony.  Check out this amazing performance of his piano solo Rondo a Capriccio: Rage Over a Lost Penny.  (All I can say is that if losing a penny made me come up with tunes like this, I'd be flinging coins all over the place.)


One of my favorite musical depictions is from the incredibly prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness.  His Symphony #50 (he wrote 67 of them, and about 450 other sorts of pieces) is subtitled Mount Saint Helens.  Listen to it -- if that's not a musical version of a volcanic eruption, I don't know what is.


Jean Sibelius wrote a lot of music based upon Finnish folk tales, myths, and legends, but to me none gives as vivid a picture as "Lemminkainen's Return" from the Kalevala Suite.  Lemminkainen is a folk hero, and the piece depicts his triumphant return to his home after a long adventure.  It gallops along, and you can almost see the hero with his long hair flying in the wind, riding his horse through a snowstorm.


One of the funniest pieces in classical music -- once you know the story it's telling -- is Sergei Prokofiev's brilliant Lieutenant Kije Suite.  The story behind it is that during an inspection of a military regiment by the Tsar, he was reviewing the roster and saw that someone had scribbled in the word "Kije" (Russian for "thingamajig"), and mistakenly thought it was the name of a soldier.  No one wanted to correct the Tsar, so they invented a Lieutenant Kije, and waxed rhapsodic about his exploits and bravery.  But they overdid it -- so much that the Tsar asked to meet this exemplary military man.  Cornered, the leaders of the regiment had to invent a heroic death in battle for Kije so the Tsar wouldn't uncover the deception.


I'll end with one of my favorite pieces, the stunning Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky.  It tells of the magical firebird, half bird and half human, who is captured by the heroic Prince Ivan.  She gives him one of her feathers, and tells him he can use it to defeat the evil sorcerer King Katschei.  Katschei keeps his soul hidden in an egg in a casket and thinks he's immortal because of it (shades of J. K. Rowling's horcruxes).  But using the magic of the feather, Ivan forces Katschei and his minions to dance themselves to exhaustion.  He then finds the egg and destroys it, killing Katschei and freeing all of the people he'd magically enslaved -- including the young woman Ivan is in love with.  The end is one of the most joyful, stirring, triumphant pieces of music ever written.


So that's a few of my favorite stories in music.  I hope you enjoyed listening.  What are your favorites?

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Who the hell is Mary Hansard?

I had a very peculiar thing happen to me while working on my work-in-progress, a fall-of-civilization novel called In the Midst of Lions that I swear was not inspired in any way by 2020.  (In fact -- true story -- I first came up with the idea for this book when I was in college.  Which was a lot of years ago.)

I've been kicked into high gear on this by NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month -- a rather daft undertaking that occurs every November, in which authors are challenged to write the first draft of a fifty thousand word novel in thirty days.  This is my eighth time participating, and I've gotten to 50K five of the eight times, which isn't too shabby.

This year I was disinclined to participate.  I have not been writing much, mostly from a combination of depression over the political situation and frustration at how poorly my published novels have been selling lately.  The result has been lousy concentration and focus, and writing only very intermittently, which any good writer will attest is the way to go nowhere fast.

I got my arm twisted, in a friendly and positive way, by my fellow writer, blogger, and Twin Brudda From Anudda Mudda, Andrew Butters, whose blog Potato Chip Math should be on your regular reading list.  Andrew said -- rightly -- that signing up would be a much-needed kick in the ass to my motivation, so with some misgivings I signed up.  Thus far I'm ahead of the game; three days in, the target is 5,000 words, and at the closing bell tonight I had 5,830.

But what I want to tell you about is something that happened yesterday.  The main characters, a bunch of academics who are very used to the easy life, are caught up in a sudden societal collapse.  I'm always interested to think about how perfectly ordinary people would act in extraordinary circumstances; this is kind of the crypto-theme of all my stories, actually.  In any case these four professors from the University of Washington end up having to flee the rioting and violence on foot, crossing the Washington Park Arboretum, a two-hundred-acre garden south of the campus, on their way to a safe haven.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Joe Mabel, Seattle - Arboretum Bridge 01, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Completely unexpectedly -- not only to them, but to me -- they meet someone in the Arboretum.  Here's the scene where they come across her:
Cassandra was the first one to spot her—a woman sitting cross-legged with her back to the trunk of a fir tree, watching them approach with a broad smile on her face.  She was perhaps forty years old, and the most remarkable thing about her appearance was how completely unremarkable she looked.  An oval face, even features, light brown hair in a loose ponytail, neither particularly attractive nor at all unattractive, she was the kind of person you might pass a dozen times a day and never notice.

But here she sat in the Arboretum as the world collapsed around her, apparently unconcerned.

“Oh, hello,” she called out in a pleasant, melodious voice, and waved.

Soren exchanged a puzzled glance with Cassandra, who shrugged.

As they neared, the woman stood, moving a little awkwardly, but with no evident self-consciousness.  Soren jerked to a halt until she raised both hands to show that she was unarmed.  “Don’t be afraid,” she said.  “I mean no harm. In fact, I’ve been waiting for you all.”

When I finished writing this, I said -- and I quote -- "what the fuck just happened?"  She was not part of the original plot.  The idea was that they'd cross the Arboretum, dodging snipers and rioters, and reach their goal safely.  But suddenly there's this... this person, sitting there waiting for them.

Oh, and her name is Mary Hansard.  Don't ask me where that came from.  Her name came along with her character, waltzing into the story from heaven-knows-where.

I know I tend to be a pantser (for non-writers, authors tend to fall into two loose classes: pantsers -- who write by the seat of the pants -- and plotters -- who plan everything out).  But this is ridiculous.  I honestly had no idea this character even existed.  Now I have to figure out (1) who the hell Mary Hansard is, (2) what role she's going to play in the story, and (3) how she knew the four fleeing professors were going to be coming through the Arboretum.

I would love to know where this kind of stuff comes from.  I mean, "my brain" is the prosaic answer, and is technically right, but when this sort of thing happens -- and it's far from the first time -- it feels like it came from outside me, as if the story already existed out there in the aether and I just tapped into it somehow.

I also know enough that when this occurs, it means something is going really right with the story.  When I've had these sudden shifts in course, following them usually leads to somewhere interesting that I wouldn't have otherwise discovered.  But to say that it's a little disorienting is a vast understatement.

So NaNoWriMo continues, and tomorrow I have to get my 1,666 words written to hit my daily goal.  And in those words, I have to parse the role of the mysterious, ordinary-looking Mary Hansard.

Let's hope she continues to talk to me.  Because what she's said so far has gotten me really curious.