Four Notes

“What is it about three G’s and an E flat – three eighth notes and a half note – that are so pregnant and so meaningful that a whole symphonic movement can be born of them?”

– Leonard Bernstein, 1954

I’m guessing such a question about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one that, when explored by any composer of music, has the potential to yield a wealth of insight into the craft. I say “I’m guessing” because I’m not a musician or a composer. I can’t even sing. I have a guitar, but it cringes when I come near it. I am pretty handy with a tambourine, but that’s just one note. Jingle, jingle, bang, bang. Rhythm I can do … sort of. Start adding notes and I’m way out of my element. I’m a writer. I work in words. But, I learned something about notes this weekend: apparently, they aren’t very different from words – at least when using them to create art.

I was in my shop working on a Christmas gift for my wife and listening to a local public radio station, when I heard a wonderful analysis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by Leonard Bernstein. It came from a 1954 television broadcast in which Mr. Bernstein looks at the composer’s own sketch book, examining eight years of notes, revisions, and rewrites. He considers Beethoven’s early drafts and why they might have been rejected. Accompanied by The Symphony of the Air (formally The NBC Symphony Orchestra), the great American composer and conductor demonstrates some of those drafts so the viewers can actually hear the evolution of one of the world’s musical masterpieces.

Beside being thoroughly entertained by the historical aspect of the program (not to mention the great music), I was deeply impressed (and surprised) by its relevance to me as a writer. Having about as much musical talent as one might find on the head of a pin, I’d never realized the similarities between writing a play or novel and composing a symphony. As Mr. Bernstein notes in the program, “… many of us assume that – when we hear the symphony today it sounds so simple and right – that it must have spilled out of Beethoven in one steady gush.” This was always my impression. I am so amazed by the ability of anyone who creates music to do so, that it rarely occurs to me that it requires work. It’s more like magic. (Surely, to me, it might as well be.)

Mr. Bernstein’s explanation of Beethoven’s process – the way the master looked critically at his own work, discovering the themes buried in it, drawing them out, cutting and trimming away all the extraneous notes until all that was left was what was needed, what was right, exactly right, nothing more, nothing less – could have as effectively been a lesson on writing words rather than notes. In fact, from moments into the program, that is how I took it.

Hearing the music and the discussion of the writing process in musical terms allowed me to see my craft from yet another perspective. Things that I knew were there but had a very difficult time seeing became crystal clear as I heard them. The notes, the music, gave form where words alone fell short. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been learning to look at my work as a playwright through some new lenses – among them, poetry and dance. Now, I have music to complete that circle.

I can’t begin to explain all the lessons about writing that I’ve gleaned from Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of Beethoven’s process in composing his Fifth Symphony. In fact, I’m still learning. As the music continued resonating days later, I found myself digging up a YouTube video of the original television broadcast. Ten minutes into it, I went back and replayed portions. The audio was good, but the video adds another dimension as Mr. Bernstein used it handily to illustrate many of his points. As a tour of the mind of one master guided by another, the piece is a treasure trove for any writer of notes or words. Of course, simply mentioning Bernstein and Beethoven is probably enough to attract the attention of any music composer. But writers of words, take note: this is a lesson on our craft too!

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

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New Tools

This is my first new blog entry since October, 2013. So, where have I been? What have I been up to? Let me start by reminding my readers (both of you) that I began this blog way back in July, 2013 with New Shoes in which I announced that I would be producing a show. That show, Playing in the Dark: Eight Tragic Tales of Hope, Redemption, and Enlightenment, featured three of my short plays (Monster, Family Tree, and Waiting for Leonard) as well as the work of fellow playwrights Kate Guyton, Daniel Guyton, Daniel Carter Brown, and James Walsh. It was produced by Out of Box Theatre and I was the production coordinator.

To understate it, producing the show was a daunting excursion. I will probably never do it again. Not because it’s hard, but because it’s not what I want to do. I didn’t produce the show because I want to be a producer; I produced the show because I want to be a better playwright. It was a field trip. A lab. A playwriting course on what a producer does with a script. And, with that in mind, it was an amazingly productive experience. Otherwise, it was an overwhelming draw on my already limited supply of time. And in that, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

For several years, I had invested loads of time into writing plays, rewriting plays, workshopping plays, researching plays, rewriting plays, studying playwriting, marketing plays, rewriting plays, workshopping plays, and rewriting plays. In terms of hours, it was nearly a full-time job – and (ask any playwright) that job doesn’t pay. But I have a well-paying full-time job, so that’s okay – except that two full-time jobs doesn’t leave much time for things like keeping up with your house and cars, spending time with your spouse, eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and other things that sometimes don’t seem as essential as reworking a scene to bury some narrative in the subtext or tweaking a line to get it just right or writing a killer synopsis or getting out another dozen submissions. (You get the picture.) By the spring of 2014, I was overwhelmed and way behind – on life!

So, Playing in the Dark opened in May of last year and I was working on another play that was set to premier later in August. Playing in the Dark was a big success, but shortly before that run began, I made the decision to pull the August show and hang up my playwriting shoes alongside my producer shoes at the end of May, 2014. And that’s where I’ve been.

Sort of.

When I began my hiatus, I had no set time in mind at which to end it. Later, I decided one year would be sufficient to catch up on some overdue maintenance and improvements on the house and cars (a bathroom remodel, a new exhaust for my pickup, and so on), get my garden in, and spend enough quality time with my wife so that she’d be ready for me to find something else to do. Earlier this month, I started writing again – officially. But unofficially, my mind was on writing the whole time and some really cool things have come of that.

In a nutshell, I have taken the opportunity to look at my writing process from the outside in. Without the burden of self-imposed deadlines, I have taken a leisurely stroll in these old writing shoes and discovered some very interesting things. Some of them I’ll go into great detail about in later blog entries (watch for them), but for now I’ll just say that I have completely reworked my process. Now, as I tighten my laces and jump back into writing, it’s with renewed excitement and some cool new tools. I’ll be throttling the time I spend at it a little to (hopefully) avoid falling so far behind on the rest of my life, but I’m already pleased with the productivity I’ve experienced the past few weeks. I hope to diligently keep up with this blog (expect probably about an entry a month), as I share some of those tools.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.