The Logic of Music

As I noted here a while back, I have long wondered at the logic of music and how it is different from every other logic. Music is organized sound, arranged in phrases, involving harmony (the sounding of more than one tone at a time), melody (the arrangement of a series of tones sounded one after the other), rhythm (the timing of music arranged by repeated duple or triple beats), and counterpoint (more than one melody sounding at the same time). The phrases in traditional music are the equivalent in length to how long a singer could sing before taking a breath. And I’ve noticed when I’m playing the piano or guitar, I breathe out during the phrases and take a breath between them.

Since the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, tonality has been a determining feature of most music. Before Bach’s time and the development of the tonal system, western (that is, European) music was modal, written using one of the seven scales possible on the white keys of the modern piano. The resulting modes are named Ionian (beginning on the note C), Dorian (beginning on D), Phrygian (beginning on E), Lydian (beginning on F), Mixolydian (beginning on G), Aeolian, (beginning on A) and Locrian (beginning on B). Two scales of the tonal period are also modes, the Ionian (the modern major scale) and the Aeolian (the modern minor scale). But composers since Bach’s time have raised the two highest notes of minor scale when a melody is ascending and lowered them when the melody is descending.

These days we hear almost no music written in the modes. The only exception I’m aware of is the song “Greensleeves,” which has been turned into a Christmas carol named “What Child Is This” by changing its lyrics. It’s written in the Dorian mode, but sometimes in performance, that mode is changed to the normal minor by raising the seventh tone when the melody is travelling upward. There are another half dozen or so very old carols that are modal rather than tonal.

More next time.

Tonal Languages

As readers of this blog know (probably all too well), until I retired from the federal government more than thirty years ago, I was linguist/spy working in seven different foreign languages.

The two languages that sparked my greatest interest were Vietnamese and Chinese. I found them so fascinating because they both are monosyllabic and tonal, meaning that they are made up of words no longer than a single syllable and use inflection to determine meaning. The northern dialect of Vietnamese (the preferred dialect and the one I learned) has six tones; Chinese Mandarin (the dialect I studied, also called 国语, gwo-yu, meaning “national language”) has four.

The Vietnamese tones are level (ngang: spoken on a single pitch as if sung), rising (sc), descending (huyn), upper broken (ngã), lower rounded (hi), and lower with a glottal stop (nng). The four Chinese tones are: First tone (level, ; character: 妈; meaning: mother), second tone (rising, chuáng; character 床; meaning: bed), third tone (fall/rise, wǒ; character: 我; meaning: I [first person singular pronoun]), and fourth tone (falling, dàn; character: 蛋; meaning: egg).

Although both languages are monosyllabic, they both employ what are called compounds, in which two syllables are put together to create more complex words. The Vietnamese word for “nation,” for example, is dân tộc, combining dân, meaning “citizen” with tộc, meaning “family.” Neither language has anything like a western grammar with parts of speech, tenses, and passive voice. Instead, they depend on word order and context to convey meaning.

Most westerners have a terrible time with tones, but I, having taken a BA in music, simply thought of the languages as musical and had no problem learning and using tones. More important, I found the underlying logic in these languages so different from anything I had ever known that I ended up learning a new way to think. That ability has proven invaluable to me as a fiction writer. I am grateful for the gift.


How Do I Come Up with Stories?

Given my six books of fiction and 17 short stories in print, a blog reader asked how I come up with the stories that end up in my writing. The answer is that I don’t—the stories come to me. It feels as if a noncorporeal being, maybe a muse, presents me with the tales I end up writing. When I look at the end result, I see that what I have written is based on real events in my life, turned into fiction by attributing the action to fictional characters rather than to myself or people I’ve known.

What happens almost invariably is that I imagine an event or happening so powerful that I have to write it down. Then comes the question: how did this happen? So I have to write the history that led up to it. Then the muse (really my unconscious) asks what followed the event, so I have to write that.

But all my novels and short stories tell of events that really happened. Critics are correct in charging me with writing fiction in name only. That’s because I can’t make up stories as fascinating as the things that really took place. I was a spy, a linguist in seven languages, operating on the battlefield in support of U.S. and friendly troops first in Vietnam and later, after the 1975 fall of Saigon which I escaped under fire, all over the world in places that are still classified.

An example is Last of the Annamese, my novel set during the fall of Saigon. Everything described in that book really did happen. I fictionalized it by ascribing the action to fictional characters.

So all I have to do is wait until the idea for a story come to me out of the blue, usually when my consciousness is drifting or I’m half asleep or not focusing my attention. Then comes the hard work of writing it down and filling out the story.

My guess is that I am no different from most fiction writers in the way that stumble upon story ideas—except that mine are drawn from my own history.

My Bookshelves

Surrounding me in my office and extending into an adjacent room are bookshelves. As I look at them, I realize how much they tell about me.

One section of the shelves is filled LP records and tapes. Most are complete recordings of operas, one of the passions of my life. Then there are eleven shelves filled with compact discs, all of classical music, including lots of operas. Next come five shelves of classical music scores, some full orchestral scores, some just for piano. After them come three shelves of tapes, mostly VHS but also more classical acoustic analog recordings. Then there are the books, literally hundreds of them. Around twenty of them are dictionaries, some English, some other languages. Then there are the dozens of books I have reviewed and books on subjects I’m partial to like music, opera, ballet, and languages.

In addition to the shelves holding books, tapes, and CDs is a double-sided floor-to-ceiling set of shelves holding stereo equipment—two turntables, a large tape deck, and five consoles of various kinds. All this equipment is less and less used these days as I find that music distracts me while I’m reading or writing.

In the middle of the room is my ten-foot-long u-shaped desk, always cluttered with books, pens, pencils, notes to myself, my computer  and its ancillary equipment. It is constructed of the same blond maple wood as the shelves. Many years ago, I paid a professional cabinetmaker to build the desk and shelves for me. Fortunately, it all fits perfectly in my office in the lowest level of my split-level house in Columbia, Maryland, where I moved only a few years ago.

So here I sit, writing away, surrounded by the possessions gathered over my many years on earth. At first glance, it seems to me, this is obviously the workroom of an artist, a man who has spent his life as a musician, a linguist, and a writer.

I’m Different

As I congregate with other men my age, I am more and more aware of how different I am from my contemporaries. For one thing, I’m alone. My partner, Su, died several years ago, and I haven’t had the heart to seek another relationship. For another, I spend my worktime writing—blog posts (like this one), books (six now in print), short stories (17 published), and book reviews (more than a hundred in print)—and reading. For a third, I work out lifting weights for a couple of hours every other day. Granted, I haven’t been doing that while I was recovering my surgery on my eyes last May and now recuperating from pneumonia (I was diagnosed on December 28). For a fourth, I’m dedicated to living a healthy life and surviving at the age of at least a hundred. All evidence at hand so far is that I’m going to make it.

Equally different from my contemporaries is my academic background and linguistic profession. I am ridiculously well-educated with a PhD-plus and considerable training in foreign languages. Most Americans don’t speak any foreign languages or maybe have studied one. As a group, we consider foreign languages very difficult to learn. We’re spoiled because people in other nations routinely learn English so that they can converse with us. I, on the other hand, love languages and enjoy learning them. I have spoken seven languages other than English. I taught myself French and Italian as a child, had four years of Latin in high school, studied German (among other things) in college, and attended the Defense Language Institute for a year of intensive study of Vietnamese. I then enrolled as a part-time graduate student at Georgetown University to learn Chinese. But I didn’t know Spanish, the most common foreign language in the U.S. So I enrolled in Howard Community College a few years ago to learn it. During my many years of work in Vietnam before escaping under fire when Saigon fell in April 1975, I was unique in that I spoke all three languages of the country, Chinese, French, and Vietnamese.

Another difference: deafness. My hearing was severely damaged during my years as a civilian under cover as military assisting soldiers and Marines in combat in Vietnam with signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of the enemy—and during the fall of Saigon.

The guys I hang out with are a good deal younger than me, though I don’t think they realize it since I look much younger than my years. I don’t talk much but listen attentively because I want to learn. One result is that the guys I hang out with know little about me.

So there I am, different from my contemporaries. It’s okay. I like the way I am. So I have no complaints.

The Pond

At the back and north side of my house in Columbia, Maryland is a pond or small lake, perhaps a hundred feet in diameter. Filling its middle are water reeds, three or four feet tall. During the recent cold weather which got down to 4°, the reeds either moved or expanded, so that now they are only a few feet from the shore at the rear of my house. Some are actually touching the shoreline. Now, looking out from my deck at the back of my house, I see lots of reeds but almost no water.

I haven’t a clue as to how or why this happened. I much preferred looking out on water—the view was one of the reasons I bought the house a few years ago. But there’s nothing I can do about it. The property in which the pond is situated belongs not to me but to the city of Columbia. It is managed by the Columbia Association, a government organization.

I suspect that the water reeds float rather than being rooted to the bottom of the pond. That would explain how (but not why) they moved closer to the shore.

That said, it all remains a mystery to me. Maybe readers can enlighten me on water reeds and how they behave. Meanwhile, I guess I’ll just have to live with a pond full of reeds.

On Being Old

I’m old. No point in denying it or pretending otherwise. But I don’t receive the expected credit or respect for age that is common in our society. Why? Because I don’t look my age.

Throughout my life, I have always looked younger than I am. When I first applied to go to Saint Joseph’s high school in Alameda, California, the authorities wanted to reject me because I looked too young for high school. And even after I turned twenty-one and had a driver’s license to prove it, bartenders sometimes refused to serve me. When at age 55 I retired from the federal government as early as I could to write fulltime, those in charge questioned whether I was old enough, based on my looks. These days people often assume I’m ten to twenty years younger than I am and express surprise at learning that I’m retired.

All that said, aging is taking its toll. I’m not as sure-footed as I used to be, I can’t lift as much weight as I did even a few years ago, and my memory is failing. In fact, I am becoming deficient in just about every enterprise save one: thinking.

I find that I can think better, faster, and more clearly now than at any earlier time in my life. That means that my writing, the feat for which I was born, is more facile and effective than ever before in my life.

So I need to count my blessings.

Biden’s Classified Document Scandal

Press reports over the last few days have told of improperly stored classified documents found last November and again this month in spaces belonging to President Biden. They were top secret and SCI—sensitive compartmented information—and dealt with Ukraine, Iran, and the United Kingdom.

This follows the quantities of classified material found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and outcries demanding that Trump be prosecuted.

I remind the reader that I spent thirty-five years in the government service handling classified material, including codeword, SCI, and special access. Had I taken even one document out of controlled areas for anything other than official business, I would have been arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to prison. Why are Trump and now Biden above the law?

Ordinary citizens without clearances have no idea of the enormous damage that can be done by the revelation of national secrets to foreign governments. I think it’s high time that we review and tighten our rules and procedures for handling classified information and require that everyone, even the president of the United States, abide by them.

Republican Book Bans

Republican and conservative efforts to ban books they disagree with are taking off. PEN America, an organization devoted to protecting free expression in literature, reports that there are at least 50 groups across the country working to remove books they object to from libraries. During the 2021-22 school year, 138 school districts in 32 states banned more than 2,500 books. These districts include 5,049 schools and in total enroll almost 4 million students.

Texas and Florida lead the nation in book bans. The books most frequently targeted have been by or about Black or L.G.B.T.Q. people, according to the American Library Association. 

To my way of thinking, these efforts are in direct violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects freedom of speech. The conservatives, well-to-do and powerful, are trying to suppress those they look down on, especially women, blacks and other racial minorities, and those with sexual identities that depart from the conservative norm. In a nation devoted to freedom and democracy, in which all are equal, there is no despised faction of inferiors to be subjugated.

It is incumbent upon all of us to fight book bans. They strike at the very heart of our freedom. Let’s unify against them.