Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back to Looking for "The Lost Chord"

It's not that there hasn't been anything going on, it's just that I haven't felt much like writing about it. In the past two weeks, I've finished the song cycle, “The Other Side of Air,” and now I'm in the process of copying it (by hand – none of that fancy computer software only because I've never gotten around to it, mostly because in addition to purchasing it, I'd need to get a newer, faster, bigger, better computer, none of which is in the budget, right now). And after I put up the “The End” sign on the songs, I got back into my musical parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol” which I call “The Lost Chord.” That doesn't mean it's a musical: it's just a parody of the story told from a musical perspective.

November was “National Novel Writing Month” and so I took the challenge to write 50,000 words in a month and wrote 64,038 words by the end of the month. Because I was nearing in on a climactic scene (but still not half-way through my outline of Brown's story), I kept going for a few more days till I'd done almost 70,000 words. Then I stopped.

Actually, during November, I did no composing: all my “creative” time was spent on the would-be novel. I didn't think I could do a whole parody in 50,000 – though “The Schoenberg Code” was more like 45,000 without even trying – but I had hoped I could get closer to the end than “not quite half-way through.” During December and January, I went back and did a little editing and threw out lots of words. I toyed around with outlines for a couple of scenes but the biggest problem, as the story progressed, was coming up with something that would be the equivalent of the seemingly impenetrable puzzle that Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, has to solve.

There was no sense even starting work on it without knowing what the equivalent of this clue or that character would be, but I had left the biggest issues for later, hoping they would fall in line along the way. Talk about “trusting in inspiration.” And certain smaller ideas have come up only to be solved in just that way. Implementing some of them is another matter.

If you haven't read Dan Brown's novel – and there are a lot less of you than read “The Da Vinci Code” – it won't make a lot of sense. That's how parodies work.

I knew my setting would be Lincoln Center rather than Washington D.C.'s Capitol complex and I knew (like Dan Brown's characters who are obsessing on the Washington Redskin's game the night everything takes place) it would take place the night of the final World Series game when the Yankees beat the Phillies, the perfect sports-obsessing equivalent. Curiously, when I started writing on November 1st, the Series had only just started so I waited a few days before filling in any of the details about things like the day of the week or what else may have been going on that was “day specific.” If the Yankees had lost, it would put a damper on the ending, I guess, but since most of the action takes place during the game, a lot of stuff goes unnoticed because everybody is wrapped up in the anticipation either watching the game or wishing they could be: this could be the night the Yankees win or the Phillies pull one out of the fire to prolong it.

A month later, the next scene I needed to write was a major climactic one, but not one that was an equivalent of anything in the original. Once I knew the story would take place on November 4th, I checked to see what would be happening at the Met – Rossini's Barber of Seville. Not only was it a favorite opera of mine, it was a production I had even seen, thanks to their new HD transmissions into movie theaters around the world. And I knew, given the timing, I would need a chase scene of some kind – like the CIA agents tracking Robert Langdon through the Library of Congress – about the time the first act finale of Rossini's comedy would be taking place. So obviously, my equivalent of symbologist Robert Langdon – that would be me, or rather a parody of myself as the musical know-it-all, Dr. Dick – would end up on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House (not in the way I had always dreamed it would be).

It would have been a very different scene if they were performing Janáček's "From the House of the Dead" that night...

(And why did I put myself into this story? Well, when I wrote “The Schoenberg Code,” it seemed a logical self-parody and, since many beginning writers write something autobiographical, masquerading their lives in fiction, it seemed somewhat logical to continue this into the sequel. It isn't so much that I'm stuck on myself but rather that I'm stuck with myself. Given my dull life and duller life-style, to say this is autobiographical is only mildly true: what is fictional is wildly untrue, and the wilder, the better.)

Since it had a been a couple of years since I'd seen the Met's production, I was delighted to discover, courtesy of YouTube, a clip of the very finale I was looking for. Unfortunately it's since been taken down for copyright infringement (ooops). But at the time, it helped me place my scene-within-a-scene in what would also become a parody of the climax of the Marx Brothers film, “A Night at the Opera” (which I'd also found on YouTube and which has also been removed for similar transgressions).

Now, hearing the opera and seeing the scene was not the same as translating it into written words that are to be read. I had to give the reader enough visuals for it to make sense and for it to be funny. Just to say “it was a funny scene” was not enough.

And because I knew this would take a few days to work out – even though I could've just sketched it in and barreled on ahead, coming back to fill in the details later – I ended up putting it aside. I stopped writing just as Dr. Dick and his two fellow-fugitives found themselves, unbelievably, arriving in the middle of the stage, the elevator they'd taken from the sub-basement scene shop turning into the freight elevator that delivers the sets onto the stage. Ooops.

So when I came back to pick up where I'd left off three months ago, the video clips of both the Rossini and the Marx Brothers had disappeared. Since my inspiration from Harpo Marx's backstage antics during “Il Trovatore” was only in spirit, not a literal parody, this didn't really matter, though I enjoyed the laugh whenever I saw it and a good laugh is like good medicine.

As rapid-fire as the action was, it took several days for it to take shape.

Dr. Dick (a.k.a. Brown's Robert Langdon) has been abducted from the seemingly evil clutches of Security Chief Yoda Leahy-Hu (a.k.a. Brown's Inoue Sato) of the International Composers Alliance (a.k.a. the CIA) by an architect working on the Lincoln Center renovations named V.C. D'Arcy (a.k.a. Brown's Warren Bellamy, Architect of the Capitol). As they try to escape through the scene shop in the Met's basement, they are joined by LauraLynn Hardy Sullivan (a.k.a. Brown's Katherine Solomon), sister of Robertson Hope Sullivan (a.k.a. Brown's Peter Solomon) who's had his ear (a.k.a. Brown's hand – well, Peter Solomon's hand, not Brown's hand) cut off and who is herself trying to escape from her brother's captor, Tr'iTone (a.k.a. Brown's Mal'akh), the villain who is disguised at this point as Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú (a.k.a. Brown's Christopher Abbadon). And so on.

They are being chased by three special agents from the ICA named Kay Gelida Manina, Oona Furtiva-Lagrima and Edie van Sierre. Like the architect, their names are all puns on famous arias: V.C. D'Arcy is “Vissi d'arte” from Puccini's Tosca; Kay Gelida Manina is “Che gelida manina” from Puccini's La Boheme; Oona Furtiva-Lagrima is from Donizetti's Elixir of Love; and Edie van Sierre is the line “e di pensier” that concludes “La donna é mobile” from Verdi's Rigoletto (and famously parodied on-line in the translation “Elephants, yeah!”).

While these agents are clad in skin-tight black body-suits like characters in a futuristic spy thriller or computer game, I've even made reference to their suits as the equivalent of the “little black dress” which caused famous soprano Deborah Voigt to be fired from a production of an opera because she would not fit into the “little black dress” that had been designed for that character. So, here, another agent, reassigned to a desk job because her weight gain meant she could no longer wear the regulation “little black body suit” was named Aïda Lott. (She will re-appear, quite transformed, at the end of the story.)

Many of my other characters' names also are based on musical terms, expressions or aria titles. In addition to people like Tom LeVay and P.K. Arabesk (from the ballet steps, temps levé and piqué arabesque), I am still trying to work in someone named Alice Vergenglikke, from the German “Alles vergängliche” – all things are transitory – a famous line from Goethe's Faust. I suspect she will be a temp...

There is also Lohimar May – from the medieval song, “L'homme armé” – who will become a famous musicologist specializing in early music and the inventor of the game “Where's Gesualdo?” (This last name was reworked from a suggestion by Facebook friend Steve Gregoropoulos who'd come up with something similar.)

After Dr. Dick and company find themselves in the middle of “Freddo ed immobile” (the ensemble starting “frozen and immobile like a statue,” not “Fred's in Mobile”), they see this wagon loaded with pumpkins (part of the actual Met production) being prepared to be brought on-stage. So they begin marching sideways, heel-to-toe then toe-to-heel, crab-like across the stage, the rest of their bodies not moving and taking up position behind a bunch of soldiers lined up on the opposite side of the stage. Confusion continues to mount when Almaviva and Figaro see the three black-clad secret agents with machine guns poised across their chests standing behind the wagon.

As the ensemble builds into its rapid-fire confusion (“my head is banging like it's being hammered on an anvil”), Agent Furtiva-Lagrima sees something hanging over them that's beginning to move – a large anvil that is supposed to descend slowly until it crushes the wagon. However, Agent van Sierre shouts and steps back, firing at the anvil, cutting one of its cables. Swinging dangerously by one cable, it now falls precipitously, destroying the wagon and smashing the pumpkins. The agents then slip and fall into what would have made an immense pumpkin pie, unable to apprehend the three fugitives before they escape backstage with the help of tenor Barry Banks (who actually was singing Almaviva that night) and one of the supers in the group of soldiers named Wyatt Zittipiano (later in the opera there is a whispered trio, “Zitti zitti, piano piano” - Quiet quiet, softly softly – and Wyatt = Quiet, get it?) after Banks recommends they hide in his out-of-the-way dressing room. Meanwhile, the rest of the soldiers do mock-skirmish with the three ICA agents during the bows – to great audience approval.

From there, it seemed logical to parody another scene from “A Night at the Opera,” the famous “crowded cabin scene” on board the ship where Groucho Marx is hiding with Chico and Harpo (who is sound asleep). One by one, various maids, a manicurist, a tourist looking for her aunt, two electricians and finally three waiters with trays of food all squeeze into this tiny little room. Then along comes the indefatigable Margaret Dumont as the matronly Mrs. Claypool who opens the door and everybody spills out into the hallway.

Meanwhile, back at “The Lost Chord,” Architect D'Arcy has gone off (as Bellamy had in Brown's novel) to be apprehended by the ICA as a decoy. LauraLynn and Dr. Dick run into usher Nandi Abbott, a diminutive and otherwise unassuming woman who's blocked their way but was sent off on a wild goose chase when Wyatt Zittipiano told her about the three armed intruders. He says “they don't call her 'Killer' Abbott for nothing.”

(Now, “Nandi” is the name of the White Bull who is the gatekeeper for the Hindu god Siva. Nandi is also the Tamil word for someone who blocks your path. 'Killer' Abbott refers to the killer rabbit in the scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with Tim the Enchanter and the harmless-looking rabbit who, in actuality, has nasty big pointy teeth.)

Once in the dressing room, Zittipiano tells them not to let anyone else in. So naturally, while they're trying to figure out an important clue, people start knocking at the door. First, it's the tenor, Barry Banks, coming back to enjoy the intermission break in his dressing room. Someone from Costumes arrives with Banks' 2nd Act disguise as the young music master, and just as Dr. Dick asks him what the password is, Banks asks LauraLynn if she'd like to join him for dinner afterwards. “I could really go for some swordfish.” Then Dr. Dick lets Guido in with the costume.

(There is another famous scene – from “Horse Feathers” – where Groucho is trying to get into a room but Chico won't let him enter unless he says the password. After much questioning, Chico says “you can't come in here unless you say 'Swordfish'...”)

This is followed by two people from Make-Up, one of them named Kensington Gore (which is the stock name for fake blood used in the theater), an electrician and later his burly assistant, a girl hoping to get an autograph from Juan-Diego Flórez (who was not singing Almaviva that night), two interior decorators sent to do a make-over of Mr. Banks otherwise shabby little dressing room (“could you make it look a little bigger?”) and then three guys from the Met commissary with trays of food.

Meanwhile, LauraLynn is trying to open a small box that has one of the major clues in it but she is constantly being interrupted by more and more arrivals.

When Dr. Dick realizes someone has left the door open – shouting “Mind that door!” (from Act II of Britten's Peter Grimes) – he ends up body-surfing over the crowd (as the sleeping Harpo did in the original scene) just as someone pulls the door shut. At that moment, Nandi Abbott has returned, irate that Mr. Banks has broken the rules about guests in the dressing room, accompanied by one of the ICA agents. When she yanks the door open, guests cascade out into the hallway and Barry Banks, disguised as a disheveled young music teacher, clambers out over them in time for the three-minute warning. When the ICA agent looks into the room, there is no sign of Dr. Dick or LauraLynn Sullivan.

- - - - - - -

There is an earlier scene that is not found or even suggested by anything in Dan Brown's original novel and it includes a recurring character from “The Schoenberg Code,” Dr. Dick's young assistant, Buzz Blogster.

In Brown's novel, Katherine Solomon has an annoying trait where she's frequently brushing a stray wisp of hair back behind her ear. In “The Lost Chord,” this has been transferred to my Yoda-like take-off of Chief Inoue Sato, though it's always associated with her talking to Buzz as if it becomes some kind of sexual nuance.

While I first introduced Security Chief Yoda Leahy-Hu speaking very much as Yoda did in “Star Wars,” I quickly decided to drop it as it became not only difficult to do but tiresome and distracting to read. More recently, however, she's taken on other characteristics as I find myself imagining the part played in the movie-version by Linda Hunt, or actually more like the character she plays on “NCIS: Los Angeles,” Hetty Lange.

The problem with Buzz, though, was what to do with him once the action of the plot started. When V.C. D'Arcy abducts our hero in the sub-basement level of Lincoln Center, there is no room to include a side-kick. Since he was now in the hands of the ICA Director of Security, it seemed logical he should be interrogated – but another question was “where?” Given the renovations going on at Lincoln Center, the Security Offices were currently (fictionally or actually, I have no idea) housed in a construction trailer in the underground area not far from the 62nd Street entrance. Since there wouldn't really be room for an interrogation room there, Leahy-Hu commandeers the men's room.

Now that I'm this far into it – and some 71,000 words total, at this point – I should just start posting it. Yet I'm only half-way through Brown's story. I estimate his novel to be about 230,000 words which would make mine, if the proportions hold out, to be about 2/3rds the length of the original – in fact, it would put it within the Golden Ratio: the Golden Section of c.230k is c.142k and uhm... double the words I've written up to the half-way mark would make it a total of c.142,000 words. Hmmm...

Well, anyway, I've got to get back to work. Two things must happen in the next scene: the equivalent of Brown's pyramid and capstone are to be reunited – in my case, it's a headless bobble-head doll of Mozart with the head in a separate and long separated container (plus there's also an old Seth Thomas metronome which looks a bit like a pyramid minus its capstone, though I haven't quite figured out how this really functions in the overall plot) – which will reveal further clues, including one leading them to another clue in the equivalent of Brown's use of Albrecht Dürer's 1514 “Melancholia” which I've figured will be found in Schoenberg's 1934 essay, “Problems of Harmony.” Not sure how that's going to happen.

Most of the details have already been worked out, as I've outlined Brown's story chapter-by-chapter (all 135 of them). But some of them still need clearer resolution and that's why I don't want to start posting the chapters I've already written, like a serial-novel-in-progress: I may need to go back and change some things as new details and possible solutions evolve. And then there's always the editing process, anyway.

Right now, I just want to write and get it down in a rough draft.

Meanwhile, I have officially been diagnosed with Spring Fever. I think another walk is in order, after four days of 60° weather. It's cloudier today with more clouds and some rain in the forecast through next Tuesday, so I think I'll go enjoy it while I can. One always hopes there's plenty of time to work, later...

- Dr. Dick

No comments:

Post a Comment