The Waco Variations: writing about music

My guest writer today is Rhonda Rizzo. Rhonda is an American pianist and author, and in the following post, she explains how and why she started writing fiction. Her first novel, The Waco Variations, has been well received, and here, she outlines the plot and offers a few thoughts on writing about music.


“In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own–spoken in a language too deep for words.”

–excerpt, The Waco Variations

I planned to be a pianist. I planned to be a piano instructor and part-time university teacher.  I planned to write music articles.  I didn’t plan to write a novel.  When Cassie, the protagonist from The Waco Variations, “showed up” in my imagination and demanded that I write her story, I swatted the idea away.  I’m too busy, I told her.  I’m not a very good fiction writer, I told her.  She kept nagging.  A week later I sat down in a coffee shop and wrote the outline of the book.  Several years and multiple drafts later, I held that book in my hands.

Cassie’s story is an unusual one—the story of a young woman who watches her world burn to the ground in the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas.  She enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality. Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her.

I wrote about music because it’s what I know. I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others.  As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love with Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt.  I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music.

Readers ask me if it’s autobiographical.  It isn’t.  Yet how could the story not reflect my life’s work of living inside musical lines?  How could my own experience of trying to find “normal” after leaving a rigid Seventh-day Adventist upbringing not work its way into this story?  Bach, Beethoven and Brahms taught me to think.  The piano allowed me to express what I couldn’t say verbally.  Classical music allowed me to play “at the doorstep of eternity”—throwing open the narrow, concrete doors of a closed religious system into a universe of timeless beauty.  It healed me.  Any doubt I feel, any loss I mourn, I know that music not only accompanies me, but it has been there first.  Where words fail, music remains.

The process of writing and releasing this book taught me that I’m not alone.  In my readers I meet others who know the disorientation and depression of loss.  They’ve experienced the highs of a wonderful musical performance and the intimacy of collaborating with others.  Some share my journey out of fundamentalism.  As I hear stories from readers about their own love affairs with music, or their personal tragedies and how music has healed them, I realize one of the unconscious reasons I wrote this book was to start this sort of dialog about music and healing—letting people know that (as one reviewer wrote) “music has the power to touch our souls, to heal and calm, and so much more.”

This story—and the experience of writing it—is ultimately about the bedrock truths that connect all of us.  We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.

The Waco Variations, a Novel is available at www.Amazon.com.

Rhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Jessica Duchen in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Music Talk interview guest today is music journalist and author Jessica Duchen. We met up at Steinway Hall in London earlier this week to chat about her career.

Jessica was born in London, where her parents settled after leaving South Africa.  She regrets that she can’t remember her encounter with JR Tolkein in  Oxford at the age of six, which has become a family legend. She first  tried to write a novel when she was 12 and her efforts soon found their  way into the hands of a distinguished author and a literary agent, who  both provided valuable encouragement. After studying music at Cambridge  and piano with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama,  she worked as an editor in music publishing and magazines until going  freelance to develop her writing.

As a journalist, she writes regularly for The Independent and has interviewed most of the world’s finest musicians (see Archive). Her work appears frequently in BBC Music Magazine, Opera News, Pianist  Magazine, Classical Music and The Strad, among others, and she  contributes to BBC Radio 3.

She has given  pre-concert talks at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the Barbican, the  Wigmore and the Royal Festival Hall and served on the juries of the  Royal Philharmonic Society Awards and the BBC Music Magazine CD Awards.  Jessica Duchen’s  Classical Music Blog has frequently been ranked among the world’s top blogs of its kind.

Her novels focus on the tensions and cross-currents  between family generations, ranging from a painful exploration of the  effects of anorexia (Rites of Spring) and the rearing of a child prodigy (Alicia’s Gift ) to the long-term effects of displacement and cultural clashes (Hungarian Dances  and Songs of Triumphant Love). Music is also a recurring theme and in 2009 the celebrated violin and  piano duo Philippe Graffin and Claire Désert recorded a CD directly  inspired by Hungarian Dances and designed as a companion to the novel. It is available from Onyx Classics. Songs of Triumphant Love, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2009 and has been acclaimed as ‘enthralling’ by Joanna Lumley.

Jessica’s first play, A Walk Through the End of Time, a one-act drama introducing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, was commissioned by her frequent collaborator, violinist Philippe Graffin,  the artistic director of the Consonances Festival, Saint-Nazaire, in  2007 and won her the Medal of the Town of Saint-Nazaire. She and the great tenor Robert Tear gave the play’s UK premiere in  2008. Further performances have included the Orange Tree Theatre,  Richmond, in the International Wimbledon Music Festival and at Chethams  Piano Summer School in Manchester; actors have included Dame Harriet  Walter, Guy Paul and Henry Goodman.

Sins of the Fathers is  Jessica’s first full-length play: a fantastical comedy about Wagner,  Liszt and Cosima, created for the International Wimbledon Music Festival in 2013, Wagner’s bicentenary year, and presented at the Orange Tree  Theatre, Richmond, starring John Sessions, Jeremy Child and Sarah  Gabriel.

Jessica frequently appears as narrator in concert versions of her novels Hungarian Dances (with violin and piano) and Alicia’s Gift (with solo piano). Hungarian Dances was devised for the Fiddles on Fire Festival at The Sage, Gateshead and King’s Place, London, in 2009. Alicia’s Gift, suggested by the pianist Viv McLean, launched in November 2013 and has  been touring extensively; performances in 2014 will include the Buxton  Festival and the Chopin Society, London, at Westminster Cathedral Hall.  Jessica’s earlier ‘literary concerts’ for musicians and actors have been performed in the UK, France, Australia and America.

Jessica’s first books were biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré. She wrote the text for Inside London, Dorothy Bohm’s photographic  portrait of the city, and has published several short stories, notably Too Much Mozart, commissioned by Graffin for the booklet of his CD with  Nobuko Imai of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. She lives in London with her husband and cat, and when not writing enjoys travel, cinema,  cooking, jogging and attending occasional ballet classes, despite  encroaching creakiness.

www.jessicaduchen.co.uk


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.