Sunday, June 19, 2011

Writing Prose and Writing Music

I ran across this review of a book by Stanley Fish on writing prose and this paragraph stood out:

Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ask three questions of what they read: (1) What is being said? (2) Does it interest me? (3) Is it well constructed? Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them: (4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And (5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing? This can slow things down a good bit.
Isn't that a lot like writing music? As, I believe, Stravinsky said, "composers don't borrow, they steal." And it is a big part of the way I listen to figure out how the composer has gotten a certain effect. These days, especially with harmony. I have to admit that my mind tends to the contrapuntal: I think in terms of how each voice moves. But that is only half the picture and it is the other half, the purely harmonic, that gives me the most trouble. I'm hoping this is a good thing and just means that I'm engaged with the problem of harmony and not just ignoring it like some composers (*cough* Vaughan Williams *cough*).

Beethoven wrestled with harmony his whole life. Here is one fascinating bout in that struggle:

The first four minutes of this, the fourth movement from the early quartet, op 18 no 6, is a very strange piece which, also very strangely, Beethoven titles La Malinconia. It acts as a slow introduction to the fast movement and also briefly returns towards the end. Without going into technical details (which don't tell us much anyway), what Beethoven does is take us through an harmonic labyrinth in a way that no-one had done before. Frankly, I'd love to steal it, but I'm not sure how and I have no idea what I would do with it. But it is a marvelous piece of harmonic experiment...

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