Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Gerald Elias

A graduate of Yale, Gerald Elias has been a Boston Symphony violinist, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony since 1988, Adjunct Professor of Music at the University of Utah, first violinist of the Abramyan String Quartet, and Music Director of the Vivaldi Candlelight concert series.

His novels include Devil's Trill, Danse Macabre, and Death and the Maiden.

Raymond Taras is Willy Brandt Professor at Sweden's Malmö University for 2010–11. He was director of Tulane University's world literature program before Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. He is the author of numerous scholarly books on nationalism and identities in Europe.

Taras and Elias's exchange over Death and the Maiden:

Taras: What literary purpose is served by making Jacobus blind, in addition to his being both a crank and a legend in the classical music world?

Elias: When I created the Jacobus character I had two things in mind by making him blind. The first idea was pragmatic; the second, metaphorical.

As is pretty common knowledge, when someone loses one of his senses, very often the slack is taken up by the others. In Jacobus's case, his sense of hearing, already finely-honed as a superior musician, becomes absolutely super-acute. Combined with his highly analytic mind, he can draw conclusions, whether about music, personalities, or solving mysteries, by calling upon his non-visual senses.

The metaphorical aspect of having him blind has to do with his renunciation of the classical music world. He believes that external pressures imposed upon the performance of great music compromises its artistic integrity. Though the "show biz" factors are not necessarily visual, Jacobus's blindness enables him to understand music as it was intended, as a purely aural experience. In a way his blindness enables him to "see through" the artifice of the concert world.

How do think through his reaction to various situations, like being on stage in Carnegie Hall and not seeing the audience--and tactfully spice it with great humor?

By having Jacobus blind I created an unanticipated challenge for myself. I want the readers to perceive Jacobus's reality through his blind eyes. As a result, whenever he is in a chapter (most of the time), I have to minimize any visual descriptions of his surroundings. In order to do this I've spent time putting myself in his shoes by closing my eyes and letting my other senses take over. Or, for example, in Devil's Trill, Jacobus is confident when he will arrive at a street corner in Manhattan because he knows how many footsteps are required to get from one corner to the next. The reason he knows this is that when I was in the city I counted out my own footsteps.

I related to Jacobus's situation on stage at Carnegie Hall in a more personal way. Back around 1980, while a young member of the Boston Symphony, I performed the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto with John Williams and the Boston Pops. Unlike playing in an orchestra, as a soloist you feel the eyes of the entire audience fixed upon you. It can be a very intimidating experience for someone not used to performing in that capacity day in, day out. Some of the thoughts that went through my head while I performed the Mozart were: "Why did I think I wanted to do this?" "What's the next note?" "I still have thirty minutes to go!" and "I knew I should have been an anthropology major!" Jacobus's reactions to the situations in which he has been placed, and those of other characters as well, are reflections of my own real-life experiences, so I'm not making anything up out of the blue. And that includes the humor!

Your attention to technical detail, whether related to the murder plot or to how the bow is being held by the violinist in the Schubert quartet, stands out in the Jacobus series. Can a writer who's enjoyed a long successful career as a classical musician playing with leading orchestras and with acclaimed soloists ever escape the imperative of precision?

You're absolutely correct that in order to be a professional classical musician, especially in any kind of ensemble, requires an extraordinary degree of physical and mental precision. I think by the time a musician achieves that level of ability so much of it has become ingrained that the musician is hardly aware of the first 99% of what he's doing. In one of my early drafts of Danse Macabre, for example, I wrote an entire chapter about the thought process that goes into playing just the first note of the Beethoven "Kreutzer" Sonata! Eventually, I was convinced to pare it down to make it a better fit with the rest of the story, but I think the readers will still get the idea.

The challenge, though, in music as well as writing, is to make sure that the details don't drown out the message. Both music and literature, after all, are means of communication, and if the listener and reader don't go away from their experience emotionally effected, then all the precision in the world is just a meaningless exercise.

I'm impressed by your convincing depictions of characters coming from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, in Death and the Maiden, for example, from Russia, Peru and, well, New York City. These portraits avoid stereotypes but nevertheless capture the essence of what it means to be Slav or South American or Jewish or, for that matter, a young Japanese female musician. How did you develop these extraordinary observational skills?

If one is to write a legitimate story about classical music, it's absolutely essential to have characters from diverse backgrounds, because the international quality of the profession is one of its fundamental characteristics. Orchestral musicians, for example, work everyday with other musicians, guest artists, conductors, and of course the music itself, from every corner of the world. And don't forget that one important component of a professional career is touring, where one meets not only other musicians but people of all walks of life. I can't count the number of countries where I've concertized; plus, I've had the good fortune to have traveled for extended periods in Japan, Italy, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. In developing international characters in my books I try to create a balance between some of the general cultural characteristics I've observed and specific individual personality traits, all in an effort to make every character interesting and three-dimensional.

Given the wealth of experiences you have had as a professional musician and the ability to capture them with words, have you considered writing an autobiography?

If I did that I think I would take Mark Twain's approach and not have it published for a hundred years. But by then, unlike with Mark Twain's autobiography, I don't think there'd be all the much demand.
Learn more about the book and author at Gerald Elias' website.

Interview: Gerald Elias.

The Page 69 Test: Devil's Trill.

Writers Read: Gerald Elias.

The Page 69 Test: Danse Macabre.

My Book, The Movie: Devil's Trill and Danse Macabre.

The Page 69 Test: Death and the Maiden.

--Marshal Zeringue