Friday, July 30, 2010

In Bb

In some ways, "In C" ruined college for me. Before college I was home-schooled, all the way through high school. I didn't have any friends by the time I was done, except through the Internet, and even there not many; everyone I knew had moved on to other things, or had already grown up, or had been, in fact, too narrow-minded and weird for me to ultimately care about them anymore. (There was the guy who ended up in a private Christian school, who once found himself in a fight over where he was sitting, and had a glass pushed rim-first into his cheek, and twisted, leaving a large, jagged scar. Later he went to Iraq. His brother, probably a Calvinist, threw a shoe at my brother once. Same brother wanted to do a play about Vlad the Impaler, who, whatever you wanted to say against him, was a Christian.)

I went to Butler, which is in many ways a school for the rich, and becoming more-so. There were events designed to get us jazzed about where we were going. What was I doing there? I had scholarships, and my family was poor enough I got the maximum amount of available government aid, which was just enough to allow me to go there as long as I stayed home. It was widely perceived as a good school, and indeed in many ways it was a good school. At the time I thought I would be a journalist because I thought that was practical.

The school hosted events wherein students and parents could meet each other. My parents couldn't make it -- they had the wrong sort of jobs. I went to all the incoming freshman events out of hope I would meet someone interesting, find a friend, find something out about what I would do there, and for the rest of my life. I still talk to several of the faculty from Butler and almost none of the students. People in college are, as it turns out, about the same as people everywhere else. But at one of the orientation events we were invited to a musical performance by the school's orchestra, which is really top notch. (This is yet another reason I will always half-wish I was a musician instead.) The program explained about "In C," and so did, I think, the conductor -- they told us how it was written (projecting the music on the wall, in fact, though of course I couldn't read it) and how it would be performed. I was sitting next to a girl from Saudi Arabia, if memory serves. This was before the freshman class had a chance to segregate itself and so briefly my social circle was not entirely white. She was very pretty. The music was the most beautiful thing I ever heard. It may still be.

I've listened to several different performances of "In C" since, and the song continues to measure up to my memory of it, the Acid Mothers Temple version aside. College did not measure up to "In C." Listening to that song, I thought that college was going to be about sharing beautiful experiences with people I could never have met otherwise. And this was true to the extent that life is about that. But it was not the predominate experience. I never heard another performance that good. I never saw a play that stood up to it, probably because the drama students were almost universally too caught up in trendy, conceptual plays that never quite came off to bother with actual drama. I never read a book, poem or story quite as good for class, though I did occasionally come close. My circle of friends ended up pretty much the same as it had been in the past, which is to say I spent my time with a number of people for whom I felt real tenderness, who did not feel tenderness for me. It was wonderful for me in that I met my wife there, and in that I met instructors who made my life much better than it had to be -- made me better than I had to be. It was wonderful in that I did learn, and found the confidence to major in and study creative writing, which is what I really wanted anyway. And I had time to write three novels in four years. But it wasn't "In C." Nothing could be.

I get a bit of the same feeling when I listen to/watch/perform "In B Flat." It's not as good purely as a piece of music, in part because the constraints under which it was produced make that more or less impossible. But then, you don't get to conduct "In C" unless you're very lucky; all you need to conduct "In B Flat" is a computer with the Flash plugin installed. The results can be beautiful in a small but haunting way.

On listening to this, and thinking about the innovation of it -- the idea of assembling twenty videos selected from submissions by strangers, all of them riffing on a few little snatches of music, otherwise uninstructed, of making a page where users can listen to the music and assemble the music from these brief videos as they choose, the possibility of endlessly creating and recreating "In B Flat" by hitting the "repeat" buttons on the videos -- I want to do something like it, but better, in writing. And of course I can't. What would "like this" mean in prose or poetry? Reading aloud? A hypertext, wherein users choose the structure of the story? These and other techniques have been used in various combinations; they never really take off, are never really "In C." Sometimes I feel that music ruins us for the world. The idea of works like 4'33" is that the world itself can be our music, but the world rarely delivers.

The trouble with fiction is supposed to be lies -- is supposed to be escapism, fantasy, etc. In fact the trouble with fiction is that it's too much of the world. Even (especially) when it denies the connection. No matter how we abstract our language, we cannot become like "In C" -- our words would lose all meaning first.

The healthy thing to do is to stop trying to live, to stop trying to write, "In C." To do our best to write books that are, above all else, books, and to live lives that are, if they are anything, lives. But there are times it's hard to accept this. There are times I only want the beauty I can't have.


  1. It'll be weird if this blog becomes a bunch of writers wishing they could be other kinds of artists instead, but it's hard for me not to envy musicians. It is pretty much the most amazing and incredible kind of output we have. I have dreams where we (the writing community, or you know, just you and me) could replicate that feeling with drum circles or singing groups or something, but I have to admit I don't think it'd ever be the same as hearing Butler's orchestra play Dvorak (my "In C" moment), or watching a performance of Carmen, or even listening to Owen Pallett on a good set of headphones.

    I wonder though, having been a musician for a while (and a totally sold musician--I was there because I loved it, loved the way we could make a sound like that; I can still hear our wind ensemble hitting this one incredible chord in a rehearsal and the way we strived to do it like that every time, to give other people and ourselves chills), I wonder if the feeling is different being a part of it. There's so much to think about and to make your body do. And maybe writing can be like that. I guess that's why I think it's important to keep pushing for writing that strives.

    And also, probably, we just need to get you into TV so you can collaborate with others more. I have to imagine that's a different experience of writing.

  2. Dude, I listened to In C incessantly during my sophomore-junior years in college. I never mentioned it to anyone because I had no real idea of what people thought of it, and I played it once in front of a music major I had the hots for, and she seemed vaguely irritated. Of course I assumed she was irritated because of the music, and In C became a secret obsession.

    Incredible piece of art, though! I'm jealous that you saw it at Butler.

  3. And I'm out of the habit of envying musicians right now. I'm sure I'll relapse soon though.

  4. I really dig that link--I've never come across In Bb and it's perfect for me right now. I'm sitting in someone else's office in a house full of sleeping people in a town I drove four hours to get to and the music I got, at least by starting with the muted trumpet, is the perfect haunted noir riff for the moment.

    I've also never come across In C, but my music background's spotty. I can, though, empathize with your experience of having the one electric standout moment in college or, you know, in some phase of your life and then waiting and waiting for something else to strike you surprised and fulfilled in the same way again.

    For me, the reason fiction (or writing in general) will never replicate the in Bb experience is that (most of it at least) isn't subjective enough to enter our heads and then twist with our interpretation or our mood like an equal partner and not as a dance leader. I don't know how you'd make that effect happen--maybe with a lot of abstraction and close attention to the rhythm of the language--but it'd be interesting if you could.