My last post described some things that I learned from another art form, woodcarving, through my father and his teacher, Spirit Williams. Here’s another in the same vein, purely by chance, mind you.
I firmly believe that other art forms have a great deal to tell us about composing, which means that if I have a chance to chat up an artist during a plane ride, I’m going to take it. Last Spring, I met Kiersi Burkhart on a plane from somewhere to somewhere (I think it involved Denver, a city where I one day hope to see more than the airport and the hotel where the airline sends me when my flight is screwed up). She writes young adult novels, and also a blog. This post showed up the other day, about how to help the middle of a novel. Her five suggestions have me thinking about the middle of pieces, so here are my thoughts about Kiersi’s thoughts and how they might relate to composing.
1. Raise the stakes. This “tip” gets thrown around a lot, and for a long time I wasn’t really sure how one could implement such broad-sided advice.
The easiest way I’ve found is to first work out what your characters’ goals are (both small and large), and then determine: what are the consequences of your characters not achieving those goals? Now make them even more dire. Life and death. Death and destruction. Whatever you can do to make the repercussions of your characters’ not achieving their goals worse, do it.
I think the best way to raise the stakes in a musical composition is to move beyond your starting material in some way. I’m not suggesting that you string together theme after theme after theme (although it worked occasionally for Mozart), but if you’ve focused on one melodic idea up until this point, say, a third of the way in to the composition, it’s time for some contrast. This new material should relate to earlier portions of the piece in some way–a similar harmonic framework, or a motivic relationship–but there is a need for variety as well.
Another way to raise the stakes might be to employ a change in texture–if things have been very homophonic up to now, it’s time for some counterpoint; if you’ve been writing lots of interwoven lines, it’s time to pare the texture down. All kinds of great things can happen in the middle of pieces–the classical approach to creating a movement has a middle that is much more loosely-constructed than the beginning, and even in the middle of a Bach fugue, we can go long stretches without either a cadence or the fugal subject, just riffing on little ideas that have come up. Speaking of riffing, think of the structure of a bebop jazz performance, with its tightly-constructed presentations of the head at the beginning and end and the loosely-constructed solos in the middle.
2. Lower the low points. The best part of middles is when it seems all hope is lost–that there is no possible way your character can achieve his purpose.
Remember in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo gets trapped in carbonite? Even worse, he’s shipped off with a bounty hunter to see Jabba the Hut, and our heroes are too busy trying to save Luke to chase him down.
At this moment in the story, we (the audience) feel somewhat defeated, like there’s no possible way Han can be rescued from his terrible fate. And in Return of the Jedi, this situation only gets worse when Leia is enslaved by Jabba.
Find that low point in your story (make one, if it’s not there already) and then make it worse. While you’re beating your hero into the ground, beat harder. Did something go wrong in his heist plan? Find three other things to go wrong, too. And it’ll be really satisfying to your audience when your clever protagonist manages to worm her way out of this ridiculous bind.
I think what Kiersi is getting at here is dramatic tension–the middle is the place where we really aren’t sure how things are going to work out, and as such, it has the possibility of being the most exciting part of a piece of music. Certainly, as a composer, I often view my pieces this way when they are in process: there comes a point when I know what the rest of the piece is going to look like, and I know that I will be able to finish it. Composing the middle, though, can be frustrating for exactly that reason–I don’t know how I’m going to get out of the situation in which I’ve placed myself. There’s a famous moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica where the texture devolves into these dissonant, repeated chords, as though Beethoven threw up his hands, smacked the piano keyboard, and wrote down the results. Beethoven takes this almost-mistake and slowly winds his way out, with a diminuendo and resolutions of dissonant notes that leads back to the main theme–the beginning of the ending. In my own Piano Sonata, about three-quarters of the way through, the relatively-complex rhythms and texture dissolve into a single line, notated in stemless noteheads, a moment of repose for performer and audience, and a summation of what has come so far in the piece, and preparation for some of the breathless material that lies ahead in the push to the climax.
3. Up the conflict. Are your characters friends, lovers, or comrades in arms? Are they getting along, smooching, snuggling and heisting in perfect harmony?
This is the primary way in which I find middles sag: the character relationships stale. Either they are at peace with one another for too long, or they’re at odds without any moments of relief.
Cause some conflict. Stir up some drama. But be wary of falling into common conflict traps: misunderstandings that would be easy to resolve, unlikely coincidences, or blowing up a small issue into a big one (this is my biggest complaint with romantic sub-plots).
Use inherent character flaws to guide your conflicts. Is one of your characters prideful? Have that pride lead her to hurt the other character in a way that seems irreparable.
Again, we have to turn to Beethoven, who can’t seem to write a middle section of a symphony movement without a fugato (and who was imitated by countless others). As Kiersi mentions, though, it’s easy to fall into some common traps, and fugato is one of them (why does Brahms turn every movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem into a fugue? I submit that it may have been youthful inexperience). Unless your piece has been somewhat contrapuntal up to now, throwing a fugue in seems kind of desperate (Berlioz writes scathingly about this practice in his orchestration treatise). But the beauty of fugue is that it does have that “cool” factor, and it’s critical to find something to do with your materials that propels the piece forward. Look for the same kinds of rhythmic intensification that fugue can provide–change the position of motives within the bar, let them happen sooner, and closer together. Foil the listener’s expectations about when things will happen: sooner (more drama), later (more tension).
4. Comic relief. I might be the only writer with this particular problem, but I have a hunch that I’m not. Why so serious? If things are getting intense in your middle–as it probably should–be cognizant of how your reader is feeling. In the middle of drama and conflict, give your reader the occasional break.
The break doesn’t always have to be comic. Let your characters have moments of tenderness or insight into one another. In a romance, let passion momentarily override conflict (leading to more conflict, of course). In a thriller, let your protagonist feel victory–short-lived victory. A good middle is a combination of low and high points, leading up to your dramatic finale.
This can be hard to remember, but great music can be funny, not just serious. Whether it’s Bach’s quodlibet in the Goldberg Variations with its use of street songs (not funny to us, but probably hysterical to Bach), or the trio of the Scherzo in Persichetti’s Symphony for Band, where a little group of instruments, pulled along by a muted trombone, plays a little march that sounds like it would go with a Dr. Seuss story, there is humor in good music. A composer is a human being, and being human means being both tragic and comic. Some composers do this better than others: think of the burlesque version of the march from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony that shows up in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. I’m sure that Shostakovich laughed the first time he heard it, because his own music is filled with irony and parody as well.
That said, it’s easier to plant comic relief in a dramatic work–the Papageno subplot in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for example, and of course the dark humor of the graveyard scene in Hamlet that adds levity while staying on topic–the downstairs view of the goings on at Elsinor, perhaps. Kiersi also suggests that intimate moments in the middle provide a break–it works in music, too, as in the piano-cello duet in the second movement of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1–intimate not only in texture but in meaning as well.
5. Escalate tension. A good climax is the tip of the highest peak of your story arc. Leading up to that peak are your second, third, and fourth-highest peaks.
I suggest doing this with “post-outlining”: now that you know all the plot points of your story (all the “ups” and “downs,”) organize them in order of severity. Your lowest lows and your highest highs should come near the end, leading up to your finale.
This is especially important when revealing important plot information. You don’t want to save all of your high-value cards and staggering reveals for the very end; drop some of your big bombs (but not your biggest bomb) during that sagging middle section, then escalate leading up to that super mondo finale–and hopefully leave your readers panting.
This suggestion may or may not apply to a given situation–sometimes the beginning of the end of a piece of music is a moment where tension is released–the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement, for example, or the beginning of the “Simple Gifts” variations in Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The ending of a piece is inevitable once it begins, and layering coda upon coda (in the way Tchaikovsky does in his Fifth Symphony, for example) doesn’t move the beginning of the ending anywhere closer to being the middle. In good music there is a crucial difference between music of the beginning, music of the middle, and music of the end. Some great middle moments, though–the trombone chorale in the last movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony comes to mind–are the last moment of calm, an eye in the hurricane. The birdsong section of the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony is a change of character that builds into a critical statement of the motto theme of the symphony before the return of the main theme for the movement. It would behoove all of us to study the Romanza movements that Mozart frequently uses in his later piano concerti–the quick middle Sturm und Drang sections like the one in K.466 are the uber-middle–the middle part of the middle movement of the three-movement structure. The formal considerations of music are somewhat different than those of the novel, of course, because of the way that repetition is a critical component of good composition, but the dramatic concerns are similar.
Ralph Vaughan Williams is said to have said what every composer (and author) knows: something to the effect that starting a piece is easy, but getting to the end is hard. This is the difference between being a tunesmith and being a composer: a song is all theme, but a composer has to be able to take themes (or the equivalent) and connect them in meaningful ways, constructing the musical equivalent of a novel.