Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 7

In the previous installment of this serial novel, Dr. Dick, Buzz & Tony have discovered their search might not involve Schoenberg that much after all: on that day, June 24th, 2006, something was to be revealed about Beethoven's secret - as the story now takes on a new direction.

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After receiving his latest call, Nepomuck dutifully signed out the Penguins of God’s official “company car” on the excuse he would be picking up their Director, Charles Leighton-Quackerly, at the airport and driving him to the concert. The idea was to have it ready whenever he would get word from The Serpent how he should proceed: if this Dr. Dick person would be leaving the city, he would need to follow him.

Now dressed in his regulation tux with the White Viola lovingly packed in its sturdy case, he made sure the syringe he usually kept in the rosin box was once again full of his special poison, freshly mixed with some new Intocastin he’d managed to get from a trombonist colleague who worked as a technician at a veterinary hospital in Passaic. In small doses, this curare-based poison would put animals “to sleep” by relaxing the respiratory muscles, but when mixed with his own secret ingredient – scraps of old sheet music for Pachelbel’s Canon slowly burned in a test-tube so as to savor the fumes produced in the smoke – made for a doubly lethal dose that on the one hand slowly relaxed the victim into that final rest but on the other then serenaded him into eternity by implanting the music directly into his brain, creating a deadly “ear-worm” that could drive any lover of contemporary music insane. Now incapacitated, the victim could do nothing in this brief state of suspended animation but give himself over to what Nepomuck considered the most beautiful music in the world, offered as a benediction in that final moment of consciousness. He had no interest whether the victim might actually convert, that was not his concern: like the medieval Church, he believed the victims were justly dying for the sin of Not Believing which no amount of repentance could absolve, but at least their souls might be saved for the afterlife. Like many of the terrorists operating in the greater world today, his job was simply to send them there.

Fully prepared for his next assignment, now he had nothing to do but wait. He decided to fortify himself and went to his favorite restaurant just around the corner, a little Italian place called “Antonio’s Appena intorno all'Angolo” which served probably the best lasagna in this part of the Upper West Side and played nothing but the music of Vivaldi. He was in luck: this morning they were in the midst of some concertos for the viola d’amore. He would have to remember to tell Leighton they should rename his instrument the “Viola della Morte.”

Then he ordered the lasagna special. Does it get any better than this?

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

Despite its erratic flight from Lincoln Center, no one seemed to notice the helicopter, except Chief Inspector Hemiola and his men from the International Music Police. Returning to the I.M.P. van, lovingly referred to as the “Ludwig Van,” Hemiola decided that neither Agents Accelerando and Fermata nor Sergeant Sforzando were the best drivers in a case like this: he needed the agent with the best reflexes and that would have to be a 15-year-veteran named Ed Libitum. He could turn this van around on a dime which came in handy when the chopper made that sudden about-face after originally heading toward the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, ‘turning on a dime’ is a skill lost on the Henry Hudson Parkway in mid-morning traffic, so they wasted valuable time taking the next exit then getting back on the north-bound side of the highway.

But as the helicopter was preparing to land, they realized it was several miles north to their first opportunity to cross the river and so they debated calling in the FBI or at least the New Jersey State Police. If nothing else, they could report it as a case of “stolen aircraft” which might even bring in Homeland Security. But Hemiola was adamant about this: it was a clear case of musical homicide and Hemiola was determined he was going to bring this one in himself.

Their destination was not problematic: even without binoculars, you could read the name “Lance Teabag” on the side of the helicopter but it was assumed to be a brand-name corporate logo, each of them being die-hard coffee drinkers. But somewhere in the back of his mind, Agent Libitum remembered the name as a board member at Lincoln Center, enough for Hemiola to place a call to the I.M.P. desk to track down the residence of this Mr. Lance or Mr. Teabag or whatever his real name might be.

No one answered on the first call. A second number got the lunchtime replacement for a receptionist who said that Agent Polly Tonal was not in today – he had forgotten it was Saturday and some people actually had what he used to call “weekends.” But this was bound to be the biggest case of the summer season, so he wanted the best possible players on his team: Polly was definitely the best multi-tasker in the New York office. His call was transferred to Agent Mimi Solfege.

Having figured out the chopper had landed at an old ruined castle just below Fort Lee, they sped across the bridge only to find themselves detained by a jackknifed tractor trailer on their exit. Meanwhile, Agent Solfege was having difficulties tracking down anything helpful about a Lance Teabag: lots of information about his books and articles on fairly arcane musical subjects but nothing practical. She was okay, he thought, but she tended to just go up and down the same stuff all the time: she really was only a warm-up act compared to her boss, Polly. But then, it was the weekend so you play with the cards you’re dealt.

Digging deeper into the files, Solfege discovered that, as Agent Libitum had suspected, there was a Lance Teabag on the board of Lincoln Center which would explain, to a point, the presence of his helicopter there. Was he perhaps the ring-leader and Dr. Dick only the hatchet man? Were they meeting at the old castle before planning a further escape – or the next step of their murderous spree? They must have some kind of exit strategy: only an idiot would plan some caper like this and not have a detailed exit strategy. Trying not to think of his cousin Ben Marcato who was still in charge of the military bands in Baghdad, he wondered where it might lead them and how much time they had.

The radio then began playing a movement from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” which Hemiola always preferred in the piano original (there were times, he admitted, he could be such a snob). Serendipitously enough, it was the section called “The Old Castle.” Though earlier he was wishing they’d been listening to a station with frequent traffic updates, he felt this was divine verification of his thoughts. He asked Mimi to pull up the satellite view of Fort Lee and focus down on the exact location of the castle where they'd seen the helicopter land. She was able to give them directions in a matter of seconds.

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

What Agent Solfege couldn’t see, just before her computer crashed, was a rickety old station wagon of some nondescript Japanese model with the license plate “OPUS 1" climbing the hill toward the front gate.

Nepomuck had a grudging fondness for this car he sometimes called “Hiroshima’s Revenge.” The worst part was its horrid yellow color which made it look like a cab: he could never drive through the city without repeatedly getting hailed by people on the street and then being given the finger after driving past them.

He had received the anticipated call from The Serpent, directing him to the old castle on the Palisades. He was to take the Lincoln Tunnel to avoid the George Washington Bridge and one of the direct routes that was closed while being repaved. Before long he had made it to the top of the hill only to be met by an impenetrable wall with a great gate. He pulled the car over onto the shoulder, making it look like it had driven into a ditch. Then he walked around to the side where he found the place The Serpent told him would be accessible and clambered over.

It was rough going as it was, so he was glad he’d strapped the White Viola’s case to his back. He followed the path that led up to an upper level of the house – he could see through some windows but saw no one: how well his tux camouflaged him on the overgrown path was another issue – and from there he was told he could drop down onto a small lawn-like outcropping. There would be a gun there, hidden behind a rock, and there would be a key. He could figure it out from there.

When Ed Libitum finally found the right road to reach the castle after a most unfortunate detour, it was only a matter of ten or fifteen minutes before they found themselves in front of the gate. Hemiola looked around for a buzzer or some kind of PA-system but could find nothing. Agent Fermata leaned against the gate, yawning out of sheer boredom, only to discover the gate was unlocked, in fact unlatched. They walked in cautiously, Agent Accelerando pushing ahead. They were standing at the main door when they heard rapid firing from a machine gun: that was when they broke the door down.

Following the commotion, they entered a room where a hulking blonde in a hospital uniform was playing Rachmaninoff on the piano far louder than necessary. It was not likely his playing had shattered the window or brought down the chandelier. No, the holes in the walls and ceiling were clearly caused by a machine gun. But the only other person there was a maid wearing fishnet stockings. She turned to look at them with some surprise.

“Sorry, it was only a cleaning accident. The central vac backfired.”

A man dressed like a butler but instead of the usual trousers also wearing fishnet stockings rushed in wondering what had they meant, shooting up the place like this, how they had gotten in – and did they, in fact, have a search warrant, he added menacingly?

Hemiola had no idea what he had gotten himself into but sent the men out in various directions to look for Dr. Dick while he questioned these two amidst the wreckage. It would have been easier if this lunatic would stop playing the bloody piano.

So far, this day had bad reviews written all over it.

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

“I don’t believe it,” I gasped. But, clearly, seeing was believing.

Renfrew and Buzz secured their captive with some of the stockpiled duct tape the government had said would be the best deterrent against terrorism. They dumped their very own terrorist into the luggage compartment of what clearly looked like no helicopter or plane we had ever seen before: black, sleek and shaped a bit like a bat's wing. The cliff-side door opened silently to reveal the skyline of Manhattan on a brilliantly sunny summer afternoon. Everybody clambered in as Renfrew started up the engines which were amazingly quiet. “We were in a plane,” I thought – “and, better yet, Buzz wasn’t flying it!”

“Welcome to the ‘Time Warp.’ My apologies for the fracas back there,” said our host, “but you never know what kind of trash will find its way into your neighborhood these days.”

Renfrew revved the nearly silent engine which sounded little louder than a lawn mower coasting its way toward the opening. In a moment we were airborne over Manhattan.

“You Americans feel you have all the latest technology. If your army could get its hands on my Time Warp, your President would think he’d become the Master of the Universe.”

It was thrilling, I admitted, though I was happy to be in the middle of the backseat between Tony and Teabag. Buzz had started up the Wild Blue Yonder song again which Tony then turned into a round but without any interest from the rest of us and some bad parallel intervals a few bars later, it quickly collapsed. Exhilaration was replaced by the knowledge that work, and a lot of it, was still to be done.

We were joking about the guy playing Rachmaninoff so unbearably loud when Buzz slipped me a carefully folded scrap of paper. Thinking it might be important and needed to be kept secret, I tried to read it surreptitiously while Lance was getting ready to pour a round of drinks from the copiously supplied bar on his right. On it, Buzz had scrawled the words “Rachmaninoff = Reach Fine Orgasm in F.” He was smirking like a 13-year-old but when Tony leaned over and read it, he turned bright red and sunk into his chair. She just shook her head. Boys...

“Now then, Dr. Dick,” Teabag asked, “since it seems obvious you are not our murderer in triplicate, tell us where to, next? Where does our scavenger hunt take us now, hmm?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “The last clue was fairly vague – school days and bust dusters... Perhaps you could tell us more about this Academy dal Segno? What is it and what connection does it have with Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved?”

“Ah, well,” he said sitting back into the comfort of his plane, “I have only recently begun researching this organization. It was founded by some members of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde – the Society of the Friends of Music,” he added solicitously for Buzz who nodded back to him. “The Society was founded in 1818 when Vienna had already been a magnificent City of Music since the days of Haydn and Mozart in the 1770s and ‘80s, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. With Beethoven’s death in 1827, some members realized his little secret might create some problems and so they moved to protect the woman they knew was the Immortal Beloved.”

“They knew who she was?” I was astounded – nowhere in the literature was there any actual verification of her identity.

“No. They knew HER. And her daughter who was by then 14 years old.”

“Daughter? Beethoven’s daughter?!!?” I was even more astounded.

Tony sat back into her seat, feeling that tingly sensation again which she dismissed as the effect of the ‘Dominant Seventh’ she had just tasted – one of Teabag’s specialties made of various parts vodka, 7-up, a dash of amaretto and a lot less tonic than usual.

“There were, apparently, a boxful of letters between them over the years, including all of the ones she and the little girl had sent to the composer which had been returned after his death by their mutual go-between. Apparently he – or she – missed the one that was found in his desk, the famous one written to her that summer of 1812 at the spa, Teplitz. When it became clear there were those who felt this knowledge would harm Beethoven’s image as a genius...”

“Schindler and his small-minded morality, no doubt,” I added, nursing my own drink rather cautiously. Beethoven’s constant assistant those last years had become infamous for having sanitized the Master’s life when he wrote the first official biography: it took decades to separate fiction from fact, still misleading people today.

“Among others, yes,” he continued, handing a drink to Buzz, “people who would try to destroy the letters which would obliterate any proof of their existence. But no one outside the Academy knows anything about them. The Academy itself is fairly small and very select. Only the initiated know more than that they existed. A mere handful knows their identity and only one, the Grand Maestro, knows where the box of letters has been hidden. It is passed on from generation to generation, usually through a very specific and very beautiful musical ritual, from what I can tell, but perhaps they weren’t able to make any plans this time,” he ended with a suggestive wave of his hand into the air.

“So you think Schnellenlauter was the current Grand Maestro? But who would kill someone for this information? Much less kill three conductors for it?”

“I really don’t know who the Grand Maestro is – or was – but I’m pretty sure, among past Grand Maestros were Schubert who’d been a pall-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral... and then Schumann who could have discovered it in the box of manuscripts that also contained the Great C Major Symphony... Don’t forget Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op. 17, his contribution to the Beethoven memorial with its last movement all about love... Then apparently Brahms who would have gotten it directly from Schumann himself if not from Clara, whether he got anything else from Clara or not... Then, perhaps Mahler who knew Brahms and I would suspect Schoenberg who knew Mahler and had even painted a picture of Mahler’s funeral. From there, I have no idea. I suppose conductors have had it in the past: why not now?”

“Hmmm, I know Schnellenlauter met Schoenberg in Hollywood but he met Stravinsky then, too, and many other famous composers – all the time, actually. I don’t think he ever talked about Schoenberg any more than he did anyone else whose music he performed. I know his wife Frieda had sung for Schoenberg several times before he died – she was just out of grad school then, but I remember her saying how much he had loved her voice. In fact I’m pretty sure that’s how she met Schnellenlauter – he was conducting a performance in L.A. for Schoenberg’s 75th Birthday. I think he said it was the First Chamber Symphony and she was singing in the 2nd String Quartet before intermission. Perhaps she was the connection? He never talked much about her after she died – in fact, hardly at all.”

“But,” he said, “not to change the subject, I’m afraid we can’t just hover around Manhattan all afternoon, Dr. Dick. The Time Warp may be able to elude radar and its fuel source might seem infinite, but still I think we need a destination. Let’s look at the clue again – school days? Would the clue lead us to someplace like a school? And if so, which school? And how would we find the next step in the quest if that isn’t the final clue?”

“Come on down, Dr. Dick,” Buzz hooted from the front of the plane. Renfrew frowned.

Tony turned suddenly toward Teabag. “So you think these will actually lead us to the box of letters that would reveal the identity of the Immortal Beloved and Beethoven’s daughter?”

“It’s possible. I was pretty sure it was in Vienna – that would’ve been logical. Not knowing who the Immortal Beloved was myself, she might have been a visitor at the spa that summer, since I think it was more likely they agreed to meet there, not actually meeting there for the first time. So it’s possible she too was from Vienna. Anyway, we know that this box - and I'm sure it's just a small box - was moved at least twice, the last time I’m aware of before Hitler took over Austria in 1938 – which might imply that Schoenberg had taken it out of Vienna when he fled to Paris and from there to... well, New York City." That city was beginning to fade beneath us as a storm front approached from the southwest.

“But wouldn’t he have taken it with him when he moved to Los Angeles? And then, after he died, many of his papers were returned to Vienna, right? Perhaps after the war, he felt it was better now for them to return, too.” There was also an important Schoenberg library left to UCLA where he taught in the ‘40s, but no mention had ever been made of a box of letters.

“But right now, we’re looking for a school – could it mean UCLA where Schoenberg taught?”

“Or is it simply that Schnellenlauter meant it for the person he was writing out these clues? That would seem to be you, Dr. Dick.” Tony was looking intently at me.

“Well, I met Schnellenlauter at Eastman when I was there: he was a frequent visitor in those years. But what would Beethoven’s letters be doing at Eastman? Oh, wait...”

The others stopped and turned toward me expectantly. Teabag’s eyebrows couldn’t possibly arch any more than they already were.

“I was a composition major with a minor in musicology. He was always telling me to focus on composing. He didn’t want to see me become, as he put it, ‘just another bust duster.’ That was his derogatory term for a musicologist.”

Teabag drew back, offended.

“Ah,” Tony said, “but if a bust duster is seeking the Immortal Beloved, does that mean the next clue is at Eastman somewhere? And then that one would lead us to the box of letters?”

“But it says the Immortal Beloved’s Quest,” I reminded her, “which implies SHE is on a quest, not that she is the object of a quest.”

“She’s seeking... empowerment, perhaps?” Buzz pondered.

“But I’m thinking a little... well, more deeply here. It’s not just a matter of her identity and Beethoven’s daughter,” Teabag said as he mixed Tony another drink and handed it to her. “I think this may lead us to an important discovery.” After a suitably pregnant pause, he added, “that the descendants of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved walk among us today!”

Tony practically convulsed in shivers and handed the drink back to Lance, with her apologies. “I’m sorry, I just can’t drink any more right now. It’s really very good but perhaps it’s the altitude.”

“Rennie, maybe we should show our friends how well the Time Warp can perform? I’d say let’s go to Rochester, New York!”

Renfrew reset the dials, turned the plane into the afternoon sun and advanced it to warp speed.

Buzz, thrown back in his seat by the acceleration, yelled “Oh yeah, do that thing you do!”

Manhattan became a blur behind us, and we were off!

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Author's note:
The Schoenberg Codeis a musical parody by Dick Strawser of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Stay tuned, some day, for his next serial novel, The Lost Chord.

Dr. Dick
© 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 6

The latest chapter of this serial novel, a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, introduces us to a new and very important character and sets our heroes onto yet another new leg of their quest, following their escapes from Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Where will they escape from next? Find out, as the plot continues to thicken...

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Buzz brought the helicopter down onto the landing pad. The Gatekeeper had certainly been right when she said it would be easy to spot. The fact the pad also had “CHEZ LANCE TEABAG” written out in bright red letters across the target didn’t hurt. It would have hurt less, perhaps, if we’d hit the target a little better, but hey...

The house itself was amazing, built high on a New Jersey cliff overlooking upper Manhattan. An old ruined Victorian castle that had once been an artists’ hangout in the Age of the Hippies, it had been built on a tall stone plinth that gave it a sense of invulnerability. We could only hope.

“We’d all better get out on the passenger side, Dr. Dick,” Buzz suggested sheepishly. “I believe I’m a little too close to the curb.”

Looking out the window on the pilot’s side, I noticed it was almost a sheer drop down: I didn’t care if it was 40 feet or 400, I had no intention of skirting the edge of the building. But still, considering our take-off from Lincoln Center, it was amazing Buzz landed us as cleanly as he had done, without major mishap.

“And it looks like we have a welcoming committee.” I pointed to the people standing by the doorway, peering to see if any of them resembled policemen.

Tony was still in a kind of shock as she clambered down from the chopper – not so much from Buzz’s flying but from the realization of what Agnes may have meant by “one-three-two” and the fact she knew her real name had been Philomel, even though she had hardly ever used it since she was a child and had changed it legally some ten years ago. And still, what is the significance of “one-three-two”?

There was no opportunity to ask her more, since Lance Teabag stood waiting for us to approach and we would need, somehow, an explanation.

He had not aged greatly in the twenty years since I had first met him, a little heavier and a little whiter (it happens to the best of us), but his hair was still as frazzled looking as you’d expect for an eminent musicologist. He had been a cantankerous old man at 60, however, so I didn’t expect him to have mellowed much now that he was 80-something. The wildly baroque-looking cane he leaned on, a wicked shillaleigh with its bronze dragon-headed handle, only accentuated his reputation, the perfect accessory for his eccentric aura.

When I say he was an eminent musicologist, I should clarify that by saying he was better known as an eccentric musicologist-wannabe, digging into the shadows of music’s history, frequently jumping to conclusions that often dumbfounded or amused his colleagues. He had parlayed the family fortune into a career where he could study, write and publish anything he wanted. He didn’t need to apply for grants and wait months or years until his project might be accepted or rejected by some panel of experts: he could just pick up and take off for whatever dusty library or monastery he chose to spend a few days or a few months in, sorting through old manuscripts until he found what he wanted. If it were, say, in a dusty attic in New Jersey or outside Vienna, he had the money to buy the manuscript or at least entice the owner into loaning it to him as opposed to someone else with better credentials but no bankroll.

It was in one such attic he located sketches he said proved Antonin Dvořák had begun sketching his Symphony in E Minor, the one we know as “From the New World,” as an octet for strings and winds tentatively titled “A Small World Symphony,” but the sketches broke off after the introduction of the famous “Largo” theme.

Teabag had also been on the trail of Berg’s private copy of the Lyric Suite except Douglass Green and George Perle managed to be a few steps ahead of him to get what passed for glory in the classical music world. Considered a “muck-raking musicologist,” always digging up unnecessary dirt about great composers as if “The Musical Quarterly” could be found in the grocery check-out aisle, he had become famous for this kind of sensational behind-the-scenes story. After establishing his facts, he often jumped to some of the wildest assumptions. A lover of conspiracy theories, he was not called the Tabloid Musicologist for nothing.

You could argue that he had not gotten a doctorate from any university or conservatory and that I, actually, had, though it was also easy to argue he was a famous musicologist living in flamboyant luxury and I was... well, we don’t really need to go there, do we?

What we were doing here and how he might be able to help – and how long before our whereabouts became known – were all part of an unanswered question with more than one off-stage trumpet. How much could I tell him? In fact, how much did I know that I could ask him what he knew that I’d know could help us? The mind boggled...

He wordlessly accepted the helicopter’s key and our symbolic surrender with all the grace of a father gloating over a reprobate teen-aged son who’d absconded with the family car for an evening’s joyride and gotten caught by the police. Then his face brightened into something that passed for a smile.

“Dr. Dick! Welcome to my unhumble abode! They told me you would be coming.”

“They?” It was impossible not to notice the tentativeness in my voice but I didn’t want to alarm him that we were being sought by the International Music Police if he didn’t know that already.

“Well, she... Ms. Petri from the Lincoln Center Library had alerted me that you were going to be, ah... returning my helicopter which I had been forced to abandon the other night during a storm. Too bad: I had just sent Renfrew and Riff-Raff to retrieve it so I could make it in to hear Lulu tonight at Avery Fisher.”

Perhaps he hadn’t heard yet that the performance would have to be canceled.

“Renfrew?” Buzz was equally tentative.

Teabag turned to him nonchalantly to explain. “Yes, my valet and driver. I have no idea what his real name is any more, I’m not even sure he does. Riff-Raff is my butler but we don’t need to go there.” There was a bit of a twinkle in his eyes as he tipped his head solicitously toward Buzz. “And you are...?”

After I had finished making our introductions, he quickly introduced the two servants who stood behind him – the maid, Heliotrope, wearing a magenta and white uniform with fishnet stockings; and Sergei, his Russian blonde hulk of a male nurse with a fairly limited vocabulary and a fondness for the music of Rachmaninoff.

The castle's near-ruined exterior, of course, was only a ploy. The interior had been meticulously renovated to accommodate the most modern luxuries and technologies. We settled into what would pass for the library, full of books, scores CDs and LPs, a very impressive sound system, numerous computers (even a small lap-top on the mantelpiece) and across from the window a very old grand piano covered with an even older Turkish carpet on which were piled numerous books around the neatly centered, nearly life-sized bust of Beethoven. Heliotrope brought in a tray of tea things as Sergei sat down at the piano until Teabag motioned for him to leave.

Standing by the piano, our host began to speak after a long pause. “The highly innovative entrance aside, Dr. Dick, what otherwise unexpected propitiousness am I to thank for the singular occasion of your most surprising visit?”

Buzz quickly figured out that Lance Teabag was not a New Jersey native.

“We are on what appears to be a musicological scavenger hunt, Dr. Teabag.” I knew that to call him simply “Mr.” Teabag would sound offensive yet just “Lance” would be too familiar for the slight professional relationship we shared. He might prefer, I thought, “Lord Teabag” since he had about him the complete aura of a wealthy landed aristocrat even if there wasn’t any noble blood flowing through his family tree (at least, as far as I knew, on the proper side of the sheets).

“Oh please,” he fluttered, “do call me Lance. No, actually, I rather like the sound of ‘Dr.,’ I admit.” He handed me a cup of freshly brewed, overly sweetened Earl Gray. “But seriously, what is your quest? Not the Holy Grail, I hope? I’m all out of grails this morning!”

“We’re not even really sure what it is, but we’ve been... uhm... given a number of clues and, well, we just haven’t had time to figure some of them out... we’ve been kind of running around a lot this morning.”

He drew his lips into a tight moue as he contemplated the three of us seated expectantly on his couch. “And you’re hoping that I, the famous musicologist, shall do your dirty work for you, is that it? Help you find this... this object of yours? And if I do help – not that I’m saying I will, but I do like a good game now and then – what do I win if you obtain your prize?”

“Not knowing what we’re expected to find, I can’t offer you anything of value beyond...” My voice momentarily trailed off as I could think of nothing sitting around my office except some old tote bags I'd forgotten about. “Well, we would be eternally grateful for your help!”

He now held out tea cups for Buzz and Tony in turn, though neither looked particularly eager at the prospect. “Ah,” he noted, “perhaps you would prefer something of greater substance.” He looked at his watch and noted the time – almost 11:00. “Renfrew was in the process of helping with the sandwiches for luncheon, so perhaps I could ask Heliotrope to bring in what may be ready. I’m afraid it’s nothing fancy for a Saturday morning, just tea sandwiches made from last-night’s left-over haggis. It’s one of Renfrew’s specialties – he’s Scottish, originally – though he makes a very grand... what do you Pennsylvanians call it? Shoo-fly Pie? He does love catching those free-range flies, you know!”

“Oh... no, thank you,” Buzz protested, sipping his tea and trying not to wince, “really, this will be fine - just fine.” Tony drank her tea in silence. “Yes, fine - F-I-N-E, fine...”

We settled down to work at the ornate coffee table and I explained what we had so far found and determined, though it was difficult to keep from telling him just how we found it as we went from clue to clue.

Minutes later, Renfrew, just back from Lincoln Center, entered with a tray of sandwiches. Buzz eyed them warily.

“I am frightfully sorry for the interruption, sir, after our fruitless journey into the city, but I thought by now you – and your GUESTS,“ he added with a certain malicious emphasis, “might like a bit of lunch. I found some leg of lamb which I thought they might prefer to the haggis.” He placed the tray in front of us and stood back as if hoping to continue but afraid to do so without permission.

“Yes, thank you, Rennie.” Then realizing he was still standing there, added somewhat icily, “Will there be anything else, Renfrew?”

Noticing Tony’s hesitation with the sandwich – perhaps she was having visions of Lambchop in her head – he asked, “Perhaps Ma’am’s a vegetarian?”

Tony looked over her shoulder before realizing Renfrew must have meant her. “Me? No, not yet, anyway. Thanks, this will be just fine.”

“You were asking about how composers might use...” Lance began but then stopped when he realized Renfrew hadn’t moved yet. “Thank you, Renfrew, that will be all?”

With that, Renfrew made a deep bow and handed him a folded piece of paper. “This note, sir, uhm... just arrived. I thought it best you should read it.”

“Thank you,” he said, pocketing it, adding stiffly, “I’ll look at it later.” Renfrew frowned and left the room.

“Now, you were asking about how composers might include some kind of secret message in their music. It’s well documented that, in the Renaissance and Baroque Eras, there was a whole system of patterns – tone-painting clichés, really – that composers relied on to depict various emotions: rising lines for joy and expectation, descending lines for dejection, all of which seem fairly obvious to us today yet...”

“Dr. Dick mentioned Mozart’s use of ‘three’ in his masonic music and...” but before Tony could finish, the automatic professor in Teabag began the condensed version of his book while Buzz and I started scribbling away trying to decipher the latest “fib” – perhaps he thought we were furiously taking notes, though none of what he was saying seemed to bear any importance on what we needed to know right now, no doubt how many of my own students must have felt if they knew it wasn’t going to be on the test.

Buzz’s first solution didn’t seem to work. Using the Rule of 12, he had taken
transposed it and gotten

Then he wrote another line: “ACE ABLE GNAT.” When I added a “?” to it, he wrote underneath it “LANCE TEABAG.” We both tried stifling our laughter, but it was too late.

Teabag paused in mid-sentence, interrupting himself with all the disdain of a professor catching students passing notes in class which is exactly what we were doing. “Do you have something you would like to share with everyone, Dr. Dick?”

“In fact, I do, Lance,” I said sheepishly, quickly scribbling over Buzz's latest anagram. “My apologies, but while you were telling my friends here about your findings, I wanted to work on this last clue.” I shoved the paper over in front of Tony so she could see better. She, too, frowned that it made no sense.

Mozart and the Masons were quickly forgotten once I began telling Lance more about our clues. We had not yet really figured out the significance of the one that confirmed the “transposition rule” which also sent us to “Arnold’s Sketch” of Op. 45 while the “Divine Proportion” had located the post-it note. I pointed out, knowing the piece was structured around three parts with two intervening episodes, that this spot, the Golden Section of the entire trio, marked the beginning of the second episode, starting off with a fanfare figure in the cello. But there had not been time to examine the manuscript in terms of the last line, “Phrasings of Celestial Music.”

“That would make it 3 sections plus 2 sections, perfect according to the Golden Section, and maybe...,“ I pondered, “maybe the ‘Celestial Music’ was something he heard during that moment of his near-death experience, something he needed to write down before he could forget it?”

“Or something he needed to make sure someone else would discover if he died and otherwise took the secret with him?” Buzz sounded only moderately skeptical, this time.

“Perhaps we were to find specific pitches that we would then transpose a whole-step – like the coded messages – in the music?” Tony sounded dubious but added, “you know, like in Berg’s Lyric Suite. At that point, Schoenberg began incorporating some secret message that...?”

Teabag bristled slightly. “Who told you about the Lyric Suite?”

I had forgotten this was still a sore-point with him, having had everything snatched away from him by two reputable musicologists who’d gotten all the recognition for their discoveries of Berg’s hidden love-letter.

“But what would Schoenberg know and why would he hide something so secretively that could only be discovered long after he was gone?” It now sounded like Teabag had been completely marginalized and that was the last straw.

“My dear Dr. Dick, may I ask what the hell is going on here? You come into my house and ask for my help yet you’re not exactly making it easy for me to assist you in your quest. Please allow me to help you,” he said, sounding considerably wounded by our ingratitude.

So with some reluctance I began to lay out all the clues in order, though I wasn’t sure what was more important, the order we found them in or the order he had written them.

First, we had the Monty Python reference on the back of the codeless fib about the Transfigured Night. I had found the word “Viola” scrambled within “MY HOVERCRAFT IS FULL OF EELS.” It had not occurred to me before, but it was an 8-syllable line: was it perhaps missing the first few lines?

“Or perhaps,” he muttered, smacking his lips in anticipation of a challenge, “a substitute last line to replace the one about the violist knowing transfigured nights? I love anagrams, they’re such an easy way to waste a few minutes’ time.”

After a bit of scribbling himself, he asked “you wouldn’t happen to know anyone named Chet Rylf, would you? No, I thought not,” pushing the paper toward me.


“Ah,” Buzz pointed to the first two words – “there’s CLEF...”

“VIOLA CLEF,” Tony practically shouted, “yes, we saw that in the manuscript, where he used the fancier clef rather than the simpler box-shaped alto clef he’d used elsewhere!”

“Or how about...” I paused as I wrote out my own theory: SEE, VIOLA CLEF RHYTM SLURS OFF. “Except we need another H since ‘rhythm’ is misspelled...”

“So if we went back to Schoenberg’s sketches and compared it to the final printed edition, would we notice a difference in the rhythms and phrasing or bowings in the viola part beginning at the Golden Section?”

“But let’s look at the clue we did find there, the post-it note,” though I pushed forward my scratch pad rather than the note itself. “It starts ‘Look Back Fondly On school days...’ but I can’t see anything particularly nostalgic... oh wait... ‘Look Back’... in retrograde, maybe?”

One of the key principles of serialism was to take 12 tones, place them in some order to create a “row,” then create new variants on that order by turning it upside-down or playing it backwards or both – the principles of inversion, retrograde and retrograde-inversion. Those who hated his music, I mentioned, often used it as an attack on Schoenberg for inventing something so academic and unnatural, who could possibly be expected to hear it while ignoring the fact that in many of his fugues and canons, Bach had done the same thing.

“So if we read this backwards...” Buzz pointed with his pen, “the lines become...”

And we all read it out in unison: THE BUST DUSTER SEEKS AN IMMORTAL BELOVED’S QUEST.

“Now we’re on to something,” I said triumphantly!

“What...!?” Buzz sounded relatively clueless.

“The woman who married someone while pregnant with another man’s child? Did she marry a violist? But who was the father of the child? The answer to that may well be that last line: think!”

“The Immortal Beloved?” Buzz turned to look at me in disbelief. “You mean, the father is... Beethoven?”

At that moment, Tony sat back. “Weird... I just got tingly all over...”

“We don’t know who she was but we know what she was, right?” I nodded toward Buzz.

“A slut? Oh... sorry...” Buzz’s contrition sounded artificial but I let it pass, especially since Teabag seemed rather amused by it.

“So, Dr. Dick,” he smiled, sitting back in his chair, “it seems you are on the trail of...”

There was an urgent knock on the door. “Not... NOW, please,” our host shouted over his shoulder. You could hear the impending tantrum in the footsteps as they stalked away.

“Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, apparently,” I said, finishing his sentence. Musicologists for generations had their theories about her identity and lobbied at international conferences for their favorite contenders. No one really knew. Beethoven’s sole remaining letter to her was found in his desk drawer after his death, a letter he’d written twenty years earlier, possibly never sent. He was very careful never to use a name or anything that could reveal her identity. He died with the secret, so far as we knew. Did Schoenberg know the secret? And if so, how? And why, more than a century later, all the apparent secrecy?

Teabag leaned forward and tapped a finger on the post-it note. “And this is what you found in the Schoenberg sketch?”

“Yes,” I swallowed as I moved it toward him. “Do you know the meaning of... The Sign?”

Again, Tony sat back. “Oooh, there it goes again!”

While Teabag pored over the note, Buzz cleared his throat just as I looked up to see in the mirror the image of an apparently very large man with frizzled blondish-white hair dressed in a tuxedo, falling face down with arms and legs flailing, past the window behind us. Another of Teabag’s servants?

“Yes, Dr. Dick, what you’ve found here is from someone who apparently is not only a member of the ‘Academy dal Segno’ but apparently very high up in the hierarchy. Who is giving you these clues?” He was more curious than demanding, but I didn’t know how much I could say.

Just then, Buzz blurted out, “you know, another clue we haven’t figured out yet was what the Mozart and Shostakovich pictures have to do with anything, the way the body was placed.”

“Body?” The room became suddenly chilled by Teabag’s icy tone. “What body, Dr. Dick?”

“Ooops,” Buzz said, leaning back on the couch.

Well, the cat was definitely out of the body-bag now, I figured, so I might as well level with him. Just as I began telling him what I knew about the murder, there was again an urgent knocking on the door. Teabag reached into his pocket and quickly read the note Renfrew had given him.

“Excuse me,” he said, interrupting the now familiar recitation of facts, “but Rennie seems rather impatient.” And with that, he hobbled out of the room, his cane barely touching the floor. He shut the door firmly behind him.

Now what,” I wondered! Buzz apologized for letting slip the reference to the body, and who knew what Renfrew’s note was about. Still, it seemed another escape was going to be necessary soon. What if that guy in the tux who fell past the window was NOT one of Teabag’s servants? But who would be wearing a tux at almost noontime on a Saturday?

“We’ve been talking about the Golden Section a lot,” I wondered, refusing to be flustered just yet. “Perhaps there’s some clue there, what with Mozart’s birthday 250 years ago and Shostakovich’s birthday 100 years ago. What would be the Golden Section between 1906 and 1756, Tony, can you figure that out?”

“Well, that’s 150 years, divided by 1.618... would be 92.7... which would be 1848.7. Let's see, 7/10th of a year would be the 255th-and-a-half day, right? So, are you looking for someone born around September 13th, 1848?”

Buzz sat there with his mouth open, speaking of a mind for figures: he couldn’t do that that fast even with a calculator.

“Hmm, Schoenberg was born on September 13th and Clara Schumann, too, but neither of them in 1848,” I considered. “Maybe it’s the day we’re looking for, not the year. How many days between Mozart’s birthday on January 27th and Shostakovich’s on September 25th?”

Buzz began working on his fingers, silently mouthing the lines “30 Days hath September...” but he hadn’t yet gotten to “all the rest have” when she said, “242.”

“And the Golden Section of 242 is...?” I looked at her expectantly.

“149.5.” She looked at me quizzically, adding that to January 27th. “But that... that’s...”

I had walked over to a wall-calendar behind Teabag’s piano, one with photographs of, as it said, “Famous Writers on Music” – June’s photograph was of Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker whose book The Rest Is Noise had become all the rage – but judging from the number of pin-point holes in the pages, it looked less like a pin-up calendar than a dart board. I suspected Lance Teabag had not made this year’s calendar, either. I quickly counted from Mozart’s birthday.

“Today!” she and I blurted out together. “June 24th! Midsummer Day.”

“And the feast day of St. John the Baptist," I added, "a very important day to the Masons, for example.”

“Officially that would be mid-day... noon – in fact, right NOW!” She stood up as the grandfather clock in the corner began booming out the noon chimes. “There it goes again!” We all felt some goose-bumps that time.

What was the significance of today’s date, we wondered. Was it just a coincidence? Had we landed here ironically through a wrong interpretation of the clue? Was something going to be revealed today? And if so, what!? Much less where...

The door opened quickly and Lance Teabag shuffled into the room, followed by Renfrew and Sergei the male nurse who immediately sat down at the piano as if ready to play. The moment was somewhat spoiled by Teabag putting a hand on his shoulder and whispering “Not yet, Rachie...”

"Horosho," he mumbled and sat their, intently pensive.

“Dr. Dick,” Teabag began with some astringency in his tone, “you have apparently not been entirely honest with me.”

“Ah,” I thought, “where have I heard that before?”

“Not only have you deceived me about the death of my friend Hans-Heinz Schnellenlauter, but you are suspected of being his murderer, including two other conductors, one of whom I was going to see tonight before his performance of Berg’s ‘Lulu’ at Lincoln Center. Would you, perhaps, care to explain this curious turn of events?”

But before I could begin, there was a great crash as a very large-built but fairly banged-up young man with frizzy blondish-white hair wearing a considerably shredded tuxedo exploded through the window wielding an especially nasty looking H&K MP5 10mm fully automatic submachine gun that looked like it could fire bullets the size of overripe zucchini and in the left hand, what would appear to be a viola case.

Needless to say, we all froze.

“Where is it? Where is the key?” he shouted desperately, pointing the machine gun first at me, then at Teabag. “Do you have it? Give it to me!”

Figuring he meant the post-it note, Lance pointed out it was, in fact, still on the table. As the intruder sidled toward it, he went to grab Tony as a hostage, but realized both his hands were full. In this moment of indecision, Teabag, with extraordinary quickness, brought the heavy bronze dragon-head of his cane down upon the hand holding the viola case. Rather than drop the case, he let go of the machine gun instead which went off with a dramatic spray destroying the chandelier and peppering the walls and ceiling before coming to a halt.

Holding his wounded wrist in a mixture of ecstasy and defeat, the intruder crumpled to the floor and was quickly subdued by Renfrew and Sergei. I grabbed Tony who had already retrieved our notes and pulled her toward me just as the chandelier crashed onto the coffee table with a dazzling spray of electrical fireworks when Heliotrope ran breathlessly into the room.

“The police,” she panted, “they are here!”

“That was decidedly quick of them, I must commend them on their timing. However, Dr. Dick, if you and your friends will follow me? Renfrew – and you, young man,” he said, indicating Buzz, “if you will assist with our latest guest, hmmm? Thank you,” he added as they gathered up the submissive but still struggling giant now safely bound fast with some ace bandages Sergei had in his pocket. It didn’t look terribly secure but it would do for now, I figured.

Teabag leaned against the mantle and a secret passageway opened up beside the fireplace. “Walk this way,” he bowed toward us, then turned to the male nurse and said calmly, “Rachie, now!”

“Horosho!” The blond hulk beamed as he sat down and began pounding away at Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp Minor Prelude as the wall closed behind us. We could hear the muffled shouts of Hemiola and his men who had just at that moment burst in only to find that, once again, Dr. Dick had eluded him.

Our day may have been turned upside down already, but for how much longer would our luck hold out? Racing down the secret passageway, we finally reached our destination.

"I don't believe it!" But seeing was clearly believing.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2009

Translating Poems Into Song Texts: Part 2

Between writing some 60,000 words about Mendelssohn in the past three weeks, blogging about the latest insult to the arts in Pennsylvania and posting installments of the revised edition of “THE SCHOENBERG CODE,” I've gotten back into composing again after a nearly month-long hiatus.

Over the summer, I've been slowly chipping away at a cycle of seven songs about creativity and inspiration, written for mezzo-soprano and piano. It should not be such a time-consuming project but I have found in the past few years, having regained my once abandoned creativity, that composing has become fairly labor-intensive, unlike the almost spontaneous process it had been years ago, writing a half-hour chamber opera over Thanksgiving vacation when I was a student or an eight-minute multi-choral piece, “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” on Thanksgiving Day, starting it from scratch in mid-morning and completing it in time to go out for dinner later that afternoon. More recently, it took a year to write a string quartet and two to compose a symphony.

Though not nearly as involved, it still is taking me about a month or so on average to write a song somewhere between 2 and 4 minutes in length. Of the seven poems I'm setting, I've completed the four shorter ones – Walt Whitman's “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” Saint-Amant's “The Lazy Poet” (a 17th-Century French sonnet), a brief recitative on lines by the Chinese poet, Li Po and, just completed this morning, a haiku by the Japanese poet, Bashō. Still to go are the first and last poems and the keystone of the set, my own translation of Rilke's “An die Musik (To Music).” Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 100 opens the set and I've chosen a poem by the Persian poet and religious mystic, best known as Rumi, to conclude it.

The Shakespeare and Whitman are the only poems originally in English. I managed to concoct my own translations of the French and German poems through my limited familiarity with those languages, but for Japanese, Chinese and Persian, I've had to rely on other translators to come up with my own versions. When I set a series of poems by Li Po when I was a doctoral student at Eastman, I found them in the original language and actually went to a detailed Chinese-English dictionary to teach myself how to figure out the meaning of each character. I asked a former college roommate of mine who was from Hong Kong to check it for me and he made only one suggestion. In fact, I even included the original Chinese in the programs for the first (and only) performance of “Seven Songs from the Middle Kingdom” mostly because I thought it looked really cool and it freaked out the concert office because they had no idea how they were going to do that... This time, though, I was unable to find the originals and so had to rely on what I consider a “cheat.” It's not really just paraphrasing what somebody else wrote, but trying to find something that suits my style and makes a good vocal setting.

For this final poem by Rumi, I was initially attracted by a couple of lines from a Coleman Barks translation I'd seen quoted in Julia Cameron's “The Artist's Way,” some lines intended to be inspiring to someone trying to reclaim their lost creativity.

Say yes quickly,
if you know, if you've known it
from before the beginning of the universe.”

A little googling and I found not only the whole poem in Barks' translation, I found another translation that is more literal, if in unidiomatic English. Barks apparently left out several lines of the original poem, reworking it completely, transforming it rather than translating it.

When I read that he does not speak or read Persian, though he's considered one of the foremost translators of Rumi's poems today with several volumes to his credit, I figured perhaps I shouldn't feel so guilty about “preçis-ing” and combining bits from other translations. Though I feel my own owes a great deal to Mr. Barks' work, I've decided to describe my version of the poem as “a free translation of Rumi, after Coleman Barks.” Curiously, I don't even know the title of the original, if there was one, but “Say Yes Quickly” is such a striking line – and I'm tempted to use it for the entire cycle – it's obviously borrowed from Barks' version, even if the other translation uses “Quickly say 'Yes, yes'...”

This afternoon, then, after putting the near-finishing touch on Bashō's haiku

Endless misty rain
Can't see Fuji in the haze
Interesting – once more

I worked, once more, on getting Rumi's lines into some sense of shape.

It's not that it needed some stricter form. Most Persian poems are based on rhyming couplets and are fairly strict when it comes to rhyme schemes and meters, most of which is lost in English translations simply by the nature of translating a foreign language as nuanced as Persian. In the one source I found the poem on-line, it lists it as Rumi's “Ghazal 2933.” A Ghazal (which I was disappointed one source tells me should be pronounced “guzzle”) is a series of couplets, each of which is an independent poem (similar to a three-line haiku) but creates a meditation on a theme in its context, each couplet ending with a rhymed word or the same word. This, however, is almost impossible to render consistently into English.

Also, since I planned a fairly strict musical structure, I felt it would help balance the words and the music if the words more easily reflected some kind of structure. I quickly gave up on couplets and rhymes completely, however.

Here are the three translations: the first is a more literal translation by A.J. Arberry and was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1968.

- - - - - - -
You who are Imam of love, say Allah Akbar, for you are drunk;
shake you two hands, become indifferent to existence.
You were fixed to a time, you made haste; the time of prayer
has come. Leap up - why are you seated?
In hope of the qibla of God you carve a hundred qibla; in hope
of that idol's love you worship a hundred idols.
Fly upwards, O soul, O obedient soul; the moon is above, the
shadow is low.
Do not like a beggar knock your hand at any door; knock at
the ring of the door of heaven, for you have a long hand.
Since the flagon of heaven has made you like that, be a
stranger to the world, for you have escaped out of self.
I say to you, "How are you?" No one ever says to the "how-
less" soul, "How are you?"
Tonight you are drunk and dissolute, come tomorrow and you
will see what bags you have torn, what glasses you have broken.
Every glass I have broken was my trust in you, for myriadwise
you have bound up the broken.
O secret artist, in the depths of your soul you have a thousand
forms, apart from the moon and the Lady of the Moon [Mahasti].
If you have stolen the ring, you have opened a thousand
throats; if you have wounded a breast, you have given a hundred
souls and hearts.
I have gone mad; whatever I say in madness, quickly say,
"Yes, yes," if you are privy to Alast.

-- (Translated by A.J. Arberry - "Mystical Poems of Rumi 1" University of Chicago Press, 1968)
- - - - - - -

The second is Coleman Barks' version, published by Threshold Books in 1984

- - - - - - -
"Say Yes Quickly"
Forget your life. Say "God is Great." Get up.
You think you know what time it is. It's time to pray.
You've carved so many little figurines, too many.
Don't knock on any random door like a beggar.
Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where
you go on the street, the street
where everyone says, "How are you?"
and no one says "How aren't you?"
Tomorrow you'll see what you've broken and torn tonight,
thrashing in the dark. Inside you
there's an artist you don't know about.
He's not interested in how things look different in moonlight.
If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you're causing terrible damage.
If you've opened your loving to God's love,
you're helping people you don't know
and have never seen.
Is what I say true? Say yes quickly,
if you know, if you've known it
from before the beginning of the universe.

-- (Version by Coleman Barks - "Open Secret" Threshold Books, 1984)
- - - - - - -

The third one is mine – not intended as an improvement but as one that suits my own musical purposes better. Not having Rumi's original poem, I feel less awkward, for some reason, not setting it as the poet wrote it hundreds of years ago: I would never dream of cutting up and rewording Shakespeare's Sonnet just to suit my needs, after all. But here it is:

- - - - - - -
Say “God is Great” for you are drunk – forget today
You have lost the sense of time – it's time to pray
Get up – why are you still seated?

You have carved too many little statues, idols
Fly upwards, soul: the moon is above, the shadow is low

Don't knock like a beggar at the door – take the ring of heaven
Be a stranger to the world – escape from yourself
I say to you “how are you?” No one says, “how aren't you?”

Tomorrow, see what you have torn and broken,
Thrashing about in the darkness
Everything you destroyed was my trust in you

The secret artist deep in your soul has a thousand forms
You can do great damage or help people you have never seen

Is this true, what I have said?
Say “yes” quickly, if you know
If you have known it from before the universe began!
- - - - - - -

The problem in this piece, however, is going to be the piano part. I want it to be “crackling with energy,” constantly rising and falling like a seething fire that occasionally throws off sparks or dies down to glowing embers. The sound that comes closest to this, I think, can be found in the piano etudes of Győrgy Ligéti – as an example, the 13th (appropriately) entitled “The Devil's Staircase” which you can hear in this amazing performance by Greg Anderson. Here, I will also be challenged by my limited pianistic skills in trying to recreate something like this in my own musical voice.

But at least it will give me something to do for the next... oh, six weeks or so...

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Budget Surprise: Sales Tax & Tickets

As you've probably heard, the G-20 Summit is taking place in Pittsburgh this week when leaders of the twenty major nations gather to discuss international economic issues.

While President Barack Obama will be meeting with various world leaders, First Lady Michelle Obama will be taking the spouses of those leaders “arts-hopping.” They will visit the Warhol Museum after they've taken in a performance at a local arts school, the Pittsburgh Creative & Performing Arts School for middle and senior high school students where students will perform with such ringers as Yo-Yo Ma, Trisha Yearwood and Marvin Hamlisch.

So far, that's all I've seen of their itinerary. While I'm sure there's more they could go see, I wonder how many of those organizations are struggling to keep their doors open these days but not just because the economy's in a slump (to put it mildly).

As most of you would also be aware of, Pennsylvania has been without a budget since July 1st. That means many organizations that depend on state financing are not receiving their funding to continue operations: this includes libraries and social services as well as state workers who were not receiving their paychecks until a special round-about way of sort of approving part of a budget proposal was implemented to “bail them out,” to use a term becoming increasingly popular during these economic hard times.

While legislators argue about millions of dollars for this or that – how much to cut, how much to increase revenues by – the arts in this state are waiting for word on a fairly insubstantial amount of that money intended to support all the arts organizations across the commonwealth. In July, it was about $14.5 million but, in this latest proposal, seems to have been reduced to $10 million – an improvement over those who wanted to “zero it out” completely. In this day of big corporations and huge spending plans, this is not a lot of money considering the amount of people it can impact.

We now have a budget proposal, one that was reached less than a week ago, but that doesn't mean “we have a budget.” There are still things to agree and disagree about and no matter what kind of consensus brought it about, the proposal is not facing smooth sailing.

To almost everyone's surprise, there's a new wrinkle for the arts.

It's a proposal to add the sales tax surcharge to the price of tickets for arts and entertainment events. In Philadelphia, that would be an 8% tax; in the rest of the state, 6%. Apparently it does not apply to movies or sports events which, frankly, if you're hoping to make some money, would be a fairly obvious solution.

Here are some recent articles and reactions to this new proposal.

In an editorial from Harrisburg's Patriot-News, it is mentioned that Rep. Jake Corman (R-Centre and Republican appropriations chairman) considers adding this sales tax only to “professional” arts organizations and that such a ticket represents “the ultimate discretionary buy,” adding that “people could avoid it if they liked.” (I would imagine they could also avoid seeing the latest block-buster movie at the local cineplex, gambling at the casino or buying smokeless tobacco products, but I digress...)

The proposal expects this to bring in a $120 million in tax revenues. Some argue that some of this money will go into a “rainy-day” fund for the arts, though so far there seems to be no such thing.

Sports events had initially been included in this possible sales tax proposal but in the end were not included in the proposal. Considering that would add another $64 million in tax revenues, it doesn't make a lot of sense to drop it.

As the editorial continues, “Instead of the Steelers and Phillies helping close the budget gap, nonprofit organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Harrisburg’s Market Square Concerts, seem slated for that.”

- - - - - - -
UP-DATE: Dr. William Murray, President of the Board of the Harrisburg Symphony, writes the "As I See It" column in Thursday's Patriot-News.

While he mentions that the expense of book-keeping to account for the tax will tax organizations' already over-worked small support staffs, he doesn't mention that, aside from the tax's adverse impact on potential ticket-sales, the only way these organizations might have to make up the short-fall would be to, what... increase the price of tickets? That's how corporations pass on government taxes, forcing the consumers to bear the burden.

Since Sen. Corman feels such events are "the ultimate discretionary buy," maybe people who find the arts important in their lives should continue to purchase their tickets but reduce their contributions to political candidates?
- - - - - - -

This post is also intriguing, from a Philadelphia-base financial blog, “It's Our Money.

- - - - - - -
'Get mad that it was necessary in part because of a big tax break for corporations…one that will cost you and other taxpayers nearly $100 million, the same amount to be generated by the so-called “culture tax.”

'The “Single sales factor “ is essentially a technical change that will mean big bucks for corporations like Hershey Foods and U.S. Steel – companies based in Pennsylvania that do most of their business elsewhere.'
- - - - - - -

Check “Save the Arts in PA” for information as well – like Rep. Corman's explanation that this is designed as a “user fee” - or this re-post of Karen Heller's article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Who in Harrisburg Needs the Arts?”

There's also this article that appeared in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

- - - - - - -
Another area of concern was what arts people viewed as an unfairness in the budget proposal - that it would extend the sales tax to cultural venues but not sports events and movies.

City and state officials said yesterday that applying the sales tax to pro sports teams would be difficult if not impossible, due in large part to past agreements under which the state helped finance new stadiums in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for the Eagles, Phillies, Steelers, and Pirates.

Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesman for Gov. Rendell, said no law prevents the state from extending its sales tax to pro sports events. But such a move, he said, would hit those two cities hard.
Here's how: When the state agreed to help finance the new stadiums, the teams agreed, in return, to guarantee millions in annual tax revenue to the state. In the Eagles' case, for example, that is $2.5 million annually.

If more taxes are collected from sports tickets via a sales tax, the financially strapped city would have to pick up the difference, Ciccocioppo said.
- - - - - - -

It continues by urging “members of the cultural community to blitz legislators and inform patrons in an effort to stop the tax extension.”

While there seems to be no plan to collect the tax retroactively for tickets already purchased, you might want to consider getting that season subscription before the budget is officially signed and implemented.

(You can read my earlier posts about the Arts Issues with Pennsylvania's budget, here, here and here.)

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 5

In our earlier chapters of The Schoenberg Code (a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code), Dr. Dick has become the main suspect in the murder of a famous conductor and while so far successfully eluding the International Music Police, it looks like he is about to be apprehended at the Lincoln Center Music Library. Meanwhile, the real murderer - a large man who plays a killer viola - is hunting for something, something important enough to kill for. The story continues...

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The elevator door squeaked and clamped closed behind us after Agnes the Gatekeeper and Buzz stepped back to let us in. They had looked so incongruous when the door opened since I’d never seen the Gatekeeper anywhere but seated in her security booth: she seemed even shorter standing next to the ectomorphic Buzz Blogster but of course Tony and I made an equally unusual pair as well.

“So,” I considered, “this is the end, is it?” It seemed odd to be standing there facing them so Tony and I turned around to face the door, anticipating the imminent presence of Inspector Hemiola and a barrage of International Music Police ready to take us into custody. How would I ever prove that I had nothing to do with the murders of three conductors, one of them a close friend and mentor?

Agnes leaned forward and hit one of the buttons but I was surprised to realize we were going up, not down. Wouldn’t the police be in the lobby?

Buzz began. “I had just stepped outside, thinking maybe I could grab something to eat before you were done, when I saw Hemiola and some of his men barreling down the street. That was when I called you,” he said, turning to Tony.

“How did you remember my number? I hadn’t thought I shouldn’t answer it – it occurred to me maybe Hemiola was able to trace my number through my office.”

“Well, I have a pretty good memory for figures... I mean, numbers... well...” he stammered as he tried to hide the fact he was blushing. I cleared my throat.

“What explanation is needed when accused of murder you stand, of my dear old friend whom just the other day I saw, now for the last time.” Agnes sounded both hurt and angered. “Young man to me explained, but still, you need the truth to tell and be set... free!”

“It won’t matter what truth I tell the police because they’ll just lock me up while the real murderer is getting away.”

“There is only one truth, Dr. Dick.” She shook her head.

“Well, he was my friend, too, and I could never imagine killing anyone much less a friend, but I’m trying to figure out why he was killed and how that might lead us to the real murderer.” I wondered how much I could tell her. She seemed more wise than wizened even though I never could place her unusual accent.

“You seek... The Sign?” Her voice practically croaked, causing both Tony and Buzz to glance over at me.

“The sign? Uhm...” Then I recalled the post-it note I’d found in the Schoenberg sketch which had a pyramid of three musical symbols – “signs” in the top center and bottom two corners – surrounding another “fib” with some coded lines I hadn’t taken the time to examine. The pyramid was made out of the symbol called “dal segno” which means to “take it from the sign.” What did “The Sign” mean to her?

“Yes,” I said, more confidently, wondering what Agnes knew but realizing she apparently knew more than I did. At this point, with my usual delusions of adequacy, I figured almost anybody knew more than I did.

“Yes, “ I told her, “I seek... The Sign. How can you help me find it?”

“First,” she said, “we must with practicalities contend if you are to escape to seek... The Sign.”

The elevator had come to a slow and agonizing halt. I had no idea where in Lincoln Center we’d be: it didn’t seem that tall a building. It felt like forever, now that it had stopped, and still the doors did not open.

“Come on, come on,” I muttered under my breath, “I haven’t got all minute!”

“Patience, Dr. Dick,” Agnes’ voice said softly beside me, “if you intend to seek... The Sign, you must know all things come of their own if you but control your inner brat.”

I had to admit if she kept talking like that, I’d probably “inner brat” her real soon, but I figured she could read my mind so I quickly changed gears and took a deep breath. Buzz and Tony each did the same. Clearly, The Sign was going to be something significant and I needed to know everything I could. Plus I needed to get out of this building: if we’re on the roof, there are only so many roofs – rooves? I forget – you can run around on at Lincoln Center before they’d catch you anyway. Or before you'd end up jumping...

Finally, the door opened. We stood on a wide expanse of roof looking toward the Hudson and there facing us was a helicopter! I looked over – then down – at Agnes and asked, “and this will lead us to... The Sign?”

“I cannot help you more, my friend,” she muttered, slowly shaking her head. “It is for you to finish the quest.”

“Are we just supposed to steal this helicopter?” Buzz’s excitement was tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism.

“Not ‘steal’ – borrow!” She pointed toward the northwest. “This belongs to someone I think you too know, Dr. Dick. On the cliffside over there he lives, a famous British musicologist. Perhaps his articles about Mozart’s Masonic connections you recall? Or in Alban Berg’s ‘Lulu’ the role of analogy?”

“You mean Lance Teabag?” I had met him once at a conference not long after I started teaching. He was, well... an eccentric kind of guy, I guess. And very wealthy which was good because he wasn’t going to make much of a living off of his books which sold maybe a dozen copies a year. But then, I was an unpublished composer, so who was I to sneer?

“Yes, the same. A helicopter pad he keeps here to travel back and forth, but the other night after the opera, so bad was the weather, a cab he took home and in a few days would be back, he said. You may, if you wish, return it to him.”

“But how? Where does he live and who’s going to fly it?” Buzz’s excitement was quickly being overshadowed by even more skepticism.

She turned to him and smiled. “The humble life does not attract Dr. Teabag, I fear. You cannot miss which house is his: your own inner strength, such as it is, will find him. And who will fly?” She paused, peering at him, then stood back into the shadow of the elevator. “You!”

As the door closed, she said “To my post must I return and deal with your policeman. May the forte be with you: and you, my dear Philomel,” she said, pointing toward Tony, “remember: one-three-two.” And with that, she was gone.

Philomel? I looked over at Tony who stood there, dazed.

Buzz was, in his own way, dazed: he was going to fly a helicopter? Freakin' awesome!

I, too, stood dazed: somehow, I was supposed to find Lance Teabag’s house out of all the posh homes along the Palisades and then realized I was going to do this in a helicopter flown by Buzz Blogster. Could it get any worse than this?

Well, yes, I could just turn myself over to Inspector Hemiola, I suppose. We ran to the helicopter which had Lance Teabag’s name emblazoned on the side of it. Subtlety was not part of his reputation, but if he could lead me to... The Sign, then I would have to ask his help.

Buzz looked at me. “So who has the keys?”

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

Nepomuck was in the midst of the 6th of the Bach Suites, the one he loved the best because it was originally written for the 5-string cello, the“viola pomposa,” and he felt particularly prodigious when he played its great arching lines, when his cell phone rang and the strains of the Pachelbel Canon began to intermingle with the Bach. He stopped, paused reverently to listen while putting the instrument down. He was using his old standard viola, an American generic model, not the White Viola, otherwise he would become too hungry before lunchtime and he’d already eaten a good bit of lasagna in the last 24 hours.

It was Charles Leighton-Quackerly again. The sound, he noted, was a little distorted.

“That’s because I’m on a plane, Nepomuck. I’ll be in New York shortly. I can’t talk long.”

“Yes, sir. There must be news, then.”

“There is: very astute!” There wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in his voice. There was a pause and he could hear mumbling in the background. “Yes, I’m supposed to review a concert in New York, you know...”

“I’m afraid that concert will be canceled, sir.” Nepomuck showed no sense of humor in anything he did or said.

“Not you, boy, wait a minute...” There was over a minute of shuffling and “excuse me, pardon me”s before Leighton spoke again. “Better, now I’m the restroom. Damn nosy seat-partner... Okay, here’s the... yes yes, just a minute,” he practically shouted into the phone.

“Yes, sir, I have the whole day to wait for your assignment.” Nepomuck was nothing if not deferential.

“Not you... someone with an impatient bladder. Alright,“ and then there was a familiar flushing sound. “Look, the word is out, the police have a suspect but I think he may lead us to what we seek. It must be destroyed, you hear? It cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of... yes, yes... keep your trousers on!” There was now the sound of running water. “Some idiot named Dr. Dick has gotten a hold of the trail: you must find and follow him. If he’s smart enough, he may lead you to it or at least closer to it than we are now. But don’t intercept him too soon, understand?” Leighton knew that though Dr. Dick may have been a questionable intellectual component, Nepomuck, on the other hand, was a known quantity. “I’ll be there as soon as I... okay, okay!” There was a click, as if a door had opened. “I’ll call you when I land.”

“But how do I find this... this dastardly Dr. Dick?” But Leighton had rung off and the phone went dead.

He knew what had to be done and what order it needed to be done in. He would have to reserve what they laughingly called “the company car,” then don his tux – no assignment for the Penguins of God could be handled in ordinary street clothes which made an assignment before noontime a bit of a challenge, keeping it from questioning eyes. But first, he needed to tighten the A-string on his thigh which had loosened while he’d been practicing the Bach. Once that was done and the pain had returned to his leg, he would be ready, he knew, for anything. But mostly, now, to wait.

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

Hemiola was furious. Ms. Petri could not remember which elevator she had seen them get into. There were three in the bank and each went, she explained, to different parts of the Center. She thought perhaps it had been the first one. Whether it had gone up or down was of no importance to her at the time, so she hadn’t noticed. For a reference librarian, Hemiola thought, she was no help whatsoever: typical academic.

It was embarrassing enough to have three people slip unnoticed out of Carnegie Hall, and now he was just moments behind them and once again they had escaped his grasp. Then he noticed he was in the reading room with all four of his men.

“Who stayed down at the security desk?”

The men looked from one to another then collectively shrugged their shoulders.

“G’aah! And no one is probably at the front entrance, either? Why didn’t anyone stay there to catch them if they got back to the lobby!?” His irritation began to show itself in his nervous habit of pacing back and forth: first, a few times, three steps before turning, then for a few more turns walking only two steps and turning before resuming his usual three steps, a quirky habit which earned Hemiola the nickname “Dance Man.” They knew he was upset and stood out of his way.

Just then, Agent Accelerando noticed the battered manila folder lying on the desk. Pointing it out to his boss, he suggested they could dust it for fingerprints. He knew it was a sorry excuse just to make them appear they were at least doing something.

“Why do we need their fingerprints? G’aah! We know who they are!”

“But it could be an important piece of evidence,” Accelerando said, getting out a plastic evidence bag just in case.

Hemiola always thought this agent, of all his men, rushed to the wrong conclusions. Still, he was better than his previous partner, Agent Ritard.

“Bah, Schoenberg!” Hemiola shuddered as he glanced at the folder. “How could anybody ever figure anything out from this music.” In a wave of disgust, he scooted the folder toward the other end of the table and a clearly worried Ms. Petri who managed to retrieve it before it fell to the floor.

“Please, sir,” she said, holding it protectively close to her as she backed away from them. “Some of his music is already 95 years old!”

“95? My mother-in-law’s 95 years old and I can’t understand her, either!”

With that, he motioned his men toward the elevator and they silently descended to the main level. Where would they have gone from here and what kind of a chase are they leading him on if they’re trying to escape? His thoughts were quickly turning into a fugue, though not a well-crafted one by Bach, more like a hodge-podge by some atonal composer – Schoenberg, perhaps – which had more subjects than answers.

As they walked past the empty security booth, Agent Fermata pointed to one of the cameras and said, “Hold on! Look at this!” Sergeant Sforzando shouted out, “Hey! They’re on the roof!”

Indeed, they were: Buzz and Tony were hurrying off toward the right with Dr. Dick trying to keep up with them.

Agent Accelerando yelled, “Quick – back into the elevator!”

All Hemiola could think of was the final scene from Puccini’s Tosca as they rode impatiently upward, floor by floor. “Where could they go from there? They are trapped,” he grinned, humming the line Puccini’s heroine sang before leaping to her death, “Avanti a Dio!”

“Ah, Puccini,” he smiled to himself, “now there’s a composer who knew how to write!”

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

“There must be keys somewhere,” Tony said.

“Right, you park your helicopter in New York City and leave the keys in the ignition? I don’t think so! Where would be the most logical place to hide a spare set?” I tried to think quickly.

Buzz was quicker. “Found 'em,” he gloated, holding them up. “Under the passenger seat. Piece of cake.” Clambering into the cockpit while I cowered in the back seat, Buzz had the engine purring into life in no time.

“You know how to fly one of these things?” Tony was more incredulous than impressed.

“How difficult can it be: you go up, you go down; you go left or you go right and once in a while you hover and uhm...” He scanned the control panel to see if anything was that easily marked. It wasn’t but he wasn’t going to let a minor detail like that phase him. At the moment, he felt enough testosterone flowing through his body, he could fly a whole fleet of these babies.

And with a roar, we took off. Not smoothly, I’m afraid, and I had grave doubts about the safety of the hot dog I had eaten in the park, but at least we had left Lincoln Center and, hopefully, Inspector Hemiola, behind us.

“And none too soon. Did you see that, Dr. Dick? Just as we took off, guess who came charging out onto the roof? Hemiola!” With that, Buzz began trumpeting the Wild Blue Yonder Song in a mix of scat and just plain yelling, making sure he could be heard over the engine.

I was too preoccupied recalling all too vividly an incident from my childhood and why I always dreaded flying in small aircraft. When I was maybe 12 and strapped into the passenger seat of a small tourist plane, meant to offer nothing more than a survey of the local landscape, we were taxiing down the grass field that passed for a runway and were briefly airborne when the door beside me popped open. Of course, we were not much more than ten feet off the ground and it’s unlikely I would have been sucked out of my seat by the air pressure even without the seatbelt, but what if it had happened later on, high over the city? I remember panicking as if... but Tony’s cries brought me to my senses quickly enough.

“More up, more up!!” she was screaming.

Buzz was frantically trying to control the chopper which had zigzagged over the few blocks from Lincoln Center to fall rapidly like a rock toward the Hudson River. It seemed we had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory only to discover exactly how many eels we could get into a hovercraft, assuming there were any eels at all in the Hudson River (I made a mental note to google that once we got home... if we ever did).

With a whoosh indicating he must have found the right control, we then started climbing at an equally alarming rate of speed. Somehow we had managed to clear the Blue Circle tour-boat, various bridges and cables, not to mention any other planes that happened to be in this usually congested area – even the seagulls we sped past seemed to be in a state of perpetual shock and awe – but once he was able to level it off, we clearly had the Statue of Liberty in our view.

This was, however, as I tried to recall the Gatekeeper’s advice, the wrong way. Hoping he would be able to turn around rather than fly the length of Manhattan backwards, I suggested a slight change of direction as soon as he could manage it, and in seconds we had done a complete about-face that left me not only breathless but nearly lunchless.

Once we had settled into something that better resembled a flight path, I pulled out the post-it note I had stuffed into my pocket. Right... The Sign! Tony looked back toward me as I began to explain what I had found.

There were three symbols – the musical mark called “dal segno” (from the sign) forming a triangle, in the middle of which was written another “fib” with its two final lines that were clearly going to require more deciphering.

On school days

At least we knew the fifth line would be five syllables and the last line, eight, but what they would mean was another matter entirely. I wished I was better at doing crossword puzzles and anagrams or had even payed attention to those Japanese puzzles that were all the rage, then. Since Buzz was otherwise involved, I gave Tony the post-it note to work on.

Buzz, meanwhile, had gotten out his iPod and was proceeding to plug himself in when he noticed a disc already in the CD player. He took it out and showed it to me.

“Curious: the Juilliard Quartet's Transfigured Night... but it includes Schoenberg’s Trio Op. 45. I wonder why he had it on his helicopter? Start playing it, Buzz, will you?”

“But I wanted to listen to my iPod,” he pouted. “I just downloaded some of the newest songs by my favorite band, the Screaming Dead Lawn Zombies.”

“The Screaming Dead Lawn Zombies? They’re one of my faves, too,” Tony said with affectionate amazement. “Great band!”

“Yeah, I bet,” I added with considerable apprehension, “but we have work to do, in case you’ve forgotten. Before some Valkyrie shoots us down over New Jersey, we’d better figure out this code. If we listen to the Schoenberg, perhaps it will help us figure out what we’re looking for.”

Buzz begrudgingly slipped it into the player, cueing up cut 6. The music crackled into its tentative existence. [You can also listen to the complete work here at the Arnold Schoenberg Jukebox: just scroll down to the Trio Op. 45 and click on the different audio links.]

“Hmm, I hear what you mean,” Tony said, intrigued, “ when you said kaleidescopic and spasmodic. So many special effects popping in and out, almost like some kind of kinetic overload.”

“Overload works,” Buzz added. Clearly, this was not his idea of beauty. But he began to get more involved with it as it progressed, moving, once its colorful palette evolved with sharp contrasts and now and then a nostalgic mood-swing through its squeaks and pings, occasional eruptions of mad march-like music and an idea that sounded like it could turn into, of all things, a Viennese waltz. Hollywood, where Schoenberg lived when he wrote this music, was far removed from Vienna in many ways: perhaps it was a nostalgic touch, as if his musical life were flashing before his eyes (or ears). Moving between schizophrenia and paranoia, it began to take on a balance of its own. “Maybe there’s something to this stuff, after all,” he pondered.

There was a motive, here, that made Tony perk up. “That almost sounds like B-A-C-H. Could that be a clue?” She sounded more dubious than hopeful.

“We didn’t get much chance to spend with the sketches and I’m not familiar with the score – in fact, I’ve only heard the piece a few times, myself, so I’m not really sure what we should be looking for.”

“Is it in Schoenberg’s music or is it in what Schnellenlauter found there?” Tony seemed inspired, now. “I mean, theorists and musicologists as well as performers and listeners can read almost anything they want to into a piece of music. Was all this his way of telling you how to find this post-it note? Did he leave it there for someone specifically to find... and figure out from there?”

Buzz spoke up, now, thoroughly engrossed in the music. “You had said this was written after he’d died on the operating table?”

“Not quite, and whether he was really clinically dead or it was just a near-death experience, I’m not sure, but, yes, almost immediately after he recuperated, he began work on this piece.”

“I mean, it doesn’t sound terribly thankful, but I’m thinking of another piece written after a convalescence...” Buzz paused as if it were on the tip of his tongue.

“You’re right – Beethoven! Not that it sounds like Beethoven, but it is a kind of Heilige Dankgesang, isn’t it!” That had been gnawing at the back of my mind for some reason. Beethoven had called it a “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode,” the great keystone of his A Minor String Quartet.

Tony had an odd look in her eye. “That’s his... Opus 132, right?”

“Uh, yes...” I looked at her cautiously, since for a string player this was obviously a rhetorical question.

“OMG,” blurted Buzz, “one-three-two!” He almost lost control of the helicopter but quickly righted everything in an instant.

Tony sat back in her seat. She was clearly stunned.

“Tony,” I asked with some force, leaning forward, “who is Philomel?”

“Me. I am Philomel. How did she know?”

To be continued...

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Dr. Dick
© 2009