Literary Hub

How a Novel is Like an Orchestra

I met Marcia Butler at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where I teach each summer. She’d recently sold her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. We became fast friends and soon realized that in our twenties we’d led parallel lives in New York City; me at Columbia University and Marcia at the Mannes College of Music. Had we passed each other on the street? Had we stood in line together to purchase standing room tickets for the Metropolitan Opera? Now our lives are sorted out, our careers are fully formed, and through our phone calls and visits to one another, we found a mutual passion in exploring what Marcia calls “the creative imperative.” 

Nancy Zafris

Nancy Zafris:  Your book, Marcia—talks about the sacred and the profane! In The Skin Above My Knee, a disturbing personal journey is juxtaposed against the serene eternal truths of music.

Marcia Butler: I love this notion of exploring what we know to be objectively true. But music is the perfect example of what is eternal, simply because it is not earthbound. We know that scientists are now listening to sounds that were created over a million years ago. This is possible because sound waves never fully dissipate. Our voices, our noises, and yes, our music—the totality of sounds we on earth create—are still resonating somewhere in the universe.

NZ: Music in your book is the forever that frames our temporary human condition. It’s both exhilarating and somewhat sad to think of it this way.

MB: It’s natural to want to hang on to life, or what is present right now. We all wonder what will happen when we’re eventually not around and the notion can feel sad, even frightening. It seems that much of our daily efforts focus on prolonging the status quo; and yet our bodies are degrading, not to mention our environment, every day in ways big and small. How ironic this is, because the very thing that all humans consider beautiful, possibly even essential—music—is a forever thing. When music is present, people connect on a non-verbal level and, I believe, might even understand each other a bit better when doing this in consort. We’ve all experienced being at a concert and leaving the venue knowing that perhaps the entire audience, as a collective unit, witnessed something profound. This sums up the essence of the human condition—a need to be deeply understood or seen, and all we have to do is make music to accomplish that! Music deeply touches every person on earth.

But isn’t this also true with books as a point of connection? They surely reflect the human condition. Don’t readers long to understand themselves through the characters you create in your books?

NZ: I don’t think people can live without stories. The human race has always explained the world through stories. Stories and math, I would say. Apollo drives his chariot across the sky to start and end the day, while another hash mark eventually leading to a calendar is scraped upon a rock to record it. The one thing that seems entirely different in music as opposed to writing is this element of math. Bach’s Goldberg Variations for example, are exquisite works of (unconscious) math in the way they were composed. In certain variations, they read forward and backward simultaneously. And there is a mathematical element in the way that musicians in an orchestra can respond to unscripted, awry moments. I’m not speaking here about improvisation but moments that allow an entire group to recover from a mistake.

I’m thinking of your opening chapter where an entire orchestra rescues a celebrated violinist who has made a huge mistake. We’re in Carnegie Hall and you are the oboist in an orchestra performing the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. Your details about the sublime process of musical art are both accessible and brilliant. At the same time, you also attend to the mundane minutiae also inherent in this group task of playing a concert, down to the way a section violinist behaves after having a loud squabble with her husband minutes before the concert. At one point in the concert, disaster nearly strikes when the celebrated violin soloist incomprehensibly skips eight bars. What happens next, in a virtuoso piece of writing, proves the mettle of this amazing orchestra. Is it math? Is it instinct? Is it a combination? Or is it something else entirely?

MB: Oh yes—that near disaster! That was my very own “night to remember.” This odd event illuminated exactly how an orchestra functions on multiple levels of consciousness at every moment. Of course, much non-verbal communication is at play when 60-plus musicians gather to perform. Each player must be in full command of their instrument and have mastery of the music. They must be aware of the pitch of those around them, and adjust immediately when discrepancies arise. Additionally, everyone must be sensitive to musical nuances being expressed in real time. At the same time, they remember what was decided during rehearsals for how the overall arc of the piece is to be presented.

Musicians are precise in a way most people could never imagine much less even do. There is no wiggle room for error at all. And they have to do all this, simultaneously, every second they sit on stage. The brute force of concentration is simply massive. All of this is actually the “normal” part of performing. But when “things happen,” musicians go into another zone of mind space where they can react in a split second to sometimes catastrophic events. It is unconscious for the individual, yet actually shows up as a group gestalt—like an enormous flock of birds veering in the air, instantly, and for no apparent reason. Just how does that happen? I explore this phenomenon in my book.

NZ: I don’t know enough about music to have the vocabulary to shape this question, but I’m curious about the role of the “supporting” instruments in an orchestra, the instruments that never do solos but fill in the back story or the whole story or the understory or the quirky cameo—you know—the basses, the trombones, the piccolo, the timpani, the triangle, etc.  Do these instruments have their correlations in writing and storytelling?

MB: Let’s take a symphony as an example for this question and juxtapose it with a novel. Some obvious instruments that take on solo voices in symphonies are all the principal winds: oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon. The French horn, while a brass instrument, has a particularly lyric quality and is also often used as a solo instrument. And to be clear, when we speak of a “solo voice,” this indicates when the composer has decided to use one instrument only to play the melody. Alternatively, the melody of a symphony may be played by the entire string section, just as another example. So, when a composer selects one instrument, it is meant to be special in emotion, texture and tone. But those other “supporting” musicians are playing at the same time, and they may be giving a counterpoint melody, certainly harmony and rhythm, over which the solo voice is floating. This is all extremely complex and is known as orchestration, which is an art form distinct from composition. But one cannot exist without the other. Orchestration is the second tier (though just as important) to composing. How does the composer mete out thousands of notes to sixty people in the orchestra? These decisions are vast and will ultimately give aural shape and distinction to the piece. 

I’m sure you find similarities when you develop character. How do you go about “orchestrating” which of your background characters emerge as prominent “counterpoint” characters? How does that work for you? 

NZ: In the first draft characters are not guided toward a pre-destined whole but given full rein. Minor characters still stay in scene just the way a vase of flowers might. They may not be seen or attended to in several paragraphs but the writer is always aware of these “objects” and always thinking of how to use them to move a scene. So a minor character is kind of like an object at first, there to serve the scene. At some point, however, the character might say or do something interesting. And then the scene might return to that character to deepen that a little, and then all of a sudden, the character has sprung to life. The writer has to pay attention to that. The more characters you have, minor or major, who have sprung to life, the more a symphony rather than a show tune emerges, and you have a plethora of riches to work with.

Orchestration sounds a lot like novel writing in the layering, the soloing, the whole working together for the greater good.

MB: Exactly. For a novel, this metaphor of orchestration works nicely on a few levels. The author may have a general plot in mind. Yet she does not yet know exactly who will implement and carry out this plot. Then as the plot becomes enlivened and fulfilled through the process of writing, various characters emerge as the main voices in the story. One person will most likely become the protagonist (melodic soloist) and a few other characters will become subsidiary voices (counterpoint melodies). The novelist assigns people in the book to further the plot, to be foils for the main characters to react against (harmony), or take us into back story or pulse of the plot. (rhythm).

NZ: How about the beauty of the writing itself, the type of sentences, their cadence, their simplicity or their wild abandon. Would you call the writing itself a type of solo?

MB: Yes, when one endeavors to bring an art form to life, the very act is a “solo”, or a profound imperative. Implicit in this is the inevitability of struggle and difficulty. Rarely can one make a thing of beauty without exploring and fulfilling the wide trajectory of process. The “soloist” must get used to frequent feelings of failure and accept it as a given. Yet there is certainly a thrill to be had in working on a granular level like this. To be more specific, on the sentence level there are infinite ways to express the thought or action of a character, or the interior life of the protagonist. Likewise, the musician labors over a melody and experiments with the many ways it might be expressed. One sentence for the writer and one melody for the musician: in both cases, while all manner of technical decisions must be made, such as verbs and sentence structure, dynamics and tone color, the pure emotion will most likely drive final expressions. That would be an ideal outcome.

One distinction I must make here is that the writer is creating, and the musician is interpreting. I am not a composer, so I can only speak in generalities, but I imagine that the trial and error process that a writer goes through with a novel is similar for the composer with her symphony.

NZ:  Oh yes, like in most things there’s a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, we can throw away our cringe-worthy words without worrying about them becoming sound waves that will never fully dissipate, as you mentioned earlier. But would you say that orchestration completes the symphony in a grand way—sort of like a novel completes the sentence structure?

MB:  Well, consider: In a symphony, there are other things that need to be present, such as melody, harmony and rhythm. These constitute the background engine of music. The listener is aware of these elements but not in the same way as when a solo is being played, which brings the listener into specific focus. Harmony will give an overall emotional feel to the piece, and in a very basic way reflects sadness or liveliness. Rhythm helps to define pulse and propulsion, the push forward. This is the underlying carpet for a symphony.

In a novel that background harmonic carpet could be seen as craft dials for the senses, such as smells, the feeling of a breeze on the face, or how bright the sun is. The author will heighten these senses depending on how wide the lens of focus is in the scene. Close third, for instance, will bring senses in very tight, such as a hand gripping someone’s shoulder. Harmony in the novel could also be seen as exposition or setting the stage of place and time. It is the context for which the reader feels secure in knowing where and how the world view is laid. And then the characters or soloists of the story will be maneuvered on top of this “harmonic” setting. These background sounds or place settings are the bedrock for the novel. Otherwise, there would be only dialogue, as fascinating as it might be! Likewise, only an oboe playing a melody would grow very tiresome quickly, even if it is beautiful. There must be contrast in context and color in both cases. 

NZ: You and I have talked a lot about “bottom story” which is shorthand for the real story. It often swims underneath, not quite seen but felt, until it breaks the surface and fully emerges. There’s a wonderful quotation by Hannah Arendt that sums this up: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” The real story is never quite being told at first, especially in a short story. I always emphasize to writers I work with that if this is the story you’re telling, then the real story has to be something else. Don’t tell the real story as the top story because then you’re left with the question: Well, then what’s the real story? If your real story is a loved one on life support, then the top story has to be something like buying enough hot dogs and hamburgers for the 4th of July party, for example. If you make hospice the top story or plot, however, then the real story by definition is something else that will “swim underwater” until it is eventually revealed.  Maybe that will be hospice visitors in the form of unknown children of an unknown lover.  But if the real story is grief, which it usually is in the stories I receive, then the writer is in deep trouble because he has already made grief the plot. When writers try to reveal a theme head-on without a top story or plot to guide it, they are left with lyricism and empathy as the tools for their exploration. As Flannery O’Connor said in Mystery and Manners, “One of the saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone.”

Is there a correspondence between all this and music? Is melody a type of plot, for example?

MB: This is a question that I can speak to in a general way because the very nature of a novel is a fixed thing – it will not change. Music in a performance is gone from the listener immediately after the sound dissipates past our ability to hear it. The best bottom stories emerge as an organic thing. The reader comes away with a greater understanding of humanity, even though the story might have been about, say, a kid wishing his mother would drive him to school. There is a deeper thing to be learned through the telling of this story. And if the bottom story is strong and valid, it will stay with the reader and move her deeply. Indeed, the reader might go back and back to the words and glean new meaning. Or just revisit the experience through rereading the book.

NZ: But a performance . . .

MB: A performance is different. It is gone once it is played. Yet it does reside forever in the sense memory of the listener. We all remember first hearing music that we found compelling, such as a Beatles tune or a Bob Dylan song, for example. The bottom story is that the ears/body understand that this music is important and must be remembered. This music will bring up emotion each and every time we hear it for years to come. We might even connect it to a life event. Just as we remember a classic such as Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It is a deceptively profound piece of writing. We travel through one day in the life of Clarissa as she prepares for a party that evening. And in her musings, we learn in just a few hours everything important about her life within the context of a constricted social construct.

NZ: It seems that if you just follow your top story, the bottom story emerges. Sometimes you don’t know it’s even there. But if you’re doing the right things, notes start filtering up, then more notes, then a tune, and then the leitmotif that’s been hidden but lingering there the whole time. In your case, it has to do with your family and secrets you hadn’t even shared with therapists or your closest friends. Talk about that, if you don’t mind.

MB: The emergence of truth is interesting. My specific family story was there in my mind and body all the time, throughout my life. But now having written my memoir, I realize that speaking or writing about it could not possibly have come before its time.

NZ: This story hadn’t been told before by you?

MB:  No, never.

NZ: What was that like? You were playing the notes as you wrote, the notes started gathering, and the tune couldn’t be ignored?

MB: Yes, certainly that’s correct in one way. But remember I already knew this tune. I had just resisted playing it. It’s like knowing you have to divorce someone, but you hold on for five more years. Everybody is telling you to do it, and they can’t understand why you don’t dump the guy. But they are not inside your mind or your trauma. So, revealing truth cannot happen until the exact moment when the words can be spoken. I think about this idea of sugar melting on the tongue. It dissolves to your specific saliva, and you can’t hurry the process by which the granules fully dissolve. When there’s nothing left, you swallow and the sweet syrup goes down easily. That is when I was able to write. Not a second before. In retrospect, I knew my life choices were dangerous and that I was acting out childhood trauma. Yet as I lived my life in real time, my generalized guilt and self-hatred was crushing and kept me silent. Now, understanding this blessing of “things only in their time” is a comfort to me. It’s something that I think about a lot.

I’m curious if in fiction your characters reveal themselves slowly. Do you know them fully right from the start? Talk about this a bit.

NZ: Well, yes, in my case they do reveal themselves slowly. It’s exciting to experience a character acquire shape and texture. It causes anxiety at first, this world building upon a blank page, but the blank pages get dirtied up with sentences, things start happening and soon enough you’ve got stuff to work with. This process might be different for the writer writing autobiographical fiction, I don’t know. I do know that if I already know the character, there’s a rush to dump information, to make the reader “get it” from the start. That kind of front matter to character building sometimes blocks the channel of complicity the writer must form with the reader. An analogy might be the common experience of trying to explain one of those unforgettable characters in your life to someone who has never met her before you relay the anecdote of how she responded to being pick-pocketed in Prague, or some such thing. You know how you can get almost desperate for your friend to be on the same page as you, to understand these other loved ones in your life? I feel like that same desperation can make you rush character building if you’re dealing with a character you know. If not, then the character is revealed to writer and reader at the same time and there is a wonderful complicity. But as I said, it causes anxiety at first. The first thing is to set your character in motion, have them do something. The character’s nature must be revealed step by step.

For example, in your book there’s an oboe instructor who refused to allow you to play actual music until you could play a single note the way he wanted. Such a demand! It would stagger most people.

MB: My best teachers insisted that I remove myself from music and accomplish improvement in a fairly brutal way. Such as playing long tones until I could actually play the note in a perfect and beautiful manner. Or, study etudes that address specific technical challenges. In the former example, when I finally studied the Mozart oboe concerto, I could play with a beautiful sound and could simply apply the sound I had mastered onto the music of Mozart. In the latter case, I could play many scales perfectly and therefore could zip through the concerto without too many mistakes. What this did was to brush away the complexities of playing the oboe and clear the way for actually exploring the music of Mozart on a deeper level. The other way is to learn technique through an actual piece. Many people do learn their instrument off the back of specific music, and this is also a valid process.

Nancy, you are a master teacher and have mentored countless writers into their careers. Is there any similarity to what I’ve described above in your teaching practice?

NZ: You know, I have to say, I’m a little surprised at how the writers in my classes are unable to parse their sentences grammatically or to hear the thud that a nonfiction-type word makes in their storytelling sentence. Too often, doling out information trumps tone, rhythm, subtlety, misdirection—their minds are in a rush, hurrying past the sentence toward a larger goal. But all these various notes of a sentence work together to create beauty and meaning and mystery. This is what is too often missing for me, the beauty of the actual sentence and the beauty of how sentences are put together. When I read an introductory “as” clause or an introductory participial phrase, it’s not grammatically wrong by any means, but it’s simply not beautiful and I can’t enjoy it. And it’s not snobbery. If an oboe squawks its note, you hold your ears. It’s not snobbery, it’s a type of pain. That’s why I allow myself in other facets of life, aesthetic or otherwise, to just enjoy things without trying to explore too much. Sometimes I don’t want to know things to the point of being able to pick out that domain’s dangling modifiers. For example, I can watch fairly bad movies and listen to what my friends would think is fairly bad top 40 music and wince at bad theatre yet still derive a certain amount of pleasure. But the one thing I can’t get any pleasure from is bad writing. What about you? What is it like listening to all the popular music with your gifts? Can you get enjoyment from any singers? Do others make you want to climb the walls?

MB: Well to be clear, I’m no snob and adore popular music of all kinds. I was a freak for Disco in the 1980s and adore Motown, as just two examples. I truly appreciate almost all genres of music. My personal expertise happens just to be classical music.

Regarding popular music, what I cannot abide is an artist who is imitating the art form or is not making some kind of statement or advancement that cuts through on an artistic level. Or a singer who cannot sing in tune. And that is more prevalent now because edits in the recording studio can correct any flaw. So, when you hear these performers live, they simply don’t have the chops.

For classical music, I find myself being drawn to the very old recordings of orchestras and soloists. They bring me back in touch with purity and integrity of interpretation. Many of these old-time artists were living links with composers of the past. For instance, the cellist Pablo Casals was alive when Johannes Brahms was at the end of his life. This is just an amazing notion to consider! In general, I insist that performances have a creative thrust which is intriguing. It’s like when reading the first few chapters of a novel; if you are not compelled to turn the pages—it’s likely you’ll close the book. And if somebody is playing out of tune? Farewell.

NZ: That’s a good word on which to end our conversation. Thank you, Marcia.

MB: Thank you, Nancy. It’s been a pleasure.


Nancy Zafris is the former fiction editor of the Kenyon Review and The Flannery O’Connor award series. She is the author of The People I Know, winner of the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction and the Ohioana Library Association Award, The Metal Shredders, and Lucky Strike. Her latest book, The Home Jar (2013), a collection of short stories was listed by The Minneapolis Star Tribune as one of the ten best books of the year.

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for 25 years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras—including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in Lit Hub, PANK, Psychology Today Magazine, The Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She lives in New York City.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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