Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Lost Chord: Red Herrings in Verdi Square

In the pursuit of almost any solution, there are always several possibilities how you could arrive at one – clues that might lead you closer to it or, if misinterpreted or incorrectly realized, further away from it.

While I could describe ways of approaching certain political goals at the present time – whether it's health care, the environment, the economy, greed on Wall Street or the Wars on Terrorism – I'm thinking specifically of my Music Appreciation Thriller, “The Lost Chord” which is a full-scale parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol” (if anybody still remembers that one, it would seem to have fallen off the face of the earth, compared to the roaring success of its predecessor, “The DaVinci Code” which I parodied in my earlier “The Schoenberg Code”).

Aside from the question “Why write a parody of a book that has already slipped below the cultural horizon,” I was still dealing with ways of translating Brown's myriad clues into musical equivalents in the pursuit of... well, whatever it was that sparked “The Lost Symbol” in the first place: truth, beauty and the Masonic Way? Only in my case, instead of Masons, I'm dealing with musicians – composers, especially – and rather than the perversion of knowledge and wisdom in the wrong hands, the attainment of creative enlightenment and its perversion in the wrong hands. In other words, truth, beauty and the artist's way.

While Aaron Copland had spoken of a composer seeing the piece he's going to write “whole, in a flash” or something to that effect – whether it was his belief or he was stating it as one possible belief, I don't recall, nor, foot-notally speaking, do I remember exactly where this came from (“What to Listen For in Music”?) – I also thought of Elliott Carter's ideas on inspiration. In an interview with John Tusa in his “On Creativity: Interviews Exploring the Process,” Carter told him

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“if there is inspiration, it's not something [for me] that comes at the beginning of the piece. It comes in the course of writing it. The more I get into the piece, the more the inspiration – well, I don't know exactly what inspiration means – but I would see more clearly and with more excitement and more interest new things...”
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And so, writing “The Lost Chord” has been a similar kind of process. I began without knowing exactly (and in many cases, not even approximately) how I would translate all of Brown's clues or the details of his plot into something musical that I could use in mine. But as the work unfolded and I thought about where something was leading (or not), there came to me various ideas that I would check out, follow, discard or expand on.

Sometimes, this whole process has amazed me – and yet, I'm the one writing it! How often this happens in the music I compose is one thing (there, it seems second nature to me) but the amount of creative serendipitousness in writing this novel has been surprising.

Of course, I'm following Brown's story very carefully – this is a very literal parody, even down to certain lines (for instance, Brown begins one chapter, when a character trips over a wire and goes flying, “Katherine Solomon knew she was falling... but she couldn't figure out why.” I begin the parallel segment, where my character falls through a trap door into the basement below, “LauraLynn Sullivan figured out she was falling... but didn't know why.”) – so the problem is not coming up with plot details, though I find many times it's a limitation or what might be called a “creative constraint.”

(In one sense, saying I'm composing in a serial style with such-and-such a 12-tone row is considered a “creative constraint.” So, for that matter, is saying “I'm writing in a tonal style in D Major,” but never mind that for now.)

The problem is finding these “musical equivalents.”

The other day, I posted a segment of a scene that takes place in Verdi Square, an actual location in Manhattan (see photo, left, looking toward the Ansonia Hotel at 73rd & Broadway). It parallels the stake-out scene in Brown's Chapters #93, #97 and #99 that takes place in Franklin Square, an actual location in Washington D.C. Now, in Brown, the address “8 Franklin Square” becomes a clue, though tracking down the location is a red herring since the actual reference is to an 8x8 Magic Square devised by Benjamin Franklin – finding that permits one to reassemble the diagram broken into 64 different little squares into something that becomes more of a metaphorical map.

Though it was wonderful to be able to include my parody of Abbott & Costello's “Who's on First?” with Yoda Leahy-Hu and her ICA agents in this scene, the actual role of Verdi Square was still a sticking point – or a point that had me stuck for ideas. Where to go from here?

I had no number prefacing Verdi to create something like an address. I didn't want my red herring to be as literal as the Brown herring. But what was the point of having the scene at Verdi Square if it didn't have a more effective role in reaching (or obscuring) the actual solution?

Instead of writing out “Verdi Square” as Brown did with Franklin, I had decided to make the clue an outline of a box with the name “VERDI” inscribed inside. At the lower right hand corner were the words, “Falstaff enters here.”

So far, I had figured my final clue – the answer to Brown's diagram on p.373 in Chapter 101 – would be a similar kind of matrix that needs to be “re-ordered” to discover its meaning, or at least get you one step closer to its possible meaning.

Serial composers – that is, those who write music based on Schoenberg's “system of composing with twelve tones” – use a 12x12 matrix or magic square where the 12 notes of the “row” (or source set for the piece's melodic and harmonic material) can be plotted in the “original” format (across the top, left to right) or in the “inversion” (down the side, top to bottom), which also allows you to follow the “retrograde” or “retrograde inversion” of these forms by following the “row” or column in the opposite direction.

But the connection of Verdi with a serial 12x12 matrix was more than a stretch. Verdi was not only not a serial composer, it would be difficult to imagine he even influenced a serial composer. I tried creating a matrix out of the “Enigmatic Scale” he used for the “Ave Maria” in the Four Sacred Pieces written at the end of his career, but that was only seven notes and led nowhere.

And then I remembered how Georges Perec built his novel “Life: A User's Manual” on the Knight's Tour, a classic chess puzzle: how do you get a knight with its L-shaped pattern to move across the chess-board and eventually hit every single square once and only once? In fact, I had already used this idea in setting up the structure for the different segments of another novel I had started (finally) to write in November of 2008 called “Echoes in and out of Time.”

Now, a chess board is an 8x8 square. Perec's square was 10x10 as was the one I used for “Echoes.” How could I construct one that was 12x12? Not only did I find a bunch I could model mine on, by several permutations I was able to get the knight to begin in the lower right-hand corner, just where I wanted Falstaff to enter. Where it landed 144 moves later, ending its gambit, would be a critical point in interpreting the final arrangement of the individual squares of the pictogram. Whatever would be on that square would essentially be the destination of this “map.” (That, I've already figured out but I don't want to give it away, you know, not just yet...)

Okay, so Verdi wrote an opera called “Falstaff,” about Shakespeare's fat knight from “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” That gives me the clue that the knight begins his “tour” on that particular square: the lower right-hand corner.

But the stake-out scene involves telling the villain Tr'iTone that he must enter Verdi Square at the southeast entrance. There are expectations perhaps for a scene like the one at Herne's Oak in Verdi's final scene.

While another clue – a limerick written out in mock-Greek – mentions Dante, the Fifth Circle (presumably of Dante's Inferno) and an entrance guarded by an immobile spider, most of this clue is ignored in typical red herring fashion. Buzz Blogster, for instance, is convinced it will lead to Shelob's Lair which means it's guarding the Two Towers as in Tolkein's “Lord of the Rings,” but alas New York City's two towers were destroyed on September 11th, 2001.

Supposedly saner heads overlook Dante and the Circle as well but suppose there must be a stone (immobile) spider on the base of the Verdi monument in Verdi Square (presumably near the carving of the character Falstaff) that will, like a secret entranceway, open to reveal the portal leading to the location of the “old secrets” (the equivalent of Brown's masonic “Ancient Mysteries” that sets “The Lost Symbol” in motion).

Two things happened in my trying to squirm my way out of this one.

One was I still lacked the prologue which introduces an important statement that comes back in one of the final chapters: Brown's villain, Ma'lakh, tells us “the important thing is to know how to die.” How would this work for a musician trying to achieve the ultimate in Creative Insight? Suddenly – literally an “aha!” moment – I was writing a line about a suffering artist when it occurred to me: Tr'iTone intones “the important thing is to know how to suffer [for one's art].”

The second thing was a parallel discovery to anything that might enhance my location at Verdi Square.

When I lived in New York City in the late-70s, Verdi Square was not a place you'd want to hang out. It was known better as “Needle Park” for its heavy drug traffic. In fact, I'm not even sure I knew it was named after Verdi and I never once saw the statue to Verdi that had been erected there in 1906 the whole time I lived there, walking through that neighborhood or using the 72nd Street subway station. Given that lack of awareness of the area, how would I ever come up with a building in the area that would be the equivalent of the bizarre Shriner's building on Franklin Square in Washington D.C. that becomes a major herring as this scene unfolds in Brown's original?

Now, I had tried to base everything I needed to do as far as research and fact-checking was concerned in this story by using the internet – mainly because Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, makes a snide remark that “googling is not research.” I have friends in New York City I could easily ask (read “pester”) for landmark details &c – and there are some I may still need to track down (and a few I know are just plain wrong but, hey, it's also fiction: I'm not writing a kind of tour guide like Brown did in his three Langdon novels).

So I started googling addresses around Verdi Square and found three buildings with musical connections in the immediate area.

On 73rd Street is a 14 story building called the Sherman Square Studios where the “apartments” were designed as sound-proofed musicians' studios. In 1934 one tenant could even install a pipe organ; in 1956, Samuel Barber held a party there to preview his new wind quintet “Summer Music.”

(Curiously, I discovered this is a building comparable to another one built by the same developer at 86th & Central Park West called Hotel des Artistes which included spacious studios for painters and sculptors back in the 1930s. A friend of mine lived there in an apartment once occupied by Alexander Calder who left behind a massive bronze sculpture when he moved out. When I lived in NYC, I often visited there: just inside the vestibule, Calder's grand lady had become a coat rack – telling this story incensed a friend of mine who complained about the trivialization of art until I reminded him how he liked to listen to my radio program while he read the paper. The living room, by the way, was two stories high and the bedrooms formed a kind of mezzanine overlooking it. An amazing space.)

Opposite the northwest corner of Verdi Square on 74th Street is the famous Ansonia Hotel, an ornate pile of French confection where some great names in the world of music once stayed, ranging from Caruso to Toscanini to Stravinsky. It was interesting that in several references to the hotel's history, musicians' names were the only ones mentioned. A friend suggested this was because of the proximity of Lincoln Center, ten blocks south, but I reminded him that Lincoln Center was opened in the mid-1960s, long after the reign of stars like Caruso or Toscanini would have been traveling to Carnegie Hall on 57th or the old Met on 39th in the early decades of last century.

But it was the building just next to it that caused me, quite literally, to gasp. Before I clicked on that link, I'd never heard of it, yet I walked near there quite frequently during the two years I lived in the area!

I was hoping to find something that could have some significance with a secret organization – presumably of musicians and hopefully with something better than the Sherman Square Studios or I'd have to make something up.

The “Level Club” was built in the 1920s as a private club for members of the local Masonic lodge. In fact, its “byzantine” or “neo-Romanesque” architectural style incorporates several secret masonic symbols into the building's façade.

The perfect red herring for this scene! The ICA agents (my equivalent of the CIA) are looking for something associated with “an order,” with “old secrets” and a mystical society. Having a masonic building right around the corner from Verdi Square was better than I could have imagined – the pun, of course, tying in with Brown's original secret organization – and probably better than something I might have created myself if I were concocting an imaginary cityscape.

So now, there was one last bit of “clue” to contend with, here: tying VERDI in with my 12x12 matrix which will be solved by figuring out a knight's tour.

In his own lifetime, Verdi's name became a rallying cry for Italians seeking independence from the Austrian Empire which controlled the northern half of the Italian peninsula. Those seeking independence wished to create an Italian kingdom led by the king of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel. But any mention of his name or their cause was liable to result in arrest. Someone discovered that VERDI could be an acronym for “Victor Emmanuel, Re d'Italia” (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy) and so people could run around screaming “Viva Verdi!” and the Austrian police could only assume they were just crazy about this guy who wrote operas.

Coming up with something musical that could be applied to a 12x12 serial matrix spelling out Verdi's name was another matter.

Scrolling through a few glossaries of serial terminology this afternoon, I quickly came up with

Rows (of)
Dodecaphonic (i.e., 12-tone)
Integers (using numbers instead of pitches)

The fact that it makes no real sense is fine – like much technical gobbledegook, the point is to be as obfuscatory as possible. That someone into esoteric theoretical terminology would get this would be lost on people who love music but may not understand the technical details, the same way people who drive cars during the course of their every day existence might not be able to construct an internal combustion engine from scratch but can still manage to drive.

Thus VERDI inside a box doesn't mean “Verdi Square” after all – it points to a 12x12 square of numbers like a 12-tone matrix with a suggestion for Falstaff (a knight) to enter (to place 1) in the lower right-hand corner.

And so I'm now one step closer to finding “The Lost Chord.”

- Dr. Dick

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