Inventing Characters

18 05 2012

By Julia Indigo/@juliaindigo


Exhibit A: Barry Douglas.

  1. Who is Barry Douglas, this guy from Northern Ireland with two first names? (He was our guest soloist/conductor two weeks ago. Please take the time to check out his website here.)
  2. And what does he have to do with inventing characters? (See below!)

Guest artists are a bit of a crap shoot. We musicians often suggest conductors and soloists to management – many of us play in other orchestras during the summer, and if someone makes a strong artistic impression, whether as a conductor or guest soloist, we are likely to bring them up to management. But it’s not our call who gets hired. That is a management priority, in consultation with the Music Director or Artistic Advisor. This is true all over the orchestral world. We staff musicians come to work, and deal with whatever management has cooked up for us. Sometimes it’s life-changing, other times… not.

Barry Douglas at the Piano

Barry Douglas at the Festival des Nuits Romantiques du Lac du Bourget à Aix-les-Bains – 2011

In the case of Douglas, we thought he was terrific. He’s the yin to our Music Director’s yang: his low-key rehearsal style was a breath of fresh air, as our Music Director is all sweaty intensity in rehearsal. Douglas was unfailingly polite, while our guy ripped a section of the orchestra a new one just this past Tuesday. Our Music Director can get carried away in performance, leaving us stranded, but Douglas kept his head. That’s one thing that I wish more conductors realized – we need them to remain somewhat apart from the emotion of the music, so they can be there for us, to help us when things go sideways, which they do from time to time. And things are more likely to come apart when the conductor doesn’t stay present, because that’s when they make mistakes. But I digress…

I listened to the concerto both nights, with Douglas conducting from the piano, and was mesmerized by the performance. At the piano, Douglas’ Mozart interpretation was unapologetically Romantic, and he drew a brilliant, yet silky sound from the Symphony’s grand piano (which usually sounds like heck). I was moved by the performance, and I liked how the orchestra sounded under his direction… if you can call it that. Far from the usual ‘conductor as metronomic time-keeper’, at times it was as though he was doing Tai Chi, hurling bolts of energy at the orchestra. I loved it! You never knew what was coming next, and that kept you on your toes. No sleeping through this Haydn symphony! It was straight-up collaboration – chamber music – rather than someone standing up in front of the orchestra, waving his/her arms around to impress the rubes in the box seats. (And yes, that definitely happens!)

If you checked out his website above, you know that he was the second non-Russian to win the Gold Medal in the Tchaikovsky competition outright, in 1986 – Van Cliburn was the first, in 1956. I bet you recognize Van Cliburn’s name, dont’cha? And I bet you’d recognize Douglas’ name, if he was an American. Such is the spin machine in the US – all you have to do is watch the coverage of the Olympics. If there’s not an American within medaling range, you don’t get to see the sport. But I digress (once again).

Barry Douglas and Van Cliburn before the judging of the 2011 Tchaikovsky contest. Douglas was on the jury.

As I sat in the hall, listening to the concerto, a thought occurred to me. Here’s this man: friendly, approachable, not an ounce of attitude or ego, Tchaikovsky contest winner, amazing musician, damned good-looking… and even though I have over thirty years in the music business, I’d not heard of him. He’s been living his life, traveling all over the world, playing concerts for decades, while I have made music here in Texas, and our lives intersected the first week of May, 2012.

Besides wondering how many other fascinating people are out there just waiting to be discovered, it occurred to me that when we writers encounter interesting people we may put them on the page, drawing forth details from our imagination a story at a time. We look for inspiration everywhere, and when we find it, we chew on it, toss it in a boiling pot or a quiet pond, and see what it becomes. I could easily conjure Douglas’ doppelganger if I had need for a concert pianist in a story/poem/novel. Take the talent, the looks, even some of the history (make sure that the character you invent is significantly different from the person in real life!) then go for broke: add in a couple of quirky habits, or a wandering eye, or a history of DUI. Bingo – I have the beginnings of a tale I can tell. That’s what we writers do – we invent remarkable people, give them problems, and stand back to see what they do on the page, how they react. Once I learned of a real life college professor, a scientist, a tall man, who had endured tragedy in his life. That was all I needed to come up with the seed that became Steven Canelli, the protagonist in my current work in progress. In the end, they are so different that no one would ever connect Canelli with that other man, the one who’s story grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. Even if that man were to read my book, he would have no inkling that his life inspired the tale.

What larger than life people have you been privileged to meet? What about them surprised you? Have you been inspired to riff on someone’s famous (or not so famous) persona, to flesh out a work in progress? Let me know in the comments!



9 responses

18 05 2012
Amber West

When I was young, I used to make entire stories up based on people I met or even just observed. If something about them stuck with me, I worked it out on paper. I’m sure I still do that now.

(And now I’m off to learn more about Barry 🙂 )

18 05 2012
Julia Indigo

That’s great, Amber! Glad you’re checking out his homepage, too.

18 05 2012
Lorinda J. Taylor

Julia, you write great posts! Where else can one find a musical insight into inspiration for writing? I can’t say that my characters were inspired by a specific person, just general experience both in reality and from reading. Probably some unconscious psychological inspiration from my life. I might say that the Rochester-type from Jane Eyre – the attractive, romantic man with a dark secret – was a basis for Prf. Griffen Gwidian, although there are certainly no plot similarities. Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life in academic settings, so the university milieu came naturally. And as for my termites – well, I’ve never known an intelligent one! But the villain definitely owes something to great Shakespearean characters like Cassius and Iago. They ARE Shakespearean termites, after all!

18 05 2012
Julia Indigo

Thank you, Lorinda. I never know when something is going to flip on the proverbial light bulb.
And there is something about attractive, romantic men with dark secrets!

re:termites – you never know. Their intelligence might be so different from ours that it’s incomprehensible (as some people suppose that extraterrestrial intelligence might be.)

20 05 2012

The number of great musicians out there that you’ve never heard always amazes me. The first time I wandered down Bourbon Street and discovered that EVERY single bar had the GREATEST singers and musicians I had EVER HEARD, yet who the heck were they? Dunno. In New Zealand, here are a couple of up-and-comers. Yeh, the first one is my son Eli… The second is his mate Sam Cheers to all the world’s great muzos: that they be discovered…and not ruined in the process of success.

20 05 2012
Julia Indigo

I hear you, Hogs.
Of course, the deal for me is that Barry Douglas is internationally known! But I’d never heard of him. That’s probably because he hasn’t really broken into the US market… as he has the European, South American, Asian… you name it.

But it still felt weird to realize that. We are far from cosmopolitan in the States!

21 05 2012
Matthew Wright

I am always struck by the similarity between music and writing – the end point of both being to evoke an emotion from the recipient. And some musicians (and writers) are way better at it than others. I am intrigued by the thought of a ‘Romantic’ era interpretation of Mozart; casting back through the pieces I learned and know of, I can’t quite imagine them emotionally smouldering…but if they did – wouldn’t that be fantastic!

Just apropos of ‘Hogsatemysister’s comment, there are certainly some fantastic musicians in NZ, though I lament the state of the ‘classical’ scene here, where government funding for the NZSO and some of the other orchestras and choirs is somewhat limited – and with it, opportunities for some of our undoubted musical talent. Don’t get me started on the state of writers’ fortunes, of course!

I have to agree, too – musicians are often the most fertile ground for inspiring characters – inspiring, as you recount, that chain of thought and creation which leads to something very different and yet which can hark back to the original person.

21 05 2012
Julia Indigo

A Romantic interpretation of Mozart is old-fashioned these days in the US – people tend to go for a more ‘period’ interpretation these days. I liked it – it reminded me of how we played Mozart back when I was in school!

The idea of government support of the arts is so 1960s here in the US, which is to say, if it can’t float on its own, let it sink. Hell, even the aristocracy in Europe in the last centuries knew that the arts are to be supported for their own worth! I am appalled at what has become of our country since the so-called Reagan Revolution. At least you guys have something for musicians.

Yes, musicians evoke a fascination among the masses, whether those guys with violins, wearing tailcoats, or the dudes slinging their guitars around. Even for me, who should know better! LOL

25 05 2012
Karen McFarland

Julia, you are such a multi-talented woman! I love when you share your music world with us and then compare and mix both the writing and music world together. As an art, there are so many similarities. What a privilege to play under the direction of such an awesome conductor and then have the opportunity to meet him too. Very cool girl! 🙂

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