Friday, March 18, 2011

On the Road Again

Heaven help us, it's time for another road trip. This time, I'm off to California for the wedding of the girl who reminds me of Julie to the guy who is the basis of Andrew Farragut. Driving all the way and currently updating from a McDonald's in Elko, NV.

Plus, we're driving with that blonde chick with whom I went to Philly last year. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Saturday, March 5, 2011


So, among my other hobbies, I'm a musician. Violin, viola, piano, organ and handbells are my instrument, but this blog post is about something related to the pianist side of me.

I am working on Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata. I learned it when I was 18 and my teacher suggested that I relearn it and perform it now that I'm 12 years older and a much better pianist. Never one to turn down Beethoven, I agreed.

Really, it's one of the great piano works of all time. You have to be sadistic and masochistic as well to even tackle the first movement, which is 19 blinding pages long. Admittedly, the last thing I learned before this was the 20-page 3rd movement of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21, but that was a fun finale that has jokes everywhere and gives you a rest once in a while. This does have a few "easier" parts, where you're doing crashing chords and nontuplets (9 notes strung together in a really quick fashion), but it does not give you a rest. If you leave the intensity alone for one minute, it loses its effectiveness. And it goes from the cheerful melody in the introduction to the war between the hands. (Now that I've scared you out of ever looking at the sheet music or subjecting your children to it, let me reassure you that the second movement makes it worth the wait. And your fingers get to sort of droop sleepily over the keys until the minor section.)

Listen to it here:

I hope you listen to it sometime, if not here. Pay attention to 7:31 to 8:37 and you'll understand what this blog post is about.

The most commonly recognized image of Beethoven is of this wild-haired, grouchy looking man. I am firmly convinced that he had combed hair and a well-adjusted personality. And then he played the Pathetique. I'm starting to notice that my hair is starting to mimic his.

Why, you may ask? Well, listen to 7:31 to 8:37 again. It comes crashing to a halt just when you think you have enough energy to get to the end, then makes you ease up to repeat the opening motif. You have to relax into those chords and then get right back up and not make the last bit a train wreck. WOW that was a mixed metaphor if I ever wrote one.

What I'd like to talk about is the difficulty in making that last minute convincing. It's hard enough to get through the first 17.5 pages with no flagging speed or exhaustion. I've played Handel's Messiah on violin for three hours and been less exhausted than I am when I finish a practice of this piece. The reason is that you have to command that last page with absolute confidence and dominion over the emotional demands of the music. And you have to do it convincingly.

I mentioned that I learned it when I was 18. I played the second movement for my senior recital, since my mom didn't want me to use up all my energy in one piece. In the same season, a friend of mine was learning the first movement that I've been talking about. SHe is a very gifted pianist technically, but she is not as musically expressive as most people. While I admired that she could play all of those notes faster than I, I didn't feel the same thrill that I do when I hear Horowitz crashing through the last bit. I almost got bored in the middle.

So, how does this relate to writing? Well, I have done one complete revision of my book. I am now on a second one and feeling about the pacing the way I do about Beethoven's Pathetique. The story I am telling requires audacity and intensity and I am afraid of letting people read it if I have not given them a taste of the heart-stopping brilliance that is stuck in my head. If I don't pull off the writing the right way, the climax of the book will leave the readers feeling like I did when I heard a lackluster performance of the Pathetique. Yeah, the grammar and spelling were there, but there was no fire.

I've been rereading Harry Potter 7 this last week and there are two parts at which I actually cry every time. One is when Pansy Parkinson orders the students of Hogwarts to seize Harry and turn him over and the whole of the school stands against her. The other is when he takes off his invisibility cloak to fight Voldemort in the battle in the Great Hall. See the epilogue of this post for more amusing things that make someone with "the maternal instincts of a woodchipper" (The Guild) get emotional in literature. Those are two times at which the emotional poignancy of the whole experience just becomes too much for even me.

I don't harbor delusions that Ella will evoke that kind of reaction in the first book or maybe even in the fifth. Harry is a supernal gift to literature. But I want people to feel the same heart-stopping thrill that I get when I hear the Pathetique done right. They deserve nothing less if they've bothered to open the book.

Epilogue: 10 literary moments that make me choke up when I read them

1. Wednesday Wars: Holling's soliloquy on gods dying. It's such a frank and poignant expression of what he thinks is wrong with war.
2. Wednesday Wars: Heather Hoodhood coming home. You never really notice until that moment that you don't know her name. Everything that has gone before and what Holling sacrifices to bring her back...
3. Wednesday Wars: Okay, so I have more. Honestly, I remember getting into the car with my mother and finding her sobbing uncontrollably while listening to this part. It is when Mrs. Baker, who has been suffering through her husband's MIA status in Viet Nam, gets a telegram from him.
4. Lord of the Rings: Frodo's speech about how Sam cannot forever be torn in two.
5. The Polar Express: The last page, when it says that eventually, his friends stopped hearing the bell, but he never did. Katey and I have twice holed up in a library and read picture books to each other. When I read Polar Express aloud and had to stop at that sentence because I was too moved to speak, she looked very amused.
6. Winter of Our Discontent: When his daughter's gift keeps him from committing suicide.
7. Harry Potter 3: When Harry refuses to kill Wormtail. That entire chapter gives me the same kind of thrill as Beethoven and when Harry proves to be the better man...
8. Harry Potter 4: When Hagrid talks to Harry for the first time since he faced Voldemort again. We never really see Hagrid in a gentle light. He's the guy who raises giant spiders and dragons and is an emissary to the giants, for crying out loud. His paternal side at this point, when Harry says he's all right and Hagrid with unfailing faith says "No, but yeh will be," is one of my favorite parts.
9. Harry Potter 6: "You're Dumbledore's man, through and through." THe movie ruined this by not putting in any of the doubt and conflict with Dumbledore in OOTP.
10. Harry Potter 7: When Ron speculates that he was left the Deluminator because Dumbledore knew he'd leave and Harry retorts that Dumbledore knew he would want to come back.