The really great thing about this festival is that it’s helping me out of the funk I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-life kind of thing I’ve been going through for the past few months. I’m thinking again, and finding new things that make me excited, or rediscovering old things that made me excited. Right before school ended, there was this novel I read in my American Fiction post-1960 class that was really cool. It was released fairly recently, April 24, 2012; in fact, that’s quite recent for any book that’s studied in a college class. (My professor promotes new writing with a fervor that rivals any new music person.) The author, T.M. Wolf, graduated in 2011 from Yale Law School, and writes articles about music, technology, culture, and law.

The interesting thing about this book is the format. As you can see from the sample below (click to enlarge), it’s based on hip-hop beats and musical notation (John Cage’s Notations served as inspiration). You have a rather conventional themes about love, dislocation, and youth. But these conventional themes are placed within this really cool (to me) format of musical staves. I’m not very familiar with hip-hop, unfortunately, so classical music when I was my frame of reference.

I think it’s a good story, and a very fascinating read. Of course it has its problems. I was never quite convinced with the romance, even after hearing that it was supposed to be a chopped up remix. That part never sat comfortably with me. But on a visual level it’s just very very well designed. Each voice (comparable to instruments) has a different font. You read it like you’d read a musical staff, so you can imagine the simultaneity of sound, thought process (especially for conversations!) that can be achieved.

I wrote a stylistic analysis paper (analysis of the author’s style, like word choice, word ordering, poetic effects, prosody, and how that contributes to meaning) on a particular passage below. Since my frame of reference was classical music, I related it to things that happen in classical pieces. I guess the rest of this blog post is my really nerdy analysis of it (which may or may not be convincing. You decide). The paper was aimed for a non-musical audience, my professor, so I apologize in advance for any oversimplification that occurred, or for how outlandish this really sounds.

click to enlarge

In his scenes with dialogue, though he talks about his ties to hip-hop, I feel more of a connection to a highly polyphonic and contrapuntal work, such a Bach fugue. Contrapuntal works are differentiated from harmonically driven works in the sense of what is the driving force in the music. In harmonically structured music, like rock songs, there is a clear underlying chord progression that propels the music forward.

This example from the opening of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata shows this:

Even though you have complex harmonic structures that are important enough in themselves, the line is still subordinate to the melody and the harmonic motion is directed into moments of tension and release. However, contrapuntal music is known more for the individual voices at work within the piece.

This piece (Prelude and Fugue in D Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier II by Bach) can be analyzed in terms of somewhat melodic lines that enter at certain intervals and come in and out, somewhat like the dialogue. Each voice has an independent function. The music’s effect is achieved and defined by the interaction of these independent voices. Yet these voices are related through theme, key area, and subject. This passage works somewhat like a contrapuntal style of music for obvious reasons: it’s driven primarily through the dialogue as well as the thoughts. It’s also related to Bach through the entrance of independent voices. More and more “voices” or individual instruments with their own thing going on come in and it builds up (both sound wise and in terms of texture and layers) until it reaches a climax.

If you’re in the UK and you buy me the UK edition of the book, I’d be ever so grateful

In the beginning of this section, there are three voices: the xx xx sound of the heartbeat on a fairly even though audible level. There’s the harsh, colloquial voice of the cop (conveyed through font as well) and the static of the radio which is almost inconsequential. Cincy’s own voice is silent. In the next system (see above example for rough definition) the static drops out and Cincy’s voice enters: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The cop’s voice is dominating and insisting: “I’ll ask you one more time: where’re the drugs at?” The heartbeat is getting louder concurrent with the cop’s insistence. The third system has the percussive heartbeat getting gradually louder and louder as the cop refuses to accept his confusion. Cincy’s voice returns again in the fourth system (heartbeat getting louder…) after the cop reiterates his question. In Cincy’s case, the repetition denotes his confusion in the absence of dialogue tags. The repetition in the cop’s case builds up the drama. “Where are the drugs” is more emphatic and emphasize the ascending progression of the dialogue especially in regard to the earlier “where’re the drugs at?”

Wolf breaks the music to bring some narration (many of the narrative moments in this book serve to situate the reader in the location, and describe it). Through all this dialogue, Cincy and the policeman has been moving to the front entrance to the main building. The sentences here are clear and simple, probably as not to distract from the musical dialogue, which at this point is where more stuff is going on. “The undercover opened the trunk of his car and tossed a package down at my feet.” Subject verb and verb.

We return to the music and at this point there are only two voices because Cincy has dropped out (a lot of reading this book feels instinctual in the absence of dialogue tags and other things: we see a space and a silence and due to the other sounds that are going on we can interpret the silence correctly).

Grittier pic of the author

The next page is the climatic moment, after the cop tosses another package at Cincy’s feet. There are, all of a sudden, seven individual voices: the cop, the heartbeat, the future voice, the past voice, two present-thought voices thinking distinct things, and Cincy’s voice. It is interesting that Wolf chooses to put what is happening on the surface – the dialogue – on the outer edges of the staff with all the build up in between. In music, generally, the outer voices are the ones that are the most heard. The music theory book I own tells students to construct their outer voices first in composing a four voice harmonic texture because the outer voices then become the framework for what is inside. I do not know if that is an over-equation on my part of musical structure and dialogue notation, but it is interesting.

The first present-thought voice is panicking, with the repetition of “This isn’t happening” conveying disbelief. It is an immediate reaction and a paralysis. The second is the past voice echoing the policeman’s earlier question in confusion. The future voice, picking up after the past voice ends, contemplates running and acknowledges that he would die if that happened. The future voice is overdramatic and ironic with its depiction of screaming lungs and legs giving out, and bullets passing through his body. Panicked sarcasm directed at a primal instinct to run. “Surprise.” The heartbeat adds a percussive element and by this point it has become even louder. Down below, the thought voice expresses confusion at mistaken identity. And then one realizes that all of these thoughts are happening simultaneously as the cop ridicules Cincy.

It reaches its peak with the declamatory gesture: “I’m not Montvale!” This is an assertion of his innocence above all his confusion and the abuse the cop is giving him, and all the other voices except for the heartbeat drop out at this point. It is dramatic and not unlike that moment in the Pathetique sonata where everything seems to be directed at that one moment of tension and release.

Musical structures and the techniques composers use to create drama and suspense are comparable to the technique Wolf uses in this scene, even perhaps unconsciously. It allows for a fascinating and realistic way to tell a story due to the way thoughts, sound effects, and dialogue are notated, but also allows for the exploration of the relationship between music and language.

Buy it at Amazon here.


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