Back in high school when I had to share a car with my sister--it would have been the '83 Toyota Tercel that couldn't get to 65 even with the gas-pedal pressed to the floor--she wondered how I didn't fall asleep while listening to classical music as I drove. And I believe it was a Wagner cassette I had left in the car. Wagner! Come on, I mean, if it had been Debussy, maybe I’d understand. Maybe. But, anyway, fast-forward twenty-some years and my wife was playing an opera CD in her Odyssey when one of her friends asked, "How in the world can you stay awake listening to this stuff?" I think it's hard for some people to remember that Bach and Mozart didn't write background music for offices and studies. There's something going on here, and over the past two years, I've been on a mission to clear up some of my own ignorance on the subject. The good news and the bad news is that this mission will be a lifelong endeavor. There’s so much to know.
Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music isn’t a bad place to start. I found his self-admittedly artificial construct of three planes of listening enlightening. “For lack of a better terminology,” Copland wrote, “one might name these: (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, (3) the sheerly musical plane” (7). The school librarian who listens to Mozart while she catalogues new books and writes purchase orders is listening on the sensuous plane. Mozart as background music. Listen to the opening to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the romantic, rising, and ultimately unresolved dissonances (unresolved until Act 3, anyway), and you get the expressive (it’s about love--who hasn’t felt that much longing?) and sheerly musical (it’s done with dissonant chords that don’t resolve). Copland argues we spend too much time in the sensuous plane, but this isn’t so much a chastisement as it is a call to look a little deeper into the music.
Charles Ives, great American composer of the late-19th and early-20th century, is a composer who never bores me while I’m on that long commute to work. He confuses me. The first time I heard his Symphony No. 4 I wondered when it would begin--it sounded like an orchestra warming up. He makes me weak-kneed. Listen to the Michael Tilson Thomas recordings of the second movement of Ives’s Symphony No. 1, the third movement of his Symphony No. 2, and the third movement of his Symphony No. 4. Listen to "The Alcotts" in his “Concord” Piano Sonata. But what about something like the second movement of Ives’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano? Are any of the instruments aware of each other? It sounds like they’re all doing their own thing! I hear snippets of familiar melodies and then some raucous piano playing or stage fiddling diverts my attention. It’s like the ultimate ADHD nightmare--what the hell do I focus on?
Answer: Take your pick! Just focus!
It’s easy to imagine walking down a street at night in New York City with music leaking out of different establishments and coalescing into some glorious mess of different keys and rhythms and melodies. It’s the glorious mess that Ives captured so well. I’m nowhere near intelligent enough on the matter to explain how he makes it work (read the great Jan Swafford biography or check out what Michael Tilson Thomas has to say about the man), but it works.
I was driving to work one day soon after reading an explanation of what is going on in the second movement of Ives’s Symphony No. 4 (titled Comedy, appropriately enough--composers have senses of humor) when it struck me Ives had captured life in the 21st century. Our environment is full of stimuli--sound stimuli like sirens, horns, bells, chimes. Tactical stimuli like buzzing notifications, the depressing of a keyboard key. Add to that all the screens we’re surrounded by--surrounded by CNN at the airport, teachers spending entire planning periods in front of a monitor, children staring down at tablets. It’s all in the Comedy --the confusion and brief moments of clarity and beauty that rise up out of the fog (or is it storm?) of our daily lives. And then there’s the beauty of the whole. This music, it’s a day-in-the-life of just about any person, anywhere. There’s enough complexity in Ives (and in life) to keep a mind intrigued for a very long time. If I don’t let it just wash over me. If I pay attention to what it all means and how it all works.
So we come back to the critics of classical listening in cars. If some people consider classical music as great accompaniment for bookstore browsing and nothing more, then I understand why it would put them to sleep. But if people are listening for depth--what does it mean (in a general sense)? how did the composer do that?--then classical music will put demands on their attention they never knew were possible. Cool! Cooler yet is the way this focus impacts other areas of your attention.
Take the medium I work in, writing. I read plenty of mysteries and thrillers for sheer escape (the sensuous level?). But I also read plenty of books at deeper levels. Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, of course, but also modern greats like Russell Banks and Toni Morrison. Read Dennis Lehane and get “lose yourself in it” stories but also tremendous thematic depth. I also find that Aaron Copland’s three planes apply to a way of looking at life in general. Like every generation that’s walked this earth, there’s a lot going on around us, a lot of change, a lot of distraction. Do we simply accept what is? Mindless acceptance of the march of progress? Adopt these slick devices, the constant connectivity, a world of information at our fingertips? Or do we stop for a moment and think about what all the change means, and how it changes us? (Nicholas Carr and James Gleick are good guides.) Dig deeper into one art and you end up digging deeper into everything. Dig deeper into everything and you’ll never find yourself bored.
Source: Copland, Aaron, Alan Rich, and Leonard Slatkin. What to Listen for in Music. New York, N.Y: Signet Classics, 2011. Print.
Jason Isbell released Southeastern in June 2013. I haven't stopped listening to it since. It's brilliant, and I warn you that I'm going to gush about it all the way down to the first divider line. Okay, still with me? Southeastern is the most complete album from top to bottom since... since... Achtung Baby. Well, maybe that's a bit extreme. I'm sure I've neglected to think of many brilliant albums that were released between 1991 and 2013 (including two particularly good albums by Lisa Hannigan and a number of good albums by David Gray and...). Long story short, I've had a year to put away this album and I can't. Most recently it served as the soundtrack for a drive through the Appalachians of Virginia and West Virginia (hmm... "Traveling Alone" goes well with that drive if I could block out the fact that I had my three kids, my niece, and my lovely wife in the car with me--I guess I'm thinking about how the song mentions mountains). Brilliant lyrics, soulful singing, strong musicianship. "Elephant" will rip your heart out, and along with "Relatively Easy" and "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" (my favorite of the bunch), they all give me chills. Literally, I have to turn the air-conditioning down on these. This is a guy who studied creative writing in college and whose apartment is littered with books. Don't take my word for it, find out for yourself. Check out the way "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" begins:
On a lark, on a whim,
I said there's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them.
And his fist cut the smoke
I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke.
And in the car, headed home,
She asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone.
With a steak held to my eye,
I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye,
And another brief chapter without any answers blew by.
Then go check out the song. Then go buy the album: Amazon / iTunes.
Okay. Gushing over.
With the upcoming publication of Stay, Illusion, the second novel in the Marius Besshaven series, I feel I need to write a bit about book series. You see, I've been reading Nick Hornby's collected essays from The Believer, and in one of the essays he addresses book series, mystery series, and wonders how they go on and on, how all these bad things can happen in the lives of the main character of the series. Point taken, and since I'm writing a series where a lot of bad things happen in the lives of my characters, I've been thinking about this and how it applies to Marius's story.
In a series where a law-enforcement agent is the main character (Harry Bosch or Dave Robicheaux), it makes sense that bad things happen. In a series where the main character is a private eye (Elvis Cole or Kenzie & Gennaro), it makes sense. Then we get Myron Bolitar, sports agent. I never worried about all the trouble Bolitar consistently gets involved in--the books are too good! Then there's Lisbeth Salander, hacker/investigator. A woman with a rather fucked up past that is the basis for much of her story in the Millennium Trilogy.
So where does my character, Marius, fit in? Like Lisbeth, he's got a fucked up past. But he's not a hacker or investigator or private eye or police officer or... sports agent. He's an astronomy professor. And he's not battling society and its twisted system of guardianship like Lisbeth did. He's battling his own demons, their origin covered in Ruin's Entrance, and he's going to meet a real bad dude in Stay, Illusion. There's one more book to come (at the very least, as you'll see when you get to the end of Stay, Illusion). And after that? Marius will either be left in a good place, a bad place, or just left. For a while. Maybe forever. What I'm trying to say is it would be disingenuous for him to continue to get in trouble. Can't the man find peace? Are we interested in his story without the external element of some crime to solve? I'm interested, but interested enough to pour out 80,000 words exploring it? I like stories--reading them, telling them, so I don't foresee a plotless novel in Marius's future. No, no, no.
Anyway, you're going to have to wait a while for the third book in the series. I'm lucky I wrote the second one as quickly as I did. You see, a year ago I got 40,000 words into a novel that contains many of the elements of Stay, Illusion, but with the characters involved, it just wasn't working, and I instead turned my attention to finishing The Footnotes (now there's a series opportunity, and the rough draft is done on the second book!). Ruin's Entrance wasn't supposed to be the beginning of a series, but I wanted to know what happened next to Marius. And he fit in perfectly with that 40,000 word manuscript I'd put aside, so what if... A good match, I think. And I see the trouble involved in the third book as a natural outgrowth of the first, perhaps a way of bringing resolution to the lives of some of the characters. After that? I don't know. Maybe he lives out his academic life and nothing much exciting happens to him. Meaning his story will forever remain a trilogy. I'll have to wait and see.
All of this being a long-winded way of saying, I think Nick Hornby had a point. Of course he did. He's also brilliant. Like Jason Isbell, though in a different kind of way (see how I clumsily tied the first two parts of this together?).
Part the Third, then, deals with what I've learned during the last year of writing and publishing. Up until last summer I was content to write and never share any of my stories (and travel journals--lots of that) with anyone--writing's a hobby, something I love (and have loved since I was quite young), and I have a day job that pays a decent wage and affords me some free time. So all is good. No illusions about making a living off of writing (though it would be nice to be paid well to do this--I can't lie).
So a little over a year ago I let my first fully revised novel go into the world. I was scared to death. It's a vulnerable feeling, putting something you've worked so hard on out there for other people, strangers, to have a look at, to respond to. People who have read it seem to have enjoyed it. I was a little more confident with Ruin's Entrance, and, again, people seem to have enjoyed that one. (Feedback involves people saying they couldn't put it down and one person saying, 'Wow, you're messed up--but in a good way. That's a compliment.' Thanks, I think.)
So what have I learned?
I don't know what the next year of writing will have in store for me, other than I'll continue to write. Next up is, sorry, not the third Marius book. I got inspired down in Charleston and am finally writing the horror novel I've long wanted to do. Marius #3 will come after that--the idea is there. So, yes, another year full of writing. And maybe I'll learn some more about selling myself without doing things that make me cringe. And reach a few more people. I'd quite like that.
Hey, Jason Isbell didn't reach so many people without a little legwork, right? Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has so many (a veritable series) of great albums, does it? Okay. Enough with the clumsy attempts to tie these three disparate topics together. Signing off.
Ray Stickle reads a lot and writes daily. For progress reports, updates on any upcoming releases, and the occasional thought or two, check here.