Gerald Elias makes his EQMM debut in our September/October 2015 double issue (on sale August 11), with the story “Where the Buffalo Roam.” He is not a new writer, however; he’s the award-winning author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery novels, set in the world of classical music. As a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, he knows that world well. He tells EQMM that he has performed on five continents as violinist, conductor, and composer. For the past decade he has been music director for the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts in Salt Lake City. In his post he talks about his dual identity as writer and musician, and the points at which the two professions converge and diverge.—Janet Hutchings
Picture this: A hundred white-tie-and-tailed musicians whipped into a frenzy as the music cascades toward the thunderous climax of the finale of Brahms Second Symphony. First forte, then fortissimo. Then, would you believe it, fortississimo! And then the final, brilliant brass fanfare that will bring the concert to a breathtaking close. The maestro, under whose literal and figurative shadow I sit, flails with his baton like the frantic jockey mounted on the betting favorite who’s only running in fourth place as the horses thunder around the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby. I somehow summon the energy from my physical and mental reserves to make this moment as magnificently triumphant as Herr Brahms intended.
Guess what thought worms its way into my cranium at this moment of grandeur and exultation: How am I going to murder that son-of-a-bitch on the podium? He, who takes all the credit for great performances but none of the blame for the bad ones? Or that cellist who has been asking asinine questions for twenty-seven years for no other reason than to kiss Maestro’s ass? Or that bastard critic who unctuously deemed last night’s performance “pedestrian”? Or the violin dealer who informed me this morning that he no longer thinks the violin he sold me ten years ago was made by the eighteenth-century Italian maker he had originally thought, and is only worth half as much as I paid? Or our CEO who proclaimed at today’s orchestra meeting that management must regrettably cut our salaries (but will nevertheless continue to market us as a “world class” orchestra)?
Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. A little. But when I’m asked how I made the incongruous leap from the seemingly staid world of classical music into the tumultuous world of crime fiction, one reasonable response might be: With such an abundance of fertile material, how could I not? Long ago, after a particularly feisty rehearsal with Maestro, one of my Boston Symphony colleagues remarked, “A symphony orchestra would make the perfect setting for a murder mystery. One victim, a hundred suspects with motive and opportunity.” Little did I know how prescient his observation was.
You may be thinking, this guy’s a homicidal maniac! Perhaps, but I am not alone. When I was working on Devil’s Trill, my first murder mystery in the Daniel Jacobus series, and informed my orchestra colleagues that it would take place in the dark corners of the classical-music world, the first question that popped out of their mouths was, “So, how are you going to kill the conductor?” Notice that the question was not, “Are you?” but “How are you?” That the conductor was going to be killed was a given. Though I saved maestrocide for Death and Transfiguration, the fourth book in the series, there was no shortage of material with which to pen the first three. Maybe it’s the profession itself that creates a community of psychopaths, or maybe we were just born that way.
When I started on Devil’s Trill, I had no idea it was to be the first book of a series (five and counting). As the passion for writing morphed into a profession, I had an epiphany: Believe it or not, crime exists outside of the land of Mozart! Mayhem is everywhere! Thus I contracted a case of chronic crime-fiction-on-the-brain syndrome, and began popping out stories of murder that ranged from a brine-preserved cadaver in the Great Salt Lake to incest in a charming New England village. What a wonderful world it is, bursting with possibility!
“What prompted you to become a crime writer after a lifetime as a musician?” It’s a question I’ve often been asked, usually accompanied by head scratching. I’ve often asked it myself. Part of the answer is that it all comes from the same primordial urge to create something artistic, whether it’s aural or literal. There are differences, of course. As a performing musician one’s creative horizons are limited to the black and white dots the composer has scattered over the page. Playing music is more a re-creative process rather than a creative one. Further, as an orchestral musician, one is subject to and confined by the dictates of the conductor, whether they make sense or not. After thirty-plus years as a violinist in two great orchestras, the Boston Symphony and Utah Symphony, I’d had my fill of dictates. Even during my student days, when the conductor of the Yale Philharmonia harangued us, telling us we “sounded worse than cattle,” I wondered if this really was the career path for me.
As a writer, I have the freedom to write whatever I want, the only caveat being that it needs to be good enough and interesting enough to satisfy my publisher and the public. That license makes writing more like composing than performing. In fact, when I write I’m guided by two piquant, wisdom-filled dictums straight from the mouth of the greatest composer of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” And, “Lesser artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Someday I hope to be a great artist.
Writing has advantage even over composing, in that once I dot the final i’s and hand my book to the reader (the audience), my work is done. A musical composition, on the other hand, requires a middleman—or middlemen or middlewomen—to complete the circuit: the performer. That’s a huge link, and there is a veritable graveyard of good music that has never seen the light of day simply because of the logistics getting it performed. And when it does get performed, all the composer can do is sit there with his fingers crossed.
One aspect of writing does present a greater challenge than composing. These days the vocabulary of music is so wide open—any boink, clang, or scrrrrrrrrrrrtch can be, and has been, portrayed as music—that no one can really say definitively whether a composer is doing anything incorrectly. With literature, however, every word must be in the right place and have the right meaning. So as a starting point, a story has to make sense! If I rearranged the words of that last sentence, and wrote: “Book so point as sense starting to has make a a!” you’ll understand what I mean, and I’ve performed plenty of music that has been just about that intelligible.
One of the pleasures of writing is that I can write whenever I want and how much I want. (Of course, when there’s a deadline my publisher might take exception to that statement.) If I have writer’s block or decide that I might even want to go on vacation, my brain continues to function and when I again take up pen and pad I can start where I left off. On the other hand, if I were to stop practicing the violin for a month, the return would be excruciating, both for me and for anyone within earshot, even though I’ve been working at this thing since I was in knickers. It would be a good week after opening the case and dusting off the fiddle before the old fingers moved the way they’re supposed to. And the older one gets, the weeks aren’t always so good. Playing an orchestral instrument, one is additionally subject to a grueling orchestra schedule with over two hundred rehearsals and concerts a year, which often corresponds more to the potential for selling tickets than to one’s personal biorhythms.
It is inevitable that over time every athlete’s strength, speed, and dexterity will begin to wane. It even happened to Derek Jeter. The same is no less true of musicians. At some point, we must embark a new path, and in this I’m guided by the wisdom of another Hall of Fame baseball player, Satchel Paige, who said: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Indeed, even as I continue to perform music on as high a level as I can, I’ve embraced the realization that in the long term, a life of crime is the life for me.