Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Grinch's Guide To Christmas Music

I'll be honest, I generally have an aversion to contemporary Christian music. I have nothing against people who choose to joyfully celebrate their devotion to their deity in this way; it's just that it has always grated my ears. Being raised Catholic probably has something to do with this; my father was a music professor who was violently allergic to the "intrusion" of a modern musical movement into the liturgy. As a result, I have inherited some of his anaphylactoid tendencies. Don't get me wrong, outside of the above genre, Country & Western, bad Techno and Death Metal, I have an almost universal appreciation for all genres of music. One look at my Facebook page should convince you that I gleefully listen to everything from ABBA to Dvorak to Radiohead to Led Zeppelin (with a couple of surreal detours through Disney musicals and surf rock in between). 

Things are similar when it comes to Christmas; here, my love for the music of the faith I was born into is all-encompassing. I am an avid fanboy of the twin traditions of Yuletide music: the great, moving traditional carols and the (mostly) American institution of secular holiday standards.

But I am a purist. Nothing is worse than the hideous piping of tinny muzak through shops (starting in SEPTEMBER), those horrible chimeras of panpipe "Little Drummer Boy" (Boney M is a separate matter I shall discuss below) and sugary synthesiser knock-offs of "Jingle Bells" and... well, everything you can think of.

Boney M. I have a surreal liking for, probably because it reminds me of an idyllic summer in 1982 when I was five years old; it is linked my oldest memory of the ocean. We stayed in the Oyster Box in Umhlanga and the blue-green waters of the Indian Ocean washed into my heart and have never quite left. I usually get over it by cranking up their infamous Christmas Album on the first Sunday of Advent and considering a prescription for antipsychotics.

So, let me present my unashamedly quirky Noël playlist, which does include some notable re-interpretations of classics where the subversion is rendered as a new art form. I have added clickable YouTube links for your enjoyment.

Why settle for cheap sparkling wine when Dom Perignon is freely available?!?!

1. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. (O Come, O Come Emmanuel). A haunting, plaintive Latin hymn. It is a 19th Century reworking of an Advent antiphon dating as far back as possibly the 12th century. The text is inspired by the prophecy of Isaiah (Chapter 7) as well as the 137th Psalm reflecting the Jews' captivity in Babylon. There is something very moving about the medieval modal harmony that imparts an unusually pious and reflective mood to the Christmas season.

2. Winter Wonderland. Probably my favourite secular Christmas song. The irony that I enjoy it under a raging Southern Hemisphere summer is not lost on me. The surf-garage band Phantom Planet, of which I am a ravenous and slightly maniacal fanboy, created a lyrical and frankly heartwarming rendition for an early 2000's Christmas album. Unpretentiously sweet.

3. Once In Royal David's City. My favourite carol, here performed in the full Anglican tradition complete with pre-pubescent boy soprano, rousing organ and descant choir. Candles? Check. Incense? Check. Cathedral? Check. Okay, let's go!

4. Gaudete (Rejoice). Another Latin hymn, this one dating from the 16th century. It was made famous by the British folk band Steeleye Span. It is the only Latin song that made the UK Top 40 charts. Except Steeleye Span's  pronunciation is horrible. I present her a more accurate (and tuneful version), although they still don't get the Latin pronunciation quite right.

5. Cantique de Noël (O Holy Night) Instantly recognisable and fodder for a thousand Christmas movies, this has always been heartbreakingly beautiful to me. Few know that this was written by a real fancy-schmancy classical composer, Adolphe Adam, most famous for writing the music for the ballet Giselle. Here is the full Rolls-Royce treatment, a sumptuous version with Placido Domingo, children's choir and the late, awesome Luciano Pavarotti. Unfortunately the music is out of sync with the visuals, and Luciano's English is endearingly accented, but it is lovely. 

6. Frosty the Snowman. A cute little ditty for children, here given unusual gravitas by none other than the weird and wonderful Fiona Apple. I've never heard the usually sulky songstress happier before. (Did someone put Prozac in her mince pie, maybe?)

7. Carol of the Bells. Written by the neglected Ukrainian composer Leontovych who spent his life writing music for the Orthodox Church, here performed with full Slavic gusto. And here is the Carol of the Meows for crazy cat ladies performed by one of my favourite bands, Guster.

8. Silent Night (Stille Nacht)Gloria Estefan's version is maybe a bit cheesy for some, but I think it's beautiful, never mind the heart-wrenching imagery of the music video. Wikipedia: "Composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Obendorf bei Salzburg, Austria. It was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in March 2011". .The purists will insist that this... strangely... always be performed with guitar accompaniment, following the (possibly apocryphal) story that it was written to provide music for a Christmas service when the pipe organ unexpectedly failed. 

9. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. (Warning: this link is the COMPLETE performance, over an hour long.) The Nutcraker is archetypal Christmas music, filled with childlike wonder and joy. You'd never think the famous composer suffered from crippling depression for most of his life. His end was tragic: a kangaroo court of his "friends" and colleagues condemned him to suicide for being homosexual. But I prefer to remember him as the man who put fairy tales to music. 

10. I end my little playlist with Ella Fitzgerald's Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: her lovely contribution to Christmas music deserves special mention. The First Lady of Jazz, in my mind, eclipses all other crooners and divas. 

So, to all of you who celebrate Jesus' birth, a blessed and happy Christmas. To all of you who don't, but enjoy the Festive Season nonetheless (Richard Dawkins is a notable Christmas celebrator!), Happy Holidays, and to all my fellow Earthlings, peace, blessings and joy.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why Art Doesn't Need To Be Torture (And Why I Write Fan Fiction)

"I haven't seen you in a long time," goes the old story about the doctor seeing one of his patients. "Well, you see, doctor, I've been very ill..."

But this is not a story about illness. It's rather about a healing of some sorts.

If I've been conspicuously absent on this blog, all I can say is it's because I have been writing. A lot. Just other things. I even took the plunge and committed myself to NaNoWriMo, the write-a-novel-in-one-month initiative. Having just passed the required 50 000 word mark I am rewarding myself with a disturbingly decadent platter of sushi at our local as I write this. The creamy shrimp rolls at Sakura in Harfield Village are particularly delicious, and the restaurant is a refreshingly unpretentious (and cheap!) little discovery in what is lately a very expensive dining scene in Cape Town.

I'm not ashamed to say that I've also been writing a disturbing amount of fan-fiction. That is, where you take existing characters from your favourite movie or TV show or book and write your own story/-ies. What would be the point of this, you might ask? Surely it's the antithesis of creativity?

I beg to differ. It's been a fertile ground for developing my skills. Some writers would disagree (especially George R R Martin of A Game of Thrones fame), but I'd actually recommend it to amateur writers who just want to have a little fun and play with genres and tropes in a non-threatening way. You can create your own characters (bearing in mind not to fall for the trap of the "Mary Sue," in which a writer inserts an idealised version of themselves to stroke their own ego), make them interact with the canonical ones, create new adventures, play with words. 

There is nothing illegal about fan-fiction, even publishing it online (I do, on the Archive of our Own but I'm not going to out myself completely, God forbid I actually manage to publish a serious original work one day)... as long as one credits the original creators and does not gain any financial reward from it. I would say that it is liberating not being allowed to make money, but instead giving yourself the satisfaction of exposing yourself to (mostly) constructive criticism that will not completely destroy your fragile little artist ego. Sure, one can become addicted to trawling for comments, but then, we do that on Facebook. At least by posting a work you've done something truly creative... even if it is puerile and awful to read!

Not only did she bake the perfect casserole, but she
subverted the very foundations of literature itself!
Don't like the fact that Old Yeller got shot? Give him a rabies vaccination (and ruin the premise of the story.) Want Bella to fall for Jacob instead? Go ahead. Want Edward to fall for Jacob instead and drop the snivelling pathetic creature that is Bella, throwing in some hot werewolf-on-vampire action on the way? Grab that laptop and write yourself into self-indulgent heaven! Want Madame Defarge to be executed instead of Sydney Carton? Well, Dickens is dead and the old man would probably would take your rewrite as a compliment (though scoff at your awful plot Deus ex Machina). 

The first mass fan-fiction came about in the 1960s, mainly focused on the Star Trek series, and was written mainly by women (it still is). Many of the authors would write romances where Kirk would end up seducing a voluptuous young cadet (hence the name Mary Sue, named after one of the supposed writers who fancied herself a piece of young Shatner). And then the phenomenon of "slash" fiction appeared, where stories would focus on a specific pairing of characters, often (Sies! Oh the horror!) homoerotic ones. The first famous pairing was Kirk / Spock, i.e. Kirk slash Spock in fanfic parlance, hence the term "slash". Still written mainly by women. Often housewives. Oh, you delectable sly minxes, getting your revenge on Puritan Midwestern values by writing shocking love stories about The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Now With Added Famous People or Characters (patent pending.) 

One could argue that fanfiction is as old as fiction itself. Steinbeck's East of Eden is essentially a retelling of Genesis's Cain and Abel story set against the backdrop of American history. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is a continuation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The Lion King is Disney's technicolor answer to Hamlet. Shakespeare himself borrowed characters and plots shamelessly from other sources.

One of the tropes I actually write is in the Teen Wolf universe, with the character paring of Stiles / Lydia (both of whom are human: Lydia is a red-haired gorgeous banshee like My Awesome Wife, and Stiles is a geeky but loveable nerd... see! I'm Mary Sue-ing myself... so Sue me ... groan... see what I did there...) 

Darling, String Theory is so last Tuesday. Let me update
 you on Quantum Chromodynamics while I do my hair.
I love the characters in Teen Wolf.  The show is refreshing, intelligent, funny, and the best blend of adolescent angst and supernatural thrills I've ever seen. I love Stiles's geeky jabbering and Lydia's ability to solve quadratic equations in Jimmy Choos and Chanel lipstick. I love Scott's puppy dog eyes and struggles with being a newly-bitten werewolf while battling with calculus and English grammar. I love Allison's skill with a bow and arrow that completely trumps Katniss. I love Derek Hale's brooding, emotionally constipated but kindly Alpha werewolf. And in my universe, I can make them do what I want. Derek can bake cookies and Lydia can run for President. (I've written both scenarios). If you're balking and saying "well, why don't you create your own stuff?" wait, while I bore you with a bit more history about the phenomenon. 

What do you mean, you ate all the cookies I baked?!
After the watershed (or Watergate?) that was Kirk / Spock. the phenomenon of fanfiction multiplied as exponentially as Salmonella on warm mayonnaise. The Archive Of Our Own, one of the smaller collections of fanfiction on the net, holds currently just under a million works... 

Another wonderful term (I think) was coined, shipping. That is, when a writer or fan focuses or promotes a specific relationship (like Lydia / Stiles) and a portmanteau is created. So I, for example, ship Stydia. (Stiles + Lydia). And no, that is not a name from the Northern Suburbs in Cape Town. God forbid I did that with my name and my wife's. Our poor children would be called Adalvaugn and Chivalbert. That's just SIES. We're happy to be the fabulous Gordon-Ernsts.

Spock knew somehow that if a 1960s housewife was
writing him, the eyeliner would be amazing.

Often fanfiction authors take requests. And prompts. And crazy crossovers. I'm contemplating putting dear sweet Chummy from Call The Midwife on the Starship Enterprise where she takes over as the new medical officer after McCoy comes down with Altairian Measles, and proceeds to irritate the crap out of Spock, while saving Earth from an armada of hostile Vulcan test-tube babies. Don't ask me where that came from. But it might be fun to write. The rule is: if you ship it, we'll write it. 

Granted, 99% of fanfiction is utterly horrible. And I doubt my efforts are in the other 1%. But the effort has taught me a lot about writing. That writing can be easy and... God forbid... fun, even if I end up trying to sort out plot holes you could fly a 747 through and sentences so clumsy and leaden they could sink the Queen Mary.

You ship it? I'll write it.
You see, sometimes gems are to be found among the rambling mess. When I read over the merry catastrophes I've created, I find paragraphs that could stand on their own, similes that actually work, vocabulary I didn't know I had. And I try to lift them into my own work... writers have been plagiarising themselves for centuries. I've learnt from other writers, for example, little things like the difference between a hyphen, an en and an em dash, and Complex Important Things like narrative viewpoint, bathos and synecdoche. (Don't worry about these — you don't have to know their names to enjoy reading.)

And then, I take a deep breath, and write my own, original stuff, knowing I'm closer to benching my own weight than when I first started with the feather-light dumbbells of fanfiction.

Chummy wasn't sure if her new StarFleet uniform
would be as comfortable as her old East End overalls.
So, partly because I immersed myself in Teen Wolf fluff and some Star Trek nonsense, I got to 50 000 words of original fiction in less than a month. All this while growing my Movember moustache and starting to swim again after a year-long absence in the gym pool. NaNoWriMo simply aims to get you to 50 000 words, whether you finish your project, try to publish it or simply own the bragging rights is up to you. 

It taught me this. Even Steinbeck had to start East of Eden with something as simple as "The Salinas Valley is in Northern California." Even writing "It was a dark and stormy night" and not giving up after that, God help us, makes you a writer, if not a Nobel-Prize winner.

We must stop the elitist, suffer-because-it's-stylish approach to art. Good art will always be good art, and that is born partly out of talent but  —I think for many— discipline and a willingness to look at oneself critically without killing your self-esteem. Not all Picasso's sketches were meant to be displayed in a gallery (even if we do.) But there is no crime in enjoying such a sketch as much as the Guernica.

Adalbert's own Mary Sue was a rip-roaring Navy Seal.
Who could also cook like Julia Child.
 As a writer with a small w, I try not to take myself too seriously. I view myself more of a craftsman than an artist per sé, to be sure, I think I create some art. just as my personal trainer has praised my good form when doing squats while laughing at my poor deadlift technique. Speaking of said personal trainer, who is irritatingly in his mid-20s and a Men's Health cover model (and intelligent to boot! Sorry ladies, he's taken) taught me a valuable lession. I was cursing myself and fumbled a bench-press and said "Sorry." He nearly slapped me. "Bru," he yelled at me good-naturedly in his sunny KZN accent, "don't you ever say sorry! You're a legend for trying. Now do it again!"

So it doesn't have to come out perfect the first time. I wish people would get over their fear of creating something. Of course, it's because of the fear of being criticised. But do we mock a child for (to quote an example from Steven Pinker) applying the "–ed" past tense rule in English to the verb "hold", as in we *holded the baby rabbits instead saying "held"? No, unless you have a personality disorder. In fact, the child has learnt a rule and is not criticising itself to boot. It just hasn't picked up on the nuances yet.

I think we must embrace the joys of creativity with the same childlike innocence — at first. Later, a healthy dose of cynicism will add zest, and hopefully allow us to use our creative cojones to recognise what can be improved and not break into a million tragic pieces when someone criticises (or simply dislikes) our work. And I, lowly aspiring amateur writer, have the gall to hate Nobel and Booker-prize winning JM Coetzee's Disgrace and even find errors. I can't stand the novel, and feel that it's an exercise in The Emperor's New Book. Millions would disagree with me. But do you think Coetzee gives a flying fandango about my little opinion? Of course not. But I have read his book, and that should be another victory for him, I would hope.

So excuse me while I have fun and go back to Stiles dodging an angry troll while being pissed off that he's helped his best friend Scott be the best werewolf he can be while never being thanked. I'm going to have fun. And that, I've realised, is when I do some of my best work.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Writing as Breathing

Newton's law says it so concisely: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And so it is for me with reading and writing. I've been writing almost as long as I've been reading - if one can call those first misformed characters I started scribbling in the front covers of books writing. It wasn't vandalism - save one letter I wrote to Father Christmas on the faux leather back seat of my mother's Golf when I was five. Then I started writing in my children's books - usually on the frontispiece where there was a lot of free space. I thought I had something to say, and what better place to put it than in a book where others had officially done so already?

Discovering my sister's typewriter was a Damascene moment in little left-handed life. I still hold my pen in an awkward, claw-like grip (a teacher tried to force me to write with my right hand, but, thank God, she failed spectacularly.) Typing was a transition from ship to plane - much faster and more convenient, but lacking a certain panache, so that I still reach for a fountain pen (I don't smudge anymore) and scribble intimate things now and then into a notebook. With a Mont Blanc, you're traveling on Cunard on the Queen Mary; Microsoft Word is Virgin Atlantic, albeit Premium Economy.

Life is tough for us Southpaws, and we revel in the drama, being supposedly more artistic, mystical and prone to depression and suicide. It is astonishing however how ambidextrous I become on a keyboard (piano or computer), or, thankfully for my patients, when holding surgical instruments. Yes, anaesthetists do use them sometimes, we put all sorts of interesting things into patient's veins and arteries and other orifices which frequently require suturing.

I typed out dozens of short stories on that clunky old stegosaurus of a typewriter, wearing her ribbon out within weeks. Those callow creations usually involved me as the eponymous hero replacing Superman or Indiana Jones in some self-indulgent adventure (or once, Spider-Woman. Yes, I've dealt with that in psychotherapy, and it was only because she shot webs directly from her fingers, which was much cooler than Spider-Man's frankly clumsy wrist-activated apparatus). Then the glory of my first computer and a dinky word processor called PC-Write. The computer became my imaginary friend, a place to store things... all sorts of things... it was almost Hobbes to my Calvin.

All of a sudden, I could save things for editing... or rereading years later, squirming as I encountered the angsty outpourings of my suburban adolescence. I even wrote a horribly mawkish version of Beauty and the Beast involving a thinly-disguised version of me as a muscular prince turned into a gorgeous tiger/lion/wolf creature doted upon by a supermodel. (I would caution diabetics to check their sugar levels right now and maybe shoot up a unit or two of insulin subcutaneously.)

Ideally, the muse would intoxicate the writer to produce as least as much as he or she consumes. Most of us who put key to screen or pen to paper - whether we are talented or not, and for me, the jury is still out - read anything we can, and you would think Newton's law would hold true. But somewhere the energy gets caught, suppressed, or sublimated and, for me, it comes in quixotic but deathless bursts. For far too long I subscribed to the Tortured / Frustrated Artist Model of Creativity, which is a bit like a vintage sports car - sexy and alluring but ultimately expensive and not conducive to everyday use. After reading Anne Lamott's magnificent Bird by Bird - Some instructions on writing and currently flipping through Stephen King's equally brilliant On Writing, I've realised that the best thing you can do with creative urges is swop the sports coupé for a Volvo station wagon instead.

It's about consistency, about "showing up at the page" as Julia Cameron puts it. There is no such thing as writer's block, there is only the idea of it. I'm writing this during a long urology case (don't worry, the monitor is right next to the iPad and I can actually multitask) and had no idea what would come of this musing - I was staring at the patients carbon dioxide waveform (isn't it beautiful that the clinical term for a normal breathing pattern is tidal volume - in and out - verily, we came out of the ocean) and it struck me: In, out, albeit in 5/8: One two, one two three. The deathless rhythm. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. Zenith up, nadir down. Boom and recession. Mania and depression. And, hopefully, words in, then words out.

Capnograph trace of normal human breathing
(approximately a ratio of 2:3)
We breathe in approximately quintuple rhythm - 2 out of 5 for inhalation, 3 out of 5 for exhalation (although this is usually rounded to the ratio of 1:2; doctors don't like decimals.) Quintuple meter is unusual in Western music: a few notable examples are Dave Brubeck's Swinging in Five, Radiohead's 15 step, a section from Sibelius's Finlandia and, most beautifully I think, Sergé Rachmaninov's haunting (on several levels) masterclass in orchestral colour, The Isle of the Dead. This latter work is a musical interpretation of a famous painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin: a creepily beautiful depiction of the ferryman Charon rowing the dearly departed to the said isle. When Rachmaninov saw it, must have both chilled and moved him to the core.

Böcklin's "The Isle of The Dead"

That the composer deliberately chose to set a depiction of the afterlife to the rhythm of life itself is intriguing. Rachmaninov had a lyrical fascination with death, yet lived a long and colourful life. Many of his works quote the Dies Irae, a medieval plainchant setting of the "Day of Wrath" "section of the Catholic Requiem. The Isle, not surprisingly, is no exception. I so easily want to branch out into an essay discussing Rachmaninov that I have to steel myself with the fact that I was told at medical school that being overtly tangential can be a sign of psychosis.

So, all I wanted - really - to say was that the Isle is really a lullaby of death, not a horror story set to music (Fauré's Requiem is the ultimate depiction of death as a friend and not a foe - but wait - I'm getting tangential again), and even the hearbeat can be said to fall into this lopsided rhythm - one to two in systole, two to three in diastole.

Life is not even, it emerges. Nor is death, if one considers that there is nothing stopping Charon from ferrying souls back every now and then to the land of the living...

And, thus, I guess, I need to make peace with the fact that my writing is not even, certainly not in its output. But our irregularities are to be celebrated, and I think they create part of that divine discontent that urges us forward to perfection, even as it always dangles out of reach. And so it should be out of reach. I will never be able to save all my patients, biology slaps me in the face every now and then to remind me of that. Here platitudes are appropriate: I do my best, and my best I hope will always be more than good enough.

But if I can keep my patients breathing as steadily lopsided as the ventilator's default setting, the 1:2; the 2:3, maybe, just maybe, I can do so with my writing.

Expect more postings.