A Schenkerian Review of The Waco Variations, by Dr. Dave Deason

This blog entry comes courtesy of the fantastic composer Dave Deason because when someone writes a book review that is actually a musical Schenkerian analysis (and writes it so well), it has to be shared with others.

This video is a short introduction to the man who continues to write such beautifully crafted yet approachable music.  You can find more about him at his website: Dave Deason 

And now, without further introduction, The Waco Variations as reviewed by Dr. Dave Deason.

Wittgenstein once said that you get tragedy where the tree, instead of bending, breaks.  In Ms. Rizzo’s new novel, The Waco Variations, the fragile boundary between bending and breaking stands as the central premise that keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat.  Will Cassie be able to “bend” and thus keep moving forward in the slow process of healing? Or will she “break”, turning what seems to me to be always on the very brink of a tragedy into a full-fledged tragedy? One cannot be sure, even at the very end.  One can only hope that Cassie’s story survives the “bend”.

For the general reader, Ms. Rizzo’s book stands as a superb example of a novel by a wonderful writer, whose first novel reveals a work that should be read by everyone who appreciates beautiful imagery, emotional expressiveness, and dramatic intensity. It is easy to imagine how Ms. Rizzo will build on these skills in subsequent books, which I hope she does.

For the musician, however, Ms. Rizzo’s book also features many useful and subtle connections with music, especially to the music to JS Bach.  As I was reading the book, some of my experiences as a Professor of Music Theory began to reassert themselves.  One of these experiences particularly struck me: how much of this work can be viewed as one might approach a formal analysis of a musical composition, say, from a Schenkerian perspective.  In this approach, some characters with their subjectively associated key suggestions would be represented in place of the Urlinie, while more central characters might be substituted as the bass brechung. (Of course, such an application would be regarded as heretical by any Schenker enthusiast, but this application in just an attempt to transfer one theoretical concept to another discipline.)

After all, the very structure of the book, while clearly influenced by Bach’s Goldberg Variations (such as the 30 chapters/variations, the initial Aria and the final Aria Da Capo), also might be called in a central “tonality”, which, for me, is C minor.  Why C minor as opposed to, say, G major as in the Goldberg?  For one thing, the first letter of Cassie’s name starts with C, which is the tonal center in both Bach’s C major and C minor Double Concerti. A coincidence? Possibly, but the association seems, at least to me, to be provocative.)

My feeling that it begins “in” or should I say “on” C minor and ends similarly, suggesting a single overall tonality, a key element in Schenkerian theory, for example.  In fact, the whole book suggests various related “keys”, such as possibly F minor for Naomi, who seems to exude cynicism almost to the point of outright Nihilism. In Schenkerian theory, the Ursatz, or fundamental structure requires the bass brechung to be the Dominant of the central key, ultimately returning to the Tonic.  This role (Dominant) is, of course, critical to the structure of a piece, which I see here as that portrayed by Maureen.  Cassie and her relationship with Maureen, I believe, may be seen as providing the fundamental background structure, through which other characters, such Eric, Joel, Mark, Greg, and others, occupy various levels of middleground. What actual levels I would assign them to is beyond the scope of this review.  All of them, however, contribute to the overall prolongation of the central key of C minor, or Cassie.  It is important to see Naomi and Maureen as kind of, shall we say, “ritornello” characters, due to their re-appearance throughout the novel, similar to the returning orchestra tuttis periodically in the Double Concertos and other pieces.

What about the character Ms. Rizzo refers to only as “He” or “Him”? In Schenkerian theory, the Urlinie can be an 8-line, a 5 -line, or a 3-line.  Although differing opinions can be made, I feel that the 3–line is the most appropriate here, as it is the third of a triad which defines whether the final triad is either major or minor.  For me “He” is what makes the C tonality as a minor one, and “His” continued influence lead to my view that the whole novel as belonging to C minor. 

Often in musical compositions, especially in the music of Bach, the listener is presented with a Deus Ex Machina conclusion, which substitutes the major third for the original minor third.  This has the effect of giving an almost uplifting effect to the piece.  In other words, things may be not so bad after all.  Can we se this in The Waco Variations?  As I nearly reached the end, as mentioned before, I could either see either a “broken” Cassie, or a “bent” Cassie.  Ms. Rizzo seems to leave that decision up to us.  For me, I DO see it as major, as I truly want to see Cassie survive her ordeal.

In conclusion, though some may feel that subjecting this book to a Schenkerian view might be too far outside of Schenker’s original concept, the obvious musical associations, coupled with the familiarity of Ms. Rizzo’s excellent musical background and her accomplishments as a pianist, just seemed too tempting to pass up.