Monday, April 30, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 3


In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, our narrator, Richard Kerr, attended a summer concert that passed not without some difficulties, especially an over-the-top and under-the-bar performance by a once acclaimed pianist. Now, it's off to the old Crevecoeur farmhouse for dinner and a read-through of a recently discovered work by his mentor, Sebastian Crevecoeur.

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Chapter 3
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Sebastian used to say "for every accounting of a person's life, there was an equal and opposite recounting." No matter how your life would read officially, there was always something more – deeper layers, different viewpoints – that you'd probably never want others to know about. Those in the public eye were more susceptible to this kind of scrutiny but then he'd joke how, as a living composer, his life "wasn't exactly public, was it?" No one would really be interested in him until he was dead, any way. Though he had several compositions performed around the world and a few recorded, Sebastian Crevecoeur wasn't exactly a household name even in those rarefied "new music circles."

Before I started teaching at Cutler University, I had heard of him but had never heard any of his music. What I'd read about him, once I applied to teach there, led me to assume I would like his music, but since this naive evaluation had led to disappointment with other composers before, I thought it best to reserve judgment until I had a chance to acquaint myself with the music he wrote. Besides, liking the music did not necessarily mean I would like the person who wrote it. And the opposite would prove true often enough, as well.

Sebastian had taken me under his wing from the day of my interview, and was quick to support me after I was officially hired, helping me acclimate myself to life at the college and in the community. It was through a friend of his that I managed to find my apartment and it was two of his grad students who helped me with the physical process of moving in, once I'd dragged everything up from home. The first faculty home I'd been invited into for a sociable dinner was Sebastian and Alina Crevecoeur's. Despite the classy-sounding names, they were two very down-to-earth people, unpretentious, a bit bohemian and for some of their colleagues, maybe even a bit low-brow. Their home was simple, the menu "no-frills" and the overall attitude so realistic, it was one of the more pleasant moments I had, adjusting myself to my new environment.

Actually, I saw his music before I heard it. Classes had not officially started yet when I stopped by his studio one afternoon unannounced. Instead of sorting out paperwork for his first classes as others were doing, Sebastian was going over the final touches of a new manuscript, a string quartet he'd just finished copying, a commission for the faculty quartet who'd scheduled the premiere for the springtime. Pushing the score toward me, he said students of his would copy the parts for him: that was the real drudgery of being a composer, he said, glad to pay someone to take it off his hands.

Paging through the score, the first thing that crossed my mind was how music like this, more complex and intellectually conceived than I was anticipating, could have been composed by a man as everyday-looking as this man. Perhaps people in Vienna in the 1820s had a similar "disconnect" when they heard Beethoven's last quartets, then saw a man so unkempt he had once been arrested as a vagrant.

Middle-aged, which he joked meant "aged around the middle," Sebastian was of "middling" height and "middle-of-the-road" about the way he dressed, too casual for some of his colleagues but not sloppy enough to be branded eccentric. There was nothing really remarkable about the way he looked or acted. When he stood up to take a bow after a performance of his music, some might scratch their heads and think, "That's not what I expected him to look like." He seemed to delight in this.

He pulled the score back with an apology, then said, "Let's go down to the Canteen and get some lunch. I'm starving." Sebastian placed the score on a shelf behind his desk and we were off.

The official biography, the short-version, would sum up the important highlights – birth and, eventually, death; lists of works, important premieres, any prizes on the trophy shelf of life, important professional positions as well as teachers and famous students (if applicable); a choice critical reaction, perhaps; and from the personal world, mentions of names – parents, spouse, children, survivors – but little more. In other words, a curriculum vitae turned mortis.

Such a biography would tell you that a work was written, but not why or how. If there was anything beneath its surface, unless the composer left some specific reference that could be quoted and proven, it will go unmentioned. It might not be important what a composer had for breakfast the day he completed the work that almost won him the Pulitzer Prize that year but the fact he'd broken off the closest friendship of his life the week before he started it could be.

What's more important: the fact his latest string quartet divides clearly according to the proportions of the Golden Section, down to the smallest structural details, or why the composer thought that was significant? Experts may analyze its technical details but who would sift through the disparate details of a personal life to patch together the individual who created it?

What about the unknown works, ones he didn't create, the ones tossed out as unworthy or left incomplete and put aside to be reconsidered, then forgotten? What about the dreams he had and those he never realized?

It had been no secret years of academic politics had worn him down and in frustration he abruptly resigned. Fortunately, Juilliard thought he was enough of a catch to offer him an appointment. He felt he had jumped off a cliff and landed on his feet in the middle of a rose garden, from the frying pan into paradise.

There was always that undercurrent of surprise, rippling out from the tide-pools of political in-fighting, that he'd been pushed from Cutler rather than leaping on his own. But the step up was seen as a culmination.

Depending on whom a biographer might ask among his former colleagues, there were those who'd say it was a quiet compromise, some gentleman's agreement reached between him and the Dean but left in private, going no further than enticing innuendo; others could say it was a rash decision. And really, who would know which ones were telling the truth?

But the pattern repeated itself. Four years later, it was announced simply that Sebastian Crevecoeur was retiring. The facts were these: having found an old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania Poconos where he would spend his weekends and summers, it came as a surprise to no one when a few years later, able to retire at the age of 62, he chose to leave the hassles of academic life and the hectic pace of New York behind him to pursue creative endeavors without intrusion, though he did say (officially) that at least he would miss his students.

That's what one biographer might report. Those who knew and those who thought they knew considered past rumors and drew their own conclusions. But the facts themselves did not explain the "funk" Sebastian found himself in that first summer when, instead of being busy in his studio, he sat in the back yard and got drunk every day.

Before, he'd find an idea, work out the possibilities, grab hold of something and thrash it into submission – for him, creativity was always physical – but after he found himself with all the time in the world, it took all the time he had to find an idea. Rather than work at it, he chose to sit and wait. "Inspiration," he told me, "is where you find it: temptation finds you." The farm's tranquility, initially, had helped activate his mind. Alina noticed he had suddenly begun writing again. But eventually, as time passed, inspiration came less frequently.

As Sebastian adjusted to retirement, the routine of days and weeks turned into months. Eventually, he'd find an idea somewhere, then sit at the piano for a few days, long enough for the drinking to stop. He scratched out some possibilities, then took them out to the back yard, letting them stretch into something that might become a piece. But the initial fertility gave way to increasing challenges. He might eventually finish one, reluctantly leaving it go out into the world. In many cases, they were met with indifferent success which made things more difficult.

That last summer when I was visiting them for a week, Victor stopped by unexpectedly. That night, I heard a loud discussion down by the pond between father and son. By breakfast, Victor had already left. He never cared for the farm. His career, everything, he argued, was in New York, "where the life was." The farm was pointless.

Away from the stress of academic life, Sebastian, according to his wife, became more reflective, less nervous – almost happy. Eventually, he'd managed to quit smoking and, finally, drinking, spending hours locked up in his study, writing. So it was a complete surprise, one night, his announcing calmly over dinner how he'd just burned the sketches for several new works.

The disappointments of these past several years had probably been welling up inside Sebastian then, but something else must have happened that summer. Whatever it was, it clearly hit him harder than anyone was aware of.

Looking forward to Zoe's first extended summer visit – unlike her father, the child was fascinated by the farm, and loved to look out across the back yard, watching several deer scampering around during last year's Christmas holiday – Sebastian was crushed when Victor, leaving for a month's vacation in Paris, suddenly announced Zoe would be staying with his in-laws instead.

During that visit, we'd sat in the backyard or walked around the pond, talking about music, about getting older, about what we wanted to compose or how to deal with what we hesitated calling failure. He saw himself as sunlight reflected in a drop of water, reminding me you needed millions of such drops to create a rainbow.

Still, he'd seemed up-beat a few days earlier, talking about a new piece for orchestra, something different for him and challenging.

Then a week later, Alina called to tell me Sebastian had drowned himself in the pond.

= = = = = = =

To be continued...

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 2

In the first installment of The Doomsday Symphony, we learned that Klavdia Klangfarben has taken on the task of killing the Great Composers of the Past for SHMRG, a nefarious music-licensing organization out to take control of the world's classical music industry.

During a recent summer - July, 2010, to be exact - our narrator, Dr. T. Richard Kerr, is off to a summer music festival held in the Poconos of Pennsylvania where he will visit with the son of an old-time friend and mentor of his, the composer Sebastian Crevecoeur. The drive is full of nostalgia, mild trepidation and a bit of mystery.

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Chapter 2
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If it hadn't been for Victor's invitation, I would never have bothered with this concert, the drive and the heat aside. Chopin's E Minor Concerto was, as Sebastian used to put it, "too easily badly played," and the pianist was one I would normally go out of my way to avoid. Still arrogant after all these years, a terror both on and off the stage, Tigramsci-Tulini had long outlived whatever reputation his manager had created, never realizing the potential of his debut. Perhaps that was why he still used publicity photos from twenty years ago. The product of a scheming agent, the former prodigy would occasionally pop up on the regional scene, no longer appearing with the major orchestras in the country, more frequently with the local orchestras in their orbit. Occasionally capable of drawing from their audiences but never convincing their managements to give him a second chance, his career continued spiraling downwards.

This first week of the festival had begun with last night's piano recital – more suitably held in the mansion's ballroom – given by a young woman whose name I was unfamiliar with, winner of some minor competitions but, I was told, a brilliant performer who would take this program to Carnegie's recital hall for her New York debut in October. Her program of Chopin etudes and nocturnes, Barber's Piano Sonata and Schumann's C Major Fantasy was met with less than half a hall. This afternoon's program quickly sold out even though Tigramsci-Tulini was probably half the musician.

This was the fifth season for the Collierville Summer Festival which Victor had helped organize, three weekends of orchestra and chamber music concerts held in the famous Collier Mansion bringing classical music to a rural region that would otherwise have little immediate access to it: even the radio coverage in the area was spotty at best, considering the terrain. No longer home to the great industrial barons of the 19th Century, there were people financially secure enough to ensure its success, but hard times falling harder on some areas than others, that number dwindled steadily.

Next weekend's concerts included the return of the festival's orchestra playing Chopin's Sylphide, Barber's Violin Concerto with another has-been, Ari Urdén, and Mendelssohn's "Italian," hopefully featuring better weather for what they were calling a "mid-summer get-away." There was also a quartet program played by Zoe's New York-based friends, the ones who would be reading through Sebastian's quintet this evening.

The lawn's commanding view of the town and its valley stretched out beneath the hilltop where Peter J. Collier built his imposing mansion, the legacy of an aptly named coal baron, the equivalent of local royalty. Even though the sun had passed onto the house's far side, there were still insufficient breezes to make it feel anything but stifling.

Fortunately for us, Victor reserved seats under a large dogwood tree shading the flagstone patio that opened from the ballroom's bay window. Others stood around the yard's perimeter or close against the house, desperately seeking shade.

Those who braved the center of the lawn stretched out on beach blankets or sat stiffly in assorted varieties of lawn chairs, a few wearing broad-brimmed hats with sun-glasses or tried shading themselves with old-fashioned parasols. It didn't seem to matter where the audience settled, I don't think anybody bothered reading their programs: they just used them as fans.

A low stage had been set up at the far end, pleasantly nestled in a natural amphitheater of yews and boxwoods, with one of those ubiquitous rent-a-center garden-party tents barely covering the musicians' chairs and stands. Most of the grand piano was left exposed should there be a sudden thunderstorm. A white tarp lay folded underneath it, if needed. The concert could be moved to the high school auditorium in case of rain, but there were no provisions against the heat. I tried forgetting the time-and-temperature clock I'd seen a few blocks away, registering 95°.

The pianist's playing was predictably mannered and his mannerisms, annoying. He flexed his fingers, ran his hands through his perfectly coiffed if thinning hair, shook his arms down at his side or fidgeted with the bench during the lengthy orchestral introduction as if what the orchestra was playing was of no interest. When he finally made his entrance, his hands flailed across the keyboard as he threw his head back in virtuosic ecstasy, his eyes staring off into space till I thought perhaps there was a teleprompter hidden in the tent's ceiling. Playing the second theme with such exaggerated sweetness, his nose barely inches above the keyboard, he stretched the tempo all out of proportion. When he practically threw himself backwards off the bench as the orchestra came in with its pompously overblown deceptive cadence at the end of the exposition, it was all I could do not to fall off my chair, laughing.

During the orchestral passages, he ostentatiously wiped the sweat from his brow and neck, then from his hands and wrists – justifiable, in this heat – removing the now wilted bright red sash from around his neck and certainly doubting the wisdom of wearing black leather pants. I expected him to pull a mirror from inside the piano to check his hair, ignoring the good work the orchestra was trying to accomplish, before he got back to showing the audience why he had been hired in the first place: that he could emote with the best of them.

I kept my eyes shut to focus on the music until Victor nudged me. The last movement began with such an unexpected burst of speed, it sounded more like a frenetic chase than a delightful dance. Barely able to navigate, the orchestra panicked into playing everything even faster, no matter how frantically the conductor tried putting on the brakes. Despite some slower, breath-catching contrasting sections, we were soon careening toward a rowdy conclusion, the pianist improvising flourishes on the final chords, the conductor throttling his baton to sustain the beat so they might end together.

The audience, of course, burst into cheers and bravos, most of them jumping immediately to their feet. Tigramsci-Tulini nodded at them, beaming with intense self-satisfaction as he took his bows, as if saying "of course you thought it was the absolute best you'd ever heard: how could you not?" He reached back for the conductor's hand as an afterthought.

Having opened – appropriately enough – with Samuel Barber's Overture to 'The School for Scandal,' we'd cool off to Robert Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, next. Like most people once intermission got underway, we started strolling toward the crowded ballroom. I hadn't bothered looking at a program before the concert started, so I asked to borrow Victor's, wondering who the beleaguered conductor was.

"Rogers Kent-Clarke? I've never heard of him." His bio was typical, offering nothing of substance beyond lists of places he'd conducted or people he'd studied with: the conductor Louis Lane was the only name I'd recognized.

"Did you like him? I don't know where they managed to find him, but the committee said he's a super guy, apparently." Victor picked up little plastic cups of what was probably wine, passing them around.

"Well," I added, looking around for something as simple as water, "it was amazing he could keep up with the soloist at all!'

"You'll get a chance to meet him, I'm afraid. He told me he's planning on coming back to the farmhouse for dinner."

Seeing my sudden alarm, he assured me with a light chuckle he meant Kent-Clarke. "It would probably double Sandro's fee," he sneered, offering me more wine, "if we expected him to do any socializing beyond the concert..."

Victor was casually looking around the room, waving, then pointed out his daughter, Zoe, opposite us in front of a large electric fan, part of a small knot of perspiring musicians standing scarecrow-like, airing out their arm-pits.

Considering one of the mansion's biggest tourist draws was its series of Murder Mystery Weekends, I felt I should keep my mouth shut and comment only about the weather if anyone asked me what I thought. There was no need to end up being counted among the suspects if our soloist should be discovered dead in his dressing room.

Most of the comments I overheard were about the enthusiasm the pianist's speed had generated, as if fast fingers and dazzling excitement, regardless of accuracy or musical expression, were the truest marks of a great musician.

Before they realized, I overheard Zoe's friends saying "what a pig he was," laughing that "he should be taken out and shot."

Zoe quickly interrupted them as Victor introduced me, a "long-lost friend" of her grandfather's.

She greeted me with a cautious hug, despite the heat, then introduced her friends, part of the ensemble that was playing Sebastian's quintet.

The violist mentioned how they were looking forward to hearing it themselves, all the way through: they'd only rehearsed it piecemeal for a few hours over the past two days and it was quite a surprise.

"Oh," I wondered, almost tasting my considerable curiosity, "in what way?"

"That," Victor said, ushering me away, "is for you to find out."

A bell sounded as Zoe and her friends, excusing themselves, wished there was time to take a dip in the pool first. They'd been sweating so much, their shirts soaked, it looked like they already had.

A waiter wandered around, ringing a hand-bell, the signal it was time to head back into the heat to resume the concert, initiating a gradual, almost reluctant promenade, not that the ballroom was that much cooler. Victor introduced two other guests of his, Dr. Helen Highwater and Mary Rowberson, who mentioned they'd arrived late, alas, just before the Chopin.

And now it was Schumann's turn. If he called the opening "Spring Marches In," here it was more pedestrian, a little pompous. There were some problems typical of hot summer days – intonation, woodwind players' reed issues – but for the most part what the performance may have lacked in technical precision, the musicians certainly made up for in their enthusiasm.

After the applause – the audience quickly standing but here deserved for just getting through the concert – people drifted back inside for the reception where Victor quietly reconnoitered with his guests to meet back at the farmhouse.

= = = = = = =

To be continued...

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 1

(For introductory information about The Doomsday Symphony, please read this earlier post.)

Prefatory Disclaimer 

In “The Doomsday Symphony,” there are several instances where nearly parallel observations are made about, say, music or about composers' lives which, depending on your perceptions or the viewpoints of particular characters, may seem contradictory. Some are based on what we perceive as fact and others are well-known facts which may have no substance, events unexplained without context. 

Or perhaps about scientific observations, not always making distinctions between what is “approved theory” and what are "misperceptions" of theoretic concepts, particularly in dealing with parallel universes or certain contemporary interpretations of the Mayan calendar. 

It seems unlikely that a certain chord at a certain volume, creating a particular harmonic frequency radiating outward at the right time and place, could actually unleash the destruction of the universe. But who's to say? 

There are things you will read, here, that are true and things that, probably, are not. It’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes…

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"You want me to kill the Great Composers of the Past..."

The other three sat around the board table as if they were making the most natural request in the world. These were clearly people who meant business and expected others to jump at their every command, regardless how impractical it might sound on first (or even seventh) hearing.

Klavdia Klangfarben's voice registered little surprise considering the assignment they'd offered her. True, she knew her stuff and she'd even done a little research before the meeting, having heard the gist of their admittedly strange idea.

One of her concerns right now was keeping her hand on the arm of the empty chair next to her: it kept swinging back and forth a little, something she was afraid might prove a distraction. She also needed a few moments to think how she would word this without having to give up too much of her plan.

The board room at SHMRG's headquarters was typical of many such corporate offices, richly paneled with exotic woods from the Amazon rain-forest, a non-functional fireplace with an ornate mantel of hand-cut Italian marble, right down to the portrait in faux-Renaissance style of its current CEO with a vast, almost funereal floral arrangement on a pedestal beside it, everything white, gold and blood red, pin-pointed here and there by supposedly subtle track-lighting. These were the trappings of power, reinforcing the necessary impressions though nothing was visible that would actually give anyone the idea what, exactly, SHMRG did.

The board table, massive and elegantly smooth, had been hand-carved out of the single trunk of a monumental tree, one of the last of its kind known to be growing in the wilds of coastal Brazil. The largest, blackest, most luxurious of the leather chairs around this table was occupied by the corporation's CEO, the legendary N. Ron Steele who in a few short years had transformed a simple non-profit arts organization into one of the most powerful music licensing entities in the universe. To say he was feared in the industry was an understatement.

On his left was Manfred Kaye, his Director of Social Media, Office Supplies and Classical Music Division who put the "psycho" in sycophant, even if most of his coworkers weren't sure how it should be pronounced. And while Steele's secretary may look like a middle-aged spinster, colleagues knew that Holly Burton, the woman on his right, was totally ruthless.

"I can do that," Klavdia Klangfarben said with a well-practiced tinge of boredom in her voice.

Obviously, she didn't want to seem too eager or overly confident, just worldly and blasé enough to get the point across they'd found the right person for the job. She could easily snow them with technical jargon, both scientific and musicological, but it was just as likely her full-length black leotard, her platinum blond hair billowing out from under the broad-brimmed floppy black hat, and her regulation black stiletto heels offered sufficient proof she knew what she was doing.

Something she had learned from one of her teachers at Klaxon College, thinking back years ago, now, was how "perception is everything." It didn't matter what the truth actually was as long as it sounded convincing. Whatever the facts really were, her professor had said, right or wrong, as long as people were convinced they were right, they were.

The fact SHMRG was one of the largest conglomerates in the music business was nothing to sneeze at. They owned any performer of any substance in any type of music through a series of well-crafted contracts and nefariously brokered deals, recently buying up most of the remaining recording labels and several of the major performing venues across the country.

The fact they had called her was not lost on her: if she pulled this one off, it would make her career. And what difference did it make, ethically, if her intended targets were already dead?

Doing what research she could manage on the corporation, despite their innate secrecy and highly encrypted web-site, it wasn't difficult to figure out what was in it for SHMRG. Without the leading composers in the traditional classical music pantheon, recording companies and radio stations (those few not already in SHMRG's control), performers and music lovers as well as those annoying classical music aficionados would need to fill the void with living composers – ones already under SHMRG's management. Anyone wanting to play or listen to their music would have to pay a hefty licensing fee. Like most recording companies, historically, this small, select, even elitist group of consumers was underwritten by the profits that came in from the popular music world, the rock stars and rappers who provided the coat-tails for the likes of the jazz, folk and classical niches. The latest flash-in-the-popular-pan made possible new versions of the same old timeless classics.

Klavdia explained how there was a very narrow window of opportunity. Yes, the minutiae of quantum physics made it possible – she waved her hands airily, dismissing the details – and while the technology was still relatively primitive, it nonetheless gave her access to her intended victims. She must, however, begin immediately if she was to overcome the challenges. Not wanting to kill anyone if she didn't have to, being in the right place at the right time was enough to change the course of history so the vagaries of popularity took care of the rest.

"So, we are agreed?" Klavdia carefully arched an eyebrow as she looked intently at the CEO.

After a brief conference, Steele wrote down a figure he passed first to Manfred Kaye, then back to Holly Burton. With a nod, the secretary passed it across the table to Klavdia who looked at it, sneered, and passed it back without comment. It was more money than she'd ever been offered for any gig in her life, but she knew they stood to gain a humongous windfall if she succeeded. She continued to stare coolly at the CEO.

After another conference, another figure slid across the table was reluctantly accepted, with a stipulation for a per-centage-based bonus. Papers were written up, passed around and signed. The chair next to her quietly began to spin.

As she left, closing the doors behind her, the large ornate floral arrangement standing nearly ten feet away crashed inexplicably to the floor.


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 Chapter 1
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A day in the woods, I kept telling myself, would make it a holiday, getting to see friends I hadn't seen in years, visiting the home of someone who'd once been very important in my life. As a composer, Sebastian Crevecoeur, a dear friend and mentor early in my career, always found New York City's lifestyle vibrant and inspiring, but as he got older, city life became increasingly stressful, almost counter-productive, weekend get-aways into the countryside becoming more frequent and necessary, so it was easy to understand why he’d wanted to buy this old farmhouse.

Recently laid-off myself, there was little more intensely satisfying for me than sitting in my own backyard – suburban as it was – so preferable to the usual rat-race of city life, especially hassling with the daily commute. I could watch the birds flocking around my feeder or the doe with her fawns that sometimes wandered up from the near-by creek.

When Sebastian heard about this farmhouse through a friend, he and his wife Alina drove to the Poconos that weekend, quickly making an offer before dinner-time, the most impulsive thing he'd ever done in his life. That night, they drove back to New York excited by the prospects this sudden change in their lives this weekend retreat would make. Hearing their neighbors' apartment had been broken into and a friend across the street was just mugged coming home from the opera, they looked at each other and thought perhaps the farmhouse came along just in time.

Sebastian told me about those first weekends off in his woodland hideaway, how important it had become to him as he faced the increasingly stressful politics of teaching in New York, not just as a composer. Those first summers living in his beloved farmhouse full-time, he was delighted to discover a whole new stream of steady, almost uninterrupted creativity. He jokingly called this his "late period," resulting in some wonderfully more relaxed pieces, mostly chamber music and songs, not as full of the agitated counterpoint that made much of his music so restless and uncompromising.

There was still drama in his music but it took more time to build and wasn't as intense or pervasive as before. He’d compare it to a circling hawk that swoops, dives down, snatching its prey. While a friendly critic referred to this newest music as his "autumnal" period, Sebastian liked calling it "the summer of my great content."

It was ironic how, a year after Sebastian died, I’d left New England for the job at Klaxon College, ending up so close to the farmhouse, he would have been just up the road from me. Though only ninety minutes separated us on a reasonably direct route, for some reason I hadn’t been up there in nearly a decade.

Still living in the farmhouse twenty-six years after Sebastian died, his son Victor, recently laid-off during the first wave of economic spasms two years ago, was only in his mid-50s, still unable to find another job.

When his printed invitation arrived unexpectedly in the mail a couple of weeks ago, I was more than surprised, given its hand-written footnote, only four lines long but much warmer than usual for a brusque businessman: a concert at the Collier Mansion's summer festival, dinner at the farmhouse and a read-through of – surprisingly – a new work by Sebastian Crevecoeur.

When I called in my RSVP, Victor was disarmingly vague about the piece, saying nothing more than it was a Piano Quintet to be performed for us by his daughter Zoe and some of her friends. Sebastian had never once mentioned it: was it an early discard, unearthed in some attic box? Regardless, he certainly got my curiosity going.

It could be an awkward visit. The future that once looked bright for Victor hadn't turned out well – for either of us. Like many friendships, this one, too, dissolved into little more than memories and apologies.

So this afternoon, we were to meet at the Collier Mansion where an orchestra Zoe played in was scheduled to perform the first of its two outdoor concerts for this summer festival which Victor helped organize. (The last time I’d seen Zoe, she was in 6th grade: now she has a 6th-grader of her own. How could that’ve happened?) Before, when I was working for the magazine once called "Philadelphia ArtScene," I would have known all about this festival, but now, living in passive retirement, such news, like so much else, had slipped past me.

Thinking of Sebastian and those long-ago visits to the farmhouse, I'd often considered making the drive up into the Poconos some weekend, especially at the height of autumn, joining all the other leaf-peepers littering the back-roads. Maybe I'd at least drive past the farm, see if anyone still lived there, maybe stop to say hello. But I never did.

The day had already turned out to be absurdly hot and annoying, the humidity enough to drain the life-blood right out of you, but once off the open asphalt, it suddenly became more bearable, almost relaxing. Cooler, no doubt, in the mountains than in the suburban plains northwest of Philadelphia, what would it be like in the mansion’s garden?

Today brought back memories of summer concerts always on the verge of disaster where everybody suffered the common bonds of sweat and discomfort. Frankly, I was glad not to be a performer: listening would be challenge enough.

The only thing I recalled from Vincent’s invitation about the program, celebrating major anniversaries for three composers – Samuel Barber, Chopin and Schumann – was a once-famous mediocrity playing Chopin’s first piano concerto, not a favorite of mine. Friendship and good music-making may be the main attractions, but the biggest joy would be to find a decent breeze during the concert.

In the back seat, I had stowed a picnic cooler stuffed with packs of ice, water bottles filled with home-made iced tea along with bundles of snacks and fresh fruit, contingencies prepared for almost any emergency.

Leaving the highway for tree-shaded country roads, I drove through woods, past rolling farmland, occasional suburban developments and small towns that once saw better days when the coal region here was home to a booming industry. Memories of bad times (past and present) were soon deferred by Nature's protective shade. Turning off the air conditioner, I opened the windows.

It would be difficult to say just how Sebastian Crevecoeur would look at either of us, today, if he were still alive – me, his friend and fellow composer, something of his protégé, now no longer composing; and his son who had dropped out of music school to pursue something he felt was more realistic, at least more financially rewarding. Neither Victor nor I, it was painful for us to admit, had lived up to his father's expectations: wouldn't Sebastian, despite – or perhaps later, because of – his own insecurities, have been disappointed in both of us?

Now that I've passed the age of 60, would I, walking back into his house, standing among my memories of him, find overwhelming the reproaches of a man who'd seen so much promise in my future? If I felt embarrassed, what must it be like for the son who was living there surrounded by memories of a disappointed father?

So many things looked very rosy for me when Sebastian Crevecoeur, a senior professor, took me under his wing as the newest, youngest faculty member at Cutler University. Teaching in a respectable college by the age of 26, my doctorate soon under my belt, Terrance Richard Kerr was poised, you could say, on the threshold of a promising career. Some people seemed to like my compositions; many thought I was "brilliant," spewing off facts and tying together details about composers' lives and their music to bring a fresh perspective to the relationship between art and life.

The world being full of former musicians struggling to find some other way of making a living while dealing with failed dreams, Victor realized he didn't have the talent or the passion to become a musician. His choice then was to switch majors in college, going into business instead – banking, eventually – which Sebastian argued was more of a sell-out. How could anyone who loved art be happy choosing the easy way out, Sebastian badgered, preferring to chase numbers in a ledger-book? Transforming the soul into a musician was hard work: Victor gave up too easily.

It hadn't occurred to me that Sebastian unwittingly created a kind of sibling rivalry between Victor and me, making those first few years after Sebastian's death uncomfortably cool until those tenser memories had finally faded away. By now, our lives had been leveled by age and a lack-of-success we hesitated calling failure: I wondered how this reunion would go.

"Trees trump concrete every time," Sebastian always said, reading my thoughts as we'd sit there in his backyard, sipping Alina's home-made iced-tea. Friends dragged me along to the beach, getting out of the city, but I disliked the brilliance of the sun, the lack of shade: even the immense impersonality of the ocean was something I always found threatening. I was much happier sitting by Sebastian's pond near the woods, listening to the birds, watching whatever animals came along, looking at the flowers or whatever fraction of the sky we might be able to glimpse.

I could spend the day there happily reading or maybe working out a new composition, or just sitting and thinking – the older I got, adding "remembering" to the list of indolent activities good for the soul. So when I started teaching at Klaxon College outside Philadelphia, I found a place that reminded me a little of Sebastian's woodland retreat.

In a short time, then, past a few more small towns and the occasional abandoned factory, I saw signs for the Peter J. Collier Mansion, then the bright green banner wafting across the drive heralding today's concert with "world-acclaimed pianist, Sandro Tigramsci-Tulini" playing Chopin. I tried not to cringe at the thought of what I was about to hear.

With a half-hour till the concert started, I managed to find a parking place and hurried up to the house. Victor Crevecoeur, talking with friends, stood near the doorway. Despite the years, he had changed little.

= = = = = = =

To be continued...

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Table of Contents

Follow these links for the individual chapters of my latest music appreciation thriller, The Doomsday Symphony.

An Introduction.

Prelude and 1st Movement - Chapter 1: At SHMRG Headquarters, Klavdia Klangfarben, former forensic musicologist and now femme fatale, has accepted a contract to kill off the Great Composers of the Past. Meanwhile, T. Richard Kerr, a middle-aged former composer and college professor, is driving up to the Poconos to take in a summer concert on a very hot summer afternoon. Afterward, there's dinner with friends and a read-through of a newly discovered Piano Quintet by his old friend and mentor, Sebastian Crevecoeur, who had died over twenty-five years ago.

Chapter 2. The concert is a valiant performance even if the soloist, Sandro Tigramsci-Tulini, has never succeeded in fulfilling his early promise, despite what he or his agent thinks. Kerr meets a few of the guests who'll be joining Sebastian's son, Victor, for dinner back at the farmhouse.

Chapter 3. Different approaches to a composer's biography: Sebastian Crevecoeur's public image versus his private life.

Chapter 4. Richard Kerr arrived at the Crevecoeur farmhouse, and meets some old friends. But Kerr, paging through the manuscript Sebastian's son Victor had shown him, sees it was dedicated to his granddaughter Zoe, then notices the completion date for this composition was December 19th, 2009.

Chapter 5.Interrupted by the arrival of the last guest, Victor leads Kerr out to the dining room. During the course of the dinner, the conversation ranges from their reactions to the afternoon's performance, the typical mistrust many people have for any new music, and the hoopla over the impending Apocalypse on Dec. 21st, 2012, according to the Mayan calendar. Afterward, everyone moves into the parlor as the musicians get ready to read through Sebastian Crevercoeur's "new" Piano Quintet.

Chapter 6.Back to New York City, where Klavdia Klangfarben and her invisible friend, Abner Kedaver, have left the offices of SHMRG. She recalls how one of her professors had stumbled upon the possible existence of a parallel universe and arranged for Kedaver to be her guide, there.

Chapter 7. Back at the Crevecoeur farmhouse, Kerr's mind is full of all kinds of thoughts as he listens to his friend's music, mostly wondering just what it is, considering he'd died over 25 years ago and the piece was completed only six months ago. The performance is brought to a halt when Mary Rowberson, one of the guests, screams and faints. When Kerr turns around, Victor is missing.

Chapter 8. As everyone attends to Ms. Rowberson, she explains it wasn't the music that affected her emotionally like that: she's sensed that something evil has happened, making the seeming disappearance of their host all the more ominous. The guests break into small groups to send out search parties. Zoe, Victor's daughter and the ensemble's first violinist, asks Kerr to be especially careful checking out the pond.

Chapter 9. A flashback to Sebastian's life at the end of his career. On a hot summer night, he walks down to the farm's pond and, after filling his pockets with rocks, wades out into the cool, rejuvenating water.

Chapter 10. Kerr, along with Zoe's student Cameron, finds nothing at the pond. No one else finds any sign of him, either. Assuming he'll return shortly, just having gone out for some air, they are dismayed to discover that his cell phone was left in Sebastian's study - and the score Victor had shown Kerr earlier, then locked in a drawer, was missing. They decide to call the police. While waiting, Kerr glances over one of the quintet's violin parts when Zoe remarks how fresh it sounded to her, like it could have been written last year.

Chapter 11. The police arrive at the farmhouse and begin the investigation. Then Detective Jenna Sainte-Croix arrives, questioning the witnesses and wondering why the concern if the man's only been missing for a short time. Then Ms. Rowberson goes into a trance and delivers a message from Sebastian Crevecoeur for Kerr, mentioning "New Coalton" which turns out to be an old abandoned mining town down the road.

Chapter 12. A flashback to the summer morning when Sebastian's wife, Alina, discovers his body down at the pond. Back in the present, everybody begins to leave for home, some guests staying at the farmhouse, when Zoe - who was going to catch a red-eye flight from Allentown Airport to Chicago - discovers her old clunker of a car won't start, in fact can't be budged. So Kerr offers her and her son Xaq a ride to the airport with plans to drop Cameron off to catch a train into Philadelphia.

Chapter 13. On the ride to the airport, Zoe talks about her relationship with her father, about her concerns for her career and how important this audition in Chicago is to her, but a few miles from the farmhouse and already Kerr is getting lost...

Chapter 14. Klavdia Klangfarben and her ghostly companion, the invisible Abner Kedaver, are driving through Manhattan, on their way to complete their mission. She considers how this is going to be accomplished - killing off the Great Composers of the Past who are, after all, already dead - and remembers her childhood interest in time travel, wondering, if she could go back in time, would her mother still be alive today?

Chapter 15. Cameron's back-seat reverie - about his friends, Zoe and Xaq and about names - is interrupted by the appearance of the two policemen from the farmhouse - Officers Tennant and Schickhaus. Seems there's been an accident and the road is closed. They try to explain a detour to Kerr but he seems hopeless: the car doesn't even have GPS. Looking out on the dark woods surrounding them, Cameron doesn't think this is a good place to get lost...

Chapter 16.Not surprisingly, they get lost but, surprisingly, end up in New Coalton, the ghost town Ms. Rowberson had mentioned in her weird message from Sebastian Crevecoeur. Having stopped, Xaq announces he has to find a tree, selecting an old stump out in the middle of the field. Odd, too, because then the air in front of him starts shimmering...

Chapter 17. Rogers Kent-Clarke, the conductor, stops off for a beer on the way back to his apartment and runs into Detective Jenna Ste.-Croix. Curious, he asks her about that ghost town that Ms. Rowberson had mentioned - New Coalton? Telling him where it's located, she doesn't think there's any significance to her mentioning it. After she leaves, Kent-Clarke decides he's going to check it out. Meanwhile, Xaq is trying to explain what happened just as they're interrupted by a short man carrying a violin case who's mumbling about being late for a rehearsal. Then he disappears into thin air right at the tree stump. Then it gets weirder.

Chapter 18. Now it's really weird. They're on the edge of some city but they fell through some kind of worm-hole, so is it underground, or...? The meet the violinist again (actually, violist) who's going to a rehearsal of Beethoven's latest symphony - his 39th. Then they're greeted by Sebastian Crevecoeur who seems very much alive though he assures them he is, indeed, dead. "Welcome to Harmonia-IV." It's a parallel universe where many of the dead composers go. And Sebastian left Victor, Zoe's dad, over at Stravinsky's Tavern, talking to Mozart. Meanwhile, Klangfarben and Kedaver are on their way. He tries to explain how time-travel works but she still won't let him drive the car.

Chapter 19. Sebastian Crevecoeur leads them on a walk through Harmonia-IV as they head over to Stravinsky's Tavern to pick up Victor, explaining various details along the way - like invisibility: since Harmonians can't be seen by living people when they cross-over to Earth, Sebastian admits to having had a little fun at Ms. Rowberson's expense.

Chapter 20.

Chapter 21.
= = = = = = =
- Dick Strawser

The Doomsday Symphony: On the Installment Plan

It could mean the end of Classical Music as we know it and, if Mahler's latest symphony makes it back for its world premiere on December 21st, 2012, it could just be the end of the world, period.

What to do...?

Well, my latest complete novel is now ready to be posted on the installment plan here on Thoughts on a Train.

You can read the first installment here.

= = = = = = =

It is set on a hot summer day in July of 2010. The narrator is a middle-aged former composer, recently laid off, named T. Richard Kerr.

(Originally, he was T. Rutherford Cranleigh but I changed the name when I began my next novel and decided I liked this name better. After all, why shouldn’t a classical music detective be named after the old musical form, Ricercar, which means “to seek”?)

Off to visit Victor Crevecoeur, the son of his old friend and mentor, Sebastian Crevecoeur, still living in the old Pocono farmhouse his father had bought as a country retreat from life in New York City, Kerr is to attend a summer concert that afternoon (Victor’s daughter, Zoe, is the concertmaster of the orchestra) and then, after a dinner party at the farmhouse, hear a read-through of a newly discovered piano quintet by Sebastian Crevecoeur, though Victor is being very mysterious about it. Sebastian had committed suicide over twenty-five years before and Kerr had never heard him mention writing something like a piano quintet, before. When he had a chance to see the score, he noticed the completion date on the last page was December 19th, 2009 – only six months ago!

The read-through is interrupted when one of the guests, a once-famous medium known for communing with dead composers, Mary Rowberson, screams and faints, claiming to have sensed evil in the room and then receiving a message for Kerr from Sebastian Crevecoeur – something involving “New Coalton” which turns out to be an old abandoned mining town not far away.

Victor, meanwhile, has disappeared and with him, the score of his father’s quintet.

Meanwhile, Klavdia Klangfarben, unable to find work as a forensic musicologist, has accepted a job as a “Femme Fatale for Hire” with SHMRG, one of the more ruthless music licensing organizations intent on cornering the classical music market, run by the villainous CEO, N. Ron Steele. Their plan is to kill off the Great Composers of the Past by going back in time and eliminating them before they became famous, then replacing their music with lesser composers whose music is already licensed only through SHMRG. Klangfarben has discovered a way this can be done: there’s a portal to a parallel universe where dead composers have gone and where they still continue to compose. Her sidekick is a lawyer from there, Abner Kedaver, who had worked for both Brahms and Mahler, who will help her gain access to this parallel universe, Harmonia-IV.

This portal happens to be in New Coalton in the Pennsylvania Poconos.

Kerr, meanwhile, driving Zoe and her son Xaq and their friend Cameron home, gets lost and ends up where New Coalton once stood. Quite by accident, they discover this strange blue wavy light and end up at the other end of the rabbit hole in Harmonia-IV where they are met by Sebastian Crevecoeur.

He has enlisted Kerr’s help because Victor (Zoe’s father) died while talking to Mozart over at Stravinsky’s Tavern. But they will also need to stop Klangfarben and Kedaver from going back in time to kill Bach, Wagner, Mozart and Beethoven. Without them, numerous other composers would also never be the same if these four were no longer there to influence or inspire them.

In the meantime, Gustav Mahler had completed a new symphony which contains a series of dramatic chords that an apocalyptically oriented philosopher [sic] is convinced will bring about the destruction of the universe by unleashing the final cataclysm if it’s performed on December 21st, 2012.

Mahler’s score is then stolen with the intent of taking it back to Earth and scheduling its premiere for that very day.

Now it is up to Kerr and his friends to rescue Classical Music from SHMRG’s plot and save the world from Mahler’s new symphony!

= = = = = = =

The Doomsday Symphony began as a NaNoWriMo Project in November, 2010, and though I met the project’s goal of 50,000 words in one month, the entire novel would be 150,000 words. I finished it, then, in the spring of 2011.

Previously, I’d written two other music appreciation thrillers, both parodies of recent novels by Dan Brown. The Schoenberg Code appeared shortly before the movie based on Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released and which single-handedly killed the constant buzz of the best-selling book. Then, shortly after Brown’s The Lost Symbol was published in 2009, I wrote my own parody, The Lost Chord which I also started to post on the blog. However, I was dissatisfied with this last one and have since decided to completely rewrite it, not as a parody but as my own independent story, changing the plot but keeping many of the characters. Since I’m about half-way through the new and improved version of The Lost Chord, I thought it was about time I did something with The Doomsday Symphony.

Having written two parodies, I decided I should try my hand at a more or less original one. This became The Doomsday Symphony, given all the hype about the End of the World on December 21st, 2012, thanks to the Mayan calendar.

The novel consists of 71 chapters divided into four movements (well, it is a symphony) complete with a prologue (or Prelude). You can begin reading it from the beginning here and following the continuity links.

By the way, did I mention this is a comedy?

You can read a post about the different characters' names, here.

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Meanwhile, Blogging at the Symphony

This photograph - found at the LOLcats' website - was too good to pass up, considering this blog...

There have been many thoughts at Dr. Dick Plaza but not many trains, for some reason, for which I apologize, sort of. There are numerous excuses, laziness aside, ranging from work on the revised novel, "The Lost Chord" to increasing annoyance with technical difficulties posting here on blogspot (like pasting a full post into the dashboard's post-thingee and finding out there are no paragraph breaks which then have to be inserted individually, 'graph by 'graph; or having many of the embed-links for the video clips disappear each time I go in to edit a post...). But I've been told I complain too much so we'll leave it at that.

Meanwhile, I've been blogging elsewhere: there's a concert coming up this weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony that includes three "character portraits" (Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg) for which I'll be doing a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. You can read posts about Aram Khachaturian's Spartacus, Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid and Richard Strauss' Don Quixote over at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog.

Each post contains a brief pod-cast with conductor Stuart Malina as well as a video clip of performances of the works on the program. There's ballet performance of the ever-popular "Adagio" from Spartacus which opens Khachaturian's 2nd Suite, as well as the complete Billy the Kid Orchestral Suite and Don Quixote, a set of "fantastical variations on a knightly theme" for cello and orchestra. For the Strauss, I go through each variation with a description of events from Cervantes' novel as Strauss transformed them into music. 

My talk will probably focus on the men behind the men behind the music - looking into how the composers reacted to the characters they were setting to music. Since the concert is marketed as "The Don's Deeds," I'm thinking of calling my talk "Dr. Dick's Dudes."

Maybe not...

- Dick Strawser