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…

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

"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.


*** ***** ******** ***** ***
 Chapter 1
*** ***** ******** ***** ***

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

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