Friday, May 21, 2010

Listen To The Master!

"Writing Pacific Overtures reinforced something I'd begun to learn and am learning still: of my three guiding principles - Less is More, Content Dictates Form, God is in the Details - the first is the hardest to put into practice. The struggle against discursiveness never ends and is too often unsuccessful, even for writers who know better. The famous Hemingway dictum that what you leave out is equally important to what you leave in is one I suspect that most writers wish they had never heard. Tolstoy, Melville, Proust and numerous all-inclusive others would probably disagree; for lyric writers concision is unavoidable,
if for no other reason than that the presence of music can not only supply what's unwritten but resonate beyond it. Still, it's a precept hard to follow, since it takes so much of the fun out of writing by putting the brakes on flamboyant cleverness, ostentatious imagery, decorative elaboration, overly insistent emphasis and rhythmically repetitive lists like this one. Novelists, essayists and journalists have the room to indulge themselves in such pleasures, but lyric writers do not: lyrics are a very concise form. If you think of a theater lyric as a short story, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph. A good lyric, even a patter song, cannot afford unnecessary words, redundancies or needless flourishes. The price of such extravagance is diffusion - nothing blunts a strong emotion or a good punch line as effectively as too many words."
Stephen Sondheim


  1. I agree completely. That's why it is better you read poems rather than Reader's Digest reductions of famous novels. If you nevertheless want to experience the Reader's Digest art of reduction, try with a reduction of a novel by, let's say, Arthur Hailey.

    Anyway, the pleasure to write a poem or a libretto is one thing, the pleasure to write "The Betrothed" is another thing. And Tolstoy or Proust have no reason to disagree with this distinction.

    It is a question of temper, but not necessarily one has to specialize.

  2. "...if for no other reason than that the presence of music can not only supply what's unwritten but resonate beyond it."

    This sheds a new light (for me) on Michael's insistence that the music serves the story of a drama musical.

  3. "...if for no other reason than that the presence of music can not only supply what's unwritten but resonate beyond it."

    This is the heart of a good librettocist, and it is the reason why librettocists are - as form of literature - not yet as acknowledged as they deserve. In front of the imponderbale scholars of literature make their false steps.