Why Music? Why English?

Months ago, in the long dark quiet of the blog, on a long dark commute to school, I was thinking about my dad and the kinds of questions he’d ask me about music. He loved music. He grew up taking voice lessons and was a mainstay in his church choir for years. He liked drum corps and movie scores and the Beach Boys. He could read music, but never played the piano. He had no formal training in music theory or history, though he had sung most of the 19th-century choral canon.

The combination of love for the subject and academic ignorance meant that he was the person in my life most prone to asking me sweeping philosophical questions about music. He’d ask, in all sincerity, “what is this piece about?” confident that I’d have a right answer. When it came to the dissonant stuff that I studied and composed, he was proud of what I was doing, but didn’t understand it any better than I understood running a restaurant. We had great, meandering conversations about all sorts of music in the too-brief time my adulthood overlapped with his.

It was my mom, though, who habitually asked me whether I went to grad school for music (composition) rather than literature simply because it was harder for me. That March morning, thinking about my dad and my mom’s question, I came to the conclusion that the added challenge was only part of it. Writing words and writing music are both about communication. At their best, they can sweep us up into their worlds—whatever the balance of intellectual and emotional.

That’s why, at Macalester, I had become obsessed with text, music, and the weird spaces of their overlap. That’s why, I think, I went and added music history to my master’s study—there are things that you need words to communicate, that are too specific for music. (I didn’t abandon composition because the converse is also true: there are some things that you can only communicate with music.)

It’s facepalmingly obvious in retrospect, but some of the best realizations are. (“Kick from the knee.”—if you don’t get that reference, go read Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.)  As a writer, as a composer, as a scholar I am interested in how ideas get around, about communication. Sure, my later scholarship became much more concerned with the practicalities of the art music world, but that grew out of my attempts to understand how and why people kept writing music that didn’t communicate much to me. So really, it has always been about how (and why) we Say Things.

Lately, I’ve been dealing more with the question: Why English? I started a new job last week at a new school. Consistently, I’ve been introduced as “Dr. Plocher.” That leads, in the casual conversations afterward, to questions about what my doctorate is in. This has led to great discussions with my new colleagues in the performing arts center. With other faculty, it has sometimes involved a little backtracking, emphasizing that my undergraduate degree is in English as well as music, and that my doctorate featured extensive work in comparative studies.

The shortest answer to “why English?” in this context is “I never wanted to be a band director.” I loved band in high school. It defined my social world. It occupied more hours than just about anything else I did. Yesterday, at district convocation, the marching band played. My heart (metaphorically) swelled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…during a pep band arrangement of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Late Beethoven it was not. So yeah, I still like band. Being at a school with a marching band is right up there with being able to decorate my room with posters for “perks about my new job I never considered.” For all that, though, I have no desire to lead the band. It’s not an impulse I’ve ever had.

The longer answer is “I never really gave up on English.” I’ve mentioned in passing that I was not a tidy fit for musicology; I’ve never been especially into the canonical common practice works people most often think of as “classical music.” I kept writing fiction throughout my doctoral work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had playing with an alumni team with one of my former creative writing classmates, a conversation in which I explained that I kept jotting notes for novels when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

Further, most of the classes I taught in my gradjunct years involved teaching writing. It’s one thing to get students to really listen to music, especially music they’ve never thought to hear before. It’s another to get them to collect their thoughts into something coherent. I can’t say whether it’s easier to write for orchestra or to get a 20-year old to write his reflections on Hindustani vocal music.

The thing is? They’re both about saying something. And now, I couldn’t be happier that so much of my life is about teaching teenagers to do the same.

Twelve and Two and Two

A dozen years of marriage, two years in Texas, and—in another week or so—two years of Walking Ledges. You’ll never believe what happens next!

Actually, if you’ve been following along for any length of time, you probably will: posts on writing and teaching sprinkled with increasingly occasional #postac commentary. Come November I’ll be attempting NaNo again, and probably writing about that. I aim to keep work from devouring the blog the way it did last year. (A shorter commute will help with that, I hope.) At some point there will be something about the availability of Ghosts of the Old City.

In this blog’s first year, I wrote 77 posts. Many of them were about my breakup with academia, about the ways that I dealt with the emotional fallout of quitting and the loneliness of relocating. The second year of the blog has featured half as many posts—my first year of teaching devoured my writing energy, even when it wasn’t devouring my time. Those posts, though, have been…positive. It’s not as if every day has been a happy one. February was rough, and I had some particularly down weeks in the summer when I was spitballing scenarios in which I didn’t get a teaching job for the coming year. Overall, though, life has been good.

Good or bad, life is continuous. The important moments seldom pay attention to the calendar. The less discrete the steps are in a process, the more arbitrary the divisions between them. An 89 is just as far from 87 as it is from 91, but we assign a different letter to the 91 because we have to draw the line somewhere. Anniversaries—of moves, of institutions, of weddings and first dates and birth—are arbitrary markers in a continuous process.

I’m not sure whether that makes them more or less important. On the one hand, my blog is little different at 105 weeks from what it was at 102. On the other, it is much different from what it was at 50 weeks. I still write. I am (somewhat) better adjusted to Texas than I was when we moved. I still think my spouse is one of the best people on the planet. Dividing the time into chunks doesn’t change things.

That anniversaries are arbitrary does not mean they are meaningless. (Language is also arbitrary!) They give us an excuse to reflect. Even artificial divisions are thresholds. Sure, we build the doorways ourselves based on such flimsy things as rotational and revolutionary intervals. When we stand in a doorway, we’re between things—it’s a liminal moment. (I got kind of obsessed with liminal moments after analyzing characters in doorways in Hawthorne.) We can see where we came from and where we’re going, even if we know that the tomorrow will not be so different from yesterday.

So. Twelve and two and two. We count the years, we look forward and we look back. To those of you who are here—whether since the beginning or since yesterday or reading this a week after I type it, thank you. I’m glad you’re here.

The Cleaver and the Needle

Revising can be messy. It’s all well and good to kill your darlings, but it’s often the case that the darlings need reshaping rather than killing.

Ghosts of the Old City has required some particularly bloody revising. After going through my alpha draft, I realized that almost a third of the book was in the wrong order. Some scenes—and most of two chapters—featured characters spinning their metaphorical wheels, waiting for the next thing to happen. (Really, it was the author waiting to figure out what happened next.) The disappointing thing is that those scenes were not even good character development. I had glossed over some things that should have been interesting challenges for the characters, and I had zoomed in on some moments that turned out to be insignificant.

Starting to implement the necessary fixes has made me feel like a Civil War era surgeon, operating with butchers’ tools and booze for anaesthetic. There’s little delicacy for me at this stage. I ginned up sixteen new chapter files in Scrivener on a fresh storyboard. Most of those will use some existing text. Some will be new. One will require only moderate changes to reflect the altered flow of the plot. “Cut and paste” feels like chop-and-paste, or chop and throw into a bucket for later reattachment. It is brutal and unsubtle stuff.

I find this a little ironic because one of the things that I appreciate about the revision process is the craftsmanship of it. When I’m drafting, I’m chasing the story. I’m discovering things. I am, when things are working well, a damn wizard, conjuring something out of nothing. The revision process, as I was describing it to somebody a few weeks ago, is more like engineering. My friend (who is a research scientist) nodded sagely and said that it’s an iterative process, where you can try things out and see what works. I like that kind of work as much as I do the wilder stuff of creating. There’s something satisfying about each step getting you closer to the beautiful (or functional, or both) thing that you’re working on. I just tend to imagine it like bonsai or playing with Lego.

This time it has inspired the above analogies to butcher work. It’s my first novel, and I think much of the difficulty in revising has been adjusting to the scale. If you’re writing an essay or a short story, you may have to move a few pages around, rewrite a stretch of paragraphs. Even a third of your work isn’t that much. With a novel, there’s just more of everything. There’s more room for things to go wrong. It’s more important to sustain reader interest. I don’t want Ghosts to be one of those novels that sucks people in through the first three chapters then loses them by the seventh. I particularly want to avoid that because I think the home stretch of the novel includes some of the best writing I’ve ever done. (I’m sure my beta readers will explain to me where it isn’t as good as I think it is.)

I want the first half of the book to be worthy of the second. I also want the first half to build correctly to the second, which is why the hatchet job was necessary. Plot relies on conflict. Usually—and in this way my novel is nothing unusual—that conflict should build gradually. In the first-and-a-half draft of Ghosts, the conflict is just kind of there. Drafting it, I had antagonists in mind, but I hadn’t thought of exactly what they wanted or how they were going about their business. Now I know what needs to happen, and it’s not there.

Yet.

I’ve gotten through the most brutal parts of the corrective surgery. I can put down the cleaver. The next step is to pick up the needle and stitch it all back together with everything in the right place. One of the fun things about being a writer is that if you’re doing your job, your story won’t even show the scars.

Nicking from Novels: Gail Z. Martin’s The Summoner

My last two Nicking from Novels posts have been books that I’ve wanted to read from previous experience. It’s been a while since I’ve just grabbed a book from the library shelf to see what I can learn from it. Monday afternoon, the kids were wound up at the library. Necessity is the mother of arbitrarily grabbing things from the shelves to read, which is how I ended up with this week’s book: Gail Z. Martin’s  The Summoner.

What I knew when I picked the book out: the cover art isn’t bad, I didn’t recognize the publisher, and that the story is about a character who deals with ghosts. That last point was the most telling. My pending Ghosts of the Old City, as you can probably guess from the title, also features ghosts. I was curious how a different author might treat both the ghosts and the dealing with them. (The answer: with a much more “high magic” feel than I do.)

The Summoner is also the longest book I’ve read in a while—600 pages. It reads fast, though, and aspires to be epic through the stakes rather than by addition. It’s reminiscent of Tad Williams and David Eddings, with an ensemble cast surrounding a nominal protagonist who discovers great powers and old secrets. It’s not criticism when I say Martin’s book is unambitious. It knows that it is a perfectly serviceable high fantasy novel. It doesn’t push on genre boundaries, but it works quite well within them. There’s enough novelty to the characters to keep things interesting. The world is well-crafted without being overbuilt. If you like fantasy novels, this one will keep you happily reading for hours.

The Overview
High fantasy, medieval setting. Characters are based on archetypes but nonetheless interesting (I couldn’t help thinking of the mercenary Jonmarc Vahanian as “Han Solo played by Clint Eastwood”). Spirits and divine intervention play prominent roles. Supernatural evil and supernatural good without adding nonhuman species. Monsters have their place. Narrative emphasizes travel and action rather than nefarious skulduggery. It is straightforward to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. (And the bad guys are super evil.)

The Plot
Prince Martris Drayke survives his brother Jared’s murderous coup, escaping with some of his friends/loyal guards. He sees ghosts and discovers that he can do magic related to them, that he is the mage heir of his super-important dead grandmother. Tris and his friends seek sanctuary and enlist a mercenary as a guide. Meanwhile, the princess of another kingdom (who is contractually betrothed to Jared) gets sent on her own mission. Eventually, they come together. Obstacles along the road are overcome. Relative safety is reached by the end of the book, but not where expected, and certainly more pause than completion. (This is the first book of a trilogy.)

The Cool Thing to Consider
Quests, man.

They’re essential to fantasy fiction. Tolkien certainly made them more so and helped give them heft, but even in the lighter (and more interesting to me) pulp stories of swords and sorcery, the quest is the fundamental unit of story. There’s an object to retrieve, a villain to topple, a secret to learn…or some combination of those. (One of my all-time favorite quests is one that ends with the realization that the sought object wasn’t important after all.) They involve going somewhere, passing challenges, sometimes getting better at things…

Martin’s novel has me thinking about quests for two reasons. First, her set-up is rather traditional. Tris joins a long line of exiled princes who must reclaim their birthrights. Second, the other characters have their own personal quests. Those quests align with Tris’s, but it’s more a convergence than an intermingling. The cool thing to consider is the way Martin balances her individual characters within an overarching plot.

Compare this with Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship has one quest: get the ring to Mordor and destroy it. As a fellowship, they fail, but for the time they have together, everybody has the same goal. Protect Frodo. Keep on keeping on. The characters signed on to support Frodo’s quest. In The Summoner, it’s not quite the same. Tris has a kingdom to reclaim from his wicked brother, but also has Serious Magical Obligations. The bard Carroway is Tris’s friend, as is the guard captain Soterius. Like him, they’re fleeing in part because they’re dead if they stay. Harrtuck—another of the royal guards—is loyal to Tris for what he represents as much as anything personal. The mercenary Vahanian is in it for the money, but also because he has a history with some of the bad guys. The healer Carina and her brother Cam are looking for a cure to a curse. The warrior princess Kiara has her Journey assigned to her by the goddess.

The quests of the other characters thus overlap with Tris’s, but they’re not the same. Clearly, they’re all set up to eventually face off against the big bad. Just as clearly, they will have their own reasons for doing so. Martin reveals bits and pieces of those reasons as The Summoner progresses.

For some of the characters, the reasons are pretty explicit: the Goddess tells them to jump and their only option is to ask how high. Kiara was chosen by the Goddess before the events of the novel properly began, and is sent on the path that eventually intersects with Tris’s. Tris, too, gets occasional messages from the Goddess. As calls to adventure go, these are explicit, but in a high fantasy story there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes quests are that important.

The Goddess is also curiously effective as the means of bringing the characters together. Most of the cast has some relationship to the Goddess in one of her aspects. They are fairly quick to identify her divine will in bringing them together and in her influence on their various paths. Done less deftly, this would seem almost like lampshading. Because Martin has written the Goddess so thoroughly into the setting, though, it works. In a high fantasy environment, divine will (and the implicit suggestion of Fate) is perfectly reasonable. The more often the characters (especially the minor supporting characters) mention it, the easier it is to believe.

What We Nick from this Novel
Fellow travelers can have fellowship without being a fellowship.
Whether you’re working with an ensemble cast or not, consider your characters’ motivations carefully. If the world is at stake, yes, brave people will be trying to save it. It can be even more effective, though, to do as Martin does and make the characters interested at first in saving their own parts of the world. Characters can work together without the plot becoming monolithic. Keeping motivations individual helps both to differentiate the characters and to allow for the stakes to be raised organically.

With a PhD

I’m back on the (secondary school teaching) job market this summer, which has meant interviews. It has also meant, again, dealing with the many iterations of “You have a PhD in music, why do you want to teach English to teenagers?” It’s an old dance at this point, but it has not gotten any less frustrating.

“Where are the leather patches on your elbows, Dr. Plocher?”

Most of the time, when my degree is brought up by the interviewers, it happens immediately. There is a skepticism that borders on the accusatory: what do I really expect to be doing with a PhD? Sometimes the skeptics believe that I will jump ship back to higher education. (That ship is sinking!) More often, they leap to the conclusion that I somehow lack the patience and skill needed to teach students who aren’t paying (or whose parents aren’t paying) for the privilege of my oh-so-erudite company. College teaching is not like middle or high school teaching, they warn me, as if I hadn’t spent a year as a substitute and months in training. (That one was persistent even at my job last year, where I spent months trying to convince my principal that I did, in fact, understand there was a difference between 13 year olds and 20 year olds.) I still get hints of that even after a year as a “regular” teacher.

Sometimes, my interviewers are just baffled by my degree and wonder why I changed fields. That’s easier to deal with. My “I realized that teaching was the part of the job I liked most” spiel has gotten much more practiced since my first interviews last summer. (It hasn’t gotten any less sincere, though.) Sometimes, I explain what musicology is and that I never had the slightest desire to be a band or choir director, and that, besides, I do have a degree in English, I know rather a lot about it, and I love teaching it.

I hate having to defend my PhD. It seems stupid to me that I need to—it was a job. Again, nobody talks about being a failed waiter. A little more than two years ago, I decided that the hardship of staying in academia outweighed the rewards, especially when I factored in my family. It is that simple…but it can never be quite that simple, because advanced degrees carry expectations with them. As “Dr. Plocher,” I am expected to fill a certain role in society. Some shreds of prestige cling to the title even without the associated professorship.

That is probably why, maddeningly, I also get annoyed when interviewers don’t mention my doctorate. It was seven years of my life! Finishing my PhD is one of the things I am proud of, no matter how much I sometimes regret starting it. Yes, I am a licensed Texas educator. Yes, I have some job experience now. But…I also wrote a dissertation on new music using French sociological concepts. I’ve presented papers at national conferences. That does not speak directly to my ability to handle a classroom full of eighth graders, but I think that it’s proof that I can do hard things, that I understand and appreciate mastery and that it means something when I say I am putting just as much effort into being a good teacher as I put into the fractional expansion of human knowledge that earned me my degree.

Ideally, discussion of the degrees I hold lasts less than two minutes and consists of a short description of what I did and why I’m no longer doing it. When I have control of the situation, that’s what I aim for. Beyond that, I’d rather talk about the job that I’m applying for, about the work that I’ve done, about the ways I am trying to get better at my job. Having a doctorate doesn’t make me better than other people, but it also doesn’t make me any worse. My degree is something that I earned while doing a job. It’s not who I am as a writer. It’s not who I am in the classroom. It’s not who I am as a person.

It affects all of those things, though, which is why it is worth discussing…
…Briefly.

Nicking from Novels: Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

I was recently talked into giving Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden a second chance. I didn’t much care for Dead Beat—I felt that it was larded with extra characters, and that the hero was getting bailed out constantly. The zombie T-Rex at the end and cries of “Polka will never die!” only got me so far.

Something else happened, though, since I complained about Storm Front: Steve Brust’s Hawk. Brust is one of my favorite authors, but Hawk… Well. Hawk had many of the same problems I described in Dead Beat. Vlad wasn’t necessarily getting bailed out every other chapter, but the book was larded with cameos. It seemed like Kragar got stabbed just so Aliera could show up to save him. We got a Morrolan appearance so he could prepare a spell. We got Sethra and Kiera and (of course) Daymar. We even got Khaavren! He, at least, had a reason to be in the story. Many of the cameos felt gratuitous, and the plot didn’t hold up especially well. Hawk, to me, felt like a book meant to get you from point A to point B in Vlad’s overall saga without much to recommend it as an individual story.

What if Dead Beat was the same way? A lackluster middle segment in an otherwise quality series? Butcher and Dresden deserved another chance.

The Overview
Harry’s a freelance wizard who consults for the “weird stuff” unit of the Chicago PD. Plenty of loving references to noirish detective stories. Dames and slick gangsters (even though Harry never calls them “dames,” they’re clearly dames). Magic that’s pervasive without stealing the spotlight from the detective work. Lots of werewolves of different sorts in this one. First person point of view, contemporary urban setting.

The Plot
Murders are happening in bunches around the full moon. Evidence suggests early on that Dresden’s nemesis Gentleman John Marcone is involved somehow, possibly as a target. The FBI is competing with Murphy and her Chicago Special Investigations unit. Pawprints at the murder scenes and chewed up corpses. Magic circles and street gangs. A protagonist whom the law is not sure whether to adopt or arrest.

The Cool Thing to Consider
Let’s consider pacing and exposition.

Fool Moon is relentless. At nearly every moment of the story, something is happening. Harry is always doing something, even when his narration is feeding us exposition. He makes potions while his skull familiar explains the varietals of werewolf. He reflects on his life choices while in the middle of a gun/wolf/berserker fight in a dark auto shop. An infodump from a demon sizzles because it’s also a confrontation for Harry’s name and/or soul.

All of that (and more) is exposition. If you sift back through Fool Moon after you’ve finished it, you find exposition all over the place. Butcher, via Harry or somebody Harry is conversing with, tells us things all the time. There’s magic to explain. There are oh-so-many types of wolf monster to explain. There are attractive women to explain.

The cool thing is that Butcher manages to do all of this without slowing things down. It’s a much different way to survive the need for exposition than that of, say, Gene Wolfe, who adroitly uses unreliable narrators and incomplete explanations to inform readers indirectly. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, because as I mentioned, it’s mostly telling rather than showing.

I think there are three reasons Butcher gets away with this much telling. First, this is a detective story. Detective stories are about processing information—that information has to come from somewhere. Whether the detective is finding them herself, getting them from others, or some combination of the two, the clues have to eventually add up. We get a little more of that kind of exposition than usual in Fool Moon because it’s told from first person perspective—Harry is telling the readers things as he hears them.

Not all of the exposition is directly related to the werewolf murders, though. We learn things about Harry’s past, about his feelings, about the characters around him. It’s mostly delivered in snippets and asides via a conversational tone that ties the whole novel together. That’s the second element—the strength of Harry’s narrative voice allows Butcher to tell rather than show as often as he does.

The third trick that allows Butcher gets away with all the exposition is that, as I mentioned earlier, there is always something happening. Fool Moon is fast. It’s not for nothing that fully half of the back jacket quotes mention the pacing. The book reads fast because, as Elmore Leonard might say, Butcher has left out the parts people skip. The only time Harry—and the readers—rest is when the wizard is knocked out. Whatever bones I might have to pick about the use and abuse of secondary characters, Butcher spins a hell of a good yarn.

What We Nick from This Novel
Pace and space isn’t just for the NBA.
Sometimes exposition is inescapable. You might have a world to build. You might have mysteries to solve. You might, for plot reasons, need somebody to explain something. One way to deal with that is to spread the exposition out (space) and keep stuff happening during the exposition (pace). This is a variation on “don’t let characters lecture.” Butcher is better than Hoffman at stringing together scenes, though his job is made easier by the fact that Fool Moon covers only a few nights—we get narration for most every moment Harry is conscious from the moment he arrives at the first murder scene to the final confrontation with the baddies. It’s frenetic, though. Even the lulls in the action—those few moments where nobody is actively trying to turn Harry into literal or figurative dogmeat—have something going on. It should feel busy and forced, but it never does. This is what a page-turner looks like.

On Writing and Music Performance

“And yes, [writing]’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.”

Do you read MJ Wright? If not, you should consider it. He’s a New Zealand historian and writer who has a lot of smart things to say about writing, history, and science (among other things). Last week, he published a post called “Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing.” I have no problem with the thesis of that piece: writing requires practice and, to do it well, you must get beyond “rules.” Experience counts. There’s truth in that, but that much is true of any art. I’m less curious about why Wright compared writing to piano performance than I am with the semantic leap from “translating and transferring emotions” to “performance.”  Where does the composer fit into the equation? Where, for that matter, does a reader?

I’m in a rare position regarding this question: I’ve written lots of text, I’ve written lots of music, and I’ve put in my time performing music (and on much rarer occasions, words). A caveat, though: Wright’s post was just a springboard for this one. I’m not trying to “refute” his argument or really even comment on the post’s content. Said post makes a convincing case for the importance of practice in writing, and I wholly agree with Wright on that point. My quibble is with “performance” and just how well that idea applies to writing.

“If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid.”

This is true. It’s also true, though, that Western music notation has always been a kind of shorthand—there’s a whole branch of music scholarship devoted to studying manuscripts and decoding the actions the blobs of ink were meant to prompt. (If you’re interested in some of the uses and abuses of ‘performance practice’ studies, I’d suggest Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act, though I’d also suggesting looking directly at some of the essays he engages with. Taruskin habitually pursues his arguments…aggressively.)

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that “composer” became a job of its own. Prior to that, writing music was a part of other jobs—Kapellmeister, for example. The Kapellmeister managed all the musical activity for a church and wrote more as necessary for performance. As the patronage system broke down and professional music-making moved away from the church and the estates of the aristocracy, composers stopped having house or church ensembles to work with. Simultaneously, music came to be treated more as an art than a craft.

Notation was getting more precise, too, because composers were less likely to be in direct control of performances. Dynamic markings (for loudness) grew in importance. Composers indicated tempi, eventually with metronome markings. Articulation marks and phrasing marks and all sorts of indications telling a performer how to play a particular note became common. The more seriously composition was treated as its own distinct art, the more precisely composers worked to guide (or control) performers.

By the middle 20th Century, this had pushed some composers to abandon performers altogether. Electroacoustic music was driven by new sounds and new technology, but it also allowed the composers to create exactly what they wanted to without the necessary mediation of a performer. Some composers—famously, Igor Stravinsky—railed against performers’ “interpretation” of music, instead preferring “execution.” The ladies and gentlemen with the instruments in hand were, Stravinsky argued, just there to make his artistic vision a reality, without any input on the process.  They had acquired a history’s worth of bad performance habits that needed to be scrubbed away. (See the sixth of his Norton lectures at Harvard, published in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.)

To bring this back around to Wright, of course playing Beethoven as if the blots on the page were the whole piece sounds “plonky and stupid.” The score was never intended to be the music, only a vehicle for transmitting it.[1]

And here the comparison of music to writing gets fuzzy, because writing is also a vehicle for transmitting ideas. We use the written word to tell stories, to explain scientific research, to philosophize, to do a hundred hundred other tasks. The words, though, are not the stories, are not the ideas, are not the philosophy. (You can make a case for that, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.) Stories live closer to the words than music does to the score, but there’s still a significant degree of difference.

The gap between (Western) music and writing comes in the way that gap between sign and signifier is bridged. With words and ideas, it’s essentially a direct process of semiosis.[2] With traditionally-notated Western music, you need a performer and some kind of semiosis to accomplish Wright’s “translating and transferring emotions;” the semiosis is mediated by the performer. The performer translates the score into reality—that’s performance. Like translating from one language to another, though, there are necessary injections of the performer’s ideas into the final product—the difference between dumping a chunk of text into Google Translate and using a professional translator is much the same as the difference between “plonky and stupid” Beethoven and the performance by Tiffany Poon Wright uses as his counterexample.

You can make the case (as reader-response theory sometimes does) that the “translation” of words into a story or idea—into meaning—is a kind of performance by the reader rather than the writer. It is the reader who controls the pace of consumption, who consciously or unconsciously glides over the boring bits or lingers on a particularly artful turn of phrase. Readers are, at the least, participants in the construction of the meaning of a text. Communication is between the author and the reader.[3]

Musical performance—as with other performance arts—takes place in time. Scores can and do hang around for centuries. What we have on the page of Beethoven’s Op. 27 No. 2 now isn’t much different than what was on the page 200 years ago, but to turn it into music we need a performance now, something to thaw Beethoven’s calcified intentions into flowing sound. By controlling the pace of production (of sound), the performer controls the pace of consumption. The performer, of course, also controls the innumerable nuances that create the music for the audience.

“The trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer.”

As a composer, I have to respect performers—their skills make my ideas reality (and often improve upon them in the process). I don’t agree with Stravinsky’s notion of a hierarchical, unidirectional movement from composer to performer to audience. I believe that the relationships are reciprocal and that the musical work exists somewhere in the vague middle of the performer-audience-composer triangle. Performing is creative work regardless of how much or how little the composer has written down. (Any quibble with “which was always envisaged by the composer” must be saved for a separate post.) It’s the composer, though, who takes the first step of creating something from nothing, of recording some idea or intention to give to a performer and ultimately to the audience. That stage of creation embeds Wright’s “emotions” (I would add “ideas,” too) in an artifact. Only then can the performing artist “transfer and translate” them for the audience.

Writing is creating something from nothing. Performing a score is creating something out of something else. That doesn’t mean that writing and music are wholly discrete: words are sounds. Sentences have rhythm. We can talk about pace and tempo and structure in novels in much the same way we do in symphonies. One of my favorite composers (and subject of my master’s thesis) justified his musical style and the creation of a whole new tuning system on the basis of its presumed relation to human speech and song—to embodied words.

My favorite description of what defines a story is the Kalahari proverb “it comes from a far off place and you feel it.” Music is much the same way. I’ve been thinking about and writing about both for years. They’re arts. They benefit from from practice. Sometimes you create texts or scores or performances that suck. You learn from them and you move on. That doesn’t make writing  performance, and that’s okay. [4] Go practice, go write and, as Neil Gaiman puts it, make good art.

1—It’s tangential but important to note that the majority of the world’s musical traditions lack notation altogether. We have to be careful when we talk about music to remember that there is more to it than Western “classical” music. Many Western music philosophers and music semioticians build their work entirely on the Western canon, sometimes narrowing it further to Western instrumental music. That leads to some conclusions that look truly idiotic the moment you step out of the concert hall.
2—…and semiosis is marvelously complicated even before you get neurocogs involved.
3—As somebody whose dissertation was on the presentation of music and all of the practical levels of execution that go with getting music composed and performed, that sentence was a little painful to write. The communication is never going to be perfect and, as soon as publishing enters the equation, you add all sorts of competing pulls that influence both what is said and how it is said.
4—And, as I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that I don’t believe writing is performance does nothing to discount the other elements of Wright’s analogy. Writing is still art!