Monday, October 20, 2008

What the Audience Understands

I've been thinking a lot about what the audience understands implicitly about a story. Knowing what the audience gets immediately is a big part of the writer's toolbox. And so today I want to talk about conceit.

No -- not conceit as in conceited. Conceit as in concept. Conceit is an approach, a strategy, a pose. Conceit is the way you bring unity to your work.

I went to see Max Raabe and The Palast Orchester last Saturday. Mr. Raabe and his band are some of the foremost advocates of the music of the 1920's and 30's. They dress in period coat and tails. They play original orchestrations and they take it very seriously. It's almost strange not to hear the scrapes and scratches of the old victrola recording. The concert took place in Oakland's art deco gem, The Paramount, and it was hard not to feel a bit of nostalgia for a time I never actually experienced. The immersion was total. It didn't matter if you weren't particularly a fan of music most of us remember from The Great Gatsby. You were caught up in the experience. You were rewarded for going with it.

That's what conceit is.

Conceit is following a good idea to its full unfurling. You might mistake Raabe's music as a nostalgic play at first. But it's done with incredible care and attention to detail. You might mistake the outfits as kitsch -- until you see that he's truly aiming for the kind of elegance that contemporary music has lost. He wants to regain that. He wants to bring something back. He wants to make something new again.

I took my seat with a grain of salt at first. I hadn't chosen the concert -- just to go along. But within a song or two I couldn't help but feel I was back in the Weimar Republic, that time of loose morals, political strife, and great fun before Hitler came to power. You could hear something real from then in the music. It made you think. It made you compare your own time to that period. It made me teeter back and forth between optimism and pessimism about where we might be in five years. My Little Green Cactus actually got me thinking about history and the world and what's going on in it. I don't know if Mr. Raabe had that in mind, exactly. But any strong conceit -- any idea worked out organically -- has that kind of resonance. It means more. It's dynamic. It has a dynamic that gives it life in a listener.

Raabe got a standing ovation that night. He came out for his encore and played a cover of... Britney Spears. It's worth a listen.

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