Monday, March 29, 2010

Writing "The Lost Chord" - Parody of a Villain's Ritual

Though I haven't posted any of the material for “The Lost Chord” yet, the 'music appreciation thriller' I'm writing that's a parody of Dan Brown's novel “The Lost Symbol,” I thought I'd show you how it's going – and how I'm using the process of parody.

Having written some 64,000 words by the end of November toward NaNoWriMo's goal of 50,000, I was hoping, now that I've gotten back into it, to make it to 100,000 by the end of April, the second month I've been working on it. I could still make it. It's taken longer this time because (a) I'm not pushing myself as much as I was in November and (b) it needed more thought and research on details that I didn't have to deal with last fall, getting it started.

One of the biggest problems, of course, is finding musical equivalents of Brown's plot elements and props – especially the clues – and this scene stumped me when I first read it. I had thought of skipping it completely but I haven't done that with any of the other chapters so far and only with a few minor details. Then, over the weekend, it came time to do this scene or not. So I just plunged into it. And one by one, items started popping into my mind.

First, here's a preçis of Dan Brown's original scene, chapter 81 (p.301-303):

Mal'akh, the muscular tattooed villain of Brown's story, descends into the “subterranean space” that looked like a normal cellar – boiler, fuse box, wood-pile “and a hodge-podge of storage.” But “a sizeable area had been walled off for his clandestine practices,” a suite of smaller rooms, its sole entrance through a secret doorway in the living room.

The “largest room at the end of the corridor” of this suite was his “sanctum sanctorum,” a perfect 12-foot square (“12 are the signs of the zodiac. 12 are the hours of the day. 12 are the gates of heaven”) A 7'x7' stone table stood in the center (“7 are the seals of Revelation. 7 are the steps of the Temple”). Over the center of the table hung a “carefully calibrated light source” cycling every 6 hours through a specific ordering of colors according to the “sacred Table of Planetary Hours.” “The hour of Yanor is blue. The hour of Nasnia is red. The hour of Salam is white.”

Current time in Mal'akh's basement was Caerra – “the light in the room had modulated to a soft purplish hue.” He wore “only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ” (this had been explained in a previous chapter about making sacrifices both of the blood and the personal variety). He is now ready to begin his ritualized preparations.

To sanctify the air, he mixes “the suffumigation chemicals” which he'll ignite later. He folds the silk robe he'll wear later as well, then purifies a flask of water.

(As I was reading this, I was so tempted to come up with a scene out of Julia Child...)

Then he opens an ivory box: nestled in “a cradle of black velvet” is the knife which cost him “$1.6 million on the Middle Eastern antiquities black market last year.” He doesn't at this point explain what the knife is, but I don't think I'll give anything away by explaining it will be revealed as the knife Abraham was prepared to slay Isaac with.

He polishes the blade with a silk cloth soaked in the purified water. Then Brown describes the Dark Arts that his villain is engaging in: “This primeval technology had once held the key to the portals of power” and so on.

(Mal'akh is after the “Ancient Mysteries” of the Masons; he knows of their stone pyramid which supposedly has a map guiding him to a location where these can be found: once in possession of them, he will become, essentially, Master of the Universe, or at least some god-like power beyond his wildest imagination.)

Then he turns to a piece of home-made vellum, a quill pen made from the feather of a crow, a silver saucer and three candles around a solid-brass bowl which contained an inch of “thick crimson liquid” (guess!).

This was the blood of Peter Solomon, the head of the American Masons and the man whose hand he had cut off to set both Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, and the plot in motion.

Mal'akh places his left hand on the vellum, dips the quill pen in the blood and traces the outline of his hand, adding the five symbols of the Ancient Mysteries on each fingertip:

The crown... the king he shall become
The star... the heavens which ordained his destiny
The sun... the illumination of his soul
The lantern... the feeble light of human understanding
The key... the one missing piece of information (the Lost Symbol) which, by the end of the night, he shall possess (if Robert Langdon is doing his job of deciphering the pyramid's map)

He then burns the vellum, adding the ashes to the remainder of the blood – see how well this'd work as a take-off of a cooking show?? – then stirred the mixture with the crow feather, creating a deep rich, nearly black ink.

Raising the bowl with the ink in it over his head, “intoning the blood eukharistos of the ancients," he pours it into a glass bottle, corks it and is now ready, when the time comes, to “inscribe the untattooed flesh atop his head and complete his masterpiece” (by which he means his body, every inch of which is covered from head to almost the crown of his shaved head with ritualistic tattoos).


First of all, aside from resetting the story from Washington DC and the United States Capitol to New York City and Lincoln Center, in my parody, Mal'akh becomes a similarly power-hungry villain named Tr'iTone, taken from the name for the interval of two pitches an augmented fourth or diminished fifth apart – say, C and F-sharp – called a Tritone, a very unstable interval that even in the medieval days when music theory was just beginning to be codified was called “Diabolus in musica” or “The Devil in Music.”

Once I figured how to turn Brown's Masons into Musicians – especially composers – my villain's quest would be to find a way of becoming the Greatest Composer in the World, this generation's answer to Beethoven. And he thinks Robertson Sullivan (my version of Peter Solomon) has the answers. Instead of a stone pyramid, there's a plastic bobble-head doll of Mozart (minus its head, just as Brown's masonic pyramid is minus its capstone).

Since Mal'akh perverts Masonic rituals into satanic ones for his evil ends, my Tr'iTone takes the spiritual quest to uncover your Inner Artist from Julia Cameron's wonderful book called “The Artist's Way” (which I worked my way through back in the mid-'90s) and perverts it into something comparably evil.

So here's my parody of this scene. [My interpolated explanations will be italicized in brackets].

I should mention that many critics complained about Brown's excessive use of italics in the text but he employs them for the characters unspoken thoughts, which is how I use them here.

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

Into the basement of his brownstone home on West 68th Street, Tr'iTone now descended careful not to make a sound or unnecessary gesture lest he upset the karmic flow around him. The lighting was a warm pastel shade mixing tints of magenta and brown with the music's slow pulsation which had already begun its gradual increase in speed. This was his “holy of holies,” his shrine to the pale-skinned Sarasvati, Queen of Heaven, Mother of Waters, the Hindu goddess of sensual love, creativity, beauty, art and music, creator of poetry, inventor of music and science and also the beverage Amrita, the 'drink of bliss,' a glass of which he held in his left hand.

A large velvet painting of her – a crescent moon on her forehead, riding on a peacock against a starry sequin-studded background that flowed from the myriad eyes of the peacock's tail – hung at one end of a twelve foot square space, the floor a pattern of square-foot tiles of various colors – twelve across and twelve down. (Twelve are the pitches of the chromatic scale, one for each hour of the day and one for each hour of the night.) Within the center of the square was a smaller square of seven tiles across and seven down, these colors darker, more intense. (Seven are the pitches of the diatonic scale. Seven are the days of the week.) In the center of this central square stood a smaller five-foot square table. (Five are the lines of the staff. Five are the... uhm... days of a normal work-week...)

Directly over the table hung an old plastic color-wheel from the psychedelic '70s, twelve panels of rainbow hues blending one into the other, which Tr'iTone had devised to rotate slowly to the hour hand of a clock. When it was noon or midnight, the color was bright red; the panel gradually blended to orange, the color of 1:00, and then to yellow for 2:00 and so on through the spectrum of green, blue, purple, magenta and brown till it was back to red.

This clock was coordinated with a CD-player that played continuously one of his finest creations, a series of slow-moving chord progressions played on a synthesizer, pulsating chords around a tonic center that repeated various pitch and rhythmic patterns, expanding from the lowest registers until, in a gradual crescendo and accelerando, it climbed to the very highest registers where, during the last quarter of the hour, it gradually filled out to the widest possible range of man's hearing before modulating climactically to the next hour, the new key.

Even though, like perfect pitch, Tr'iTone himself did not possess it, he felt the power of synesthesia, the ability some people have to see colors when they hear music. Each hour was associated with a different color and a different tonality, beginning with a darker shade of its color, the chord progression starting in the minor mode of its key. But halfway through the hour, the color would lighten and the music changed to the major mode. And so his clock reflected this. 12:00 was red which to many synesthetes was the key of C; 1:00 was orange and the key of G; 2:00 became yellow and the key of D. And so on through the entire span of time, the entire range of keys.

He called this composition of his La belle horloge de couleurs cèlestes, “The Beautiful Clock of Celestial Colors.” He had thought of hiring a symphony orchestra to record the piece for him in its entirety but union regulations precluded a twelve-hour service without breaks and he didn't want to have any edits that would minimize its spiritual impact. So while settling for a midi-version of it, he found it also made it easier to record and connect the different sections on his computer. Like all of his latest music, it still awaited its first public performance. He had even made a shortened version where, if you didn't take all the repeats, it would be only two hours long. He had sent the score to John Tesh but never heard back from him, not even the courtesy of “thank you for your wonderful score but at this time we are not looking for a twelve-hour-long work for full orchestra.” Still, Tr'iTone was convinced it would have been an epic presentation on a PBS fund-raising special.

Now was the Hour of B-flat, still in the minor mode. Dressed in his ritual boxers with a pattern of crowns and stars and smiling suns, he took his glass of Amrita – the “drink of bliss” concocted from Sarasvati's recipe freshly and carefully prepared exactly a week ago and left to ferment in the refrigerator for the requisite seven days – and drank it slowly to begin his ritual.

On the table before him were a metal box, a little lantern, a small clay pot with a miniature rose bush growing in it, a small photograph in a black wooden frame, a piece of paper on a deep blue china plate and a small dark cup, like one you might use to wash your eye with. Next to that was a small glass bottle like one you might find in any old European apothecary shop, its glass stopper carefully held in place with a red ribbon. Last was a bowl, its exterior plated in gold and quite aged, possibly even cracked, but no matter: it was empty – for now. [A tangential reference to Henry James' final novel, The Golden Bowl.]

He did not yet open the metal box. He did not need to, to admire its contents.

The pen.

After spending nearly a decade tracking it down, he had paid over $1 million for it at the black market arts fair held in Vienna last year. He wondered when the last time was that it had been used to write anything down?

He opened the box and took out the pen that had been carefully wrapped in a square of rich red velvet and a swatch of ermine, wiping it clean with a small scrap cut from a pair of lederhosen dipped in tap-water he had brought back from Vienna years ago and kept in a special air-sealed bottle in his refrigerator until this very moment in time.

[The pen will turn out to be one of the first steel-tipped pens ever made. It was manufactured in Birmingham, England, in 1803, and was given as a gift by Prince Lichnowski to his friend (and tenant) Ludwig van Beethoven. After a spat with the prince, though, Beethoven threw the pen in his waste basket where it was rescued by his student Ferdinand Ries – the story will continue from there in a later segment... While the pen could've been real, that Beethoven had been given one is a fiction. But the timing and the characters involved are all real and thus create a probable context for this historical fiction.]

Next, he examined the sheet of paper on the china plate. This, he sighed, was not just any piece of paper: it was an ancient manuscript written on vellum, hand-made by monks from the skin of a baby calf. In turn, he checked the other items, giving the eye-cup a careful look, swirling it and sniffing its bouquet as if it were a fine red wine.

But it wasn't a centuries old vintage of wine. When he was in Vienna, he'd thought of trying to buy the last remaining bottle from the collection Beethoven's publisher had sent the dying composer in 1827, but it was Mosel wine, Beethoven's favorite white wine, and Tr'iTone would have preferred a deep, hearty red, himself. No, in many ways, this was even better.

[It is true that Beethoven's publisher had sent him a case of Mosel wine which arrived as he lay on his death bed: in fact, his final words were, seeing the wine, "A shame, a shame - too late." Mosel wine is a white wine and I was trying to find the name of a red wine that Beethoven might have been able to drink in the 1820s but it took me an hour to find this out which then required some fudging.]

The cup he held before him contained 1/8th of a cup of blood. Robertson Sullivan's blood.

After lighting the little lantern, he touched each item in turn, from the box with the pen to the little apothecary jar, muttering unintelligible incantations, repeating them each three times as he took out three candles, lit them and carefully placed them one at the center back of the table, the other two in the center of either side, creating a triangle within the square.

He took the last bit of Sarasvati's beverage and let it drip onto the potted plant, a miniature rose that he had nurtured from a rose bush that grew on Robertson Sullivan's estate in Cornwall-on-Hudson. More a scrawny sapling than a true miniature, It was just barely alive – just like Robertson Sullivan, now that he mentioned it – but alive enough to serve its purpose. He had cut a slip from it when he went back to sneak around the property, summer a year ago: no one had been home and he'd thought about breaking in again but figured, if the gizmo he'd been looking for [which contained the map to the Ancient Myseries] were there at all, it wouldn't be out in the open, now, would it? No, he probably kept it in a hidden wall safe, any way: besides, this was much more aesthetically pleasing than breaking and entering, an act of mere petty larceny.

He looked fondly at the photograph taken of him when he was a teen-ager with his faithful German shepherd, Fleck, his one truly understanding friend until the poor dog had gotten run over by a neighbor's truck backing out of the driveway. [Fleck is German for Spot...]

The little apothecary bottle was a treasured item, too, purchased a few years ago on E-Bay: Gustav Mahler's dying breath, a steal at only $557.

Lifting the feebly shining lantern, he spoke the lines he had planned for this ritual years ago. “This lantern represents the hornéd moon.” Holding it close to his face, he added “and I, the man in the moon. But soon, my goddess Sarasvati,” holding the lantern up toward the painting, “I will be like Lord Apollo, King of the Sun.” He hoped this meant no disrespect to her deityship.

He lifted the next two items and presented them lovingly to her.

“This thorn-bush is my thorn-bush; this dog, my dog...”

[Since much of this original scene is so over-the-top, I wanted something particularly silly, here. I've transposed Brown's crown, stars and sun to the boxers Tr'iTone wears instead of Mal'akh's loincloth, but the lantern was the ignition for Shakespeare's Wall from the rustics' play in the final act of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”]

Then he reverently picked up the vellum on which an ancient monk had written in simple notation – very old, using a three-line staff – the chant for the DIES IRAE, the “Day of Wrath” from the Requiem liturgy for the Mass of the Dead that had been, for centuries, associated with the sounds of evil. After kissing it three times, he held it to his forehead and chanted the text's three lines in Latin, moving his lips as he recited it in his mind.

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Day of wrath, that day
Dissolves the world in ashes,
So spoke David and the Sibyl.

Then he rolled up the small piece of vellum like a spring roll and held it over the flame of the center candle, allowing it to burn into ashes – favilla: ashes of the dead, still glowing like embers – and he now placed the china plate in the center of the table.

Julia Child, he thought, eat your heart out!

With a small branch he'd broken off from the rose bush, he scraped the ashes into the golden bowl, then poured in Robertson Sullivan's blood, mixing them gently with the sprig of rose. The resultant mixture was a thick, black ink that he would use when he'd take the pen – (ah, the pen) – to inscribe the one remaining chord on the remaining space of bare flesh on his body – the very top of his head – long reserved for a very special chord that would make him complete.

That special chord was “The Lost Chord.” Possessing it would make him Master of the Composers' Universe.

[Instead of Mal'akh's Masonic symbols, Tr'iTone covers his body in tattoos of chords taken from Elliott Carter's “Harmony Book” and so becomes a walking compendium of thousands of possible pitch combinations. Elliott Carter himself becomes a character in the next scene of “The Lost Chord.”]

He held the bowl up before him, three times aloft to the heavens before the painting of Sarasvati, held it against the top of his head for thirty seconds while three times chanting

Holy Triad,
Mighty Trichord,
Immortal Ternary Form.
Find me worthy...

[This is taken from the Russian Orthodox prayer, the Trisagion: Holy God, Holy Mighty-One, Holy Immortal-One, Have mercy on me...]

Three, another sacred number found in most religions. The Trinity.

Three, the number of sharps in A Major, the number of flats in E-flat Major.

A and E-flat.

Together, they formed the interval of three whole steps – a tritone.

DIABOLUS IN MUSICA, he intoned with a roaring, indeed even diabolical laugh, and set down the bowl with a smile.

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

In this last bit, Tr'iTone's prayer, a Triad is a three-note chord based on major and minor thirds used in tonal music; a Trichord is a chord made from three pitches not all based on intervals of the third which would not create a consonant triadic sound or a traditionally tonal function; Ternary Form – usually diagrammed A-B-A – is the basis for the structure of much classical music, based on the premise of Statement – Digression – Restatement which is also the foundation of Sonata Form's Exposition – Development – Recapitulation.

The notes A and E-flat have already appeared as a clue. While pitches can be turned into letters to spell words and names (a key ingredient in “The Schoenberg Code”) and E-flat is “S” in German (as B-natural is “H”), these two pitches spell out the monogram for Arnold Schoenberg who also figures prominently in other clues in “The Lost Chord.” For many, Schoenberg is the Great Bugbear of the 20th Century, an appropriate Diabolus in musica.

And so there you have the first excerpt to be posted from “The Lost Chord.”

More (much more) to come... eventually.

- Dr. Dick

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