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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is theatre composer and debut fantasy novelist Stephen Weinstock @s_weinstock
Soundtrack by Frank Zappa, Igor Stravinsky, Stephen Sondheim, Alban Berg
I greatly admire Roz Morris’s wonderful combining of writers and their musical minds. I am excited to contribute because I am a composer, pianist, and dance accompanist who crossed over to write a fantasy series called 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. Before writing every day, I devise a playlist that is an eclectic mix of styles, and I wanted to explore how this music affects my writing. But no song expresses a character; no instrumental sets a scene in my book. So why listen to music when I write?
From scene to song
Of course music plays a part in Book One of 1001: The Qaraq – a group of souls who travel together from lifetime to lifetime. In each chapter, one of the qaraq members recalls a past life story; the present day action acts as a mainframe to enter into the memory, like the Scheherazade framing tale device in The Thousand and One Nights. Having worked in musical theater, I channel the techniques used for moving from a spoken scene in and out of a song to accomplish this shift. And some of the tales involve music: one character remembers his incarnation as Vaalat, an East African mallet instrument called a xalafon, which transfixes its audience.
On reflection, I realize the main influence music has on my writing is through the idea of hidden forms. As a composer, I love complex structural devices that we don’t hear in the music, but which shape the score. This love inspired me to construct 11 hidden structures that unify the 1001 series. Here are four examples, along with musical samples of corresponding hidden forms.
Past in the present
1. Embedding a past life story into each chapter is not so hidden, but it’s not obvious reading the first book that there will be 1001 chapters and 1001 lifetimes in the series, God help me! Frank Zappa, master musical parodist, loved to embed famous pieces of music into otherwise pop sounding tunes. In Status Back Baby, a bubble-headed high school kid’s lament is interrupted (at 1:27) by an electric quotation of the opening of Stravinsky’s ballet score Petrushka, then, with a cheerleader’s whistle, the jaunty song returns, mocked by the juxtaposition of kitsch and class.
Zappa, an incredible guitar virtuoso, could also be lyrical and breathtaking, with hidden rhythmic complexity, such as the beautiful Watermelon in Easter Hay.
2. In a score, motifs or longer melodies can recur in obvious or subtle ways. In Stephen Sondheim’s musical Passion, a motif is varied incessantly, to represent the character Fosca’s obsessive, neurotic nature. In Fosca scene, we first hear it at 2:13, and it then snakes its way throughout the scene. Similarly, for each of my central characters, I reiterate a set of traits, a gesture, and a literary voice in all their incarnations. Ooma, the sexy, troubled present day incarnation of the orgy-driven Queen of the Scheherazade tale, recalls her lifetimes in a haunted stream of consciousness. Sometimes I want these tropes to help identify the central character in the incarnation; sometimes they are hidden and just help me create the character. Sahara, the main character, likes to play with her hair: in 17th Century France, we recognize her as she curls a lock of hair around her finger; but in the Ediacaran Era, she is disguised as a two-inch organism with filaments that wave in the waters on the sea floor.
3. The great master of the hidden form was Alban Berg, the Viennese composer whose opera Wozzeck rejected conventional structures like arias and duets. Berg composed each scene of this story, about an oppressed soldier who descends into madness, around a particular structure supporting the dramatic action, some old forms like fugue or march, others more abstract, like the inventions of the last act. In Wozzeck, III, 2, when Wozzeck murders his wife Marie, the hidden form of Invention on a Single Tone reveals itself (at 4:45) with a chilling crescendo. In Wozzeck, III, 4, the Invention on a Hexachord accompanies Wozzeck’s drowning (circa 3:00) as the chord washes up and down in the orchestra. Creepy brilliance.
Influenced by Berg’s superimposition of forms onto a narrative, I placed in each past life story a hidden reference to one Arabian Night. The Thousand and One Nights contains parts of stories; remember that Scheherazade interrupts her storytelling every morning to save her head, so each night she tells only part of a tale. In my writing process, I use the Nights references to add local color or suggest a character’s inner thoughts. At times I lift a whole plot line to guide a past life tale: the magical roukh from Sinbad flies in and out of the qaraq’s mythic memories of their lives on the Red Isle.
4. Despite Stravinsky’s revolutionary status, he also followed Berg’s lead and used hidden techniques like retrograde, where you take a sequence and use it backwards, or the palindrome, where a sequence is the same forwards and backwards (Madam I’m Adam, or, qaraq!). In his opera The Flood, Stravinsky depicts the deluge structurally as a palindrome (at 2:33): the seas rise with orchestral tremolos for the storm, then the music retrogrades with the receding of the waters. In 1001, the chronological order of the past lives presented in the series is a karmic palindrome. The first 500 lifetimes create issues among the characters, and the last 500 are the karmic consequences, resolved in retrograde order. If the incarnation in lifetime #251 murders incarnation #252, then in lifetime #750, the victim forgives the murderer’s incarnation #751. That’s a hidden form!
If you haven’t stopped reading and called my local asylum to come fetch me immediately, I hope you might be excited to go hunting for hidden forms, or even use them in your work. They help generate ideas you’d never think of otherwise, and at the very least they have a subconscious effect on the reader. Maybe that’s how my daily playlist influences my writing; it’s a hidden form working on a subconscious level. An Undercover Soundtrack!
Stephen Weinstock is the author of 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. You can find more information on the series, more articles on writing, music, and reincarnation, and links to online tales here . Find Stephen on Facebook and email: email@example.com. 1001 will be an 11 book series, contain 1001 chapters and past lives, and take the rest of Stephen’s life to complete. Musically speaking, Stephen worked for years as a composer in the theatre. He won his 15 minutes of fame for the experimental sound-theatre work Mt. Quad at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, developed and team taught the first curriculum for opera/musical theatre writing at New York University, and created music for dancers at the Martha Graham School of Dance, Juilliard, and LaGuardia Arts HS (the ‘Fame’ School), where he continues to bring young dancers to physical, emotional, and spiritual ecstasy every day. Find him on Twitter as @S_Weinstock.
SHORT BREAK The Undercover Soundtrack will take a short break but will be back in a couple of weeks.
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You can’t read much about writing advice before you trip over an essay about story structure, and how it works invisible magic on the reader. My guest this week has used sophisticated musical structures as the skeleton of his fantasy series, a series of nested reincarnation tales inspired by The Thousand and One Nights – and his influences range from Alban Berg to Frank Zappa. For him, music does not so much conjure up a scene or a character as an entire shape, of how an idea moves into a story and where it eventually goes. He is uniquely qualified to do so, as he is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the dance faculties of UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school (though he has not yet said if he is reincarnated). Stephen Weinstock will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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