Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Structure

One of the things about any kind of work I create that always bugs me is structure. Only with songs do I get less hassled, because the words give the thing a kind of structure. Even then, there’s the concern that the song maybe doesn’t have any sort of climax, or anything to hold it together musically.
When it comes to straight piano pieces, however, I find structure not at all straightforward. I suppose the problem in part is that each piece has its own structure, or has a structure similar to the old classical models, but doesn’t necessarily follow them to the T.
Structure has been drummed into our creative heads as something that the rest of the thing builds on, but with music I find that more often than not the structure comes out of the work I do on the piece. Sometimes that works fine; sometimes not.
It’s even worse when it comes to writing something with words, like a novel. No matter how I work out outlines and plan and dig and delve into what each scene means and where it fits, the structure as a whole still seems like a scaffolding that’s continually about to fall down. I wouldn’t trust any workers on it, that’s for sure!
Perhaps the problem is that structure is fine, but like editing, it isn’t something that should take priority. Once you’ve written the thing, you have to look it over and see whether it holds together. If it does and the structure doesn’t appear to be quite like anything else around, then maybe you’ve inadvertently created a new structure. Just don’t try and give it a name, or set out its requirements. There’s every possibility you’ll never use that particular structure again.
No doubt the pundits will disagree with me. Three Acts, we’re told, when it comes to screenplays and novels. (Even though the novels that they quote don’t in fact seem to fit comfortably into anything like the structure they’re proclaiming.) Form, when it comes to music, and the more classical the better. Form when it comes to poetry, and you’d better be able to identify it.
But poems tend to write themselves often, sometimes in a formal way, sometimes not. Music starts with ideas, with rhythms, with faint tissues of somethings that eventually work themselves into a bigger shape. And novels often start out in the middle and work backwards and forwards until you’ve discovered where they really ought to start and finish.
Certainly I appreciate shape; I appreciate form in poetry more than total looseness; I appreciate form in music. But proclaiming that the old forms can’t be surmounted by new forms (which may seem to have less shape when put up against the old) is just traditionalism. What did Tevye say? Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as... as a fiddler on the roof! But he came to realise that traditions don’t last forever, and the fiddler seemed to manage to play up on the roof in spite of shakiness.
All this is a very long preamble to some comments I came across today on structure:

"There was a structure there for sure, but it was composed very non-linearly. I think the structure started to really come together towards the end. We started feeling like, 'Ok, this is what it is!' The early part of the film kind of discombobulates you… for twenty-two minutes into the film there’s no narrative. It just bounces around, you’re in New York, you’re in Nashville, you’re in San Francisco, you’re in Portland, it just shakes your head around and then the narrative hits at twenty minutes. It’s actually a four-act structure. Which is totally not the way you’re supposed to do it… and it totally works.
Aaron Rose, the director of an independent film called "Beautiful Losers," in an interview on The Filmlot.
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