I thought I would escape the ice bucket challenge unscathed, since everyone who knows me personally lives in fear of my basilisk’s glare. However, fellow writer and alert reader Amanda Fowler has called me out, so here I am getting silly in support of ALS research. I sing. You’re all doomed.
You’ll notice I didn’t explicitly tag anyone in the video. My camera operator (who came down with the giggles there at the end) BEGGED me to challenge him and has just run to the gas station for ice, so he’s my main challengee (and yes, we’re both donating).
As for the rest of you scurvy knaves, if you watched this video and had a good laugh, consider yourselves challenged, and even if you don’t dump ice on your heads, please throw a few bucks at the ALS Association. If we all do a little good, it adds up to a lot of good. The important thing is to get out there, engage with the world, and use your powers for awesome.
An astute reader recently asked me whether I’d had a particular song in mind for the “Invocation” Seraphina plays at Prince Rufus’s funeral. I did, in fact: there’s a moment late in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 where a flute plays a plaintive melody, echoed by French horn.
If you’re not familiar with Shostakovich’s Fifth, here’s a decent interpretation by our old friend Lenny Bernstein:
If you’re the impatient sort, the flute/French horn duet is at about 14:00. That said, I really think you should listen to everything that comes before it, rather than skipping ahead. It’s so much more beautiful if you’ve
suffered through endured fully experienced the music that came before. It’s actually quite an easy listen for a 20th century composer. I almost wonder, as I’m listening again (for the billionth time in the last two weeks) whether someone like John Williams didn’t find influences and inspirations here for the Star Wars soundtrack. It’s that level of listenable, is all I’m saying, full of grandeur and drama, always in motion. Also, Lenny is fun to watch. He’s got kind of a Peter Falk thing going on sometimes, which amuses me.
This symphony, along with Brahms’s 4th, was my go-to music for writing when I was a teenager. I would sit on the couch with headphones on and scrawl terrible, terrible fantasy novels in spiral notebooks. I hardly dare describe how terrible they were, but the music that fuelled them was not. One thing I love about this piece is that it has a bit of everything: anguish, hope, terror, beauty. There’s a diabolical march at 10:54 that gives me chills. I had better stop enumerating all my chills right there; there’s really no point counting. I’ve got chills enough for an influenza epidemic.
Also worth knowing is the history of this piece. It gets its own Wikipedia entry. The short version: Shostakovich fell from political grace – a dangerous thing to do in Stalin’s USSR – and this symphony is his attempt to give the Party the kind of inspirational, uplifting,”classical heroism” they demanded.
Or is it? Did Shostakovich comply, or not? How do we know what a piece of orchestral music really “means”? Is meaning something the listener brings to music, or something the composer puts in it? What about Lenny, what’s his role? How much does the artist create for himself, and how much for others? It’s fascinating to me how many layers there are.
It’s on Amazon already, so I’m overdue posting it here:
Yes, the wood-block print is by the same artist who did Seraphina‘s cover, Andrew Davidson.
The Amazon listing describes it as “a companion to Seraphina,” which is already causing a little confusion over on Twitter. Let there be no doubt: Shadow Scale is a sequel, plan and simple, told from Seraphina’s point of view. It begins about three months after the events of the first book. It is also the conclusion of Seraphina’s narrative, so it’s not the middle volume of a trilogy. I refuse to call it a “duology,” however, because I strongly dislike “duology” as a word. I have strong opinions about words, it seems. This should surprise no one.
The date is listed as March 10th, 2015. As with all things publishing, there is a non-zero chance that this might change.
This is so wonderful to me. This book and I have been through so much together, and I can’t even tell you how it feels to know it’s really done, it’s really happening, it’s nearly here. I know March seems far away, but it’s eight months. Babies gestate longer than that. You’ll blink, and it will be here. I’m sure of it.
So my lovely Madrigalians gave a concert yesterday evening, and it went wonderfully well. Each member of the choir was “piece monger” – meaning chooser, conductor, and ultimate arbiter of taste – for one song. That meant we sang as many songs as there are members of the choir, which was a lot of music to learn!
Anyway, it occurs to me that I can give you a virtual concert right here, or nearly. None of these recordings are us, of course, but here’s what we sang, in order:
Belle, qui tiens ma vie (We began this piece with a recorder quartet)
Pastyme with goode companye (by Henry VIII, and featuring yours truly on tambourine) (no tambourine in this recording, alas)
Amour Ha Pouvoir Sur Les Dieux (I couldn’t find a sung version of this on YouTube, sorry)
Ach Lieb, ich tu dir klagen (I was piece monger for this song, which was great fun. I’m one of those power-hungry, bossy conductors, though, so maybe I shouldn’t conduct too often)
So ben me ch’a bon tempo (we didn’t have the big instrumental interlude in the middle)
Vita de la mia Vita (a modern madrigal!)
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (composed by a member of our choir, Lise Kreps; the lyrics are the A. E. Housman poem that inspired the Ursula LeGuin short story collection by the same name)
Bring Me Little Water Sylvie (this is the Leadbelly recording; the version we sang was arranged by our own Earle Peach)
After all that, if you can believe it, the audience asked for an encore. We hadn’t prepared one, but we managed to belt out Sing We and Chant It almost as if we knew what we were doing.
Ahhhh… you know what I missed being able to do while I was working on the sequel? READ. Ye gods. I felt guilty any time I did, and even when I had time and leisure it was hard to really dig into anything. I just didn’t have the energy and mental resources to spare, so what I read slid off me, water off a duck’s back (the exception being non-fiction, which I would read because it was relevant).
Now I am afflicted with Cookie Monster Brain. I don’t merely want books, I want to eat them noisily and get crumbs all over everything. I want to take them apart and put them together in odd configurations, little Frankenbooks staggering about under their own power. I want to smash them together like stones and make tools, or music, or fire!
So I read V. – as I mentioned – but in the last couple weeks I have also read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (enjoyed the heck out of that), Raiders of the Nile by Stephen Saylor (I don’t like these young Gordianus prequel books as much as other books in the series; somehow Saylor has simplified the voice to reflect that he’s younger, but he’s also less interesting that way), and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (which I have decided perfectly encapsulates where Gaiman and I diverge, mythologically; I want to write a paper on this, or dissect it with a scalpel). I also have two manuscripts from friends to read, one of which is done, the other of which I need to start before my commentary becomes irrelevant. And then I just started The God Engines by John Scalzi, but I’m not far enough in to say much.
I know that doesn’t sound like very many books, but I am a SLOW READER, and for me it is a lot. Especially when you consider that for the last week I’ve been waking up at 5am thinking about literary criticism. Part of that is that it’s getting light very early now, but it’s also my brain going, “Hey. HEY! Remember that thing you read yesterday? Guess what guess what! I had some ideas about it.” And then off we go. My brain has to explain everything it thought while I was lazily sleeping, and then cross-reference all the other thoughts I’ve been having about anything and everything.
It is simultaneously annoying and glorious. I suspect my voraciousness right now is a symptom of just how gravely the well of my mind had run dry.
In other news, here’s my favourite song from choir this quarter, although this is not the arrangement we’re singing. It’s Owain Phyfe, though, so I couldn’t resist. I like his voice a lot.
After three weeks of aggressive laziness, I find myself feeling all squirrelly and full of vim today. I spent much of the last week on the floor with a heating pad after throwing out my back; I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’m feeling better today.
Long ago, my grandmother advised my mother to spend time every day sitting in a chair, getting used to being old. My mother, ever the contrarian, did not follow that advice, but that’s how I’ve felt for the last week, like I was practising senescence. I think I got good enough at it. Surely it’s like riding a bike, right? When the time comes, I won’t forget how.
Anyway, DONE with that. The one good thing is that I got some reading done. It’s been so long since I had leisure to read much of anything that I’m absurdly giddy with it. I finished Thomas Pynchon’s V. which I’d read way back in college (ye gods, almost exactly two decades ago! Speaking of my senescence). In fact, I’ve started a little reading group on Facebook called Club V. If you have any interest in reading and discussing along with me and some other intrepid souls, please do look us up. It’s an open group for now. I may close it at some point if it gets too unwieldy.
You know I’m feeling happy if I’m reading difficult books and digging into my comparative literature roots for fun. I think it’s finally sinking in that Shadow Scale is done and I’m free. I had my celebratory luncheon at Nuba. It keeps hitting me – I’m done! – and I’m dizzy with it.
I even started “the talk” with my agent – wherein we figure out what kind of trouble I should get into next. It’s wide open, darlings. Wide, wide open.
I read this article at Paris Review about a high school student in 1963 who surveyed famous writers about their use of symbolism. The impetus seems to have been an argument with his English teacher about whether writers put symbols into their work intentionally. The answers the writers give are varied and fascinating, and I think I want this quote from Ray Bradbury tattooed on my bicep:
I trust my subconscious implicitly. It is my good pet. I try to keep it well fed with information through all my senses, but never look directly at it. If I did, it would refuse to do its creative tricks for me. So I pretend to look off at the horizon and the next thing I know my subconscious is giving me stories, actions, and.. ..by God, now. .symbols!
(Those are Bradbury’s eccentric ellipses! I’m just copying stuff down, here.)
That article led me to “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” by Mary McCarthy, which was also fascinating. It’s under copyright, and I don’t feel comfortable linking to pirated versions here, but here’s a discussion of it I found at Of Books and Bicycles.
That post doesn’t talk about the most fascinating part of the essay (to my mind) which was the way we make symbols of ourselves in real-life interactions.
The chief moral or meaning (what I learned, in other words from this experience) was that you cannot be a universal unless you accept the fact that you are a singular, that is, a Jew or an artist or whathave-you. What the colonel and I were discussing, and at the same time illustrating and enacting, was the definition of a human being; I was trying to be something better than a human being; I was trying to be the voice of pure reason; and pride went before a fall. The colonel, without trying, was being something worse than a human being, and somehow we found ourselves on the same plane -facing each other, like mutually repellent twins. Or, put in another way: it is dangerous to be drawn into discussions of the Jews with anti-Semites: you delude yourself that you are spreading light, but you are really sinking into muck; if you endeavor to be dispassionate, you are really claiming for yourself a privileged position, a little mountain top, from which you look down, impartially, on both the Jews and the colonel.
She goes on to talk about how she understood none of this in the moment, how it is only afterwards that we are able to really understand the full extent of what was going on with ourselves during an experience — and it’s the same with a story. You don’t sit down to write something you understand already; there’s no point. The process of writing is one of discovery, much like the process of living.
And now I must deal with the dishwasher repairman, who is at this moment emblematic of all the household tasks I let slide while I was working on the sequel…