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.

Writing Review: The Host, by Stephenie Meyer, and thoughts on dialog and action tags

by Intermittent Rain ~ August 10th, 2018

I’ve only read a few chapters into The Host by Stephenie Meyer but I think I’m done.

The opening chapters of SF can be a challenge because the reader needs to be acclimated to the world, but an operating room with excited students that seem irrelevant to the rest of the story isn’t the best choice. Following that with a memory from the host whose past the narrator is experiencing rather than the eventual narrator’s own story is disorienting.

By Chapter 3 I can figure out what’s going on but Chapter 4 goes further back in memory and the writing style becomes simplistic and repetitive in rhythm. Since the host is in her teens at this point I assume the writing is supposed to be YA, but it’s not quite John Green. I might have been tempted to open the novel here and maybe present the story in parallel timelines because this scene is less confusing and has action. This is where I stopped reading though, so I don’t know how well my idea would work.
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In Chapter 2 there are sentences that have timing or logic issues which I wanted to look at.

For contrast, I’ve quoted an example that is fine. We’re in first person POV. The narrator is immobile, getting used to her host body. She has not opened the host’s eyes but has been listening to a conversation. (The following three quotes are from Chapter 2 of “The Host”.)

The woman breathed out heavily. A sigh. “But where did she come from?”

The narrator hears a sigh, then the spoken words. This is an action tag to the dialogue that makes sense.

But compare that with the next quote. After some internal narrative, a new paragraph starts:

The woman was defensive. “We do not choose violence. …”

How does the first person POV-eyes closed narrator know the woman is defensive? She can’t see the woman grimace or tense up because the eyes of the host are closed. We weren’t given any audible clues.

I think the author is trying to color the tone of the words, to imply tension and attitude, but the narrator can’t know this before the first word is spoken. It’s not an audible event that precedes the words like the sigh in the previous example. Maybe she can read it from the woman’s voice, but even that can’t happen until she hears some words. Just because the author knows doesn’t mean the narrator can know.

Later in the scene:

“Why should she have to?” the man muttered, but he didn’t seem to expect an answer.

The woman answered anyway. “If we’re to get the information we need -“

Again, we are told the woman is answering before she speaks. How does the narrator know it is an answer until the end of the sentence? And, by then it’s obvious that she’s answering so whether the reader needs to have it highlighted as “anyway” is questionable, though it does show some insistence on the woman’s part.

One could also wonder how, without eyes and in first person POV, the narrator understands that the man didn’t seem to expect an answer. Maybe he whispers or tails off. Or maybe it’s just lazy writing; telling rather than showing (or hearing). And inexperience with first person POV.


Dialogue tagging before the dialogue is more acceptable in non-fiction writing because the narrator is supposed to know everything in advance. We can dialogue tag in advance comfortably when we are instructing:

It was Lincoln who said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”

Or even action tag in advance:

Just before he fell off the stage and broke his arm, the actor delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

This only works if reported after the event, like a news story. It could even be done in first person POV as long as it’s delivered after the diagnosis of a broken arm.

When I fell off the stage and broke my arm I had just delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

But, though “The Host” is in past tense, I’ve seen no indication that the narrator is writing to us from the future.

Dialog or action tagging before the dialog can also be more acceptable in third person POV because the narrator can be varying degrees of omniscient and, like the non-fiction author, can know someone is going to speak or what tone of voice they will use. An omniscient narrator might know the woman feels defensive or that the man does not expect an answer.

But a first person (and blind) POV narrator can only know tone of voice after words are spoken, or that someone is answering after hearing their voice and determining what that person intends to communicate.

To me it feels like careless editing of a writer who thinks in third person rather than first person.

Was “Twilight” written in third? I don’t remember. But the prose and plot confusions in “The Host” are enough to convince me not to finish reading this one.