A songwriter examines the tools he has to survive the inevitable.
Eighty-eight keys. Twenty-six letters. That’s it. That’s all that separates me from oblivion.
Often when I sit at the piano with my laptop resting on top, getting ready to write, it hits me: every key is there, every letter already formed, every pitch ready to vibrate into the air. All of the actual components are right there in front of me — the only thing I can do is order them. All I have are eighty-eight keys and twenty-six letters to say something that matters.
This is somewhat of a misnomer in itself, since the eighty-eight keys on the piano are really just twelve pitches in repetition — in fact, some pianos (often really beautiful ones that are also insanely expensive) are made with an extra octave at the bottom, bringing the total to one hundred keys. Similarly, when I sit at my MIDI controller writing into my computer, I only have access to seventy-two. The number of keys to play are completely arbitrary; in many ways, a more accurate title of this essay would be “12/26.” C/C#/D/D#/E/F/F#/G/G#/A/A#/B — there you go, now you have them.
But in a sense even saying twelve pitches is arbitrary — that too is a system we’ve invented. Pitch is actually just a spectrum of sound — thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece, this spectrum was divided into tetrachords, or four pitches in the span of five semitones (think the first four notes of a scale). This slowly began our system of Western Music — naturally developing into modes, and into scales, and into harmony, and eventually into the modern system of chords and melody that we use to write songs today. I’m skipping over a couple thousand years of music theory (and the evolution of this system is actually fascinating), but what matters here is that at the end of the day, these twelve pitches are just something we agreed upon. To this day, Eastern Music doesn’t rely on this twelve tone system.
Similarly, the twenty-six letters on the keyboard on top of my piano are just symbols. Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwkyz — there you go, now you have them. Not all languages use these particular ones, and when agonizing over an internal rhyme or an end to the second verse, all that I’m doing is putting those characters in sequence. I’m not building a new hybrid car. I’m not making a drug to cure male pattern baldness (and I just know I’m going to need one someday). I’m putting symbols into a specific order that hopefully achieves the thing that I want it to. It may, or it may not — it’s not as easy to tell as the hybrid car that won’t turn on.
But on a normal day of writing, sitting at the piano with my laptop on top, it’s eighty-eight keys and twenty-six letters. That’s what I’ve got.
Writing isn’t physically tangible. It means investing in the abstract; all of these symbols and systems represent the utterly abstract thing that is a song or a play. You can’t hold a song. You can hold things that represent a song. But you can’t really hold the song itself. Just as significantly, music and language are all quite arbitrary. The notes and letters being relied upon to make a song are, as we’ve seen, pretty darn random in themselves. Which is fitting, because we’re all pretty random.
Not random as in the picture of the quokka above this sentence. Random as in, life itself is random. Hold on for a second because we’re about to get a little existential (okay, a lot existential). It’s going to be kind of bleak, but just stick with me for a second.
Life is basically this: We’re born. We live. We die. The end. I still vividly remember becoming aware of this universal truth one particular night when I was eight years old: My parents were arguing with me as I begged them to let me watch a third episode of Rugrats (the answer was no…why was it always no…). They tucked me in, turned out the lights, and for whatever reason, the thought popped into my head to ask my mom, “Are you going to die someday?” I still get chills typing that sentence now; it’s almost too horrifying to put into text. She replied with the best response a parent can give: “Yes, someday, but not for suuuuuuch a long time. It’s so far away that you shouldn’t even worry about it.” She shut the door and left the room, and I laid awake staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars that were on my ceiling, utterly horrified. Of course I worried about it. It wasn’t just my parents, it was me too. We would all die, we would stop existing. In fact, the truth of our place in the Universe was all too clear: You are non-existant for eternity. You exist for a little bit. You are non-existant again for eternity. Life in many ways is a weird blip of existence, sandwiched between non-existence for eternity.
Let me say that again to emphasize how real it is when it hits you — life is just some infinitesimally short period of existence between two infinities of nothingness. And that, my friends, is pretty fucking random if you ask me.
I remember friends joking around as kids about “the meaning of life”…what was it? 42? The question had no meaning as a child — what do you mean the meaning of life? Obviously there’s meaning. I had play practice to go to. And dinner to eat. And GameBoy Color was coming out next week! But as I got older, I started to get what the question meant…as we all do. We exist, there’s no real grand reason why we’re here, we’re a pale blue dot in an unfathomably expansive Universe, and we’re all temporary. We’re all going to die. I finally got the question.
A pale blue dot – our whole world
But wait! You may be thinking, this is nonsense! Of course there’s meaning — god gave us meaning when he put us here! And if we do X-Y-Z, we won’t be temporary at all, in fact. we’ll live on into glorious eternity! There’s a chance you’re right…and let me tell you, I sincerely hope that you are, for all of our sakes, but that just never did it for me. I’m with seminal psychologist Ernest Becker when he writes that “religion is the least destructive form of the universal and necessary denial of death.”
From this moment of the terrorizing realization of my own mortality, I can pretty accurately map out my life into a series of existential crises — the one after having my heart broken by my eighth grade girlfriend (damn you Kenna!), the one after graduating high school, the one after watching Synecdoche, New York, the one after listening to “The Cicada Song” by Joe Iconis, the list goes on. Yet none was more palpable than deciding to be a musical theatre writer.
Because here’s the secret that I left out — beyond the debilitating fear of my own annihilation, once I do whatever I can to try and force myself to accept that, I don’t want to lie back and let it pass me by. I want to make that life count as much as humanly possible. Ideally even more than is humanly possible. And taking the plunge to dedicate my life to being a writer is a decided risk, a huge risk — after all, if I went to medical school, got hired as a doctor, and treated patients my whole career, I would have been guaranteed to make some impact in this world. But being a writer means wagering the ability to make an enormous impact…or none at all. And I don’t think that’s unique to my experience as a writer, I think that applies to every theatre artist: actor, musician, lighting designer, and heck, just as much to every artist period. Visual artist, poet, fashion designer, the list goes on. If it works out, you could become abstractly immortal. If it doesn’t, oops, medical school doesn’t sound too bad anymore…
One of my favorite songs by my friend Joe Iconis that gives me a panic attack. Every time.
Now is when the numbers come back — eighty-eight keys, twenty-six letters. Because like I said right from the beginning, that’s all that I have to separate myself from oblivion. I’m putting my faith, fuck, more than my faith, my entire existence on the line, and trusting that I can put eighty-eight random keys and twenty-six random letters, the same keys and the same letters that Frank Loesser wrote “If I Were A Bell” and Woody Allen wrote Annie Hall (talk about existential) and Stravinsky wrote “The Firebird”…eighty-eight keys and twenty-six letters into order, in the hope that I can make a lasting impact and say something important.
Here’s another number — seventy-five. That’s the average lifespan for a male born in 1993. Twenty-two of them are gone, subtract ten for senility, and I have forty-three years to try and do it. That’s a little less than double the time I’ve been on Earth (and let me tell you, it’s still a hell of an awesome place). See, that’s the magical thing about remembering your own mortality: it strips everything away and lets you see what matters the most — if I have forty-three years to do something, I don’t want to waste a second living someone else’s life. I am quite literally writing as my life actually depends on it, because it does, and that means you better believe I’m musical theatre writer, damnit. And you’re a dancer, and you’re a city planner!
There are two final numbers that factor into this, and you astute musical theatre aficionados have probably already guessed them from the title of this essay: 30/90. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Johnathan Larson, partially because I personally relate to a lot of aspects of his story (Jewish kid from NY, wants to blend mainstream music and musical theatre to cross boundaries, etc.), but also because he did it. The fear he expresses in that song is so real, and all too familiar..but you just want to yell at him through the abyss, “YOU DID IT, MAN!! CAN YOU HEAR ME?!?! YOU DID IT!!” But of course, life doesn’t work that way, and you can’t.
Jonathan Larson performing his song “30/90”
I am sure that Larson didn’t want his story to be so representative of limited time. But one cannot deny the very real, shot in blues and greens truth, and that is that he passed so suddenly, and without any warning, and his seventy-five became, so tragically, thirty-five. And that terrifying randomness could affect, does affect, all of us. I’m not going to lie, I do live in fear of that, the crippling thought of having an explosive future ahead of you, and suddenly dropping dead. It’s entropy at its most vicious.
Though when I think about Johnathan Larson’s life, after the tragedy, I smile. Because he used his time the exact way he wanted. He wasted none of it. He decided to give everything to his work for the chance of lasting beyond the inevitable — beyond the hardship, beyond the setbacks, even when “friends are getting fatter/hairs on your head are getting thinner/feel like a clean up batter/on a team that ain’t a winner.” I would so love to have been able to meet him, but even though I can’t, his work and his story inspire me in a way that almost nothing else can. And that is long after he is gone.
Eighty-eight keys. Twenty-six letters. One life.
Time to get to work.
Zack Zadek is a musical theatre writer, songwriter, playwright, and other things writer. His musicals 6, The Crazy Ones, and The Role of a Lifetime are currently being developed, and his sold-out concerts have been seen all around the world. As a mainstream songwriter, he is currently writing for major label artists. He is currently writing a new musical Deathless, which examines family in the wake of loss. Zack did not go to medical school, and instead writes things. Follow him on Twitter @zackzadek and online at zackzadek.com.