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Synchonicity and Murder

In the first year of the Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, they rotate the lyricists with the composers for each project. The final project is a ten minute musical. Having gotten in with no real musical theater experience, I was panicky and insecure about having enough time to write one in three weeks. My solution was to start writing it long before I knew who I would be paired up with, which was grossly unfair to my unknown composer.

Nevertheless, I forged ahead, picking a classic macabre murder story to musicalize, because I thought it would be perverse fun. Fortunately, I was paired with a young composer named Matt Frey, who not only accepted what I had done, but ran with it with his own musical craziness.

The middle section was an extended scene for the three crime scene officers. Matt’s music caught the insanity of my lyrics, switching meters practically every measure: 5/8, 6/8, 7/8, 6/8.

While this was happening, my day job as a public defender took me into a real murder case. It was one involving a great deal of forensics, including one area that was new to me — blood splatter analysis. This was before the Dexter books and series made it cool. I was working with a mentor, Tom Klein, who was the Roving Murder Guy at Legal Aid. He set up a meeting with the Crime Scene Analysts working at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

I arrived early, and waited outside for Tom. Since I had some time to kill, I called Matt to talk over changes in the musical. About halfway through the conversation, it suddenly occurred to me that I was talking about a crime scene song in a murder musical while waiting to talk with crime scene analysts in an actual murder. Synchronicity.

And that was one of those moments when I realized that my life had gotten weird even for me.

The musical is getting its first performance since its debut [and closing] performance in the workshop. Come to the Cornelia Street Cafe on Monday, January 22nd. It can’t help but be better than when we put it on, because I won’t be singing this time.

It’s Gravity! A song in honor of Albert Einstein and the validation of gravity waves

IT’S GRAVITY!

by Alan Gordon

I. [Swing tempo]

WHEN A MASSIVE BLACK HOLE

LIKES ANOTHER BLACK HOLE

VERY, VERY MUCH,

THEY CIRCLE FOR EONS, THEN THEY TOUCH.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

AND WHEN THOSE HOLES ARE DONE,

THEN THE TWO BECOME ONE,

AND FROM THIS COSMIC EMBRACE

COMES A RIPPLE THROUGH THE FABRIC OF SPACE.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

WE DON’T KNOW IF THEY DERIVE PLEASURE,

‘CAUSE BLACK HOLES WON’T GIVE OFF ONE GLEAM.

BUT THE RIPPLE IS SOMETHING WE CAN MEASURE,

AND THAT’S SOME PLEASURE THAT WILL MAKE A LASER BEAM.

 

GIN A BODY MEET A BODY

COMIN’ THROUGH THE SKY,

AND THEY HAVE WHAT EACH OTHER CRAVES,

IT’S GRAVITY!

LET’S MAKE SOME WAVES!

 

II.

I DON’T WANNA SEEM CRASS,

BUT YOUR BODY HAS MASS,

SO IT NATURALLY ATTRACTS.

I CAN’T HELP IT IF MINE REACTS.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

AND IF THE SHORTEST LINE

BETWEEN YOUR BODY AND MINE

COMES ACROSS AS SLIGHTLY CURVED,

THAT LINE’S FINE, SAYS EINSTEIN. DON’T BE UNNERVED.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

THERE’S NO LIGHT FOR US TO KEEP OUR EYES ON.

BLACK HOLES WON’T EVEN LET OFF A SPARK.

IT’S TRAPPED BEYOND THE EVENT HORIZON,

BUT SOME THINGS ARE BETTER WHEN THEY’RE DONE IN THE DARK.

 

SO, COME HERE, YOU LOST SOUL,

‘CAUSE YOU KNOW I CAN’T CONTROL

HOW THE UNIVERSE BEHAVES.

IT’S GRAVITY!

THAT SPACE-WARPING GRAVITY.

IT’S GRAVITY!

LET’S MAKE SOME WAVES!

R.I.P., Lew Soloff

I was saddened to hear of the death of the great Lew Soloff. If you hadn’t heard of him, start with the original Blood, Sweat and Tears albums — that’s him on trumpet on “Spinning Wheel.” He went on to be one of NYC’s top session men, playing for everyone there was.

When I was in high school in NJ, our jazz band would go every year to a clinic at Indian Hills HS. Soloff was there as a clinician. In between, he and fellow trumpeter Jon Faddis wandered into the auditorium and started to play “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” in thirds with as corny and rinkitink a style as you could imagine. Then, right at the point where we were all laughing, they took it up about two octaves and blew us away.

In the 80’s, I once went into the city with my dad. We went to hear a concert of avant-garde music at the MOMA Summergarden, then down to the Village Gate to catch the George Russell big band. Soloff was at both gigs. We chatted with him about the coincidence, and he was gracious, modest and grateful.

When Wynton Marsalis started with Jazz at Lincoln Center, he did an Ellington concert from the original charts. He had Soloff on the Cat Anderson chair, which meant that he took the high notes. At one solo, he hit a note so outrageously out in the stratosphere that all of the other trumpeters, the best in the business, turned and stared at him. He just shrugged and kept playing on.

He will be missed.
Give him a listen here.

Dak’s Law

“Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself.”

Recognize that quote? Of course, you do. Dak [or Dack, depending on the source] was Luke Skywalker’s gunner in the battle scene early in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The moment he uttered those fateful words, every thinking being in the theater knew that he was toast.

As a writer and as a viewer, I am irked when I am aware of the writing — which is to say, when I am aware of the open manipulation of my sympathies. When this happens, it creates the opposite effect. Instead of being sympathetic, and later saddened at the sudden and wholly unanticipated demise of said sympathetic and startlingly wrongly optimistic character, I sit there thinking, “Really? They’re doing that?” And the inevitable demise has no impact whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing is manipulation. But good writing doesn’t let you know it’s happening. The use of this particular cliché undercuts the surprise, the shock, the pathos. Maybe I am oversensitive to it, but my resentment is at the clumsiness of the attempt, of the contempt of the writer for his/her audience. [I await the comments of any of my readers who wish to point out instances of my doing exactly this. Never said I was perfect.]

What brought this to mind was the mini-series “Fargo,” set in the same world as the great Coen brothers movie. Dominated by the brilliant performances of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, the plotting and writing have been gleefully perverse, giving me a great deal of pleasure in the twists, never mind that the three hitmen and the one amateur murderer have been exceptionally careless in leaving behind video evidence, fingerprints, witnesses and so forth.

But along comes Episode 9, “A Fox, a Rabbit and a Cabbage.” Lester’s approach to Malvo is both dangerously stupid and extremely out of character, forcing the plot points, but that’s just bad plotting. The invocation of Dak comes from the monologue of Lester’s new wife, Linda — a sad story of her sad childhood, and how her hopes that her Prince Charming would come and here he is in the form of Lester and isn’t everything going to be wonderful. And we immediately know that she is doomed.

It happened in “Dexter,” on Rita’s last episode in Season 4. She expressed her hope in the future and delight that everything seemed to be working out well for them at last, and I felt sadness at the termination of Julie Benz’s contract. Robert, my son, said he saw her death coming from the first episode of that season. Somewhere, Dak was yelling, “Girl! Get out of town now!”

So, here endeth the lesson. If you want to surprise your viewer or reader, don’t tell them the character is going to die. We may still like the character — but we’re not going to respect its creator.

Tell Me a Story

“Tell me a story, Vince.”

That was the first line of my first published short story, “A Dry Manhattan Story,” in the April, 1991 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  I have always loved the voice in fiction of one character telling a story to another. It gives life to both the teller and the listener, allowing for narrative and commentary simultaneously. It is best done on a journey or by a roaring fire. (I have used both in The Widow of Jerusalem and An Antic Disposition,and arguably those are my two favorite books among those that I have written.)

Fiction writers have it easy in one sense. We are limited only by our imaginations and our talents. We can set a story anywhere, anytime, restricted only by what our aesthetic dictates. Selecting the restrictions and imposing them is part of the fun.

But what if someone else imposed the restrictions? What if they were the following: A. The story has to be told orally, not in writing. Okay, I know how to talk. B. The story has to relate to a one or two word theme that will be given to you. No problem—that can trigger my imagination in interesting new ways. C. It has to be five minutes long. Uhh, tougher. Sometimes getting me to shut up is more difficult than getting me to write. D. The story has to be true, drawn from your own life.

Gulp.

Enter The Moth. Founded in 1997 in NYC by George Dawes Green, The Moth holds story-telling evenings, open to all. Hundreds of people jam into a café or bookstore for the weekly StorySLAMS, and a few dozen intrepid (or narcissistic) souls drop their names into a bag. Ten are selected at random. An emcee, usually a comedian, holds forth in between the tales, and panels of volunteer judges score the tale-tellers on a scale of one to ten. The highest score earns the teller the right to compete against other winners in a quarterly event called the GrandSLAM, held in an even larger venue. The winner gets—nothing but bragging rights.

The program has expanded across the nation, adding events with longer stories and a radio show on NPR, earning a Peabody Award along the way. It remains one of the best bangs for the buck anywhere. And it’s a rush, as I can attest from experience.

I had been approached early in The Moth’s history about participating, but felt that my talents were better suited to fiction. Two years ago, however, I thought of one story from my past. I came in, was picked—and won on my first time out. Since then, I have been in two more StorySlams and two GrandSLAMS.

I have found that it takes a different set of gears for true life tale-telling. The narrative voice belongs to a character named “Alan Gordon,” who is an aspect of me slightly larger than my daily persona. The Procrustean nature of the time limit becomes a major factor—do I stretch or do I cut? I usually shape it in my head rather than committing to paper for the freedom to improvise if inspiration pops up mid-performance, as it frequently does.

My second StorySLAM win was for a theme that you’d think would be in my wheelhouse: Mystery. But mysteries in fiction are common. Mysteries in real life—not so much. Yet it was musing upon the paradox of a mystery writer lacking mystery in life that led me to the winning story, which I literally composed on the subway ride from Queens to the Manhattan venue. What was it? Well, it’s a tale best told out loud—and it will be. It’s going to be featured on the radio show and podcast sometime in 2014. The details will eventually be posted at www.themoth.org. Until then, you can check out the site for events near you, the radio schedule, and current podcasts. And if you have a tale to tell, come on down and give it a try.

But remember—you only have five minutes. And it has to be true.

Gulp.