Friday, May 04, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 7

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, we took a slight side-trip to New York earlier that same afternoon and followed Klavdia Klangfarben and her invisible side-kick, Abner Kedaver, after they'd left the headquarters of SHMRG where N. Ron Steele, the CEO, had just signed a contract with Klavdia to kill the Great Composers of the Past. Now, we return to the Crevecoeur farmhouse in the Poconos as the read-through of Sebastian's Piano Quintet begins.

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Chapter 7 
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Sebastian's beginnings had a way of drawing you in, neither overly bold nor inconsequential, subtly embedding what could pass for a theme. Never an academic serialist even in the 1970s, his style was generally more lyrical. Here, slowly rising pairs of notes unfolded, each last pitch sustained, forming a chord that, for Sebastian's style, was surprising: a major triad.

Then answering pairs fell in a pianistic flurry, sustaining to form a minor triad setting up a typical gesture becoming increasingly significant. But it continued to unfold in ways untypical of what Sebastian would normally do.

Ordinarily, he would have continued exploring different 'permutations' of these simple shapes or gestures, like offering different perspectives about a story's character. Instead, he let these gestures gradually expand from cells to become an actual theme. This eventually led to some contrasting ideas, turning themselves into new, more dramatic themes, something sounding a little old-fashioned but surprisingly not trite.

I don't mean his use of such standard devices sounded insincere or uncomfortably condescending the way many composers did when imitating older styles. There was nothing really self-conscious in his method, sounding completely natural and logical. It's not that his musical language was becoming 'traditional,' considering the standard harmonic rules: something about it no longer sounded quite the same. If he were in the room with us, I'd want to whisper to him, 'So, what is it you're doing here that's different?' I'm sure he'd give me that look which says 'Just listen to the music...'

There are so many things to consider, hearing a piece for the first time, whether it's something new or just 'new to you.' I should just listen subjectively, let everything unfold, save the analysis for later. Then I let myself "go with the flow," riding along as the tension builds.

We'd almost reached the climax when suddenly they stopped.

When something's played for the first time, who knows how well it's going, with nothing for comparison's sake, if someone’s making mistakes. Devon apologized for coming in a beat early, so, after conferring, they resumed playing. It was barely a blip in their performance's intensity, not that anyone would have noticed. This audience was deeply involved in Sebastian's music.

I couldn't see Victor's reaction from where I stood, wondering what he was thinking. At the end of the first movement, with its dramatic, almost Brahmsian flourish, the audience, looking around delightedly, burst into warm applause.

Smiling broadly, I leaned back and whispered to Victor while the musicians retuned, "Well, this is indeed surprising, just like Dima said." I paused, hoping he might do more than nod, but he didn't even smile. "Was he even enjoying this," I thought to myself. "Was it too painful a reminder, hearing his father's music after all these years?"

There were lots of questions still going through my mind, the music aside: where had he found the manuscript and what, most of all, did the dedication and the date after the final measure actually mean?

Had an adventuresome student taken sketches and turned them into an exercise in parody, superimposing romanticized sensitivities onto Sebastian's classically controlled atonality? But this was entirely too subtle for a student, even a very talented one. When could Sebastian have written this during the last six years of his life – given the dedication, in the years following Zoe's birth? Even though we hadn't remained that close following our years at Cutler, we’d still kept in touch fairly regularly after he retired. During my annual summer visits, then, he'd shown me everything he’d been working on.

As the second movement, the "already-too-fast" scherzo, took off at a breathless pace, so many different possibilities continued swirling along in my head. We'd gone through his papers after the funeral: how could we overlook this? It sounded unlike anything Sebastian wrote in his lifetime but more what he might sound like if he were alive and composing today.

Years after retirement, his sense of creative anxiety gradually increasing, Sebastian found truth in the adage, "work expands to fill the time available," something that's actually called Parkinson's Law, intended to explain the sluggishness of bureaucracies. Once he had all day to work at the piano, finding himself accomplishing so little, Sebastian began fearing his creativity was drying up. He began dwelling on whether or not it was "cost effective" to take the extra time to find that right note, especially when most people listening to it would probably think it was the wrong one.

It wasn't a matter of 'the system,' the technical approach like serialism he applied to generating what theorists dryly called 'pitch content.' No system, he argued, was meant to be used that rigidly, not even tonality. Spending hours manipulating it so it would come out to that right note, was it worth the extra hours – days, weeks – it took?

And it wasn't that this unnamed system Sebastian had developed for himself did all the work, spewing out pitches automatically like a machine – plug in a few algorithms and out come page after page of notes. Over the last decade, dealing with my own insecurities, I eventually – finally – turned years of arbitrary struggles into my own kind of system. Knowing how I work and knowing, as my friend, how Sebastian worked (at least, to an extent), I'm quite sure he took great pains over these passages that flew by, sounding merely like wisps of texture.

Scraps of thoughts continued swirling around my brain, swept along by the music I was listening to, full of fits and stops, starting up again only to careen down a blind alleyway into a brick wall. It was exciting, hearing a new piece by an old friend, a bit unnerving, wondering where this came from, what was coming next.

How long had Victor been waiting to reveal this secret, unable to tell anyone of his plans to have it copied and performed? Had it surfaced back in the springtime or during the dreary days of winter? Was it in the back of some cluttered desk drawer overlooked twenty-six years ago or underneath a pile of papers on a shelf? What was it like for him, a son who'd had typical issues with his father, finding a previously unknown work by him? Holding it in his hand, did he feel some psychic connection with his past?

Parody, I explained to my students, was not the comedic send-up we normally imagined, whether or not its original musicological meaning fit, either – medieval masses based on fragments of chant, then surrounded by adding something new. Neither was it really a pastiche, something newly written that imitated some old style, or a hodge-podge put together by some like-minded committee.

This wasn't a clever forgery, since it didn't sound exactly like Sebastian Crevecoeur. No precise imitation, it was more like an evolution, too solid, compositionally, for some young composer to bother pawning it off like this.

Was it something that Victor commissioned from someone in honor of his father, though we'd missed the 25th Anniversary of his death? Looking around at the audience, though, I assumed I was the only composer present, unless it was any of our performers this evening: I wondered if anyone here could have managed to write a piece this good?

True, many famous compositions were completed by otherwise forgotten and not necessarily respected composers: you'd need someone to sublimate their own originality. Think of all the problems poor Süssmayr dealt with, attempting to finish Mozart's Requiem, or what Tibor Serly faced trying to put Bartok's unfinished Viola Concerto together, not to mention everybody jumping on the Mahler 10th band-wagon.

You'd think whoever created this – however they created it – would want to be here, to experience how their hard work came to life, unless Victor's got some dark secret up his sleeve he's not telling us about.

Undoubtedly, depending on what condition unfinished manuscripts were in, there were many reasons why someone would want to complete something left incomplete. There were questions waiting to be answered, like a mystery waiting to be solved. Naturally, there was simple 'artistic curiosity,' wondering what the music might sound like, getting some idea what the composer might have been thinking.

Like Mozart's Requiem, was there some commission to fulfill? That didn't make sense, here. Even if Victor needed some extra income, he of all people certainly realized his father's music was going to be an unlikely resource.

But I wasn't even sure the piece had been left unfinished. Paging through the score, it was clear it was Sebastian's handwriting, so ordinarily, you'd want to assume that meant he wrote it all himself, right? But I kept thinking he'd never mentioned it, it didn't really sound like him – and then there was also that date: December 2009.

There had to be some logical explanation for this: Sebastian's music was all about logic and choices that could be logically explained. How would the theorist approach this 'new' composition? What facts could a musicologist unearth? Sebastian probably destroyed all the sketches and rough drafts – he usually did that – but would there be something here that might prove enlightening? Had he given the manuscript for some reason to someone else who, after all these years, finally found it and returned it? Or perhaps someone who'd bought it for their collection without knowing what it was?

Though it could've become an interesting plot for one of Mary's mystery novels, this was a little over-the-top even for my imagination. After all, now, who would Victor have turned to, with such an odd request? Was somebody going to pop out from behind the curtain for the final bow? Perhaps I'd heard one too many conspiracy theories, lately.

Anyway, there had been enough of an unsolved mystery behind Sebastian's final years, not just abandoned works but those he'd also destroyed, telling us about them so blithely over dinner, as if he'd been cleaning house.

“Sebastian,” I said, laughing to myself, trying to look back at Victor but unable to see him without turning around, “what is this! What is it you’re trying to do, here – trying to do to me?”

I mean, if Sebastian hadn't completed it and no one completed it for him – and it wasn't a forgery – then, what was it...?


Even if music represented nothing more than notes on a page, too many listeners still engaged in interpreting something supposedly abstract: usually, on first hearings, our emotions tended to respond whether our minds were engaged or not. My over-imaginative reverie was jolted back into reality once the musicians took off, notes flying by, on what sounded like a perilous flight, not just in terms of the technical difficulty involved in playing the pitches. More than getting all the right notes in the right place and time, even scarier was what probably lay behind the notes.

One of the greatest challenges for a composer, Sebastian felt, was somehow making that chance connection between the music and the listener – by way of the performer – one that would engage both the heart and mind. He'd often complained, while he could write something that was architecturally well-balanced and controlled, earning a listener's emotional response was the biggest hurdle.

How would Sebastian react to hearing this music, if he were here today? I remember him cringing at premieres, writhing in his seat as all his faults came to the surface, too late to fix anything. He had become so insecure over the years he no longer trusted his own intuitions, becoming even more reliant on architecture and system. It had given his music a certain leanness, a classical sense of structural clarity, surface language aside: this was anything but lean. How could anybody capable of writing something like this ever think himself a failure?

Sebastian's demonic scherzo, part mad-scene – supposedly his idea of the original Italian meaning 'joke' – scurried and surged along in a whirlwind chase. Amidst shreds and tatters of 'themes,' suddenly it began stopping, fearfully holding its breath. It gave me a stark image of being dipped in a tank of piranhas, never knowing what side they might attack you from. After a few suspended seconds, the chase would hesitantly start again, interrupted by a loud chord in the strings, then another – crack! – this time unexpectedly in the piano before receding back to the roiling, scurrying texture.

Standing in the back, I looked around the room and noticed everyone sitting in rapt attention, some eyebrows raised, all intently listening. If Sebastian ever worried about connecting through the emotions, in this movement, he succeeded. If one of Mendelssohn's wispy, elfin scherzos had gone over to the Dark Side, what was lurking in these shadows: crazed serial killers?

That was ridiculous, of course, imagining Sebastian coming up with some 'representational' story like that, set to music. I don't think he even enjoyed reading novels that would have been so separated from reality as that. One of his guilty pleasures may have been English murder mysteries but he appreciated them for their logic and skills at problem solving. Like me, he was a fan of Henry James and though Peter Quint was certainly a ghost, this wasn't something popping out of the woodwork covered in gore intent on scaring the bejeebers out of you.

To my knowledge, Sebastian never mentioned that a composition of his was actually "about" something, giving any composition some quaint, picturesque title. His music never "told a story," always proudly abstract, music about balance and proportions. Was there some hidden program scribbled in the margins about what inspired this music? Without access to his sketches, who would ever know?

After more hushed scurrying, the strings, muted now, sounding even eerier, the piano erupted in a violent barrage of crashing chords.

Ms. Rowberson rose to her feet, clutched a shaking hand across her throat and yelped.

Everything ground to a halt as she looked around, apologizing profusely. "It was like a cold hand touched the back of my neck."

Kent-Clarke, directly behind her, humorously held up his hands. "It wasn't me, I promise. Is this somebody's idea of a bad joke?"

The musicians continued from where they'd broken off, hoping to avoid any instant replay.

One of the things Sebastian often commented about was how timid composers were becoming. Rather than writing what they felt was natural, they had become more concerned about appealing to some common denominator in an audience. I could imagine him, today, adding to the arguments about the "dumbing-down" of Art, a topic that dogged the footsteps of Bach long ago. Never meant to appeal like the paint on your living room wall, "Art," he'd say, "was something you responded to, bringing your terms to its." Putting the audience's entertainment first was for craftsmen, not for artists.

Instead, we should be hoping to connect with one person, ideal or not, someone who'd react, like or dislike, but at least react. Regardless whether they'd like it or not, the important thing was to connect. What if Michelangelo submitted proposals to various focus groups, to see what people wanted? Today, everything's success depended on what we called "ratings."

Looking around the room, I wondered if I could gauge each listener's response. Xaq, watching Zoe carefully, was surprisingly intently involved. Ever the theorist, Dr. Portnoy was busily processing everything possible both intellectually and emotionally. Rowberson, drawing her shawl higher across her neck, began swaying to the music's growing turbulence. Highwater wasn't sure she should like it or not.

Victor receded further into the archway, frowning slightly as if he were trying to imagine the father capable of writing such music. From where I stood, I couldn't see Kent-Clarke's face though he seemed attentive enough.

I'd forgotten which composer Sebastian had said judged the success of somebody's work by how much of it he wanted to steal. Calling it 'cribbing,' he always brought up the anecdote whenever we attended a premiere. This wasn't like plagiarizing, he said, more like recycling, a small homage or a nod to the past from one colleague to another.

Considering how my music evolved over the previous decade, it finally began to dawn on me why this style sounded so familiar. I went weak in the knees when I realized I could've written this myself!

Just then, there was a wild, piercing shriek, every downstairs light flickering ominously as Mary Rowberson's body sunk heavily to the floor. The music quickly stopped while Kent-Clarke rushed to make sure Ms. Rowberson was okay.

When I turned around to look at Victor, he was nowhere to be seen.

And the door to Sebastian's study stood wide open.

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To be continued...

- Dick Strawser

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

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