Zen for Ten 8: Telling the Story

The ARCs are coming!

My novel’s advance reader copies are making their way from Toronto to Baltimore. Soon, I’ll get to see and hold my first book. Can’t wait!! 🙂 To celebrate that, today’s blog post features some of the music that worked its way into To Love A Stranger.

Today’s feature: Excerpts from Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose Suite) by Maurice Ravel (solo piano reduction): “Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane” and “Tom Thumb”

About the music:

French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is one of the great figures of the Impressionist period, which started in the late Romantic era and went into the early 20th century. In the same way that Impressionist painters like Monet experimented with creating washes of color, rather than sharp realistic images, Impressionist composers liked to create washes of sound. In piano music, that translates to unusual harmonies and, often, lots of pedal to blend different harmonies together.

Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye is a collection of five short pieces, each one inspired by a fairy tale:

Mvt. 1: Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane

Mvt. 2: Tom Thumb

Mvt. 3: Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas

Mvt. 4: Conversations of Beauty and the Beast

Mvt. 5: The Fairy Garden

By telling us exactly what each movement is supposed to represent, Ravel has written program music: music meant to tell a specific story. Program music became very popular in the 19th century. One early example of it is Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, “Pastoral.” At the beginning of each movement, Beethoven tells the performers and listeners what the action is – a peasants’ dance, a thunderstorm, etc. – so we can follow the story easily.

When I was working on To Love A Stranger, early on in the process, one of my writing teachers said that since both my main characters were pianists, maybe I should have them play duets together. Ma Mere L’Oye was the first duet I thought of. I didn’t put it in the story for any other particular reason, but as I started writing about it, I saw how the gentleness and intimacy of this specific music could bring my characters together. I also saw how the way my characters felt about playing it could say a lot about each of them. It’s fascinating when you think something is going to be a minor detail in a story, but it ends up shaping everything.

The fourth movement, “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” gets a big feature in Stranger. Until I started working it in, I hadn’t realized how perfectly one piece of music could dovetail with everything the book was about, and especially with my main character Sam’s struggle with himself. In a later post (closer to launch!) I’ll feature that movement and say more about how it helped shape the novel’s plot.

Ma Mere L’Oye is tied with some of my own favorite childhood memories. It was a joy to write about it, and I’m so glad it stayed tightly woven into the story.

Thought exercise:

In the video, I talk a little about the “sound effects” especially in the second movement of the Ravel. Now that you’ve heard the first two movements, listen to the third, performed here by the piano duo Arte Animi. What kind of sound effects do you notice? What story or image do they bring to mind?

Blog Subscriber Bonus! When you subscribe to the blog and join our email list, you’ll receive a PDF of my flash-fiction story “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which I wrote in response to Charles Mingus’s jazz tune of the same name. Subscribe (using the black button on the right), read the story, and then listen here to the music that inspired it.



5 thoughts on “Zen for Ten 8: Telling the Story

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