Music and the Ryswyck ‘verse

It’s Saturday, nothing in particular is required of me, and though I certainly have a good deal of housework to do before the book club shows up here next Thursday, I have spent the morning puttering, going out only briefly to get an everything bagel with a garlic-herb schmear and a coffee.

I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole looking up music on Youtube. Seriously, sometimes I love living in the future. When I was a kid, if I wanted to sample a composer’s music, I had to walk uphill both ways to the library to put a hold on a CD. Now I can just click through to the next sample ad libitum. Which is precisely what I’ve been doing.

It all started when my friend Erica relayed the compliments of a friend who had bought and read Ryswyck on her recommendation. She mentioned rehearsing for a performance of Bruckner’s 7th symphony while she was reading it and thought they went well together. Now till yesterday, I had never heard any Bruckner; I have a sneaking affection for the Late Romantics, but my tastes tend toward the Slavs and the English rather than the Germans. So to the internets I went. On a cursory listen I can see why someone might find the symphony a good running background for Ryswyck, although (at a glance) I notice that the most salient feature of Bruckner’s 7th is that it is rather long, which I suppose is no more than I deserve, heh. It sounds like an interesting piece to play, which is something I would not say about Brahms or, God forbid, Mahler.

But naturally my thoughts turned to what music was/is in my mental background when I was writing or thinking about Ryswyck. Unfortunately, it’s rather like asking myself what I had for dinner two weeks ago: the fact is I just don’t recall listening to anything in particular while writing, and if any particular piece recommended itself to my mood, or to my concept of the atmosphere of the book, I can’t recall that either. Many years ago now I went ahead with the very bad idea of listening to Holst’s Hammersmith on repeat while writing a traumatic scene of a now-abandoned project; the experience rather soured me on the concept of composing under the influence, so to speak.

But, I finally recalled, I did put myself in the writing mood on at least one occasion with Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, at least the first movement anyway. So I listened to that again yesterday, and because that opening two minutes just fascinates the hell out of me, I googled for commentary on it (three cheers for the future!) and found someone’s music theory dissertation of nonatonic collections in Vaughan Williams and Bax. A lot of music theory is over my head; for a while I labored under the mistaken idea that “nonatonic” meant “non-atonic” before realizing it meant “nine tones.” Anyway it certainly satisfied my curiosity (and then some) about the chord structure of the opening theme, with its application of opposing forces and the way it takes what could have been a straight harmonic minor scale and makes a parallelogram of it.

And that in a nutshell is the problem I have trying to summon musical quotations for a Ryswyckian playlist. The ‘verse is not our world; it doesn’t have the same religious history, for example, and though the ethnicities are coded (in longstanding tradition) to groups we recognize as vaguely Anglo/Scots/Breton/Alsatian, the peoples in the ‘verse aren’t really those things. Yet music is very important in the story, as a cultural matrix and a motive (in many senses of the word) for the characters; if I had the facility for musical genius that Tolkien had for languages, I would be highly tempted to write the kind of music I imagine my characters singing. (I wonder if Howard Shore does pro bono work?)

As it is, I put some thought into assembling some of the eclectic flavors that go into the mood and outlook of Ryswyck. Besides the Vaughan Williams, a contemporary piece I’ve linked before by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Something for the Dark, moved me when I heard it in performance. I am not very enamored with the opening statement, but the fragile persistence of the second theme made me think right away of Speir, and the overall eclecticism seems fitting to me for a post-nuclear age.

A song I do remember listening to, though it doesn’t speak directly to anything in the book, is Agnes Obel’s “The Curse.” The collection needs an elegiac ostinato in there, and this one strikes a very appropriate note.

The “chants” described in the book are, to some extent, inspired by plainsong tones such as can be found in the Plainsong Psalter, particularly the Tonus Peregrinus, except that Ilonian chant supports both polyphony and drones, the latter of which would set it apart from Anglican chant. At its most sublime it would strike a note much like Ola Gjeilo’s “The Spheres,” from the Sunrise Mass.

In more martial contexts, and in the seasonal songbooks, the effect is similar to shape-note tunes like “Clamanda” and “Tender Thought.” (For the former I’m indebted to Ann Leckie; it’s not the only time I have progressed in my labors only to discover later that AL had broken the ground before me.) This is one example of the many ways in which I decided to put my own American eclecticism to use delineating a world in which cultures have painstakingly put themselves back together like the fractures of a bone. It’s more invocation than description.

The more playful songs, along with the reels, owe a lot to anything in our world played with the bodhran, the fiddle, the Celtic flute, and the pipes. But do you know just how much Session music there is to trawl through? I’d be reduced to a cobweb-draped skeleton before I could find the perfect tune to evoke the sense of it without indebting myself too much to the history built up behind so many of these tunes. I did find the fiddle virtuoso Liz Carroll, however; a representative track (though sans bodhran) gets near the kind of thing that’s in my head.

And because it’s July and my friend K has got Summerfest tickets again, I have chamber music on tap every Sunday of the month. Till I started going to these concerts I did not realize just how much of the charm of chamber music depends on being in the same room with it — and that too is a part of the ‘verse. Recorded music is not a popular means of consumption in Ilona, nor do people go to large concerts unless they live in the capital. Music is very much a cottage industry, made by people whose names you know because you grew up with them, or the next town over; it’s the only form of corporate worship there is, and thus is oriented to the community rather than the individual. That’s one way in which eclecticism plays us false, I think: we have so much to choose from that it’s hard to get past thinking about what one likes and dislikes, about one’s own empirical autobiographical experiences, to the context of the people knitted in with us. A poised engagement: that is the ethic I’m reaching for here.

So, there you have it: an off-the-cuff playlist for the Ryswyck ‘verse. Probably ten minutes after I post this I’ll be slapping my brow at what I forgot, but it can’t be helped. Happy Saturday!

“If it’s not fun for the whole psyche then what’s the point?”

Musing this evening on the perils of self-censorship. People I know have started to read Ryswyck and are telling me where they are in the story. They make brief comments or ask me questions: “I’ll be interested to see how you develop the concept of undefendedness,” said one, and, “Am I right that this takes place in a sort of hypothetical Britain-like country?” another buttonholed me at church to ask. “I’m two-thirds of the way through,” said a friend last night, and proceeded to tell me what was happening with each of the characters as if they were people we both knew.

This is an ongoing source of quiet amazement for me. When I first thought up the story that would become this novel, I was convinced I couldn’t write it — and more than that, I was convinced I shouldn’t. A snippet from the first blog post about it:

Spring has definitely sprung around here. There is a profusion of daffodils everywhere, we’ve cut pink-blooming boughs from the peach tree for the chapel, and the mint patch has begun to sprout. And, I’ve been making myself up stories again. I won’t write the one I’ve been dreaming out, because it is just too idtastic: it follows two characters through a co-ed military school that has a reputation for turning out brilliant officers but has the air of a mystery cult, and for good reason. There’s lots of courtesy and kindness, and also a great deal of sex and violence. This poses a problem, not for me, but for the Sir William — now Lord — Rees-Mogg in my head who prefers that we keep up our standards.

Still and all, I reflect that most of the stories I’ve made up over the years come from my id originally. I think I’m supposed to be ashamed of this, but I really just can’t manage it: it seems more to me like the id-origins of my stories are the grubby roots and the stories rise from them aboveground as plants.

But one does prefer the aboveground plant to be what’s noticed, I must say.

(March 15, 2012)

Fortunately for the book, I only needed the slightest encouragement to write it anyway, which my friends were only too happy to provide. It’s one thing to know Joanna Russ’s list of ways women’s writing is suppressed: it’s quite another to realize that you’re doing most of the suppressing for them. And still another to stop doing it.

That’s the miracle of art, though: a divine stubbornness that doesn’t feel miraculous in the least. A cussedness, a grubby stamping on the shovel’s shoulder, digging up that flowerbed. From a dreamed-out story outline in the rough, to a finished project one is proud of: that is worth all the slogging in the middle.

I suppose the reverse benefit of such difficulty is that when you’ve finished the project, you can enjoy the result and stick it to The Man in one move.

Fun for the whole psyche, indeed.

And now for something completely different

Well, not completely: music and art make their way into my blogging on the regular, and there are plenty of interesting things to post about.

A couple months ago I bought a 24-pan set of watercolors, because I wanted to reproduce my cover-art concept for Beth Leggett. This is the best view of the result:

But the upshot is, I have new watercolors. Yay! So every now and then I pull them out and practice.

Ultimately I’d like to produce an image strong enough to cover “Household Lights,” but that stage is a ways off.

Meanwhile, I have discovered some new music! First, a piece by an Icelandic artist that crossed my path in a Lenten devotion, which informed me that “brot” means “bread” in German and something like “torn” in Icelandic, making a cross-lingual Eucharistic pun of sorts.

And last weekend I was at the symphony (no, I didn’t light my cell phone and call for the Widor Toccata — Carmina Burana was the featured piece and that was quite enough to be going on with), and the opening piece was a new one by Sarah Kirkland Snider called Something for the Dark.

None of my companions liked this piece, but I found it moving and interesting. The reflective motif introduced by the flute in the middle has a strong delicacy that is attractive in itself; and since my head’s been full of Ryswyck since ordering the proof, it made me think of Speir and her perspective, how it gets fraught by events; how it perseveres. If I were making a Ryswyck playlist, I would be tempted to put this piece on it.

Up next on my art-and-music docket: fun with photography. We’ll see if I can get a good walk in between thunderstorms.

Gusto

Spring has sprung! I’m spending mornings with the balcony door open and feeling the itch to plot this year’s garden — along with a number of other allergy-related itches due to the neighborhood trees, but everybody’s got to live. And I’ve got to the point in preparing the ebook document where the light at the end of the tunnel looks less like an oncoming train.

So while I’m slogging through the last tedious bits of work, I give you two pieces of music pour s’amuser. One is a fascinating piece by a traditional Japanese drum ensemble, which I could watch over and over. One of the first things I noticed was that these young people played the entire piece while sustaining a lunge. Could I sustain a lunge for ten minutes straight? I doubt it.

The other is a piece I have long delighted in, ever since I heard it when it was being used as the postlude for ordinations at the cathedral. This is pretty great, but you really haven’t heard this piece till you’ve heard it in person in a resonant space. If I wanted to heckle Michael Stern at the Kansas City Symphony, I wouldn’t call for “Free Bird,” I’d call for somebody to get up in the organ loft and play the Widor Toccata. Every time I’m at the Kauffman I keep hoping the program will put that organ to use, but it rarely happens, alas.

Gusto is the thing. Sometimes I think it’s the whole point of music: if you have gusto and don’t know what to do with it, I say fire up one of these babies.

Now to await the first thunderstorm of the spring, when I will blast the “Dona nobis pacem” from the Bach Mass.

Sunday: Project Management

It snowed again this past week and honestly, I’m over it. Though I did make use of my fresh stock of Eagle Brand for snow ice cream, because if there’s enough snow, why wouldn’t you?

It’s been a week for project management, both at work and on the book production front. I have commissioned a design for the cover art for Ryswyck, made a beta appointment for “Household Lights,” wrangled with Microsoft Word in a preliminary attempt to make the manuscript of Ryswyck POD-compliant, put off with a shudder the attempt to make it e-book compliant, composed the front matter for the book, and today, made a stab at the back matter.

Trying to compose an author bio made me recall the line in Murder Must Advertise about how the best marketing copy was always written with the tongue firmly in the cheek, “a genuine conviction of the commodity’s worth producing — for some reason — poverty and flatness of style.” In any event there is simply no use attempting to be really earnest in writing one’s own bio blurb, so I wasn’t.

But even so I’m not sure I won’t scrap it and start over come tomorrow; a flippant joke about that time I stole V.S. Naipaul’s hat is all very well, but do I really want to give a notorious male chauvinist real estate in my bio? Maybe I’ll do the one about deciphering Rebecca West’s handwriting instead.

And despite the fact that I have a vast deal more compassion and self-worth regarding all the follies of my past than I ever did before, it’s a bit deflating to try and describe one’s career in slightly flippant but impressive terms. I could say I’m an ordinary working jane who wrote a book, but that’s not very impressive. And I could mention that I have two degrees in English Literature, but there’s no way to bring that out with the right note of flippancy. Anxiety of authorship, indeed.

Fortunately, at the end of a book that one has presumably just read, one does not need a CV of the author, just a sketch of the person who has just provided them with a (hopefully) meaningful immersive experience.

Anyway, I put the damn thing away and will read it again tomorrow, and the Acknowledgments as well, which I fear are too fucking fulsome, but never mind.

I did, by the way, discover that my original file of Ryswyck, composed in web style with line spaces for paragraph breaks, was almost exactly the same number of pages that the POD manuscript is, formatted in print style and a forgiving Garamond font. Which is to say, it’s about 525 pages. I’d come to fear it would be a massive tome just this side of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, since every time I mention the word count to people who know publishing, I get back a look like I just announced I had a terminal illness. But I don’t, and it’s not, and in fact this is shaping up to be a fabulous product.

I just have to find a way to say that with the tongue firmly in the cheek.

Merry Christmas, and an Angry New Year

Apparently Sunday blogging didn’t happen yesterday. Instead, I had some needed downtime, in which the most strenuous thing I did was to draft a map of the island country featured in Ryswyck, to show to an artist I would commission to draw it properly for the book. I would show it here, but a) there’s a reason why I’m hiring someone else to draw the map and b) I digitized and edited it at its full size to retain the details, and this post wouldn’t support an image that size.

Meanwhile, the items on my production schedule for the book are slowly coming together, though we’re still in the stage where things happen discretely instead of in linked chains of tasks. I expect it to pick up as spring comes on. Currently on my writer’s easel is a novella-sized treatment of the aftermath of the book, which if it edits well will serve as a sampler of the ‘verse and an intro to the second book in the series, which has been storyboarded and a few scenes sketched in. I’m doing my best to take advantage of the post-winter-solstice surge that is part of my creative rhythm.

It’s only in recent years that I have noticed that pattern enough to take advantage of it; for a long time I was too relieved that the torturous contraction of autumn was over to realize that it had an effect on my writing too. Not just the amounts of production, but the qualities of it change: less maudlin, more driven.

Which brings me to today’s subject. For Christmas, I gave my closest friends a copy of Rebecca Traister’s new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. It’s a short, trenchant treatment of the current situation we find ourselves in, and the attempts our society makes to obscure the power of anger in women by belittling or demonizing it. Just days ago I woke from a vivid dream about a fascist corporate takeover in which propaganda was spread printed on women’s shopping bags — seemingly friendly advice crowded in little text boxes and meme-sized photos: “Remember, if you start to feel angry, just remember that you’re a bad person, and the feelings will subside.” This morning I woke from a dream in which I went to a guru’s office in part to report that someone had rifled my briefcase bag and taken valuables from it, only to receive a bulletin later that I was banned from the building because being angry over the theft had made me dangerous and disruptive.

I used to have the luxury of thinking dreams like this were due to the idiosyncrasies of my brain and my life experiences. That’s a luxury that’s long gone for everyone.

The funny thing is, if you can get over the bone-deep suspicion that your anger is a sign of depravity, you can get a lot done. When I conceived Ryswyck six years ago, its dangers were all hypothetical, its moral imperative the stuff of parable. I worked on it slowly, stymied at times by mental and emotional obstacles. Then suddenly, there was nothing hypothetical at all about a post-post-apocalyptic tale in which the principle of courtesy becomes the last hope of people mired in a dehumanizing war. I was galvanized into action and wrote the last two-thirds of the story in a fever of fury. Then followed, of course, the long process of beta reading and editing and market research. Pressing to find the place of velocity.

We think that anger is no more than a feeling, an outrage inflicted upon us by the people or the situation that is making us angry. It’s that, to be sure. But finding something to do — not about it, but with it, in it — transforms it, transubstantiates it into something life-giving, even joyful. It becomes something we want to offer to the highest.

What we choose for our highest is the next perilous point.

So, for the New Year I wish you the anger to offer and the best place for offering it, and in those in-between times, a means of cheer and relief. I’ll be on the fencing strip, myself. Cheers!

Catgut my tongue

One of these days, I keep thinking, I’m going to write one of my snarky posts for this blog; I mean, it’s not like I don’t have anything to be salty about. But today is not that day.

The approach of Christmas is always one of those prismatic times, where we touch the meridians of previous experience and feel them thrum. I wound up plucking and strumming a lot of my own inward strings this week, some for the sake of sermon composition and some because, well, because it’s just the nadir of the year and I wind up doing that in the holy dark. So for my post this week I will just share two of the things in the cedar box of my heart and let them stand as commentary on the whole.

The first is a poem I wrote several years ago, as a response and counterpoint to Psalm 80. That psalm is one of the readings for this day, and while I was working on my sermon I remembered that I had written the poem, remembered the inward aridity that had begged for expression; and so afterward I dug the poem out and reproduce it here.

Flower Cross (Psalm 80)
The real problem with determinism
Is the hardening of allegory into concrete.
All those lessons I failed to learn,
All those unhappy endings that meant even less
Than I thought, all the glacial grooves of pathology
That started before me and will not end with me,
And which I fought so feebly and uselessly,
Become the antarctic mutterings
Of ice shelves scouring themselves
Over and over. In heat or in cold
The aridity is all.


I could crumble to dust where I stand.
At one time I could taste the hot salt
Of my own tears; then I could taste
Only the memory; then nothing at all.


Oh, look at me, look at me,
Let your face open to me in recognition
Like the doors that do not exist
For me to beat my fists on.
If you know me, tendrils will rise
And curl over the dust, running
With warm green sap, twining about me,
Threading below my fingers and over the palms
Of my open hands outstretched, dripping
In pale green finials of blossoming filigree,
Heavy with nectar, ringing with scent
Like the cicada’s song from where I stand
To the sun-sparked newborn shore.


Like new evening and new morning I would be
In the moment you saw me.

Yet even in such a time, one can be shaken into real tears without warning: I remember during that same period, one morning close to Christmas, I was driving alone on a country road eastward into the rising sun, and NPR was interviewing Eric Whitacre about his virtual choir. Then they played the piece he had written for it, and all of a sudden I was shedding uncontrollable tears, the gold-white light flaring as I wept and listened.

This kind of thing is so not like me. I am contained whether I want to be or not, my emotional reaction time slow, my sense of awe or worship or grief always slightly out of orb with my surroundings. Even music, which often reaches me uninhibited, doesn’t unhasp my control. Except, obviously, for a very few pieces. I don’t know what it is about this piece that does it to me, but it nearly always does. I get the sense sometimes, when people talk about this piece, that it fails to be truly highbrow in some unspoken way — a little embarrassing, maybe, a little overearnest. That could all be true. But it will never matter, not to my guts and tear ducts.

May the light break over you, like the songs of the morning stars, this holiday.