Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 2 (Part 2)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Kerr reminisces about his childhood friendship with Robertson Sullivan.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 2 (continued...)

Another commotion in the entryway turned heads again, briefly interrupting conversations from one end of the room to the other. Even with my back to the door, I sensed somebody of importance. Everyone else turned around as if on cue to see for themselves: who could be making such an entrance? I didn’t see anyone, not at first, and still couldn’t see who it might be after craning my neck, with all the men suddenly crowding around trying to get a glimpse.

“Are we expecting a visit from a movie star? I hadn’t heard anything about someone shooting a film nearby.” I was imagining perhaps Angelina Jolie as Clara Schumann in Girl-Composer Interrupted.”

“No, but you’re close,” Felice chuckled, nodding over at Robertson’s smiling face, from where he had a clearer view.

The anticipation reminded me of the President’s arrival in the crowded Senate chamber for his State of the Union address: even knowing who it was, you still waited to catch a glimpse. But I doubted Barak Obama would be here to talk about creating jobs with a bunch of creative artists.

Meanwhile, Porgia Moore motioned toward the head table where friends were beckoning. “I’ll see you guys after the dinner,” she said, taking her leave, and off she sailed into the crowd.

At the entrance, the center of attention appeared to be a short woman with dark, close-cropped hair before heads immediately turned, looking further back to see who the fuss was about. This, I instantly recognized, was my dear old friend, Sherry Vari, a composer who’d made it big only recently. She caught my eye as soon as she looked around the room, laughing and pretending to be so completely overwhelmed by all the fuss, amused it was not, unfortunately, for her.

“I haven’t had a welcome like that since my last premiere with the New York Philharmonic,” she said breathlessly. She reached our table otherwise unnoticed, sharing hugs with each of us. (I explained to Cameron her only performance with the Philharmonic had infamously ended in a cascading round of cat-calls.)

Sherry had no idea who was following her – or, she laughed, correcting herself, who in the world she was preceding – and, once introduced to Cameron, turned her attention back to the doorway. I almost expected she would clamber up on one of the chairs so she could get a better view.

“Very striking, not someone you’d expect to create such an entrance but one who was quite resigned to it,” she confided to Cameron who looked around, appearing very puzzled by everything.

I saw her hair first, beautifully coiffed and swept up in a way it looked both stylish and casual, blonde but naturally blonde, obvious even from this distance; indeed, “very striking.”

Talking to someone on her right, her face was almost completely obscured. When she turned, I knew her immediately.

One of the last times I'd seen her was at Rob’s wedding, unable to control our fits of giggles trying to remain serious in light of our mutual reservations about the match, I was convinced it was only a matter of time before we’d be unceremoniously escorted out of the church.

My friends at the table were still unaware of who she was or what the fuss was all about.

“That,” I explained, “is Rob’s cousin, the beautiful and charismatic LauraLynn Harty.”

This revelation might not have meant anything to my companions but it opened up a world of significance for me, bringing back memories of my childhood vacationing in Maine among Rob’s family. During that second summer, my “long holiday” overlapped briefly with the Harty cousins’ visit, relatives of Rob’s mother, Mabel. Rob joked they were considered “distant relations” mostly because they lived so far away, rarely coming East from Chicago, but also because once they did arrive they couldn’t be distant enough.

While Cousin Oliver might have been a trial to deal with, his daughter LauraLynn was charming and universally welcomed, fine with Rob if they’d drop her off and keep on going. That summer they planned on only two weeks with LauraLynn staying behind while they traveled to Boston and Montreal.

Younger than Rob and I, around fifteen years old then, she was self-assured and musically talented but far from arrogant; fair-haired and surprisingly modest, considering her dark-haired, braggart parents and obnoxious brother. While Dilbert, who was only six, was left to annoy the younger children, Rob, LauraLynn and I became inseparable. We’d roam about the island, happily seeking out quiet places to watch the ocean and talk about important things, and I think I fell a little bit in love with her.

We often took turns playing piano duets usually for our own enjoyment, since the adults found it so boring. We were often digging around to try and find things to play. Rob found a dusty old box of sheet music that belonged to their great-grandfather, a composer named Harrison Harty. There was a collection of four-hand pieces by Robert Schumann (“for little and big children”) which proved mildly diverting but inside it we found a set of variations by Clara Schumann.

Knowing nothing about her, we found a book of composers’ biographies in the library with a few small paragraphs, mentioned as the wife of Robert Schumann and a friend of Brahms. It annoyed LauraLynn that Clara, over-looked, existed not on her own but only as an accessory to two men.

In one of our conversations under a favorite pine tree, this scraggly crown atop some pile of boulders that overlooked the bay, Rob inevitably brought up his infatuation with his muse, Beatrice, how she inspired him every day whenever he practiced or composed or would just sit there listening to music. He could understand how it worked for Schumann and for Brahms, too, each one being in love with Clara, each one regarding her as his muse, inspiring his music for eternity.

I only rolled my eyes but I remember how LauraLynn, complaining about Rob’s endless ruminations on his would-be girlfriend, thought it was very unfair to be taking such advantage of her, using Beatrice like Schumann and Brahms had used Clara like vampires: and what did she get out of it?

It wasn’t as if we hadn’t tried to warn Rob, how he wasn’t seeing her for herself, superimposing his imagination – what he saw as her inspiration – on Beatrice, ignoring her own identity. Musically illiterate – the most polite way of putting it – how could she ever be the guide Clara had been?

Granted, we agreed, she was a very pretty girl, but Rob forgot Dante found himself inspired by his Beatrice who, in reality, he’d only ever met twice in his entire lifetime.

LauraLynn’s advice – and this, coming from a fifteen-year-old – was to marry someone he loved for herself but keep Beatrice the Muse alive, if he had to, only distantly in his imagination, since Muses were often, historically, unavailable women, someone already married, perhaps to a best friend, unattainable yet utterly private. But Rob argued, getting quite heated about it, Beatrice Porter was not unavailable, was not married and perfectly attainable. And if Robert Schumann married his muse, why couldn’t he marry Beatrice?

At that moment, Rob recognized another coincidence that fatalistically sealed his decision, that he and Schumann shared their initials. Had Beatrice Porter been Clara Porter, he would only be more convinced.

For such a brilliant, mathematical mind, this seemed such a foolish superstition. LauraLynn and I quickly dropped any opposition.

The relationship between an artist and his muse, when you consider human nature in general and a creative one specifically, was a very complex one, easily damaged, requiring a jeweler’s delicate touch, but we were too young then, too thoroughly idealistic to do anything more than make a hash of it. Only the slightest strain here could cause the tiniest of fractures there, soon reverberating across the entire fragile structure until the balance was off and the inspiration, most likely, with it.

But looking back on it – at the wedding that took place (finally) five years later and since – weren’t both LauraLynn and I a little jealous of Beatrice’s getting in the way? In our own uniquely, clumsily triangulated manner, hadn’t we almost managed creating our own Robert, Clara and Johannes Circle?

Perhaps the fault was Rob’s for single-mindedly setting out to attain a goal, the successful businessman, the spoiled rich kid. He probably simply overwhelmed her, all this unintelligible talk of inspiration aside. And yet it might have worked as a marriage if their daily realities hadn’t interfered with his ideal perceptions.

If LauraLynn became Clara to Rob's Schumann, wouldn’t they have made the better pair as artist-and-muse if not husband-and-wife? And given the unattainable LauraLynn, didn’t she become muse to my Petrarch?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Rob, looking back at me with a quick conspiratorial wink, interrupted his conversation to cut his way through the crowd and retrieve his cousin from the throng that continued blocking her entrance. She wasn’t flustered by the attention nor was she annoyed by it, taking it in with only slight embarrassment.

Sherry and Felice looked her over approvingly, comparing notes in more detail than any man could be bothered with, noting her long turquoise cardigan by Eileen Fisher and fawn-colored Prada slacks.

“Oh, it’s been too many years,” she said, once I’d navigated a path between tables to meet them half-way.

Hugs were traded and we politely kissed each other on the cheek. The three of us holding hands again, our little circle from childhood was magically reunited after almost forty-five years.

Since she’d moved to Europe, there have been few opportunities to visit, time and distance compounding already incongruously tight schedules.

“We’ve seen each other only three times since the wedding,” I said.

She looked momentarily confused, glancing at Rob.

“Oh, that wedding,” she laughed. “I thought you’d meant the one where...”

I apologized, forgetting that their Aunt Katie died last year, gunned down at the reception after her granddaughter’s wedding. A bizarre break-in gone bad, LauraLynn had seen everything as it unfolded.

“Could Laura sit at your table?” Rob hurriedly interrupted us, looking around. “Do you have room for one more? That way, you two can catch up a while, during the dinner.”

Felice was the first to extend the invitation, filling out a table set for six but lacking one person.

“That’s great,” she said, finding the symmetry of everything complete and satisfactory. “Sol and I are one couple, then you two singles and,” eyeing up Cameron and me, “you two guys.” She had everything arranged with Sherry next to Sol, LauraLynn next to her, and “us two guys” directly opposite, resisting the temptation to break up Cameron and me for “boy-girl” balance.

“Let me introduce Laura to a few friends over here,” Rob said, guiding her away while pulling me along.

Once he’d settled her with a publisher-friend he wanted her to meet, Rob turned to me and said we had to make sure there was time for a long talk after dinner: he’d be leaving for Germany first thing in the morning, catching a flight out of New York for Munich.

“It’s been so crazy, finishing the opera, then totally rewriting the ending.”

“But you did finish it, you said…?”

“Finished proof-reading the orchestration this afternoon,” Rob said, more relieved than proud.

The opera was scheduled to premiere in just over a month, set to end the summer festival at Schweinwald. Vocal rehearsals had already started when he decided to change the ending. It involved totally rewriting the final scene, but Zeitgeist, Schweinwald’s director, had told him to go ahead with it.

He hadn’t thought, on top of everything else, he would be dealing with Zeitgeist’s death in that skiing accident, either, flying back for his funeral, then being elected his successor, equally unexpected. Franz-Dieter had been a close friend and mentor to him for many years: his loss was proving very difficult.

“The last thing I needed was getting involved in running the festival: most of it’s in place, moving smoothly, but there’s a lot that has to be finalized for the fall…”

Rob paused while he smiled and waved to someone behind me before he continued, lowering his voice to a near-whisper, then leaning in closer to my ear so he couldn’t be overheard.

“And much of the problem, right now,” he continued, “is settling everything for next summer’s festival, which isn’t easy.”

He explained some of the political in-fighting on the board, strong opposition to what had been Franz-Dieter's big changes – the school, the composers’ colony – things that the earlier board had embraced.

“The problem is, last fall, several board members had to be replaced and now a lot of the new ones find such moves controversial and they’ve been digging in their heels.”

“Controversial? What could be so controversial about things like that?” I wondered.

“What with the economic problems and all…”

“Who’s running the show while you’re over here?”

“Franz-Dieter’s assistant was this guy, V.C. D’Arcy, a composer turned arts administrator. I’ve kept him on as my assistant and named him Acting Director. He’s a good guy, knows how to get things done, and fortunately he’s somebody I feel I can trust.”

I remembered that night Rob called me out of the blue when we patched things up after his divorce, how one of the things he needed was someone he could trust.

“The new board president, just elected after Franz-Dieter’s death, is this bean counter, Scarpia – Barry Scarpia. Ring a bell?”

I told him it didn’t but then I wondered why should it?

“It’s not like there’s any reason you’d be aware of European businessmen but then Laura remembers something vaguely shady.”

“You mean like government corruption?” I couldn’t imagine anyone getting rich quick on kickbacks from those lucrative opera commissions.

“She can’t put her finger on anything but I thought if you’d…”

I put up my hand to protest I was never very good with political in-fighting which had basically ruined my first job and gotten me in trouble in my last two.

“Terry, I just need to talk to someone else so I don’t think I’m being – you know – paranoid.”

“Paranoid…?”

“I mean, the whole process was so hurried, after Zeitgeist died, appointing me the new director – not even as interim director while they carried out a proper search for an official one.”

Rob Sullivan was never one to fall for conspiracy theories before, so I wondered what was bothering him, now.

“But it makes sense, no? You were a close associate of Franz-Dieter's, so you could carry on his legacy. Plus you have an administrative, financial background and you’re a recognized composer.”

“If they wanted to carry on Zeitgeist’s legacy,” Rob pointed out, “they could’ve elevated D’Arcy to the corner office – he’s not just assistant material only: quite capable in his own right.”

“But you do have more name recognition – and, well… you are wealthy. D’Arcy’s only a mid-level, middle class bureaucrat?”

Perhaps he took that as a slap at money having privileges when I only meant Rob would have more in common with the major donors any organization needed to attract these days, because he ignored my comment and without hesitating, quickly changed the subject, barreling right along, given our limited time.

I saw his mind coursing through hastily condensed bullet points, leaving no time for any thorough discussion or disagreement, uncomfortable enough with mentioning them in the middle of a crowded room.

“When I told Franz-Dieter I wanted to rewrite the opera’s final scene – it was almost finished, then – he turned pale because, he said, understandably, it was too late to postpone it. But I had to do it and I knew I could get it done in time – so did he.”

“But why change it so late in the game?” I asked. “Wasn’t the premiere scheduled as late as possible?”

“It didn’t work for me: the new ending…? That’s a real zinger.”

“So that’s what got you thinking, if they made you the director, there wouldn’t be time to finish it?”

I saw he was reluctant to admit it, but he nodded imperceptibly.

“You think someone’s really trying to cancel your opera?” It sounded far-fetched.

Rob frowned and just shrugged his shoulders.

“In fact, Barry – Mr. Scarpia – had pointed out the weakness to me when I was talking through it for the board committee, so in a sense he’d be responsible for the delay.” Meanwhile, Rob started patting down his pockets. “Perhaps they let me go ahead with it just to save face…”

So Franz-Dieter told the singers to continue working on everything they had but not to worry about the ending because, in the great tradition, it would all be ready in time.

“I think Franz-Dieter and Grellmund – the director – were the only ones who knew what I was going to change. The less I told, the better, wanting to keep it a surprise.” He found what he was looking for and held up a single jewel case with a CD-Rom in it.

“Is that the score,” I asked. Amazing, how a full score of an opera, which might take a ream of 17x22” paper, could fit onto a small piece of plastic like that.

He nodded and smiled a little sheepishly. “That’s why I was late coming down, burning it onto the CD-Rom.”

Slipping it back into his inside coat pocket, he said he needed to e-mail it to D’Arcy this evening even though he’ll be flying in with it tomorrow, shrugging his shoulders.

“I know, talk about paranoia, right?” Rob chuckled but looked around cautiously, leading me over to a far corner by the wall, first taking another glass of wine from a passing waiter. “But D’Arcy wanted me to do that: you never know – plane crash, terrorist attack… Well, you get the drift.”

Still nursing my now room-temperature ginger-ale, I lifted my glass in salute. “And congratulations, by the way,” I added. “Last-minute or not, at least now it’s done and on its way.”

“They’ll have their work cut out for them, especially the chorus,” he said, taking a long swig of wine. “I added a lot more for the chorus in the final scene…”

“A big redemption scene?” I smiled. All I knew about it was it’s a re-telling of the Faust Story.

“You’ll find out,” he chuckled. “At least they’re not on stage so they don’t have to worry about memorizing it, much less singing and acting at the same time, dealing with blocking...”

I knew he was tired: he’d been working on the opera for two years, now – he needed a break.

We spent a silent moment looking around, not commenting about the guests though a few times I saw Rob raise his glass to someone – once to his cousin – across the room.

“Franz-Dieter wanted me to go along on that skiing holiday,” Rob started, as if coming back from a dream, “lots of things he said he wanted to talk over with me. There were fine points to be hammered out, general concepts that needed turning into concrete ideas, things like that.”

A working holiday was fine but unfortunately, Rob’s primary job at the moment was completing his opera on time. Most of it, he said, was already in his head, but still…

“Oh sure, he told me, ‘You can still work all morning, then ski all afternoon and party all evening!’ But he knew I needed to be composing morning, noon and night.”

I still couldn’t imagine writing that much music in just six weeks.

“What’s the opera’s title, again?”

“Faustus, Inc.”

The headwaiter, the one who’d been so rudely dismissive of me when I first arrived, discreetly sidled up to Rob, whispering something in his ear about being ready to start serving soon.

“There’s not much time left for us to talk, right now,” Rob said turning to me. “Where to start…?”

The night before Rob left to come home, he and Franz-Dieter had dinner at their favorite little restaurant, a quiet up-scale place called 'Die Wolfsschlucht' or 'The Wolf's Glen' in nearby Ottobeuren.

“In fact, now that I think of it, I’ll take you there when you come over for the premiere.”

I started explaining that was hardly in my budget, as much as I’d love to be there but Rob said it was all taken care of, not to worry about it.

“Besides, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about a lot of things since I came back from that funeral, about the importance of friends, especially as far back as we go… Franz-Dieter had been my friend, too, and I realize I took it for granted he would always be there. But there was one thing Zeitgeist mentioned (and only reluctantly) that night: even though he tried to dismiss it, it was disturbing to hear then and it’s haunted me ever since.”

“Haunted you?” My happiness at being invited to his opera’s premiere in Germany was immediately tempered by this new-found seriousness. “What’s haunting you?” All this talk of paranoia: something was bothering him.

More people moved into the dining room; soon we wouldn’t be able to finish this conversation until after dinner.

He’d been working hard, pushing himself to complete a challenging opera – Faust, no less – and then with the death of his friend, Rob could easily use more than just a break.

“Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist would’ve been out there on those slopes holding his own with men younger than me,” he began. “Maybe he was 78 years old but he was in excellent health.”

Then he sighed, telling me he didn’t believe it was an accident.

“You think Zeitgeist was murdered? How? Why?”

“I don’t have anything definite, no clues to prove it, but that night at dinner, he talked of receiving threats, threats that he was very concerned about but didn’t tell anyone else.”

“Why wouldn’t he go to the police? Did he tell you what kind of threats they were? Death threats?”

Rob didn’t answer or maybe even hear my questions. “I just thought he’d been working too hard, you know? The holiday would be good for him – he could use the break.”

“But Rob, how can you be sure it wasn’t an accident – he could’ve had a heart attack or a stroke…” I forgot if he’d told me the cause of death or not.

“No, you see, he was too good a skier for what happened, running off into the trees like that.”

There’d been no witnesses and his body was only found later by a search party when he didn’t return. They said there'd been no other tracks, the autopsy revealing nothing suspicious.

“But I’m convinced it was murder disguised to look like an accident. And now, I’ve gotten some threats, too.” Just then, the signal was given for everyone – finally – to be seated.

Arthur Lemm, tapping Rob on the shoulder, offered him his heart-felt congratulations.

“Well,” Rob told me, “we’ll talk later.”

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 2 (Part 1)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, as the dinner at the Benninghurst Artist's Colony was late getting started, we meet various composers like Arthur Lemm and Porgia Moore. Finally, Robertson Sullivan arrives but he doesn't have a chance to talk to Kerr yet.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 2

They told us it would be like any other routine elevator ride, just longer, all the way to the top of the Washington Monument, but once there, the view would be spectacular. My fifth-grade class had taken a bus trip to the nation’s capital, just like Rob Sullivan’s class that day. There were lots of us from both classes crammed into that elevator, plus a teacher named Miss Eliza Messerschmidt, a tall hatchet-faced old woman (they say she was probably over 40.) I only knew her by reputation, what my friends had said about her at recess or after school: they called her Sarge and (my luck) she was standing directly behind me. “It's so cramped in here,” I thought. “Why is this bony woman digging her claw-like hands into my shoulders?”

Once they got everybody squeezed in, the door cranked shut and eventually we took off, lurching upwards bit by bit. If we’d all held our breath, they could’ve fit in some more. It didn't feel like there would be any problem as we chugged slowly up through the cold stone needle. But since it was unnatural for kids to be confined and kept virtually immobile for even a few minutes, it didn’t take long till someone became uneasy and several started whimpering.

Then there was a snap, a jolt and the lights flickered out. We had definitely stopped climbing and soon I could feel Miss Messerschmidt's fingernails gradually digging deeper into my skin.

We were stuck and then, after only a few seconds, a low moan started deep inside someone behind me. We wondered what had happened, if were we stuck and how long it would be before we'd be rescued. Someone chanted under her breath “Please, God, I don't want to die.”

Miss Messerschmidt told us to remain still – still?! – but her voice was already quivering. The girls continued whimpering but the guys, for the most part, were taking it all in fun.

One said, “Let’s all jump up and down. That way, we'll get the elevator car unstuck and moving again.”

"Or crashing down 300 feet at an increasingly high rate of speed, you dork!" Rob shouted back at him. "Count on the class idiot to figure out exactly what we shouldn’t do."

The rest of us just stood there rolling our eyes, but then that was about all we could move. I imagined the elevator gaining speed rushing headlong – or feet-first – to ground level, smashing itself flat as a pancake. Judging from Robertson Sullivan's face, he must have already calculated that speed.

Then there was another lurch and suddenly we started to drop, faster this time. Kids had started screaming again. I was quickly losing circulation in my arms from Miss Messerschmidt's grip. She was shouting louder than the rest, “God, we're all gonna die!”

Then suddenly, we jerked to another halt.

Wedged together too tightly to fall down whenever we finally would hit the ground, everyone remained momentarily silent and motionless, listening to cloying melodies wafting over us from the still-functioning sound system. Softly undulating saxophones crooned bad arrangements of tunes anyone who watched the Ed Sullivan Show on television would know.

We each felt the same incredible fear rising from deep inside us, all in a matter of only seconds. Before we knew it, it had happened.

We all started to vomit.

And with that, the elevator, like magic, began to rise once more, slowly at first, then only gradually gaining speed. The lights continued flickering in and out, erratically without any noticeable pattern. Our eyes wide, we absorbed the sounds, the sights and, above all, the smells, standing there ankle-deep in barf. Our shoes and our clothes were thoroughly soaked in the remains of our late-lamented lunch – spaghetti and meatballs hastily devoured at the House of Representative's cafeteria – and also in our hair.

Feeling something dripping down the back of my neck, I hoped to God Miss Messerschmidt was playing that game where someone behind you pretended to crack an egg over your head then, fingers lightly touching your hair, slid them down over your head – but somehow, that didn’t sound like her…

Considering how often the average 5th grader needed to visit the restroom, Miss Messerschmidt probably realized early in her unfolding ordeal the implications of being trapped in an elevator full of them. Regardless of fear’s scientific impact on the control of a child’s bladder, we paused briefly to contemplate dying’s alternative. Undoubtedly a horrible death would appear preferable to riding the bus home as we found ourselves at the moment, and so we reconsidered jumping furiously up and down while yelling “Geronimo!”

The whole way up, the motors grinding and jolting, the muzac continued to play “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Then we’d hear the door scraping, trying to open, never quite succeeding, and the playlist switched to “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” among other tunes before it reached “Unchained Melody.” It wasn't the song itself so much as the sappy arrangement that got the second wave yearning and churning. Before long I could feel the whole process of eruption begin again.

Like musicians responding to a conductor’s cue, everyone else began joining in, until it seemed it would never stop.

It was a half-hour before they could get the door to open.

Someone tried to explain it, how this ever-increasing flow of lava-like puke, seeping under the door, kept shorting circuits.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

How it played out in our minds, that first time we met, may be only slightly different from reality remembered, an elevator ride at the Washington Monument on our fifth grade field-trip where nothing worse than an occasionally flickering light or a momentary jolt threatened to mar an otherwise uneventful climb. But that was what we imagined, sensing how the other saw it, barely stifling fits of giggles until Miss Messerschmidt – or perhaps, the long-suffering Miss Jameson – thought best to separate us.

Rob – who never let on he was “Robertson” unless he absolutely had to – lived outside Yardley, northeast of Philadelphia. Everyone called me Terry, embarrassed at being saddled with “Terrance Richard Kerr.” (Later, in 7th grade, someone thought calling me “Terrier” was pretty funny: that's when I started going by Richard.)

Our fifth-grade teachers had been college roommates who remained long-time best friends, planning annual field-trips as a joint venture, giving us an opportunity to meet some kids from outside our school district. The Doylestown kids, the first on the bus, got the window seats; the Yardley kids sat on the aisle.

I don’t know how it worked out for any of the other students who were paired up so arbitrarily, but Rob and I immediately become good friends, remaining close ever since.

Our birthdays were a day apart, giving him a few hours’ seniority, which, he argued, made him the wiser, more experienced if not better of the two, expert in all things. Living only twenty miles apart, we decided we should stay in contact with frequent phone calls and occasional visits. Since most of our activities involved taking the train into Philadelphia for day-time concerts or going to the library, we could travel separately, meet there and not need to arrange sleep-overs. We’d manage this once every month or so, then I’d stay at his place a few times a year but for two summers I went with his family up to Maine. Rob had always seemed older than me, more mature, but I overheard Mother tell Dad once, “Money buys confidence.”

My parents felt uneasy around him because his family was so wealthy, but to me, he was just Rob Sullivan, never treating us condescendingly or “showing off” when coming over for dinner. He was always polite and friendly toward them as I never tried to be obsequious and condescending to his. It wasn’t like they pretended to be someone they weren’t because he was rich and were seeking his approval, but there were times when Dad said things that made me cringe.

His parents, for their part, tolerated me as one of Robbie’s musician friends (read, “poor”) and therefore probably safe but I could hardly wait till dinner at the Sullivans was over – too many forks, I would joke – when we would hide in the library and listen to his dad’s recordings.

That second summer in Maine was for me something of an eye-opener. While the earlier summer I had been one of many visitors allowed on the island for my allotted holiday week, three years later I had been invited for a whole month, apparently having passed some test of his parents. They came, I think, to resent the casualness I exhibited with everyone, as if I didn’t know my place: if Rob and I remained warm, with his parents things chilled considerably.

The differences between us didn’t develop until later, during our senior year, his parents’ indifference toward me no doubt helping. He now had other friends, new satellites demanding more of his attention. We’d known each other as close friends for six years, growing up together (perhaps only me in his orbit). This direction – purposeful and career-bound – was a time for serious refocus, making new choices and determinations about his life. Wasn’t it enough to choose between his music and the family business? It’s not that he had to choose among friends: it happened naturally, like a process of attrition, thinking scientifically. Growing apart, at the time, became logical, as inevitable as growing together. And it wasn’t a sudden break, either, at least not at first, spending less, then even less time together.

A few months before that summer in Maine, Rob met a girl – “the” girl, as he described her – named Beatrice who was very attractive, and together they’d looked like a nice couple. Since he’d been studying Dante and Petrarch in literature class that spring, she became “his” Beatrice, his own muse. While I didn’t find her particularly inspiring beyond being a pretty girl, there was nothing musical about Beatrice Porter that explained why someone talented like Rob saw her as a muse.

I could understand his falling in love, that much was a given, but as I also pointed out that summer a muse by definition was someone who inspired you from afar. He could fall in love with her, I argued, but don’t be so fatalistic about her role as Muse. When school resumed that fall, Rob and Beatrice dated a few times until she eventually decided to “go steady” with another boy, a star on the basketball team named Donald Taylor.

“Oooh,” I remembered joking with him, trying to lighten his loss, “Dante Lore! Well, so much for being fatalistic.” He gave me more of a dismissive snort than a relieved laugh. It may not have been rocket science but I felt sure he blamed me, somehow, for their breaking up.

Other things interfered by the time we graduated. He was going to Harvard to study finance and I was not. My grades were good; his were brilliant, the issue of money aside. I didn’t need ‘brilliant’ to get into a decent college music department, more realistic and affordable than a conservatory. I wanted something that would give me a more solid, well-rounded education if specializing in composition didn’t work out. Rob saw that as my admission to not working hard enough before.

And perhaps I hadn’t, but then he was the one who was “giving up” music despite his hard work. I could still make up lost ground if I worked hard, now. Eventually, Rob took on a music minor, then earned his Harvard degree, realizing music was his preference, not finance.

With this new-found determination, he attended a reunion where he saw Beatrice who’d gone through several boyfriends since Don Taylor. Fate or coincidence, they were soon dating, then engaged and finally married. Perhaps because I was right, Mrs. Beatrice Sullivan understandably never liked me. Rob and I rarely kept in touch.

Much damage had been done in those long years before the divorce, happening only months before his father died. After hearing my wife had just died, too, he got in touch.

The most difficult part of our reconnecting was his making the call, he said, not just thinking about it, procrastinating, opting instead for an immediate response than waiting impatiently for a reply: letters were more difficult to compose and, besides, they tended to get lost in the mail or thrown away. It had been a grey and aimless morning when he called me, while I was still moping around helplessly in that guilt-ridden fog Sondra’s death months earlier had left me in. I couldn’t say I was saddened or relieved over his divorce except to understand the disruption to his life but genuinely sorry he was also suddenly dealing with his father’s loss. Taking care of some unpleasant business at the old house in Yardley, he wondered if I’d mind coming over.

I’d not been following his career that closely, beyond teaching at Juilliard with several prestigious premieres recently, mostly in Europe. I’d bought a couple of his recordings when they first came out. He’d become that famous composer, someone I’d once known as a kid. How did one fill in the gaps? We renewed our friendship gradually, visiting occasionally, talking mostly about “what makes music tick” like we’d done years ago. It surprised me when he said he needs someone he can trust.

Earlier that May, he’d arrived at Benninghurst and immediately got down to the urgent work of finishing the opera, too busy for a visit and then dealing with Franz-Dieter’s unexpected death.

“Hi, it’s Rob – Sullivan… I’m checking in from London. Yeah, I know… on my way back from Dieter's funeral...”

I picked up quickly before he could hang up. “Hi, how’re you? Maybe we could meet at the airport?”

“That’s a good idea but they rerouted me through London into Boston.”

He’d be back at Benninghurst soon and suggested coming down to my place over the weekend, maybe for dinner.

“Sure,” I said, “Good to see you. My schedule’s open, so any…”

“I’m sorry, have to go now, something…” He paused. “I’ll talk to you later.” And then he hung up.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

- posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 1 (Part 2)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Dr. Kerr, accompanied by his assistant Cameron Pierce, has arrived at the Benninghurst Colony for the dinner honoring his friend Robertson Sullivan and runs into some other old friends.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 1 (continued...)

It was twenty years since I’d last been a fellow at Benninghurst, the third time I was in residence here. Arthur Lemm had been there my first time, a much-touted, newly-minted celebrity. He held court with a recent string of successful premieres already behind him and impressively only in his mid-20s. You only had to listen to him to realize he would have a most successful career ahead of him, having already mastered the art of self-promotion and understanding its political subtleties. At the time, he was a dyed-in-the-wool serialist like most composers who were teaching in America during the mid-1970s, and had been quite impressed when he discovered I knew Sebastian Crevecoeur. I remember him being very patronizing, looking over my scores one evening and nodding at “immaturities” in my style.

Lemm considered Sebastian a bit old-fashioned – not as old-fashioned as Barber or Copland, still writing in a traditional, tonal style, but, rooted in atonality, never having “evolved” to the next highest level. By the time Sebastian started working more seriously with strict “twelve-tone” techniques, Lemm was already exploring the next fad. Incorporating quotations from Mendelssohn or even Tallis into his music, already the rage in the early-70s, he began producing piano pieces sounding like Schumann was still alive and writing in 1978.

Historically, there may have been the precedent from the 1920’s Grave-Digger’s School of Music when Respighi and Poulenc, among others, found fresh fodder in a wealth of newly re-discovered Baroque music, Stravinsky enjoying his Back-to-Bach movement, even a brief flirtation with a Back-to-Tchaikovsky moment in his ballet, The Fairy’s Kiss. For Lemm, fifty years later, this was like the new Promised Land, and he treated everyone else, especially his old “dyed-in-the-wool serialist” colleagues, as sinners who’d not yet seen the light.

Unlike Stravinsky who always managed to sound like Stravinsky, Lemm sounded like an imitation, insincere – above all, a forger. His students soon tired of getting The New Memo, leaving in droves. His colleagues and most of the traditional avenues they traveled in the New Music World began to shun him.

Fortunately for Lemm, his newly found adaptability replaced the financial need for having students or teaching in a prestigious university, endlessly scouring the countryside for commissions and begging for performances and recordings. Writing faux-Vivaldi for commercials and mass-producing orchestrations for rock stars’ symphonic extravaganzas, he soon crossed over into money-making triumph. He ranted publicly how his detractors were either ignorant snobs because they remained stubbornly oblivious to the people’s pulse or suicidal elitists who insisted on appealing to a narrow intellectual niche.

It didn’t take long before Arthur Lemm attracted the attention of N. Ron Steele’s new music licensing organization, SHMRG, as a way of turning the Classical Division into a self-supporting entity, quickly becoming the company’s official pied piper, enticing new artists and audiences, above all new revenues, into their coffers.

His Piano Concerto, “Pandera’s Box,” based on hits from the ‘80s, worked well for orchestras fearing for their bottom lines, a rousing, otherwise harmless romp momentarily attracting younger listeners into their halls. The ballet, Let It Be, despite costing a fortune procuring the rights for the Beatles’ tunes, was box-office gold.

Lemm exhorted us to reverse the “Greenhouse Effect” universities and conservatories were using to suffocate the modern music world, and break through the “Glass Partition” that threatened to make art irrelevant.

He hardly needed Benninghurst any more to get away from it all now that he owned a penthouse in Manhattan, a villa in southern France and a mountain ranch near Aspen, Colorado, striking his critics as ironic, holing up away from his adoring reality, composing in an old railroad tycoon’s mansion. He accused them of using a double standard in a world where people expected success to lead to excess, since starving in a garret and composing by candle-light were so old-school. For Lemm these days, staying at Benninghurst was more like slumming, his bedroom smaller than his bathroom in Provence, but that, he made it clear, was in no way the point (one could say the same of Robertson Sullivan, for that matter, his fortune inherited from the lords of industry).

Lemm was one of those composers oblivious to distraction who could compose surrounded by chaos on the New York subway, once writing directly into a full score while riding the A Train shown in that scene (no doubt staged) from SHMRG's odiously self-reverential documentary Marketing called “The Wonder of Arthur Lemm.” The peace and monastic quiet of Benninghurst – or his villa in Provence – were immaterial except to delicate creative psyches: typically, Lemm preferred composing in the parlor or even in the kitchen.

It did, however, give him a chance to continue perforating the “Glass Partition” he so hated, even a little, tweaking their collective noses as an establishment outsider in a captive environment. Mellowing with age, he now avoided direct confrontation choosing instead indirect example, flaunting his success, focusing solely on himself. He finally managed, with SHMRG’s help, to get elected to Benninghurt’s Board where his plan was eventually to make the benefits of the colony’s networking available to younger, more like-minded composers.

The Met was considering Lemm’s latest opera, “Survivor,” for its 2016-2017 season and it seemed his Broadway-oriented retooling of the story of Carmen was already making twenty-somethings forget who Bizet was. However, his newest opera, still unfinished, based on the life of Lady Gaga, had already been rejected by Schweinwald.

Certainly this latest news did nothing to endear Robertson Sullivan to him, the tension occasionally spilling over into public snideness, disturbing Rob’s hope for some uninterrupted tranquility during his past month’s residency (at least, Rob told me, the management arranged to have their studios at opposite ends of the sprawling mansion). Tomorrow, Rob would leave for the Schweinwald Festival, its new director, where his own opera – also updating a famous old-fashioned plot – would have its world premiere in a splashy new production. Then Arthur Lemm would be out of Rob's hair for a while, having put the finishing touches on his opera’s newly completed ending, the orchestration only part of the final process. Well, that was the expectation, Rob's goal for this stay at Benninghurst, things very much down to the wire.

Assuming Lemm hoped to keep him from completing his opera on time, arranging his stay knowing Rob would be there, was a matter of conjecture for a mind more paranoid than Rob’s, if the recent death and funeral of his colleague, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, his predecessor as Schweinwald’s director, hadn’t been enough. But even if Lemm could manage to break his concentration and diffuse his inspiration with some daily encounter with the Person from Poorlock, that would be enough of a small victory.

And how disappointing it must have been for him, momentarily, when Cameron turned out not to be a composer, a potential new convert Lemm could woo away from my decadent atonality. But Cameron was gracious enough to act “charmed,” meeting a famous composer, as he wandered off to another table. In fact, Cameron was in awe of just being in a room with so many composers, famous or otherwise: he could sense this powerful surge of creativity hanging in the air.

“Do you think any of this genius will rub off on me,” Cameron wondered, “and I’ll become a composer?”

“I’ll let you know if I feel more creative in the morning.” I handed him a glass of bubbling ginger-ale and, with a toast, sighed, “if it were only that easy.”

Disappointed that genius wasn’t a matter of osmosis or that it wasn’t champagne in his glass, Cameron looked around inquisitively, asking occasionally who this one was or who that one might be.

“I’ve hung around composers all my life,” I wanted to tell him, “but it didn’t turn me into one.”

It might give you the dream or even the incentive but you still had to do all the work. Believe me, I thought, it would make teaching a lot less painful.

“You didn’t feel any different when we came back from New Coalton last summer, right?” I whispered to him, recalling this vague buzz-word from an adventure more dream-like than anything dreamt.

“I don’t know what I felt after we left there,” he said, looking into his glass for an answer.

It was like something we didn’t want to discuss because it might force us to admit it had never happened, instead sweeping it under the nearest rug and pretending a certain indifference.

“Do you still have the letter, the one Beethoven had given you?” It had all been very confusing, then.

“Yeah, it’s in a safe-deposit box in my parents’ bank,” he said. “I figured I’d wait a few years. I’m guessing when I go get it, it probably won’t be there.”

There was a man standing in the doorway, nondescript in appearance except for being the only African-American in the room, who looked around while taking this blackberry-like device out of his ear, tapping it a few times and then twisting it back into position – battery trouble? wrong number? perhaps some spam? He cautiously took a drink from a waiter, sniffing it before handing it back, exchanged it for something else, then settled back into a nearby corner, glancing frequently in our direction.

Imagination was a powerful thing, I thought, turning Cameron away to protect him from another potential predator like Lemm. Eventually, the man took the hint and avoided looking over at us. I started wondering if I wasn’t imagining this as much as I might have imagined everything at New Coalton.

“Maybe I should go check on it, when I get back to New York next week,” Cameron said, turning around.

“Check on what, Cameron,” I asked absent-mindedly.

“You know, on Beethoven’s letter…?” The bank, he explained, was half-way between his folks’ place and Dylan’s, just a block out of his way.

“Shhh,” I cautioned him, “you don’t want anyone eavesdropping on us, talking about how Beethoven gave you some letter,” then I chuckled how anyone hearing that would think we were crazy.

If anyone was crazy, I thought, it was Cameron who was, as he described it himself, crazy for Dylan. This week had been tough for them after the semester wrapped up. Dylan had gone home for the summer but Cameron was scheduled to work at the music store through June.
He wasn’t looking forward to being separated from him for a month. In fact, I’d hoped having him come along with me might take his mind off it for the weekend.

There were times Cameron brought Dylan along, coming out to my place, taking him a while to feel comfortable, opening up to a stranger – nothing exactly easy for either of us.

And like today, when they were apart, they’d often text each other.

“Young love,” I thought, “isn’t it grand?”

Dylan Sprenkle was the reason Cameron was planning to major in psychology, eventually focusing on scientific research about Asperger’s Syndrome, perhaps discovering a treatment helping someone like Dylan feel they’re not defective, whether there could ever be a cure for it or at least more awareness that could integrate someone’s “difference.” When he’d confessed to his diagnosis that summer afternoon in the park, Dylan was revealing a deep, hurtful secret, an impediment he expected would be the end of their developing friendship. Before, Cameron had been a potential musician taking violin lessons (ironically, with Sebastian Crevecoeur’s granddaughter, how I’d met him) until he realized his growing relationship with Dylan gave his life purpose. They both loved music but both were interested in the minutia of science: maybe they could form a team?

The son of an American banker and an Iranian-born daughter of scientists, working for an insurance company (recently laid off), Cameron – named for his Uncle Kamran, an activist killed in the Islamist Revolution – had been taught to think for himself until he wondered if music might not be a possible career. His family was opposed to this – not financially rewarding, unrealistic, above all unstable – given their materialist view of success: they’d never forgive me if I’d turn him into a composer, yet!

And yet here was Cameron, standing in this room full of composers and critics, wondering if Dylan, with his in-depth knowledge of recordings and reviews, might not find success as a critic (rattling off quotes, he could give you the pros and cons of a dozen different recordings of Bartók's quartets) wondering if he himself might not be happier in the long run as a musician rather than a scientist, perhaps becoming a composer, his new-found interest, instead of being a violinist.

Like most people these days, he was impatient. He wanted to know now what he might be doing then, irritated to wait till after grad school before he’d realize his dream, rather than enjoy this indefinite time to search and explore unending possibilities, no matter how late his studies began.

He pointed her out as soon as she walked into the room, a mass of dark dreadlocks with golden highlights, a stately African-American woman dressed in a flowing red and black blouse. Everyone turned to see her and several of them waved, calling to her or giving her a joyous thumbs-up.

“Didn’t she just have a successful premiere in Los Angeles?” Cameron asked. “She’s even more amazing in real life!”

But then everything about Porgia Moore was amazing, not just her looks.

Born of the Inner City, she never knew who her father was, barely had a chance to know her mother before she died in a shoot-out on their front porch one night, then was brought up by her grandmother, later an aunt, before finding herself alone and homeless on the streets. She remembered the wintry day picking through the trash when she found an old clarinet somebody had thrown out and how she tried to play it but couldn’t figure it out. It cost too much to fix and wasn’t worth much, pawning it, so instead she decided to keep it, unwilling to throw it away like she’d been, and named it “Bessie-Mae.” A minister saw her lugging this clarinet around and took her in, probably the luckiest day of her life.

“I have no idea what might have happened to me,” she said, telling Rob and me her story over dinner that first night we’d met here, collectively our first time at Benninghurst. “He gave me a home, gave me the chance to attend the church school, even gave me his name. He also gave me a decent, working clarinet – his grandfather’s – and someone who would give me lessons on it, one of his jazz friends who played saxophone down at the club.”

The Reverend Lawnton Moore’s library had an extensive collection of jazz albums – Miles, Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, the Duke – but her favorites were Benny Goodman’s, especially the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Home alone, she’d put on “Sing, Sing, Sing” and dance around the living room pretending to play her clarinet.

One of the LPs at the far end of the shelf was one of Benny Goodman playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. “When I put that one on, I was both confused and transfixed. I couldn’t dance to it, it didn’t swing like that,” she said, “but I just sat there and listened. It was beautiful – I couldn’t get over it or figure out why, but I knew I’d discovered something wonderful. It was just so… groovy, or whatever slang we used back then.”

By then, she had turned sixteen, after making up for lost time, and was doing well in high school, playing on the girls’ basketball team, just barely getting into the band. Despite her history, it turned out she was very bright and found several areas very interesting: math, science, history. She worked very hard, knowing very well what the alternative would be: “I’d already been there – not goin’ back!” She made it into the local community college on a full scholarship.

Then a friend gave her another Benny Goodman recording, one she’d never heard before, playing “Contrasts” by Béla Bartók.

“Now, this was groovy cool shit,” she chuckled. “Talk about mesmerized, honey!”

It was then she realized she’s a college sophomore who wanted to take music classes. “Talk about a late-bloomer!”

Rob and I were in our late-20s. I’d just started teaching at Cutler University, Rob still working on his doctorate. Benninghurst accepted Porgia as a scholarship student, a kind of compositional intern. She had a chance to work in the office but also to spend time writing and do some networking. While others – including Lemm – chose to ignore her, the three of us hit it off, talking shop long into the night, taking her under our wing and looking over her scores.

Now, here’s Porgia with a big premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Rob going off to Europe with his new opera at a major summer festival.

And then there’s me.

Well, mine wouldn’t be the first time a career never made it to the top, then crashed and burned.

“Give me a chance to put a clarinet or a trumpet or a violin in some kid’s hands and give him lessons,” she was saying, “who knows what that child might do? You teach them about music but also about hard work and discipline and working together, about self-respect, you know? If I had a program like that when I was a kid, I’d’ve been in a conservatory at 18, all before we’d even heard of Gustavo Dudamel and Venezuela’s El Sistema.”

I could hear her mellifluous baritone voice surging through the general hubbub, as if it were part conversation, part interview, part greeting and soap-box, every ounce of it genuine and intensely felt. Receiving congratulations, she accepted them graciously with lots of “Mmm hmmm”s and “Thank you”s and the periodic prepared statement. The reaction to her Clarinet Concerto in Los Angeles had been enthusiastic, a bit overwhelming, creating a buzz nationwide, a recording in the works and talk of a major future commission.

Porgia Moore had become, as most critics noted, “a force of nature,” someone to contend with, a “God-given talent,” confident and powerful but never arrogant or aggressive if not exactly humble. She was everybody’s friend and no one’s rival, but now that success was hers, soon she’d become fair game.

She saw me and shouted, “Cherí!” throwing her arms up and plowing her way through the crowd toward my table. It had been years since we’d seen each other, occasional e-mails aside. She enveloped me in a warm hug, this tall, statuesque woman in a modern-day dashiki, dreadlocks rattling all around.

“You like?” she asked, holding out the blouse she wore for emphasis. “It helps me look the part, in case anyone forgets I’m Black. It’s easier than dressing like a Lesbian.”

After introducing my friends to her and telling them how we’d met thirty-five years ago in this very room, I told her she’d missed the first skirmish in tonight’s Style Wars.

“Please,” she rolled her eyes, “not like you wouldn’t expect it in a roomful of egos like this one.”

“They could take this room and turn it into a TV reality show,” Sol said, nodding toward Suli's corner. “They could make Arthur Lemm the host, you know.” Felice began giggling.

“That pompous air-bag?” Porgia said. “If he didn’t have popularity on his side, he’d be just another boring non-entity.”

“Don’t knock popularity,” Sol replied, “you’re doing pretty well on that account.”

“Yes, honey, but I’m doing it by writing sincerely,” then added with a twinkle, “and writing my ass off!”

She grabbed herself a flute of champagne from a passing wide-eyed waiter, peering into the glass Cameron was drinking from.

“Ginger-ale? Why – aren’t you old enough yet to be drinkin’ champagne, honey?” She nudged me playfully in the shoulder.

Cameron blushed but I said, “He’s driving…”

“Aren’t you guys staying over?”

It hadn’t occurred to me and nothing had been mentioned in the planning. Besides, I’m only ninety minutes away; it’s not like I couldn’t let him drink and then I’d drive.

“No way I’m going to be driving back to New York tonight: Rob told me he wants to sit and talk with us over some drinks, later – our own private reunion.”

That sounded pretty enticing, actually, and I know Rob said he had a lot he wanted to talk about.

“So what do you want to be when you grow up,” she cooed at Cameron, “other than cute as hell?”

Again, Cameron blushed before he could manage to blurt out an answer.

He managed to explain how he was pursuing studies in science with an eye toward doing research in psychology.

Immediately, Porgia became totally serious, listening to him attentively, sipping her drink. She heard him out, expressing his doubts about loving music but not sure he had the talent for it.

Once he mentioned he’d started thinking how maybe he’d like to try composing, only because he’s curious about it, she had a wide grin on her face and started nodding knowingly.

"Oh, honey, I’ve been there, done that for so long, I’m the dictionary’s official illustration for late-bloomer," she said.

When he looked confused, she added confidentially, “you do still look at dictionaries that have illustrations in them, right?”

We were all trying not to laugh at yet more generational bewilderment.

“You hang out with this guy,” she nodded at me, “who knows what’ll happen: you’re in very good hands.”

Then it was my turn to blush.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Terry – you’re a better composer than you think you are, and a damned good teacher, better than many I’ve known.”

There was more commotion at the entrance to the ballroom and the crowd began turning and humming in curiosity when Porgia continued telling Cameron how she’d been interested in so many things.

“I could’ve gone into science myself or maybe history, for whatever reason, but I really loved music,” she cooed.

The buzz indicated another important celebrity was about to make an appearance. I was torn between wanting to watch and listening to what Porgia was telling Cameron who was all ears.

“And composing, you kiddin’ me? People asked me what right did I have to dream about becoming a composer! I was a twenty-year-old ghetto kid and I could barely read music.”

It was Rob – finally – entering the ballroom, making such a grand entrance, looking a bit exhausted, under the circumstances.

“If it hadn’t been for this guy and Rob Sullivan, who knows where I’d be today? I might be a successful college teacher and maybe I'd be happy – but then, maybe not.”

Rob pushed his way through all the well-wishers, looking over and waved, pointing toward the dias with a shrug.

“You stick with these guys,” Porgia told Cameron, “you’ll figure it out.”

Rob's smile implied there will be plenty of time to talk later, as if politics as usual trumped friendship.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Lost Chord: Act I, Chapter 1 (Part 1)


In the first installment - the 'Overture,' which you can read here - a fellow calling himself Tr'iTone recalls hearing Robertson Sullivan give an inspiring talk and how he resolved to study with him but found it less than satisfactory. Meanwhile, Dr. T. Richard Kerr, along with his assistant Cameron Pierce. is going to a dinner at the Benninghurst Colony in honor of his friend Robertson Sullivan. As Sullivan prepares himself for the dinner, having just finished his new opera, Tr'iTone is preparing to teach his former professor a lesson.


*** ***** ******** ***** ***
ACT I
*** ***** ******** ***** ***

CHAPTER 1

A perfectly ordinary man getting out of the car: I was sure that’s how others would see me, people looking around, wondering who was who as everyone gathered gradually for the dinner. We weren’t as late as I thought but still, I wanted to hurry past this gauntlet and get inside. After all, it wasn’t like I was anybody. If it hadn’t been a chance to see my friend before he left for Europe, I couldn’t imagine why I’d be here, otherwise. Benninghurst was an old-fashioned artist’s colony, a bit of New England tucked away in the Poconos, a place where creative minds gathered for peace and quiet taking time away from reality. A coal baron’s mansion, it had been purchased and converted when no other family was left to claim it. Stepping up onto the porch and looking out at a flock of crows assembling in some distant trees, I wondered why it had been so long since I last came here, myself. I remembered vividly when I first stayed, what I wrote, how young I had been then, thirty years ago. But then there hadn’t been much need in recent years, considering the house I lived in with its own brand of peace and quiet if I ever felt like composing again.

It would have been nice to take a walk before dinner as I’d done every day the times I stayed here – always after breakfast; that was all part of the regimen. The woods and paths surrounding the place were probably half its charm, a great way to relax the mind. If we’d left earlier, perhaps... but Cameron missed his train from Philadelphia, one of those things that kept compounding, a little delay here and another one there and before long – voilá! And if we’d been on time, we would have missed that near-accident, coming around the bend near the driveway, the car ahead swerving to miss somebody rushing out of the woods. It was strange, whatever he was doing there, I thought, catching my breath; nowhere near the parking lot, yet.

But tonight, Benninghurst was anything but its usual peaceful, quiet self, all these people milling about, chatting and drinking, annoying, I’d imagine, to any resident not invited to the evening’s social whirl. At least it was the dinner break, so no one should feel slighted if they were unable to work. The front parlor, a large spacious room, was already crowded with people; the hallway toward the dining room, jammed. Someone with a name-tag checked our invitations, pointing the way to somewhere. They’ve hosted this kind of reception before, occasionally honoring an artist, a past resident who’s won a major prize, or celebrating a contributor after having given the colony a generous gift. In fact, the last time I was here, it was for Howard Zenn who’d won a Pulitzer that year.

Despite being an informal affair, people shuffled about in tuxedos or unseasonably long dresses while others sported turtlenecks and jeans. This wide array of fashion styles aside, I still felt inadequately dressed. A few of the more iconoclastic guests, it being summer, stood out in their Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. But looking around among the half-smiling faces, I saw no sign of tonight’s special guest, my friend Robertson Sullivan, and I kept wondering what he’d wanted to talk about so urgently.

It was daunting, looking at famous faces I recognized but didn’t know, trying to resist walking around gawking at them, the giddy sensation of being a fan among celebrities, pointing at everybody. There were few others here who were not composers or their agents beyond a handful of critics or publishers, many of whom I’d been introduced to over years of attending concerts, meeting them backstage for a quick handshake, especially during the years I was living closer to New York City. But since it was difficult to experience much by the younger composers, I found myself discovering more about the up-coming generation from reading some on-line reviews and following new music blogs: with recording contracts disappearing and most radio stations opting for safer programming, I rarely heard anything considered truly new. I estimated the composers I saw here, like the infamously generic classical concert audience, were also mostly gray and aging, very few under forty and many of them my age or older, making me wonder, if we couldn’t revitalize the species, didn’t we risk dying out like some antiquated celibate sect? If creativity wasn’t fragile enough – no one knew that better than I – whimsically coming and going with complete disregard, posterity was even more fickle: who’d survive the cut to achieve greatness?

What was taking Cameron so long? It felt like I’d been standing around by myself for almost a half-hour, only turning in my invitation or picking up a glass of ginger-ale, glancing back and forth from my corner as I nursed a drink I hoped would be mistaken for champagne. Otherwise, I was beginning to feel invisible again – both annoying and comforting – until someone discretely tapped a delicate bell (who was it mentioned Anna Pavlova’s dogs?) and everyone started to move.

As I reached the doorway of the larger dining room, I heard the familiar, grating voice of Arthur Lemm, a composer still riding high on his most recent installment of fame and who proceeded to work his way through the room, shaking hands as if he were the evening's master-of-ceremonies.

Retreating into my alcove again, hoping to avoid him, I bumped into a waiter scurrying past, nearly spilling my drink, and apologized to him before asking about any assigned seating for dinner, while I clung to the alcove as the safest place to wait, seeing anybody who'd enter the dining room.

“I’m a friend of Robertson Sullivan’s and I was wondering,” I began before he interrupted me with a nod to inform me that everyone here was a friend of Robertson Sullivan’s.

A man sporting a name-tag beckoned the waiter away before introducing himself, saving me the trouble of reading it since he was standing too close for my bifocular eyes to manage. Taller than me by a head, it was uncomfortable staring at his throat or, worse, looking up his nose. This, however, was the famous Wizard of Benninghurst, Sidney Drummoyne, a man in his mid-40s whose exotic Australian accent and dashing good looks doubtless worked wonders for his role as chief fund-raiser. The young woman coming up beside him who could have been his wife was actually his assistant, Henrietta Darlinghurst. They were pleased to meet me, glad I’d come and amazed to see so much talent in one room. Meanwhile, I suspected he was unsuccessful figuring out if I was anybody.

Hoping to make conversation, difficult to hear as the noise became louder, I told him it had been years since the last time I had stayed at Benninghurst as a resident. In fact there’d been just such a dinner then honoring Howard Zenn and his Pulitzer when he’d turned 70.

“Ah, that was, what, twenty years ago,” he said, treating me as if I were a delicate historical artifact. “Amazing to realize he’s just turned 90 and still very busy composing.”

I congratulated him on turning everything around after the decline following September 11th, managing some much needed structural renovations. He said the biggest problem now was some robber baron’s land grab.

“What does he plan on doing, here, turn this into a casino?”

He grimaced and shook his head. “Worse...”

Before he could elaborate, Drummoyne patted my shoulder and graciously excused himself, the busy director whose chief responsibility this evening was making himself pleasant, shaking hands with as many guests as possible, his otherwise wordless assistant smiling and disappearing in the wake behind him, the crowd parting as onward he sailed.

My view momentarily cleared as I wondered if anybody had ever done a study relating a composer’s height to characteristics of style or levels of accomplishment, when I noticed someone waving. They were actually people I knew, who, after I’d looked over my shoulder, appeared to be waving at me. It was perhaps ten years since I’d last seen either of them, both eagerly motioning for me to join them, pleased they’d snagged a table near the middle of the room. Though both older than me by a few years, their collective vitality and general optimism made them appear considerably younger which explained why I’d found them exhausting as I approached middle age. I figured an evening with Sol and Felice delRaggio would be bearable (certainly preferable) to sitting off by ourselves. After passing hugs of the long-lost all around, Felice bubbled over Robertson’s appointment as if it were breaking news, making me wonder if I hadn’t overestimated my tolerance for extreme cheerfulness.

Apparently, whoever’s idea it was to entice everybody into the dining room did not mean that the dinner was any closer to beginning (despite their now being almost a half-hour behind schedule), despite there being a bit more room to mill about seeing old friends and being seen by everyone else. This was no longer a serious concern since I brought my assistant Cameron along primarily to take care of the driving whether the evening ran longer than we’d anticipated or not. Since he'd yet managed to make it back from the men’s room, I assumed he either called home to let Dylan know we had arrived safely if not exactly on time or taken one of those tours some helpful staffer arranged for guests and spouses who’ve never been here before. I was tempted to make some excuse to go look for him – being unfamiliar with the place, you know, he might have gotten lost – asking them to hold two seats for us, but the real temptation was to take a quiet walk alone in the yard before sitting down to eat.

“Don’t worry about him; I’m sure he can fend for himself,” Felice said, giving my arm a playful nudge. “It’s unlikely he’d never find his way back once the food arrives.”

Unable to get away, then, I asked a waiter – one more friendly than the last I’d spoken to – to “freshen” my drink, then stood there in the center of the room, looking around and making occasional comments about the other guests as we three caught up on the not-that-distant past. They had retired under better circumstances than I, leaving behind them college careers that had been fulfilling and rewarding whereas I’d become disillusioned and gotten trapped in departmental politics before resigning. There was no need to go into the details so I just said I resigned and ended up working for an arts magazine that went all pop-relevant before laying me off. They were spending their time drifting between visiting a son with grandchildren in California and a daughter in Connecticut.

Sol had never been comfortable being a summertime composer, the process too tedious to accomplish much in the time allotted, tending to specialize in short works for solo instruments or small combinations, plus lots of songs for Felice, a soprano who’d been, in her prime, a significant advocate for new music. But suddenly, with so much time on his hands, he found himself wanting to compose bigger, more involved pieces so he had recently completed a string quartet for his son’s ensemble.

“Now, he’s planning out a concerto for our daughter to play,” Felice said with equal pride and excitement, explaining “she has some concerto dates in Europe over the next few years.”

“You should have stuck with the composing, Richard – such a compelling voice,” Sol said with a twinge of disappointment.

“Oh, look, Sol – here comes Otterby What’s-his-name,” Felice added chirpily though it was hard to tell she hated his music. “I’m surprised Rob would have invited him. Did you ever meet him?”

“Now, Felice, I doubt you’re going to do the honors. Isn’t he a fellow here this month?” he added.

“And right on his heels,” I pointed out, “is Warren Suli Cohen, his polar opposite. This should be interesting.”

“I like Suli's music – very brainy stuff.”

“Sometimes too brainy,” Sol sighed.

Cameron had been well aware of my discomfort on the drive up which I tried excusing as back trouble but which he knew was my usual social ineptitude manifesting itself in advance, especially knowing I hadn’t wanted to arrive too early, hoping to miss most of the obligatory and annoying socializing. It occurred to me Cameron's being late, which I’d also found annoying, may have been part of a plan to miss even more of what was already going to be trying. We had only met not quite a year ago during that strange evening at the Crevecoeurs – speaking of trying – but already he understood my foibles and generally accepted them with equanimity, and I joked he was becoming more quickly my therapist and care-giver as easily as he was my assistant.

I would never have canceled the trip just to avoid it, however tempting, because I really did want to see Rob who was quite intense about talking with me before he left. He never said what it was about, but looking around and not finding him only increased my increasing anxiety. I told myself it wasn’t anything serious, despite his mysteriousness about it: why should I be concerned, after all? He’d finished an opera and just wanted to show it to me.

Felice prodded me, pointing to the corner where Suli Cohen, in the shadow of a potted ficus, talked with a large-built man wearing a brown suit, having an apparently intense conversation.

“Do you know who that is, Richard? Sol can’t remember but he looks confident enough he should be someone.”

“The last thing I need,” I said, turning my back on them, “is some ridiculous debate about aesthetic politics.” I swigged down the last remnants of my ginger-ale with a flourish. “We’re here to celebrate Robertson’s news: it would be nice to put the claws aside for a few hours.” Not very likely that would happen, considering all the powerhouses in attendance.

Drummoyne worked his way around the room but Lemm always managed to keep far enough away to avoid contact.

The constant bickering of the so-called Style Police was another symptom of cultural intransigence, enough to put Washington to shame, with everybody losing sight of the purpose of art under an avalanche just as pompous and over-heated as anything advocates incessantly argued about back in the days of Wagner and Brahms. From Classical and Romantic to Apollonian and Dionysian to Right Brain and Left Brain, we’re now so far apart, this or that, it’s either the Far-Right Brain or the Far-Left Brain.

Before, you’d go to a concert and read the review, dislike the music and maybe disagree with the critic. Today, you can go on-line and voice your opinion with a comment. In fact, you can attack someone as a pedant for being old-fashioned or call him a moron for disagreeing.

Example: we both heard the same performance. To me, the pianist was so technically oriented she missed the music’s essence; to you, her interpretation was pure poetry, her playing flawless and delightful. I thought her Beethoven lacked empathy, her Chopin was loud and flashy; you found her innovative, insightful and brilliant.

Sitting down for a few drinks afterward, is it my right to get up and call you an idiot?

What is the point of having discourse if we treat ourselves discourteously?

Just then, Warren Suli Cohen and his unknown disputant became noticeably louder as their conversation-turned-argument threatened to boil over, territorial aggression met with intransigence before each other’s attempt at intellectual intimidation. If it came to fists as it sometimes did with these displays, my money was on the big guy. A waiter, hovering nearby, walked up with a bottle of wine in hand, apparently offering to freshen their drinks, and calmly managed to defuse the escalation before anything more unpleasant occurred. Both turned and walked away in icy silence as others, tempted to honor the waiter, considered breaking into smatterings of applause had their hands not been preoccupied with drinks and canapés.

For every strong ego, there’s a weaker ego waiting to be shattered. It is as inevitable as the night.

Sol politely excused himself with a knowing wink, nodding toward a gray-haired man in a black turtleneck and blue jeans. Felice told me that was Seth Mazrif who worked for Cooper Publishing. Leaning in confidentially in case anyone else might hear, she said, “Time for him to do a little networking.”

She looked at me with a kind, comforting eye, her tone like a mother patting a shy child’s hand. “It wouldn’t do you any harm, saying hello to a few people.”

“I hardly know anyone here,” I protested a little too weakly, cringing at the idea of glad-handing total strangers. “And those I do know – like yourselves – I haven’t seen in years.” Which was worse, I wondered: talking to strangers or people you’ve met before and hoping they’ve not forgotten you?

“Those songs you wrote for me – the Petrarch sonnets? They were very good, but you never did anything with them.”

“It was unfortunate nobody else wanted them. It’s not very different, now.”

She’d forgotten I’d sent them to Sol’s publisher on his hearty recommendation. “Not interested at this time,” they'd said. In fact, I was pretty sure I’d sent my cello sonata to Mr. Mazrif at Cooper’s years ago, too. His response wasn’t very different, never indicating when they might be interested.

“Ah, here comes Cameron, finally,” I told Felice, nodding toward the doorway. She glanced over then turned back to me with an arched eyebrow as if she’d discovered some deep new secret. I could try explaining he was my assistant but then I’d have to explain why I needed an assistant. Judging by the pleasure this self-induced realization was clearly giving her, it wouldn’t matter what I might have said, but saying nothing didn’t mean she wouldn’t leap to any further conclusions. Never terribly organized regarding the real world, I realized after my wife died I needed help around the house. That didn’t sound convincing to my own ears whenever I explained it so I could imagine someone else’s skepticism, not that either of us really cared, one way or the other.

Cameron became, in a sense, a student of mine and I became, in another, his employer, for what it’s worth. He helped me mostly on weekends, doing yard-work or organizing the bills. He was convinced I was utterly hopeless and found all this amusing, but worked hard and took things seriously. Every visit, we set aside an hour to talk about or listen to music: ostensibly, this was his lesson. And since I’d found myself unemployed, frankly I just enjoyed his company.

“Hi,” he said, cheerily enough, “sorry it took so long. This place is amazing,” he continued. “Look at these,” showing me some pictures he’d taken on his phone – the kitchen, the hallway, the grand staircase, gradually working his way backwards to the view seen from the drive. “Dylan loved them!”

He leaned forward, offering Felice his hand. “I’m Cameron Pierce,” he said warmly but without offering any further detail despite the fact she was obviously bursting with questions best left unasked.

“We were afraid you’d gotten lost,” she said as her husband, in the meantime, started working his way back.

“Lost, dear? I was only right over there,” Sol said, eyes twinkling.

“Not you: Cameron… Richard's friend?” she winked.

“Oh, of course. Hello, finally.”

“No drink?” I asked.

“I’m driving, remember?”

Here I was, drinking ginger-ale and not driving, while Cameron, recently discovering wine was to his liking, couldn’t drink because he was. Plus we wanted to keep some sense of propriety, here. To some, after all, he still looked younger than someone who’d finished his first year of college, perceptions aside. Cameron was attending the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, working for the moment toward a degree in psychology and taking the occasional music course when his schedule (and his adviser) permitted.

A native New Yorker, he and his partner Dylan Sprenkle were living in a nice enough area of the city not far from the university, preferring off-campus independence to the dormitories. Dylan, taking a few generalized freshman courses and doing brilliantly, only recently decided he wanted to major in law.

They made a nice couple, Cameron gaining in maturity over the year he’d been living with Dylan who, for his part, managed to overcome his insecurities to live outside his Asperger’s Syndrome, his parents originally reluctant to let him go to college, living on his own, afraid he couldn’t handle it.

The term “partner,” I thought, sounded much more mature than “boyfriend” and suitably vaguer and more inclusive than “lover.” It shocked Cameron’s parents but Dylan’s welcomed it, a step toward normalcy.

“There’s that guy I met outside the bathroom,” Cameron said, pointing to Arthur Lemm, glad-handing his way around the room. “He seemed pretty intent on striking up a chummy conversation with me.”

“Chummy?” I laughed, turning my back. It was difficult to ignore Lemm was keeping an eye on Cameron’s whereabouts.

Realizing who it was, Cameron understood. “Yeah, I’d heard stories about him.” He was young but not necessarily naïve.

“Naturally, he’d enjoy meeting you – preferably served on a bed of rice…”

Lemm was known in the business as an infamous “manizer” (whatever anyone called the homosexual equivalent of a womanizer), always offering young neophytes a chance to work under a celebrity composer. That choice of preposition was the operative word, the inside joke understood: many, unfortunately, got the joke too late.

It wasn’t that I’d have to “protect” Cameron from the temptation – I knew he was able to fend for himself – but it annoyed me, having to deal with a predator like Lemm. His entourage was full of students or young composers getting started professionally, everything at least above the legal limit.

I, by comparison, was nobody so I rather doubted anyone cared whether Cameron was my assistant or my boy. Being seen with him, though, might still give rise to unwanted rumors.

Cameron and I were soon talking with Sol and Felice when I felt the inevitable tap on the shoulder as Arthur Lemm had quickly found his way over to our table. Nodding to Cameron, he stuck his hand out and grabbed mine before I had a chance to pull back.

“Richard Kerr, isn’t it? Arthur Lemm – how’re you?” he added mock-modestly in case I wouldn’t know who he was. “Aren’t you that dyed-in-the-wool atonalist who was friends with old Sebastian Crevecoeur?”

“Old Sebastian,” who died over twenty-five years ago, had long been a close friend and early mentor of mine. I was surprised and a bit awestruck Lemm even knew my name.

“Written anything lately I would have heard?” Immediately, he turned to Cameron. “And your young friend…?”

“Taken, I’m afraid.”

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Lost Chord: Overture

THE LOST CHORD
(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller 
by Richard Alan Strawser)

OVERTURE

"Yes – it's not just how to suffer" – someone in the audience laughed – "the artist's traditional fate since time began, right? Not like that's hard to figure out, once you've read some biographies. Think of the solitary hours spent practicing or writing down a composition: is this not a form of suffering?"

The speaker looked out across the audience which reacted with intermittent interest, a sparse gathering (in so many ways). It's clear his being here was for him a form of suffering.

Everyone knew he was a wealthy man, this business executive turned composer who inherited his family's Wall Street fortune and was now a guest on the FRED series, lecturing about creativity. Maybe he spent hours perfecting his craft alone in a room somewhere, but did he really know about suffering?

Loneliness, he knew, wasn't suffering, not really, though it might've been uncomfortable: it was more than just a failed relationship – it's the pain you overcame in life that made your art meaningful.

"Yes," he leaned back smugly, "that's it – that's how you measure suffering. It isn't just a series of inconveniences."

There was more than the agony of hearing your music badly performed or the self-mortification of reading bad reviews. What was worse than writing happy music though your heart was breaking?

There was one person in the audience paying particular attention to what this man, this famous composer, was saying, a skinny, tow-headed boy of no particular distinction whom nobody would notice, the kind who'd had sand kicked in his face all his life – was this not a kind of suffering?

It was what Robertson Sullivan said next the young man remembered most, joking later how it changed his life, the sort of thing any budding composer would sit up and notice.

"We're all looking for the dragon's blood – an artifact, some gizmo to guide us to the Fountain of Inspiration – some magic potion that we can mix from a long-guarded, secret recipe."

But it was the way he said it, the tone of voice – like some enticing preacher – "Come unto me!"

Was this what drew him to the speaker he found so inspiring who, after slyly avoiding to reveal the answers, made him feel it was imperative he had to study with him? Deep down, teasing him with wanting more, this man knew the answers, obvious from his constant side-stepping of them. The speaker artfully danced around the solution, dodging the implications so deftly, while twisting the knife deeper inside you: he was like a hypnotizing charlatan on one of those TV commercials.

After already having dropped out of college – "useless," he spat, "totally useless" – he knew that to study with him, he would have to apply to Juilliard, the nation's most prestigious conservatory! That in itself became an arduous process which took him several years but finally he applied – and gained entrance!

But at every lesson, the boy discovered his teacher always complained about his skirting the necessity of hard work, how he's always looking for some quick fix, complaining there're never satisfactory alternatives. He knew, without being given these answers, he would forever be blocked from acceptance to this elite secret society. Even then, as if turning the tables between them, teacher and student, he'd remember that old and oft-quoted adage which every teacher dreaded hearing, how "by your students you'll be taught."

So they all stood as a group on that bright sunny day, the light streaming in through the main entrance, the open doorway such a fitting metaphor to graduates facing their futures. The Great Teacher, glass raised, toasted them over the other students' cheers: "their hardest work was only just beginning."

"WTF?! I barely survived four years studying with the great Robertson Sullivan – hadn't that been enough of an ordeal? Now he's saying there's even more work after I've finished this degree!?"

It was then, at that very moment, some photographer snapped the picture, capturing forever the expression on his face, an expression either of fear or anger, this facing of new demons. But yes, it was that very moment, feeling confident he could succeed, when he decided what he should do.

In that briefest instant of a flash, he considered everything he learned, what skills had been passed on to him, the craft of ages past he struggled to perfect through diligent application, the wisdom of the great dead masters his teacher revealed to him and all the tiniest details about creativity. Yet there was nothing – not one nano-particle of wisdom – he could recall, beyond that simple phrase he'd once said, like it was the most important thing about learning how to compose.

More recently, now, living in a spacious brownstone not far from Juilliard, the house he long considered his home, he continued to watch and to wait and, mostly, bide his time. This had become another form of suffering, watching his teacher's career evolve while waiting for his to get started.

"There's not much time," he always said, "especially now – time runs out. I must hurry and make myself ready." He had been waiting years for this: the time was never better.

Looking at the photograph of himself standing next to his teacher, that inconsiderate moron incapable of recognizing true genius, he held it closer to the flame and let it catch fire.

"This is how I, Tr'iTone," he bellowed, "will join your little club! It's how you will learn to... suffer!"

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It floored me when his letter arrived in the mail that morning, even though I'd expected to hear from him. It looked so formal, printed that way, like an engraved wedding invitation. The embossed envelope was even addressed to "Dr. Terrence Richard Kerr, PhD," a little too formal for my tastes.

"Robertson Sullivan requests your presence at a special celebratory dinner," it read, "to be held at the Benninghurst Colony."

After the particulars of date and time, he'd added these hand-written words:

"Hi, Terry – sorry for so much confusion – a lot happening – please come – little time – almost finished – let's talk! – Rob"

His telegraphic style didn't ease the mystery around our previously foiled plans.

But it'd be my last chance to see him for a while and driving to Benninghurst was a pleasant...

Without warning, memories of last summer's visit to the old Crevecoeur farm – speaking of pleasant – not that far from Benninghurst, flooded back to me like a dream, getting lost late at night, then meeting all those famous dead composers in some distant parallel universe – what was it they called it, Harmonia-IV? Sebastian Crevecoeur was there as our host, twenty-some years after his death, but there was something about Mahler, too. And how did Cameron end up with that letter written by Beethoven?

Yes, that was also the visit when I'd first met Cameron Pierce, a violin student of Sebastian's granddaughter, Zoe. He was now studying psychology in Philadelphia, living with his partner Dylan. With the summer now in full swing, he stayed on to work while Dylan went home to New York. We'd become good friends and Cameron frequently helped me as an assistant, so I'd invited him to come along since he'd been so interested in meeting my old friend, Rob Sullivan.

Cameron was always curious about composers' lives, how lives affected their music, particularly our talks about the creative process, so naturally I was glad he agreed to go along with me, considering, since I'd made that long descent from middle age into retirement, how much I hated driving by myself.

My own music – at least my mature stuff – was always well organized, maybe not as pristinely organized as Rob's was, but much more mathematically inclined than my lack of mathematical skills indicated. It still got me in trouble with several of my academic colleagues for being too intellectual or not enough. There'd always been those famous historical animosities, the politics of aesthetic competition – Schoenberg versus Stravinsky or Wagner versus Brahms – but even by today's classical music standards, the stakes seemed so small.

I remembered when my friend Sebastian Crevecoeur, after failing as a 'populist,' decided he would compose mostly for himself since the audience he was writing for wasn't interested in him anyway. Eventually, he figured, if it interested him, it would interest someone else, but then that didn't always happen, either.

Hadn't that been the story of my life, as well, I wondered, dashing around in a hurry to get ready, comparing how my career never took off against Rob's incredible international success. But in the back of my mind wasn't there some little pride when he said we needed to talk?

I looked around the house at the clutter I was leaving behind, hurriedly rechecking all the doors and windows. From the car, Cameron honked the horn, eager to hit the road.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

"I'll probably be the only one there wearing a tie," Rob joked, checking which one he thought would look better, "not that anyone should really be surprised: it's my dinner, after all."

It was being held in his honor at the prestigious Benninghurst Colony the night before he returned to Europe.

"It feels so incredibly wonderful," he added, "just to have it finished," slipping a CD-Rom into his coat pocket, the back-up disc of the full score for his brand new opera.

There was that familiar rush he enjoyed with a sense of accomplishment runners must feel after winning a race, exhausting themselves in the final stretch to cross the line in time. Yet every time he started a piece, it was the same thing, like taking on some grueling athletic challenge.

Robertson Sullivan was a stickler for detail with everything in its place whether in his clothes or in his music, even when he knew it wasn't easy to accomplish what he wanted, where every aspect of life or art had its own supreme logic and the secret was to unlock it. Of course, some people called him 'finicky' when he announced his plan to completely rewrite the opera's last act, arguing there wasn't time before the premiere, but here it was – finished!

He learned two very important things in all the years he'd spent juggling a life between business and music: everything you did involved taking certain risks – otherwise you never moved forward – but you never took a risk unnecessarily that hadn't been thoroughly examined without every aspect of it carefully understood.

Every chord progression in music increased tension that had to be resolved, often with various possibilities that transcended expectations. Life, he found, already in his sixties, wasn't usually all that different.

Given all the unexplainable things that were suddenly happening in his life, he began to wonder what it meant, not just the good things like his creative accomplishments and career successes. Some insane attacker killed his favorite aunt, his mentor's death wasn't accidental – now he himself feared for his sanity.

He was on the verge of greatness – everyone was telling him that; had been, ever since he was a boy. Success after success came easily to him both as composer and teacher. Ever since he was a small child dreaming of composing like Beethoven, he'd worked hard to attain his goals. And now the opera he'd just completed was about to be premiered, his latest goal these past several years. Plus he'll direct a major European festival and resurrect its prestigious academy.

He chuckled how he compared writing music, requiring skills and necessary risks, to an adventurer's quest for hidden treasure, an arduous path littered with death-defying obstacles deterring you from your goal, like finding this mythical Fountain of Inspiration after solving the riddle posed by some ancient artifact, some indecipherable gizmo...

Whenever he told it to his students, that story made him laugh, but recently it seemed someone took him seriously, considering the threats he'd been receiving lately about revealing the fountain's whereabouts. Making one last adjustment to his tie, Rob looked in the mirror, and wondered when fantasy intruded on reality.

He patted his pocket to make sure the disc was still there as he locked the door behind him. Still, despite all these doubts and fears, his future seemed very bright.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

"The only good composers are dead composers," a teacher once told him after he first started to take piano lessons and dreamed of playing the 'Moonlight' Sonata on the great concert stages. But the boy found practicing the piano took lots of daily work, spending fifteen minutes just on exercises alone.

"Maybe," he thought, struggling with his scales, "I'll write my own music, then nobody'll know if I'm making mistakes." That's when he decided, then and there, to become a composer himself.

Someone also said becoming a composer was a lot like Russian Roulette – "sometimes you win and sometimes you lose" – which sounded like a pretty cool game, once he figured it out. After all, what was the easiest way to become a good composer? Of course – by becoming a dead one.

And so he purified his creative spirit to prepare his chosen path through less labor-intensive ways to reach the goal, with ritual preparations that clarified the mind to embrace a higher creativity. It was something else Sullivan had said, taunting him with its possibilities, sounding almost as significant as the suffering.

For years, Sullivan denied any knowledge of such an object, this 'gizmo,' but the time for truth was near: the truth about the blood, the artifact – the location of the Fountain.

It will be like the Oak King Ritual of ancient Gaelic lore, not the springtime sacrifice of a virgin. He lifted up his sacred, thrice-blessed knife to test the edge's sharpness. The New King challenges the established leader in the great sacrificial ceremony that ensures continuity in our sacred art. They will meet in mortal combat, the Old King and the New, in this battle of wits and skills – the victor will attain Beethoven's greatness through the suffering of the vanquished.

"It's time," he thought, leaving the motel, "for everything to be revealed: but first, the Truth must be unveiled. There is much I will teach you as you could've taught me.

"But for that," he thought, looking heavenwards, "I must have your soul.

"And," he added, "your little doll, too."

= = = = = = =
to be continued...


- posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014