Goldberg Variations as NaNoWriMo

by Intermittent Rain ~ October 15th, 2018

I am now trying to identify elements of fiction that equate to harmonic progression as well as possibly key and form (matching the series of canons). Number of bars is likely not a big concern as it comes out of the repeated harmonic progression, meaning, retaining the chord progression requires the number and sequence of bars because you cannot extend or shorten one or more chords without destroying the balance and flow, and Bach is all about balance.

(The Goldberg post was going on and on through numerous revisions and additions over many days so I opted to split it into two posts. I started thinking about this in early October and am keen on working my way to the point of being able to execute it for this year’s NaNoWriMo project.)

The harmonic progression is not unlike the 12 bar blues that is the basis of many jazz, blues, and early rock and roll songs. Or the 32 bar A-A-B-A form of I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin, which is the other classic jazz form and chord progression. Like these, the Goldberg progression is strong, complete, malleable, and capable of supporting many melodic inventions.

But it is also subtle. In most theme and variations forms the theme is the melody and I’m not sure the individual variations are capable of standing on their own or being listened to sporadically the way the Goldberg variations are. A bus stop or particular table in a coffee shop might offer the variety of stories but would not be as subtle.

And might time of day be similar to key? There are only twelve keys and if you progress in a sequence (semi-tone or fourth) through all the keys you end up back at the beginning, just as moving through twenty four hours will take you back to the same time of day. The ancients did believe that each key had its own personality but that was before the development of well tempered tuning.

Bach was a proponent of the well tempered tuning system, so I suspect the stasis of key is more a function of technical ease for the performer and ease of adjustment for a dozing patron, and maybe to eliminate any idea of hierarchy or relationship between the variations that might otherwise be implied or interpreted. I think Bach might have liked to use more than one key but unless he did exactly one, two, or three in each of twelve keys there is the risk of implying a relationship between the variations that I think he did not want. And since he had already done all twelve keys twice (the two books of The Well Tempered Clavier) there was no need to go there again.

So for fiction, finding the equivalent of the key is less important than making sure there are no implied hierarchies or relationships between the stories. And maybe use some staid element to help negate such.

So what are elements of fiction that I could reuse? Plot; no. Plot is like melody, too identifiable. Characters? No, because then the reader will look for connection and development. Setting? Maybe, though that’s more identifiable than harmonic progression, meaning obvious. Unless there is a means of disguising it the way Bach uses different meters and composition techniques and textures. Emotion? Again, too strong and too easily identified and connected. I could use the ‘theme’ of grief, for example, but it would be too easy to see how each story is related and collectively it might be perceived to be some wider statement about it. The same applies to a concept, say ‘inequality’.

But maybe that’s not bad. I’m no Bach; I’m no master at the peak of his creative abilities, and really, what I’m after is material. A couple NaNoWriMos ago I ended up with two short stories and a character which I may still develop into a novel, as well as the start of what turned out to be a 22,000 word novella.

So I could use location or a concept, but location would have to be flexible for multiple stories and styles, and something that promotes action, else I risk constantly having to struggle with dialogue heavy talking heads. A gym is too limited in its action, a playground too limited in its users. An event location like an arena which might have sports, concerts, ceremonies or trade shows would have the flexibility. A large city park with sports areas, kids play areas, picnic tables, hiking trails, ponds might have enough variety, but then most stories would have to be set outdoors. Of course, something larger like a city or even small town is almost limitless.

Concept is probably automatically more flexible than location, but it would need to be 1) a concept with sufficient facets to allow multiple approaches, and 2) a concept I’d be happy living with for 30 days straight.

Another step removed from emotion -> concept might be an object; say, a cup, so every story has in it somewhere a cup. But that might be too subtle and artificial. However, because it could be subtle, then perhaps I could *add* it as well; every story uses the concept, *plus* has a cup. The cup becomes the key, (G major/minor) and the concept substitutes for the harmonic progression.

And what about time of day? That’s fairly plastic as well; all sorts of things can happen at the same time of day, or, I could cycle through different hours of the day. Or I could keep the time of day and change time zones.

Cycling time of day is interesting in that Bach specifically did *not* change key, but, I have 24 hours to work with and he only had 12 keys, plus he’d done 12 keys before. 24 is close to 30, and I don’t have to write them sequentially, I could be flexible, label the general time of day and figure out the specifics later. Especially if they are to be presented in sequence. And I probably need more help than Bach anyway. Time of day might be the equivalent of the series of canons, the only thing that connects the series.

And time of day is flexible; I don’t have to decide what specific time of day for most, and I don’t have to label them even in my own mind until I’m well into it and decide that it’s going to work for me.

So, we have:

  • concept,
  • and / or location,
  • object,
  • possibly time of day

Now, I need come up with potential concept, location, and object.

Goldberg Variations

by Intermittent Rain ~ October 8th, 2018

Long ago I wrote a paper for a music grad class comparing the two Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations, written by J. S BachNowadays I listen to the 1981 release once in a while through a sleep app on my phone.

But it wasn’t until last night that I noticed the similarities between the Variations and my fiction writing exercise where I wrote the same scene with the same characters, the same motivation, the same location, and the same sequence of events, changing POV, proximity, attitude of the narrator, voice, and writing style.

 

The Goldberg Variations is an aria with 30 variations. All have the same bass line, chord progression and number of bars (like a jazz chart), and 27 are, like the aria, in the key of G major and 3 in G minor.

An artificial structure that one of the greatest composers turned into a work of art.

Each third variation is a canon—a composition technique using imitation and counterpoint. In each canon the second voice imitates at an interval one step higher than the previous canon, beginning at the unison (zero) in variation 3 until the ninth in variation 27. Other variations are in the style of dance forms from the period or familiar musical forms such as toccata and fughetta and French Overture.

The work is a significant accomplishment by one of the greatest composers at the peak of his powers (Bach lived 1685-1750, the variations were published in 1741), and the fourth and last in a series of publications that included the Italian Concerto and the French Overture. A work that has been referred to as “most ambitious and most important solo keyboard work written before Beethoven“.

All within a structure as restricted and repetitive as the writing exercise I did.

 

I’m not trying to compare myself with Bach but rather to look at what he did within his restrictions and to be inspired to do more with my own. I don’t think it’s possible to turn my collection of exercises into something that has any artistic value (beyond the possibility that, were I a writing master, I could create such a range of presentations that would inspire beginners).

Bach is a master of creativity: only two of the variations are reputed to have musical connection beyond the repeated structure. The variations change melody, meter, style, tempo (though that is performer interpretation; in Bach’s day tempos were not specified), level of keyboard difficulty, and largely mood, though many are rather joyous in tone, perhaps with the goal of helping Count Kaiserling, Goldberg’s employer, relax and sleep.

Each variation is a story unto itself, which would be useful if you drifted off and woke up again. But in my exercise, the restriction of the primary characters with the same motivations and personalities and the same events eliminates substantially different stories.

So is my exercise more the equivalent of different performances of any one piece? Wanda Landowska versus Angela Hewitt? Gould versus Gould? Me versus anyone who can actually play the piano? I think there is more variation than that: it’s not just the interpretation and execution that I was changing, there is POV and voice and tense and style.

The Goldberg Variations is more like a collection of flash fiction pieces, each complete in and of themselves. But if one were to try to construct a fiction/writing equivalent, these flashes would have some structural element that ties them together, and maybe more than one. Location, perhaps, is similar to musical structure; they could all take place at the same bus stop. And perhaps the bus, or maybe the bus is like the mode; present most of the time but not all, like the Goldberg is in G, mostly major, but three in minor.

But I don’t think you can restrict it to multiple renderings of the same incident. That’s what I was writing, and that’s more like trying to create different arrangements of one song: as a bossa nova, a waltz, a rap tune, a fugue, an uptempo jazz chart, an unorthodox version in 5/4 or 7/8, and so on.

You could use the same major characters, but the situation would have to change, it would be a series of events over time like a couple having breakfast. The problem (or advantage) of this would be the tendency to want the flashes to work together for some greater meaning, perhaps a progression reflecting the evolution of the relationship.

But that is not what the Goldberg is. The sequence is pleasing and has a structure of its own (the series of ascending canons in every third variation) but the later canons do not develop the earlier canons. Each variation can stand alone, like Bach’s 20 children. So perhaps the bus stop, with the bus present often, but different characters, different times of day, different weather, different events, each flash complete by itself, so if you fall asleep and miss a few, you won’t be lost when you pick it up again.

 

Because my objective with the exercise was to force myself to find different voices and styles, it does seem to be more like multiple arrangements of the same composition, so maybe it’s not as similar to the Goldberg as I originally thought.

But maybe this can make for a good NaNoWriMo structure; to use the same location and a few other similar structural elements and write 30 short stories, one for each day of November.

Antihero: The Ambiguous Protagonist?

by Intermittent Rain ~ October 4th, 2018

I’ve long been confused by the definition of “antihero”. My daughter uses the term to describe characters in movies but I’m never quite sure what she means.

Wikipedia says:

An antihero, or antiheroine, is a protagonist in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality. Although antiheroes may sometimes do the right thing, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.

So,

  • Sometimes does the right thing, but
  • not from idealism, courage, morality
  • often acting primarily out of self-interest

I think Dexter, of the novels as well as the television series, is a good example of an antihero. Dexter is a serial killer, a sociopath with no inherent morals. When Dexter’s cop father discovered his adopted son’s predilections, he told him he can only kill those who deserve to be killed; other killers on the loose. Dexter is doing “good” for society by removing other serial killers but only because he is following his father’s rules while satisfying his own needs; needs which society might find objectionable.

In my mind, a protagonist does not have to be either a hero or an antihero. Or maybe he does, in the traditional definition of the term. Wikipedia seems to think so. Based on their list it looks as if any important character who is morally ambiguous is an antihero, including the Lannister boys from “Game of Thrones” and Snape from Harry Potter (who is not the most, second most, or even third most present character in the series). And I don’t see Micheal Corleone of “The Godfather” or Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” as antiheroes. They’re protagonists, but they never come out the other side of the hero’s journey like Kurtz of “Heart of Darkness”/”Apocalypse Now”. They are anti-hero, as in the opposite of heroes.

Wikipedia also has Frank Drebin from “The Naked Gun” in the list. Does that mean Mr. Magoo is an antihero even though his good deeds are accidents that he stumbles into because of his extremely bad eyesight?

For my purposes, I take issue with the “may sometimes do the right thing” part of the definition. They don’t have to try to do good all the time, but must always do something hero-like at some point. Heroic, for me, meaning working for the good of others beyond oneself and struggling or sacrificing to achieve it. Otherwise, they’re not heroes, just protagonists or main characters.

Morally ambivalent leads of spaghetti westerns may or may not do something hero-like. And morally ambiguous characters who wander through the world in an existential or alienated funk are fine protagonists but that doesn’t make them antiheroes. At least not in our modern world of Marvel and DC movies.

Struggling internally for ones own peace of mind may benefit those who read and learn from the struggle, but if the results are only internal for that character I don’t know that it fits the same category of heroic action. Perhaps I’m not seeing all the ramifications though: is the struggle to maintain sanity not heroic, and how is that different from a character that is deeply and profoundly moved by societal issues?

But in the 21st century we have a clear definition of hero: Superman, firefighters, good Samaritans. And, I think, antiheroes are the ones who do heroic deeds unwillingly (the Marvel character Jessica Jones, who gets dragged into her fights) or primarily for selfish reasons (Dexter, who kills killers to satisfy his own need to kill, or Dr. Gregory House, whose need to solve puzzles usually results in curing the illness), or freely breaks rules in order to accomplish their journey (Jack Reacher, who doesn’t go looking for battles but once he’s decided he needs to right a wrong never hesitates to break laws or lie or to pulverize a few bad guys).

These antiheroes have dark sides, shadowy pasts, and struggle with themselves and their morals as well as with the villain and evil forces. Most interesting heroes have similar characteristics though: that’s what makes them interesting, human, relatable.

 

Apparently, my definition of a protagonist is not the same as a hero. Rather:

  • hero is a category of protagonist where the protagonist is at some point or on some level is trying to do good, and,
  • antihero is a subcategory of hero, not the opposite, so an antihero could also be a protagonist. Also,
  • the difference between hero and antihero is in the values of the character. Doing good needs to be an explicit priority for the protagonist to be a hero. If he or she ends up doing good primarily for other reasons (selfish, coincidental, forced or blackmailed into it), they are an antihero. They are doing good but not for heroic reasons or due to heroic values.

In some ways this doesn’t make sense. I’ve defined antihero as a type of hero whereas it should refer to the opposite of a hero, but I think this is closer to the current use of the term.

Especially in a world where the heroes are often superheros, or at least humans with super abilities.