Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 9

Following their escape in the Time Warp, Dr. Dick & Friends have now arrived at a new destination on the verge of new discoveries as the next installment of this serial novel - a musical parody of “The Da Vinci Code” - continues...

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Buzz snorted into consciousness. “Are we there yet?” Shaking himself awake, he said, “Man, I had some of that Schoenberg Trio stuck in my head. Ugh! That’s really scary!”

“Buzz, my dear boy,” Teabag purred, “you just had an attack of what I call Homelikomousikephobia.”

“A fear of home-made moussaka?”

“No, no,” he said, trying to keep the snobbery out of his tone, “the fear of music from your own time – every generation has it: Frederick the Great thought Mozart sounded like caterwauling and that Haydn lacked melody, all because it didn’t sound as familiar as all those decidedly mediocre concertos his beloved Quantz churned out for him. Ludwig Spohr thought Beethoven was an indecipherable horror and most people had no idea what Mahler was doing. It happens in every generation.”

“I prefer the term Neoteuktomousikaphobia,” I added, “the fear of newly-written music – or maybe just Neoteuktophobia, the fear of anything new.” I was surprised how easily these terms popped out. If I’d been in front of a class at the time, my tongue would’ve seized up and I’d have stumbled a dozen times trying to get it right, no matter how much I’d practice them before walking into the class-room.

One could argue that something written 33 years before Buzz was born was hardly music “of his own time,” nor was it exactly “newly made.” But we generically think anything written outside the familiar language of the 19th Century is “contemporary” even if two of the major works of the last century – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – were close to celebrating their own centennials, too.

Whenever anyone said Schoenberg was triskaidekaphobic, it reminded Buzz he may have Luposlipophobia – the fear of running around the kitchen table in stocking feet on a newly waxed floor being chased by a timber wolf – one of his favorite Gary Larson cartoons from ‘The Far Side.’

“Now, Renfrew, here, suffers from Aptenodytephobia,” Teabag said, pointing toward our otherwise silent pilot. “Odd that a man who, as a valet, often dresses in a tuxedo, should have a fear of penguins.”

“Oh definitely, sir,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t sleep if I think there’s a penguin lurking in my room. I have to stay awake: ‘Can’t sleep – penguins will eat me!’...”

There was a thump from the plane’s cargo hold.

“It appears our terrorist is getting restless, Rennie. It’s good we’re about to land. That looks like Rochester up ahead?”

Renfrew agreed. I could see nothing but a blur with what could’ve been blue blotches in front of us. Oh, of course – Lake Ontario. I recalled from the top of the school’s practice room annex you could see the lake not far away. Not that ‘On a Clear Day, You Can See Toronto’ would ever have made a hit song.

“Land this on the roof of Eastman Theater, Rennie.”

In a moment, with hardly a bump, Renfrew announced “Next stop, the Eastman School of Music.”

I was feeling pretty confident we’d be able to find the clue we were looking for, free from nagging concerns about the IMP and my erstwhile nemesis, Inspector Hemiola. What I hadn’t anticipated was everything else we were about to find as well!

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

Agent Al Rovescio, a long-time member of the International Music Police team, had been known for doggedly going back and forth over the crime scene, finding clues that other, less-experienced eyes might miss. At the dressing room’s murder scene, he found a couple of whitish-blonde hairs and some rosin dust near the bathroom door. Walking out around the stage door, he found a makeshift homeless shelter of cardboard boxes by the dumpster, but no one nearby who might know who occupied it last night. Perhaps he had seen someone suspicious leaving the hall late at night.

That was when he heard the whisky voice of a tenor wannabe warbling out in front of the hall. He was medium tall, medium weight, medium disheveled with a medium vocal range, belting out opera faves for passers-by who might, on occasion, drop some loose change or an odd bill or two into his well-rumpled hat. Though his voice had been ruined by drink and hard living on the streets of New York, he might still land a recording contract, Rovescio thought, with the right gimmick. By the time Rovescio walked up to him, the man had worked his way through a medley of Puccini and Verdi melodies. He’d need to get back a few high notes but it had worked for Michael Bolton and – well, no, actually, it hadn’t, come to think of it, but what the heck? There was an old Italian singing teacher in his neighborhood who might be able to help this guy but at the moment the only kind of singing Rovescio had in mind was of the stool-pigeon kind. Rovescio waited until he had finished and casually asked him a few questions. The guy said his name was Dorma – Nelson Dorma.

At first, the tenor just figured it was going to be a plain-clothes cop telling him to move on: no matter, he’d be back in an hour or two. But when the guy introduced himself as the International Music Police, perhaps it was more than just a panhandling issue. It wasn’t like it was in the old days: now, you practically needed a license to be a bum. It had improved the look of the city but robbed it of much of its color. There were those who thought that was not a bad thing.

But Rovescio just wanted to talk and even offered to buy him lunch. What could the harm be in that? He cautiously picked up his battered hat, quickly counted out the takings – not bad, so far – and pocketed them without looking at the policeman. Then they walked off toward 7th Avenue: Rovescio had suggested a little Italian place around the corner, Gioacchino’s Trattoria. They hadn’t been sitting long in their window booth when Rovescio noticed a couple of strange whitish-blonde hairs stuck in the cracked countertop. He put them in a small plastic baggy and labeled them ("force of habit," he explained) before their plates of lasagna arrived. With some food lubricating his voice, now, Nelson Dorma sang like a canary.

He had just settled down in his cardboard box by the stage door dumpster when this large guy came out. It was very late, well after 11:00. Everybody else had already left a long time ago and the only reason he knew it was safe to settle down for the night was he’d already seen the last security guard leave for the night.

“What did the guy look like?” Rovescio was waiting for him to say “a dumpy, middle-aged, gray-haired guy with a bushy mustache” but he rattled off something very different: a large-built guy – big-boned, he reconsidered, not fat – well over 6 feet tall and maybe 250-to-275 pounds, wearing a tuxedo, maybe in his late-20s. He had spiky whitish-blonde hair, somewhere between being punked-up and just unkempt – Rovescio thought of the hairs he’d found in the dressing room, in fact at this very booth – and he carried a large violin case or maybe it was a viola.

Dorma continued. Up until then, he’d thought it was just an odd-looking guy leaving the building later than anyone else. But then he stood there in the shadows just beyond the doorway, he looked ominous, the twinkling of the almost useless streetlight from the piercing in his eyebrow gave him an evil look. He took off his jacket and patted the case as if it were a colleague, saying “Good job, Wolf,” or something like that, adding “and now, with three conductors down, it’s time to eat.” He thought it sounded like he was hypnotized. Then the guy shuffled off toward 7th Avenue.

That was when Rovescio decided he’d better call Hemiola.

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

“The guy in the video playing the viola,” Libitum pointed out.

Accelerando remembered he had read something years ago about a killer viola called the White Wolf, a famous musical mystery from back in the 1920s that had never been solved. Perhaps Agent Solfege could track it down in the database?

Sforzando blurted out, “Penguins!” When everybody looked at him wondering what that was all about, he continued. “Remember? All over the room? Penguins everywhere! In the video! I think New York has been infiltrated by... the Penguins of God.”

“Riiiiiiight...” Fermata stretched it out thoughtfully. “They’re a small group of British musicians out to rid classical music of all that is ugly – and we’re dealing with...” – he paused – “the murder of three conductors who specialized in contemporary music, each killed the night before three big modern music programs!”

After a bit of silence, Ed Libitum spoke up cautiously. “So... you thinking what I’m thinking? That we’ve been after the wrong guy?”

Hemiola waved the thought away. He could see his career going up in flames like Valhalla as they slowly marched back up to the house. This would not go over well with his boss, Chief Inspector Salome Della Maledizione, the one everybody called “Gutrune Gebich” though she preferred being called Della.

“I mean, you don’t think he could sue us or anything, do you?” Accelerando thought perhaps he had been the first one to point out Dr. Dick was the only name in the clues.

“Aside from the fact it’s been all over New York City radio and TV news, and probably in the ‘Post’ by now, how would he know he was being hunted down as a suspect?” The others weren’t sure whether Hemiola was being hopeful or just ironic. “At least, it’s not like he’s going to see it here – after all, no one’s reading this, it’s just a blog...”

When they got back to the library, the room was empty and just as much a mess as it had been before. “That’s the kind of help you get these days,” Hemiola pondered. It was very quiet.

Until Sforzando shouted, “OMG!” Standing by the broken window, looking out, he had noticed something: stuck against a piece of glass, several whitish-blonde hairs and some black threads. “You know what this means?”

“It means... Dr. Dick is in more serious trouble than we thought. We’re not the only ones after him. Apparently the real killer is, too.” He began pacing again. “Now what?!”

His boss would have his head on a platter for this: he thought he heard The Dance of the Seven Veils in the background before he realized it was Agent Libitum’s cell phone. “NOW what!?”

“Wrong number,” Libitum said, putting the phone away.

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

The FBI had meanwhile called the IMP on a routine matter, informing them that a New-York-bound plane had been hijacked by, as far as they could tell, a music critic on his way from London to review a concert there, then suddenly demanded the pilot fly the plane to, of all places, Rochester, NY. The agent was wondering if the IMP knew anything that might help them with this case: the alleged hijacker’s name was Charles Leighton-Quackerly. Did he have any particular history, beyond the usual critic stuff?

Agent Mimi Solfege immediately started checking things out and discovered some interesting facts, most of which she passed on to the FBI agent. She didn’t think the fact he was the head of a group calling themselves the “Penguins of God” would be of much interest to them. Her father-in-law had been a Shriner which she thought was quaint: what kind of hats do these guys wear, she wondered? And no, she had no idea why he would suddenly need to go to Rochester. She apologized for not being able to be of more help, but it was Saturday.

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

The problem with the Penguins of God, Sforzando had been telling his colleagues, was they may have gone from being a secret organization that essentially lobbied against new music – “how hard could that be,” Hemiola huffed into the coffee that Libitum had managed to scare up in the kitchen (and not bad coffee, at that) – to maybe taking on a more sinister campaign as long feared. Perhaps these murders were part of a new scheme to take action against those who programmed too much contemporary music? After all, this was kind of a big day – three world-famous conductors in the city, each a specialist in new music, performing bold programs of modern music all on the same night: what better way of announcing to the world their hatred of this music they view as a threat to the masterpieces of the past?

“But there are lots of musicians dressed in tuxedos performing classical music all over the world,” Accelerando whined. “How are we going to tell who’s just another musician who’ll play anything for a gig versus the bad penguins who’ve become terrorists?”

“I don’t think it’s so much terrorism as it is someone trying to get some crucial information at any cost,” Libitum was thinking. “With all these clues, it’s like the victim’s telling us to locate something, perhaps before his killer does. Like Dr. Dick said, maybe this conductor was killed because of something he knew, and he’s trying to tell us what that was?”

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

Meanwhile, in Rochester, Renfrew had been left back at the Time Warp to look after their visitor who remained trussed up in the plane’s luggage compartment while Lance Teabag joined Dr. Dick and his friends for a quick lunch break. They headed to Eastman’s basement student lounge known as Fingal’s Internet CafĂ© which for years had been a fairly dark but friendly snack bar known appropriately as Fingal’s Cave.

“I’m not sure I like the improvements,” I said, looking around with some nostalgia for the old haunts, “but it is different.” I could remember sitting in that corner, there, on a cold winter morning watching my plastic spoon melt as I stirred my hot chocolate. We tried to see who could get the most interesting bends and twists in their spoons: it was all in the wrist. Now it was certainly... well, more respectable than the old hang-out but that was in a different age, when “not respectable” was expected. It didn’t seem all that long ago.

Time was, after all, deceptive. We had left Chez Teabag overlooking Manhattan about a half hour ago, so we felt we had the whole afternoon ahead of us before anybody – much less the IMP – could catch up with us. We decided to collect our thoughts and perhaps come up with a plan over coffee and a sandwich. Buzz of course ordered the Roast Beef Rondo – thick slabs of meat alternating with various fillings and sauces – and then Mahler-sized it. It looked like enough to feed all four of us.

Since it was summer and a Saturday, no one had noticed us. Buzz and Tony could pass for students and Lance and I could have been guest teachers or even guest performers during the summer session, for all they knew. We didn’t need to keep a low profile. The place was, as usual, busy, and I’d noticed signs in the lobby for a concert that night which would include Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the acclaimed soloist Klavdia Klangfarben in between Mozart’s “Magic Flute” Overture and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. We were moving too quickly through the early-afternoon crowd, so I didn’t notice who the conductor was. I nudged Tony to point out Mozart’s Masonic symbolism in the one, Shostakovich’s name game in the other. We wondered if there’d be time to catch part of the rehearsal, but they were all leaving the theater as we arrived. Too bad: it sounded like a great concert. Sadly, I thought how my friend, Hans-Heinz Schnellenlauter, would have liked it. Ah well, maybe there’d be time that evening.

“You had mentioned the Academy dal Segno, Dr. Teabag, and who you thought were some of the Grand Maestros. What else do you know about it?” Tony was helping me place the various clues out on the table. She tried to keep them far away from Buzz’s rather messy sandwich.

“Like many secret organizations,” Teabag continued, “there’s a lot that’s difficult to discover. Beyond protecting the identity of the Immortal Beloved, I’m not really sure. I know there was also a group of them who called themselves the Knights Tempo, a more select governing committee, perhaps. There were annual rituals they would hold, hoping to maintain some direct connection to Beethoven’s legacy.”

“And that would be... his music?” Buzz said between munches.

“I was thinking more perhaps his descendants,” Teabag resumed. “Every musician claims some kind of personal insight into Beethoven’s music – how Beethoven speaks through them, you know – but I’m thinking that possibly it’s more than just protecting the identity of the woman with whom Beethoven was in love and who bore his child. And your latest clue, there, has proven it to me.”

I looked at the “look back” clue and realized we had been saying “The Immortal Beloved’s Quest” when in fact it’s written “AN Immortal Beloved’s Quest.”

“So the fact it says ‘AN’ instead of ‘THE’ implies there’s more than one?” I meant it to sound more matter-of-fact than dubious.

“But hadn’t he been in love with lots of women? Maybe they’re talking about all of them collectively?” Buzz licked his fingers after downing the last bite of his Rondo.

“I don’t think so, Buzz – there was only ONE Immortal Beloved, so I imagine they’re looking after her, her daughter and her descendants. It would be a rather exclusive club, most likely.” I pulled the odd bits of paper back toward me. “The problem is, like many secret organizations, they need secrecy because they have something to hide from others more powerful. Who is likely to be the power the Academy is hiding from? A power that would be willing to kill to find it?”

“That would be easy, now,” Teabag said, leaning forward. “Anton Schindler’s friends were able to get control of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and essentially railroad out anyone who disagreed with them. It was clear they needed to suppress her existence to maintain the image of a genius untainted by mere human emotions and this essentially drove her protectors underground as well. I’m sure somewhere there must also be a copy of this list.”

Buzz had just returned to the table with a large red bag of barbecue-flavored chips and some chili – the Auto-da-Fe Special. “Schindler’s List? Yeah, I saw it on sale at Amazon last week – good movie! Man, these are spicy!” He held the bag out for the others to try but we all shook our heads for various reasons. “What...!”

“But if I am to seek... The Sign... how am I going to find it?” I thought we’d better get started and preferably before Buzz started in on the chili.

“We are at one of the finest music libraries in the country, Dr. Dick. Perhaps we should check out the Sibley – and soon.” Teabag pushed his chair back and, using his cane, pushed himself up to his full height. He seemed in pain. “But I must tell you – if the police are after you, that is one thing. But it’s very possible, if others were to know what you’re in search of, you might have someone else on your tail.”

“Such as?”

“The Penguins of God.” He nodded rather matter-of-factly and turned away. It was expected we should follow him. And without delay. Buzz looked longingly at his half-finished bowl of chili.

Tony felt a chill, wondering if the air conditioning wasn’t perhaps a little too much. Little did she know things would soon get considerably hotter and I'm not just thinking about Buzz and his chili...

To be continued...

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Dr. Dick
© 2009

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