Writing a Fugue

This bit is dangerous. Not because it’s going to explode, or subvert reality in interesting ways, but because I’m not a musician, I don’t write music, and my formal education in that regard stopped around age 14. I can play the first four bars of the Star Wars theme on the piano and harmonica, so something obviously stuck.

The problem with so much Transmedia work, as we’ve suggested elsewhere, is abundance. An explosion of content with little sense of structure or control over the manner of storytelling. One of the things that Transmedia is missing is a grammar; a formal set of patterns for writing, for thinking about plot and character and delivery. Please note that I wrote patterns, and not pattern. There isn’t one way of doing this, any more than there’s one way to write a film, or a novel. But there are, or there should be, structures and guides. Scaffolds and defaults.

A fugue1 is a polyphonic musical form. Polyphonic meaning two or more simultaneous lines of (in this case) melody. Fugue arises from the Latin fuga, meaning to chase, to flee. Fugues begin with a theme called a subject, presented in turn by each voice (or instrument), successively up or down a key. Just to complicate matters, if a second voice is an exact transposition of the first, then the Fugue is regarded as real, or modified, in which case it is tonal. What happens as each voice comes in to play, is a melodic shape that alters in form as it grows, until a countersubject emerges as an accompaniment to the subject, complicating the structure.

With me so far?

What happens next is that the composition alternates sections when the subject is present with sections where it is not. These are called divertimenti, and their function is to modulate to different keys, so to elaborate and counter the central theme over a series of sections. Within these techniques, the duration of notes can be halved, doubled, retrograde (played backwards) and inverted (played upside down). Toward the end, a section—stretto—emerges in which the subject is audible through overlapping voices, each one not waiting for the previous to complete, and so building toward a complex, interconnected whole that has to be heard, to be read as such to be enjoyed. What is also critical is that the original subject has to be strong enough to be stacked upon itself and expanded, compressed and elaborated, while still being distinctive.

That’s how you write a Fugue.

It abides by a complex set of rules and conventions, which are designed to allow the subject to be heard through the (apparent) chaos. To emerge from a polyphony of voices because each one of those voices is carefully constructed in order to complement, accompany, elaborate or divert from the centre. All the while knowing that the end goal is a designed conclusion.

I work with an artists’ collective called Circumstance. Our work gets a disproportionate amount of attention here, because I know it very well. We don’t set out to make Transmedia projects, but some of our work falls into that category through critique, or misplaced marketing. We generally make work in public spaces with audio played through headphones or mobile speakers. It’s cinematic, in that each participant is placed within a narrative that is situated in a space, and builds toward a conclusion. They’re also hearing music, which adds to the sense of cinema. We start with music when we’re writing. Short pieces written to evoke space, or mood, which are then employed while we test and develop, gradually becoming the subject of the piece in a manner not unlike a Fugue. It’s fair to say we work backward and from the side in relation to the way I’ve described a Fugue being written - we generally don’t have such a defined idea of the musical subject being foregrounded at the outset.

What strikes me though, is that writing, or thinking about writing, a Fugue is a good model to use when approaching Transmedia work. The subject—the central, driving idea, has to be strong enough to be lost in voices, and then found again. It has to be robust and clear enough to survive a potential cacophony. Each character, each platform in a Transmedia piece is a first-person voice. They speak in their own way, dictated by the parameters and grammar of the platform they’re being transmitted through. Those voices should, in the grand scheme of things, exist for a reason. If it were a novel, then they might be there to offer an authorial glimpse into another side of the narrative, or to comment on the story. It’s a Transmedia piece though, so they are going to be used sparingly, and for effect. Over time, once the story begins to establish itself, they become a countersubject to the main theme. They provide depth in the world. They’re there to be trusted, or not. To be an echo of things we cannot see in the present. Fragments of surveillance to be studied and interrogated. Regardless, in their sparing way, they are there to make us think about the subject.

Transmedia is usually tonal.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the player/reader is a voice too. If they have agency (or the illusion of it), then they’re probably divertimenti, modulating against the subject and moving the story into different keys. They might not though, and the subject can be the reader themselves.

Transmedia works well when it has an end in sight. It’s just another form of storytelling, after all, and has an end in sight. What tends to happen though, is even if the first act is beautifully established, the middle sprawls and the end is rushed, appearing out of nowhere because our time is up. This is where halving, doubling, reflecting and inverting the subject plays off. So much Transmedia work - so much digital work in general—is in thrall to the adventure game syndrome of having to find every clue, mechanically, in order that the end make sense. Remove the mechanical and work with the subject. Show us the tone, and immerse us in music, don’t require us to understand every little thing.

Like as not we won’t.

No-one aside from the writer will, and if that’s essential for a satisfactory conclusion, then you have a problem. Far better to impart a sense of momentum, to show and envelop through characters with purpose.

Good fugues work with repeat listening. A single line of music turns into a complex texture, but exactly when the trick was pulled is often only evident the third time we hear the whole piece. We recognise the successive moments the subject appears, noticing layers of counterpoint and imitation, and sometimes the subject is hidden so cleverly, transformed and inverted so subtly that it can take years to notice.

Speaking personally, might that be a more laudable aim than solving a puzzle every fifteen minutes?

  1. I am indebted to the University of San Francisco’s Professor of Music, Alexandra Amati-Camperi, who’s ‘What is a Fugue’ was, frankly, where I made sense of this section.