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

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