Sunday, November 08, 2009

Getting Started Writing "The Lost Chord"

When I started to write “The Schoenberg Code,” I had only seen the opening scene from the movie that was “soon to be released” of Dan Brown's best-seller, “The Da Vinci Code.” Having written my take on the opening scene, friends wanted me to continue, to do the whole story. An attempt to get it all posted on the blog by the time the movie opened proved a challenge and I remember reading a couple chapters, then writing a chapter of my parody, then reading some more chapters before writing my next chapter. This often meant I had no idea where some threads were leading (if anywhere) but I was pleased that, beyond the opening sequence, there was very little that needed to be rewritten to conform better to the story.

The problem was finding what I call “equivalencies.” Since I wanted to do it as a musical parody, this placed certain limits on what I could use – or what might be funny. Not knowing where Da Vinci's role was headed, I decided the composer most likely to be accused of writing in code would be serialist Arnold Schoenberg, the 'inventor' of 12-tone music. It was, after all, a serial novel which would have a serial composer involved in a story with a serial killer – a story that would have to have 12 chapters. As Da Vinci gives way to the question about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I was able to spin off to a secret society intent on keeping hidden the identity  of Beethoven's Immortal Beloved.

Placing my bumbling self in for the would-be dashing, blindingly brilliant Robert Langdon was enough of a stretch, but at least Langdon was more realistic than, say, a James Bond look-alike might have provided. Because I was a local “music celebrity,” I thought it might be amusing for my blog readers to enjoy a different side of the persona they heard expounding about classical music on the radio. I was, intentionally, writing a parody of myself in the process.

So I knew, whenever the next Dan Brown novel came out, I would probably be doing a parody of it, too.

Yes, I picked up my copy of “The Lost Symbol” the day it came out and, yes, I had finished reading it in a little more than three days. I was also jotting down notes and was becoming more and more dejected at how little possibility it offered – not that it wasn't ripe for parody, but how little ripe it seemed to be for a musical parody.

My intent, as with “The Schoenberg Code,” was to write something that would be a “music appreciation book,” helping to make composers and their music a little more realistic to the average person. I had to be careful to write so that it could be appreciated on various levels: like so many things, the more you knew about it, the more you got out of it. Discussions about coded messages in Schoenberg's or Shostakovich's music were the equivalent of the discussions in Brown's book about art or theology; many people felt that bringing Beethoven down to a more human level was as sacrilegious as saying that Jesus had been married and had children.

The “music appreciation” aspect of “The Lost Chord” deals more with a composer's creativity, how different composers may think (and think differently), how inspiration works, why composers might write the way they do. Being a composer, I know how *I* think: can I extrapolate that to suggest how I think Beethoven might have thought? No, because that's impossible, no matter how good (or bad) a composer I might be (with or without the comparison). But for people who cannot imagine composing a symphony, let's say, the fact that someone else can is mind-boggling. Regardless of the out-come or the critical reaction, it's what we as composers do and it's no different than what other people with specific talents – writers, doctors, businessmen and so on – do all the time with different types of “creativity.”

I knew it would be called “The Lost Chord” as soon as I saw what Brown's final title was going to be. Working out equivalencies for the Masons, for the setting in Washington DC, much less the subject-lines of the plot, was another matter. I still haven't solved everything.

Of course, since Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote a song called “The Lost Chord,” I knew my equivalent of Brown's Peter Solomon had to be named Sullivan. But how I was going to handle things like the severed hand or the reliance on architecture as part of the plot? Oddly enough, I live in a city with a state capitol building that looks like St. Peter's in Rome (do I combine a parody of “Angels and Demons” with “The Lost Symbol”?) and has a beautiful rotunda and lots of secret passageways contained within the walls (because the building was essentially built over a pre-existing building, rather than from scratch); there's even an obelisk in town to replace the Washington Monument – it once stood in front of the Capitol but was a traffic hindrance so it was later moved to an uptown park).

What ancient portal could there be?

Another curiosity was the old subway built underneath Market Square: when I was a child, it was a scary place to enter, walking underneath the traffic of 2nd Street to cross to the other side of the square. Unlike most “subways,” this was merely an underground cross-walk. The main thing I remember about it was how dark it was and the fact it smelled of urine because vagrants would hang out down there and piss against the walls. It was later sealed over but someone said it was only sealed over, not filled in: presumably the evil rooms and passageways are still there: how dank would it smell now after not having seen the light of day for fifty years?

But I didn't feel Harrisburg would really warrant all the attention that some major secret or ancient mystery would be hidden here.

So, like “The Schoenberg Code,” which took place mostly around Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center Library and then the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, I decided to return to New York, focusing primarily on Lincoln Center.

Lincoln – Washington, get it?

While I haven't been underneath Lincoln Center in maybe 15-20 years and the whole new reconstruction project and renovations going on for the Center's 50th Anniversary are changing many important details I might remember, I recall walking through its subway station and various underground passageways to get from one building to the next without ever having to go outside if the weather was bad. There is an underground parking lot and a whole “concourse level” most of it unmarked on the map available at the Center's website. What a great place to hide secret labs and hidden portals! And if there wasn't an underground conveyor belt like there was between the Capitol and the Library of Congress, why couldn't there be one to move opera sets from either the Met or the State (now David Koch) Theater for City Opera to a warren of storage rooms?

And instead of a chase through the Library of Congress, what about racing down a hallway only to suddenly find yourself on stage at the Met in the middle of a performance?!

Since one of the recurring details setting the scene in “The Lost Symbol” is the Washington Redskins' playoff game which everybody seems distracted by, it occurred to me, as I was getting ready to begin writing, it was World Series time – and the Yankees would be playing the Phillies in New York City. Easy equivalency, there, except I'm no baseball fan. I actually ended up trying to watch much of the Series as RESEARCH!

All I could think of was the last baseball game – read, the only baseball game – I ever attended was when I was 5 or 6 years old and my parents dragged me to a Phillies game to watch the great Richie Ashburn play. I said I would go along (like I had any choice) only if I could take some comic books with me. They assumed once there I would be so taken by the excitement of the game, seeing it live, that the comic books would be soon forgotten. Wrong: I sat there, flipping through a pile of some 20 comic books all evening long, otherwise bored to tears with everybody always yelling or standing up to cheer every few minutes. My father was an avid fan, capable of watching one game on TV while listening to one or two on the radios. Me? Not on your life. I'm sure my mom and dad were up there looking down on me, as I sat in their house watching the Phillies play in the World Series, laughing even more over it than I was...

So the Phillies finally lost – I guess I was rooting for them – but I was delighted at least that they were able to make it to the penultimate game because that way it took place IN New York City - much better for my plot! I was jotting down what times certain key events of the game took place in case I would need to include them in my story. When I looked to see what was playing at the Met that same night – while everybody else would be watching the game on TV if not at Yankee Stadium – I was even more delighted to discover it was Rossini's “Barber of Seville,” a production I had seen live in the Met's HD Transmission series two years ago, with Joyce DiDonato, a singer I adore and whom I'd actually been introduced to, backstage, after a Philadelphia recital, by a mutual friend, my then colleague John Clare. What better scene to have interrupted by a chase scene than the first finale of “The Barber of Seville,” after the 'frozen' sequence when everything erupts in chaos?! (And all those falling oranges!) I promise not to let Joyce break her leg again!

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Last year, during “National Novel Writing Month's” challenge, I started writing a novel. The goal is to write 50,000 words – whether it's finished, whether it's good or not is not the issue. The deal is to sit down while thousands of other people around the world are doing the same thing and you write 50,000 words. That's actually a lot of words to write in one month: think of it as being about 120 pages of text. I managed to go over the 50,000 word goal and I think after a few more days, got it up to over 70,000 words.

This year, I thought it would be the opportunity to write “The Lost Chord.”

And so I – like many others – began writing last Sunday, on November 1st. Luckily, it was even a day we had an extra hour - not to sleep but to write!

But I wasn't starting from scratch. First of all, the framework of my book was already in place: I was writing a parody of an existing novel, so I didn't have to spend time thinking up a plot, developing characters, creating back-story, doing research about the setting (well, actually, yeah, I did) or mapping out how all of this would play out. I had taken a week or so in October to sit down and go through the whole novel again and make a Cliff's Note Map of each of Brown's 133 chapters (plus a brief prologue and epilogue): each chapter's main events and characters were written on the top half of the page; underneath I could jot down any ideas for plot devices, characters, settings or other details that came to mind.

First off was the role of the Masons. What could be my equivalency? A secret society of some kind, something that most people would not understand or often take with a dim view because of certain innate prejudices against things they cannot relate to.

Bingo – Musicians! We have our own rituals, our own jargon and “secret passwords,” even secret initiations (for those who've ever taken their doctoral exams or who've given trial-by-fire debut recitals) so that seemed perfect.

But we musicians don't have things like pyramids, ancient mysteries, secret codes and... oh wait, yes we do: the whole initiation into learning to read music (secret code), to understand how to write harmony or fugues (mysteries) and wouldn't the great concert halls of the world be the equivalent of the mysterious magical qualities attributed to the pyramid?

That's when the Lincoln – Washington parallel came to mind. I remembered having watched the opening concert of Lincoln Center (September 1962) on TV! How much time had I spent hanging around there when I lived in New York City in the late'70s?

But I needed something iconic but smaller – the truncated pyramid with its secret message, the separate top which completes the pyramid (look on the back of a dollar bill) and which unlocks (eventually) the secret message. It took me a week to figure this one out.

The book's original (and I think better) title was supposed to be “The Solomon Key,” which brought in a whole 'nother world of secret documents and history. But two main characters – Peter and Katherine Solomon – still carried the name.

Perhaps it wasn't quite so serendipitous, but I had early decided my parody would be called “The Lost Chord (The Amadeus Key)” which ties in Mozart with two musical puns – the chord, first of all, but also the idea of “key” as the tonal context in which chords function, which creates the study of harmony, how chords move in time - in other words, music as we generally think of it.

Then I realized the pyramid – unveiled in the scene in the Capitol's sub-basement (chapter 38) – would be a Mozart Bobble-head Doll. But without the head – that's the missing top piece. By reattaching the supposedly missing head to the body of the doll, it is now possible to (somehow) unlock these Ancient Mysteries.

And what are those ancient mysteries? Well, I still haven't worked all those details out, not yet.

But the villain of the piece, my equivalent of Ma'lakh (who was originally going to be called Ma'alox but I didn't want to be sued), would seek to become The Greatest Composer In The World – attaining these mysteries, it would unlock in him the power to write nothing but great masterpieces and bring him fame and fortune. It seemed a Mozart doll would be a logical repository for such knowledge...

And what evil in music would be suitable for my villain? Why, the poor, much abused interval of the augmented 4th, the “Tritone,” long known as “Diabolus in Musica” or the Devil in Music. And so Ma'lakh became Tr'iTone. I was going to use Tr'iTon3 just to be more with-it, but I figured Tr'iTone was enough to be typing: after all, I still remember a writer complaining that he'd called his hero Christopher and had to type out the whole name thousands of times in the course of the book: his next hero would be named Ed.

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

Names were the next stumbling block. “The Schoenberg Code” was full of musical puns – characters like Mimi Solfeggio and Agents Ed Libitum or Al Rovescio (solfeggio is the whole do-re-mi thing – mimi? get it? – ad libitum was obvious, but Al Rovescio means to go forward, then in reverse, so he was an agent who was always pacing back and forth, going over the same territory looking for clues). But considering the dozens I'd come up with, then, how many more would I need for this one? The only one I decided to use again is Nelson Dorma (from the aria, Nessun dorma in Puccini's Turandot) who had been a singing vagrant and an important witness outside Carnegie Hall in “The Schoenberg Code” but who's now gone on to find a new career as a security agent at the Met.

One of Brown's stranger creations is Director Inoue Sato of the CIA Office of Security, the spies who spy on the spies. She's 4'7”, has a ravaged voice, the result of an operation for throat cancer (in her first scene, Langdon, talking to her on the phone, keeps calling her “sir”) and she's especially annoying, very aggressive and bitchy, probably the most masculine character in the whole book (even Ma'lakh, for all his muscles, is still a self-castrated eunuch).

In the “Schoenberg Code,” there was a security guard at the Lincoln Center Library entrance known as the Gate-Keeper. Named Agnes Day, she was a take-off on Yoda, the Jedi Knight from Star Wars. She was short, wise, somewhat green and spoke with an odd kind of syntax like someone who would say her favorite author is Chaucer.

Here, in Director Sato, was another Yoda-like character, a Jedi Knight who now works for the CIA. But what to call her? Faster than you can schwing a light-saber, she became Yoda Leahy-Hu (her mother, a Hawaiian-born singer named Kammana Vana Leahy, married a Chinese violinist named Hu – which immediately meant I could use my chamber music version of the classic Abbot and Costello skit, “Hu's on First.”

Another name that was having trouble surfacing fell into place immediately after that: the sister of Peter Solomon – family name now Sullivan – would become LauraLynn Hardy Sullivan, though I know it would have been better to have used Abbot and Costello somehow (maybe I can have a piano moving scene, later on). Since her initials would be L.H. Sullivan, her brother (almost a twin) should be R.H. Sullivan – as children they were a piano duo called R.H. and L.H. Sullivan: since R.H. (Right Hand) would always know what L.H. (Left Hand) was doing. Bad, I know, but that's half the fun. R.H. became Robert Hope Sullivan (Bob Hope, a great comedian, right?) but I liked the more patrician sounding form, Robertson.

Peter Solomon was the director of the Smithsonian. Robertson Sullivan would be the director (or chairman) of Lincoln Center. Since he and his sister were very wealthy and would be major contributors to the organization, I decided to name the beautiful Lincoln Center Plaza with its iconic fountain after them: the Robertson and LauraLynn Sullivan Plaza. Serendipitously, I discovered the new name, during the on-going renovations there, is the Josie Robertson Plaza! Tee-hee...

Then, in the midst of writing the segment about the security agents at Lincoln Center, I sat down and brainstormed a bunch of names, puns I hadn't used before:

- The agent in charge of security for Avery Fisher Hall (home of the New York Philharmonic) would be Phil Harmon.

- The agent in charge of security for the old State Theater (home of City Opera and the American Ballet Theater) would be Tom LeVay (after a ballet step called temps levée) and another agent (light on his feet) would be P.K. Arabesk (after the step, piqué arabesque).

- The agent in charge of security for Juilliard and Alice Tully Hall would be a Native-American man named Peter Moonbeam, a translation of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (who justifiably takes offense when Phil Harmon unwittingly mentions, looking at all the security chiefs conferring with Director Leahy-Hu, that “we have too many chiefs and not enough Indians” - but Harmon's always doing that, referring to his men when he's looking at Agent Donna Mobile).

- Agent Donna Mobile (after the aria “La donna é mobile” from Verdi's Rigoletto) is a fickle heart-breaker with a long string of ex-boyfriends.

- Agent Constantine Sordino (the musical direction “con sordino” means to mute the instrument) is told at one point to “stuff it” (as a trumpet player might do with a mute) or to “keep it quiet.”

- An agent who's a specialist with electronic technologies is Ondine Martineau (Ond to her friends), after the electronic keyboard instrument, the Ondes Martenot (I suspect she will have a voice that sounds a bit like she's always whining...)

- Rick Tornello hasn't been created yet, but I have his name all picked out: he keeps returning to the topic like a dog who won't let go of a bone... (ritornello is the musical term for a recurring passage in Baroque music)

Then there's the secret mystery guided by clues Ma'lakh left on the severed hand. First of all, what part of the anatomy could I use? I decided quickly enough on a severed ear – very important to a musician and composer like Robertson Sullivan (who once taught ear-training). It was easy to identify the hand as Peter Solomon's because of the Masonic ring he wore: how would Dr. Dick identify this disembodied ear? Well, how about a little silver band an ear-ring with the engraved words “Recte et retro” on it? That's a clue a composer might use when writing a puzzle canon – basically it means “right way and backwards” or “forward and reverse” (this, just after I'd written a long sequence on giving directions while driving around Lincoln Center -- “I turn left here, right?” “Right” - so he ends up turning right thinking he was being corrected). So “recte et retro” became the equivalent for the Masons' “As above, so below.”

But I found this one for the main clue, something that would point to the crypt beneath the Capitol Rotunda – or, in my case, some place in Lincoln Center.

Cancer eat plenis et redeat medius.”

It's used in Dufay's Missa “L'homme arme” (ah, another body-part pun! The Armed Man!) to describe how the puzzle canon in the Agnus Dei should be realized: “The crab goes full and returns half-full,” or the crab (in canonic lingo, something that moves backwards) moves in full note values but returns using half-note values. It will (somehow) help us find the equivalent of the Masonic Chamber of Reflection in the sub-basement of the Capitol – or, at Lincoln Center, a dusty old practice room underneath the plaza.

Now, when they find the ear – not on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda but on the marble rim of the Lincoln Center Fountain, one of the more iconic symbols of New York City – Dr. Dick and his side-kick Buzz Blogster can't get close enough to see what it is. Buzz discovers it's an ear – how does he know? A friend of his on Facebook just twittered that somebody found an ear at the fountain at Lincoln Center. In fact, that's how the security guards found out about it – seeing a twitter update...

As of this afternoon, I was over 15,000 words or 30% of the way toward November 30th's total goal of 50,000 words.

But instead of writing more for “The Lost Chord,” now, I've written 3,746 words about “The Lost Chord” for this post. I really need to get back to work, though: the next scene is the one at Katherine Solomon's lab with her assistant Trish Dunne (Brown's Chapter 18) – or, in this case, LauraLynn's lab with her assistant Haley Gedankgesang, soon to be murdered not by being thrown into the giant squid tank in another storage area, but stabbed with a prop spear from the first production of Aida at the Met back in 1886 while reclining on Toscanini's casting couch, designed by the great furniture maker, Albert W. Kraken (he's fictional, but Kraken – just google it).

- Dr. Dick

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