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The notes of truth

I met with Christopher Rouse exactly once. It was in the summer of 1997, when Rouse was composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, and I was working for the BU Tanglewood Institute, playing piano for the vocal program and being a teaching assistant for the composition program. The high-school composers and the Tanglewood fellows got together a couple of times, and somehow it came out that I played the accordion, and soon I got a call from Rouse. He was writing a piece with accordion in it (I don’t recall him divulging any details about the piece, but I’m guessing it was Kabir Padavali); could I come over and show him how it worked?

So I hauled my accordion over to Hawthorne Cottage. To be honest, I don’t think Rouse got very much out of it. For one thing, I was and am, at best, a barely-competent accordionist; for another, it soon became apparent that Rouse was thinking of a classical-style, button accordion, in which the buttons correspond to individual tones, rather than my stradella-type accordion, in which the left-hand buttons play bass notes and chords. Still, even after finding that what I had was not what he needed, he continued asking questions, requesting demonstrations, pulling whatever knowledge he could from me.

I still think about that meeting. I think about Rouse’s zeal for information, about the insistence and even impatience to know that kept breaking the otherwise polite surface of his personality. It helped bring into focus something about being a musician. It’s an argument I had heard mostly in negative terms: a musical career is a difficult and capricious undertaking; if you don’t want to know every last thing there is to know about music, why do it? Rouse, I realized, embodied the positive version of that calculus—that if you did have that obsessive desire to know, that if the possibility of learning some musical fact or technique or piece, however trivial, was what got you out of bed every morning, then just maybe there was a place for you to create something.

The Time Warrior

Terrance Dicks, the prolific British writer of genre television and novels, died last week, at the age of 84. His most enduring work was his decade-and-change association with Doctor Who, as both a screenwriter and script editor. Most classic Who fans have at least one Dicks-associated episode among their favorites. My debt runs a little deeper: I like the Dicks-penned 1977 serial “Horror of Fang Rock” so much that I wrote an entire book about it.

Dicks evolved as a writer over that decade. One of his early scripts, the 10-episode epic “The War Games” (co-written with Malcolm Hulke) drops Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor into an extensive and expansive piece of world-building, somewhat leisurely explorations within deftly sketched borders. The scripts Dicks wrote after his five-year run as script editor lean much more on the deftness, paring away anything that would hold back humming engines of character and atmosphere. Dicks’s plot mechanics and science-fiction contrivances usually came with a bare minimum of explanation, which gave his scripts an effect reminiscent of a well-written piece of music: as a viewer, you accepted each turn of events not so much because of any logical justification, but because of its congruence with the established grammar of the story’s telling. The virtues of Dicks’s scripts were musical virtues—rhythm, tone, forward motion. That efficiency extended to the novelizations of Who episodes published by Target Books, of which Dicks wrote the considerable majority. His brevity could be bracing. His novelization of his own “Fang Rock” script clocks in at a mere 126 not-very-tightly-spaced pocket-paperback pages; you could probably read it in less time than it would take to watch the actual broadcast. But the pithiness could have a paradoxically rich effect, outlining the stakes and structure with a high-contrast clarity that let you hold the whole thing in your imagination, turning it about and filling in texture and interpretation.

Like most U.S.-based Who fans of a certain age, I read dozens of Dicks’s novelizations, filling in the show’s lore at a time when broadcasts were happenstance and videotapes were scarce. I occasionally have wondered whether that reading was a symptom or a cause of my longtime fascination with forms of musical translation—not just transcriptions and arrangements, but also the myriad of ways in which scholars and critics have used language to describe music, from the driest technical analyses to the most florid poetic impressions. Even if it didn’t directly seed such obsessions, my many hours spent with Dicks’s renditions scratched that particular itch to an extent that very probably helped guide me toward my wayward creative path. Hail and farewell.

UPDATE: Two more smart appreciations from Ethan Iverson and Elizabeth Sandifer.

Found the trouble, then?

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My new book, The Black Archive: Horror of Fang Rock, the 33rd in Obverse Books’ essential series of monographs exploring the universe-spanning televised narrative of Doctor Who, is out today. Order a copy! If you have an interest in the show—or in the relative lighting power of oil and electricity, or the scavenging habits of coastal Scots, or the hidden 19th-century history of tentacular monsters, or Leslie Stephen’s anti-materialist philosophy, or the numerology of the tarot, or Guglielmo Marconi’s marital misadventures, or Odysseus consulting with the dead—you will hopefully find something interesting. They always said the Beast of Fang Rock would be back….

Residence Act (ch. 28, 1 Stat. 130)

Vidal Washington cover

Across the room someone struck a chord on the grand piano. The room went silent. As in most Washington drawing rooms, the piano’s essential function was to serve as an altar on which to display in silver frames the household gods: photographs of famous people known to the family.

—Gore Vidal, Washington, D.C.

Announcement: thanks to my wife’s brilliance (asking her to marry me remains one of the very few good decisions I have made in my life), in a few weeks, Soho the Dog HQ will relocate from the greater Boston area to Washington, D.C., capital and swamp. We’re packing up the files, the audio archives, the gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline, the cache of exotic spirits, and the Casiotone arsenal; and later this summer, we’ll hit the road with Roving Correspondent and Traffic Reporter Mabel in tow.

What am I going to do? Do what I’ve always done: make it up as I go along. I was telling someone the other day that acquiring a Library of Congress reader’s card is as far as I’ve gotten in plotting the next iteration of my wayward career. But, at the very least, I look forward to quieting the room via underutilized pianos, whether figuratively or literally. Come August, drop a line if you’re in the DMV.