A Secret Alchemy
Alive, kicking, and joining in the game

Taking your novel for a dance

I've spent the weekend working to Chopin, courtesy of Radio 3. I came late to him, and all to the core nineteenth century composers: at school my instrument was the flute, and there is no music written for it between early Beethoven and Debussy, though Bach and Handel and Telemann are in my bones. It was only when I made a writing friend with precisely opposite tastes in music to write to that my horizons expanded. He was astounded that the backbone of my writing-music collection is the big baroque choral works, whereas it had never occurred to me that piano music could do the same job. Thanks to him - haven't seen him for years - much of the contemporary strand of A Secret Alchemy was written to Chopin, and more recently Schumann. It's about atmosphere as much as period, you see: I find that a little 15th century music does go quite a long way, but Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary was absolutely perfect for... But that would be giving things away.

And then on Sunday afternoon, just as I was trying to hammer my narratological thoughts about Tobias Hill's The Love of Stones into something coherent, the tonkly sound of an electronic piano caught my ear. After two days of sounds from Chopin's own Pleyel to the great Steinways of today it was like finding yourself chewing on a bit of plastic wrapping in the middle of a three-Michelin-daisy meal. But there was as reason for Radio 3's lapse. Chopin's well known for taking dance forms - waltzes, mazurkas, polonaises - and turning them into art, so his is a particularly good example of what they were discussing. (I'm not really writing this, I'm still hammering, so I hope you'll forgive me if I go and find the link and the credits later). Above and beyond the one-two-three of a waltz, or a couple of bars of theme, is the larger architecture: the tune that comes back, the circling and cycling of counterpoint, the texture of the underlying harmonies, the sequence of key-changes, the patterning of sun and shadow.

The conversation began with an analogy with painting: since the eye only has a small field of really sharp vision, you can only see a small patch of a painting, clearly and in full detail, at a time. If you draw back, that small patch is a larger piece of canvas, but the detail is gone. This is called your fovial (sp?) vision, and what's really happening when you look closely at a whole painting is that although vision itself is instant, the eye has to rove over the image, assembling all the details into a composite mental image. Music, like writing/reading, can only exist in time, and since we can only experience short lengths of music as single entities, it's not easy to hear the larger architecture: it's like trying to see the sequence of arches when your nose is two inches from the bricks. What the electronic piano can do is the equivalent of stepping back from the canvas or the building: it can speed up without distorting. To stick with Chopin's dance-forms, in speeding up a piece of music the individual steps of the dance blur, and the shape that's traced on the floor of the ballroom is clear: the arcs and reaches of movement fill the space.

Apparently Adrian Boult used to recommend playing a piece as fast as humanly possible, as a way of finding that larger architecture, and he's by no means alone. Of course, these days that speed isn't dependent on human fingers or squealing tapes, just on an electronic piano. Hearing the same piece in a series of speedings-up was exactly like a camera pulling away in stages from, say, a shot of the Parthenon. First you can hear the flutes on an individual column, then the stately dance of columns along one long side of the temple; then suddenly there's the whole front, the same rhythms at an angle and the same angle at the crown of the pediment; then you can see the whole thing rooted to its marble ground even as it floats against the sky; and finally it's a glimmering jewel-box against the dark hills beyond the city.

It's right that much of the focus of writing-teaching is close reading and close writing, because choosing the right word for the right job is, in the end, what we're all doing. It's probably also expedient, because classes are short and novels are long. But there are larger (in every sense) issues too, as any short-story writer realises when they start a novel: it's like trying to see a whole mountain through the magnifying glass which till now has been your principle tool. And that's why I and many other writers write our first drafts as fast as possible, not stopping or fiddling or jumping back. And it's also why there are several stages later when we print the beast off, sit somewhere else, and as far as possible read the novel as quickly as Beryl Bainbridge says she does and assumes her readers do (if she likes a novel, she goes back and reads it again slowly). It's about speeding up, about not seeing every curl of stone, about drawing back so that our fovial vision encompasses the pillars, the angles, the view against the hillside. It's about swirling across the floor of the ballroom, not just mastering the steps.