By now many of you have seen the Marble Machine, a contraption built by a Swedish musician to play a complex tune with the turn of a crank. If not, take a listen/look here:
Less known is that the group Wintergatan, of whom the musician/inventor is the leader, has also created a live cover of the same song. The machine itself isn’t durable or reliable enough to be included in their concerts, but the song itself is famous, and many fans come to concerts just for the one song. Here’s their live version at a music festival:
But wait, they’re not done yet! Evidently a lot of fans have requested the sheet music for the tune so they can play it themselves. Happy to please, the group has provided the sheet music, a tutorial, and a live performance of the piano version of this same tune:
When I saw they were producing a third version of the song I admit I didn’t expect much. I mean really, who needs three versions of the same song? And yet the change of instrumentation, a change of tempo, and a little variation of the theme and it’s practically a new song with a much different mood.
So, what does this have to do with writing?
Popular wisdom holds that there aren’t really any new stories any more, just retellings of the same original stories. We’ve certainly seen it in the recent trend of resetting fairy tales in modern or other settings. We’ve seen it in the Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven (Yul Brenner) / Magnificent Seven (Denzel Washington) variations on the same story. We’ve seen it in The Hidden Fortress / Star Wars IV / Eragon / Star Wars VII sequence of variations.
So if it’s true that there are no new stories, what is a writer to do? Well, keep the bones of the story and “re-orchestrate” the rest. Just like the second version of Marble Machine took the various instruments within the machine and “re-cast” them to live musicians, sometimes with several musicians covering a single part from the original, a writer can take the more flexible components of the story and rework them or hand them over to new characters.
Or, like in the third variation, we can keep much of the story intact, right down to one person doing it all, but change the mood entirely.
When Wintergatan set out to create their live version they undoubtedly took the original piece apart, piece by piece, and examined what they could differently with that piece. Some of it was obvious: take the bass line and give it to a real bass player, and then let him expand on what was written in the rather limited original. Some of it was less obvious: the machine sounds are part of the actual music, so what do we do with them? They imitated some of them (the “cranking” sound given to the snare drum), while discarding others (no one was dropping marbles on the stage). In other cases they used several musicians to cover a single instrument, such as the two vibraphone players and keyboardist to make the “xylophone” sound.
Similarly, when creating the piano version, they looked at the entire piece and looked for what they could do without. Clearly any other instruments were out, and they made no attempt at all to imitate any of the machine sounds. Instead they pared the song down to its basics, and then tweaked it to play better to the unique capabilities and timbre of the piano. They didn’t try to fight the fact that the same chords on the piano sound more soulful; the embraced it and adjusted the tempo to match.
So whether we’re deliberately setting out to rework a known story or simply trying to avoid being insufficiently original, we can apply the same approach: break it down to its essentials. What can we do with it that’s not been done before? How can we adapt core elements of the story to our own unique interests and strengths? How can we turn a common component completely on its head? How can we surprise the reader?
But last of all, don’t let any story become “automatic”. Just as the Marble Machine still required some musical interaction from the operator, we should never let our stories become entirely mechanical. If we find ourselves getting into that trap it’s time to put on the brakes and demonstrate our artistry, even within the confines of the framework we’ve given ourselves.
For writing, like music, is an art. We are artists. Just like my college music history professor could play the same Beethoven Sonata as Arthur Rubenstein and have them sound uniquely different, we each bring our own artistic distinctness to our writing. That is what makes art Art, and not just the mechanical reproduction of sounds, words, pigments, movements, or whatever it may be.
The Marble Machine is, in itself, a work of art. And yet there is a reason why many composers still use real orchestras instead of the increasingly authentic-sounding synthesizer/sampler keyboards of today. Variation is still the essence of art.