Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 60

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Klangfarben has enticed Beethoven to run away to Paris with her and, causing an accident during their departure, appears to have killed him. She disappears (back to the future, so to speak) leaving Kedaver behind. 

*** ***** ******** ***** ***
Chapter 60
*** ***** ******** ***** ***

It was a quote he’d use after playing a bit of a Mozart quartet, then get them to talk a little about it, trying to gauge their reactions, even basically whether they liked it or not. He didn’t tell them what it was or who wrote it, nothing as an introduction: just hear it, listen to it – and respond.

Next, he’d put on another recording, a different piece entirely, choosing the most recent string quartet by Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt. He especially liked Carter’s Third Quartet because the reaction was generally immediate and unanimous.

The idea was to demonstrate how familiarity and unfamiliarity affected our reactions but also how a known style usually trumped the unknown. With nothing more than what they’d heard, they were prepared to make a judgment.

Like many college freshmen, these were more likely both first hearings unless they were string players or composers, and even then, maybe not.

In most cases, the students agreed the first piece was “much better” than the second – “real” music, easier to listen to and grasp on first hearing, though he left that for the moment without further comment. The second piece they all agreed was more noise than music, overly complex, esoteric, something mathematicians might enjoy but certainly not most music-lovers.

He then played two more excerpts. Some contemporary of Mozart’s was judged laughably bland and childish by comparison, like a student’s homework assignment. The other, more modern, very traditional, almost simplistic, made them smile, nodding in appreciation.

They were generally confident that Nos. 1 & 4 were the “good,” lasting pieces, that Nos. 2 & 3 would soon be forgotten.

Then he’d read them this quote:

“[One of theses composers’] works do not in general please quite so much as [this other composer’s] – they confirm he has a decided leaning toward the difficult and the unusual.”

Most of them quickly agreed it referred to the composer of the second piece which someone invariably described as “the ugly one.”

The quote, however, was a reaction to a first hearing of Example No. 1.

This was generally met with surprise, especially when they heard it was by Mozart.

Mozart was considered “difficult”?

The third, considered the more appealing, was Leopold Kozeluch.


The second had recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

The fourth, which they’d thought so highly of, was an assignment written by a former student of Kerr’s when he was a sophomore.

Kerr loved upsetting his students’ natural perceptions, though he limited himself to musical ones, hoping they might eventually transfer into social or political attitudes outside the classroom, an area he felt less comfortable trying to challenge.

In describing how people made up their minds and disliked being challenged by facts or other’s ideas, he often said, “perception is everything.”

That greatness wasn’t something determined by the music itself but by the perception of the music – perceptions that changed over time – was as important for them to understand as realizing popularity didn’t always equate with durability.

It had been one of those early student epiphanies, going to a concert opening with one of Mozart’s Quartets “Dedicated to Haydn.” Reading that quote in the program, he was surprised Mozart was ever “difficult, unusual.” More important was the argument it opened up about the endurance of great music as opposed to what people enjoyed mostly for entertainment.

It made him aware music considered challenging or uncompromising might still have more lasting value than music written purely for popular appeal, not that complexity for its own sake was necessarily by itself a good thing. There was something about coming back to discover more details in that complexity which might soon be exhausted in something too easily absorbed.

If great music was meant to be “understood” – or, better yet, “comprehended” – through the audience’s active involvement, wasn’t music used merely to keep us from being aware of the silence around us a disservice to art?

It wasn’t that a works’ entertainment value had no bearing, yet one side of the equation shouldn’t be judged by the other. Both, given their contexts, might serve a purpose for different members of the audience. You could enjoy an apple by Strauss or a Mahler orange, but should they be compared till one of them is found lacking?

Mozart could write delightful wind octets intended for dinner music as well as something technically complex as the final moments of the “Jupiter” Symphony. Today, many in the audience might not be conscious of the difference.

These are very simplistic arguments, granted, but they informed Kerr’s consciousness as a composer when he first began taking himself more seriously, generally dismissing comments like, “why don’t you write something that’s easier to listen to?”

He’d ask performers, judging his music unplayable, was it “technically impractical or just challenging?” If it was written awkwardly, he could fix it.

Regardless of the style or how a listener perceived it, even writing with a more “accessible” approach was no guarantee to success.

How often was he asked, “how do I write a successful piece of music?”

The only response could be, “if I knew that, I wouldn’t be teaching here.”

Everybody wanted a pill that magically produced a hit.

After sending his music to performers – friends of his – who never responded, he wondered if they were afraid to admit they didn’t like it, couldn’t play it, or thought ignoring him was better than hurting his feelings?

Consequently, his music rarely migrating into the wider world, he had to ask if he had the talent to be a composer, considering the degrees and requisite training which yielded a limited amount of professional experience. He produced a considerably substantial body of largely unplayed works, or more accurately, works that rarely received a second performance beyond their premiere.

His teachers taught him his job was “to communicate,” but they didn’t explain how or what you did to make that easier. He wasn’t writing for himself: failure to reach others was a failure to communicate.

His colleague Sebastian Crevecoeur, becoming a mentor to him at his first academic position, told him, by maintaining his integrity, remaining true to himself, he would compose “sincere” music that would resonate with someone out there.

But the current attitudes toward the arts, culturally and politically, were the most disappointing: why bother struggling to compose if no one cared?

A few years before leaving Cutler University, Kerr attended the reception following a rather mediocre performance of a new work of his, holding a heated conversation with a woman from town who found his music “bewildering.” He liked the way she discussed it with him, rather than arguing, and she liked his ability to defend himself without being condescending.

They became good friends and, once he realized how well organized she was, she became his assistant, helping him with everyday realities. It seemed an unlikely marriage which surprised no one once they finally announced it.

After they moved to Klaxon College, Sondra found fulfillment of a kind working in the town’s library, managing to keep the home-life moving smoothly enough to allow Kerr the peace and quiet he needed to compose. When they discovered she was unable to have children, they eventually dismissed the idea of adopting as an impractical challenge to their routine.

Eventually, he went from being a composer to being no longer a composer once he found himself taking care of Sondra when she became unexpectedly ill and eventually bed-ridden, the cancer having gone too long undetected. Without her help, he found the assault of reality, beyond just the worries and the responsibility, an easy excuse to stop composing completely.

He tried not to resent the time and constant worry her care took, the sameness of the routine, the dullness of its inevitability. He did his best keeping her comfortable, being as companionable as his teaching allowed.

It had been one of the first nice spring-like days – coming early in March, that year – sunny and considerably milder than anticipated. Sondra suggested he go out for a good long walk, get some much-needed air. Cooped up inside with her for most of what turned into a difficult winter, he realized how much he could use the exercise.

And so he went, taking his time, heading down through the park where he ran into some former students feeding the squirrels, then stopped at the library to give her former colleagues something of an up-date.

He enjoyed the walk, feeling guilty for that, even more guilty realizing here he was, wishing he could do this more often. Sheepishly, he said his good-byes and reluctantly headed home to start getting dinner ready.

Rounding the corner, he saw the ambulance in the driveway and rushed inside to find paramedics urgently strapping her down on the gurney.

It was only after her death – heart attack, unexpected but, unlike the cancer, quick – Kerr realized how he’d taken everything for granted. When they’d first gotten married, they both felt it would all stay the same. Their relationship, never intense, was pleasant, more friendship than romantic but suffering few ups-and-downs. He would consider himself lucky, everything satisfactory, relatively speaking.

Once the cancer moved in with them and his creativity moved out – he was convinced one was the result of the other – that sense of satisfaction they shared began to unravel, slowly at first, almost imperceptibly.

Even with her lying in the hospital bed, their living room turned into hospice care after visits to the hospital proved pointless, it never occurred to him, deep down, just how much he would miss her.

She had taken care of him, uncomplaining, as he tried taking care of her. Now there was nothing left, no purpose, no outlet.

Along with the grief came the guilt that he had taken her for granted, that if he had paid more attention to her, perhaps he might have noticed signs of illness she had been putting off. They used to joke how she – Sondra, the practical one – was still his assistant since he was too idealistic to bother with reality.

Even now, this guilt could still engulf him, how he should have done more, having done more than he ever felt himself capable. To suggest anything else would be to declare his marriage another of his failures.

Growing up in the best of all possible worlds – the boom of that generation following World War II – it was small wonder Terrance Richard Kerr, composer and teacher, thought he could make a success of himself if he worked hard, wrote music that was true to himself and gained favorable reactions from people who meant something in his world. As an artist, he found himself motivated by the challenges he set himself in his music and by the enthusiasm he could bring to his art when presenting what he loved so passionately to his students.

It was unfortunate that, not long after he had reached his maturity and gained a reasonable position teaching in one of the many medium-sized colleges on the East Coast, someone had revised the definition of “success” till there was little resemblance between what the artist may have felt and how the business world – that antithesis of art – evaluated it.

Kerr knew he could earn more money at a bigger university but he wasn’t sure that was the community he wanted to live in, too many distractions for what he felt was important to his soul. There was too much competition for positions like that, prizes reserved for success exceeding his dreams, more than merely attaining them. Perhaps, someday…

As success became “box-office,” “ratings,” something measurable in terms of figures and reflected in the substantial bank account, the rich and famous lifestyle, society began losing sight of its artists when it turned art into another business.

Brought up to value individuality and integrity, Kerr spent twenty-five years teaching in universities, considered, for the most part, an apparent success. He’d earned the first graduate degree in his family, becoming its first college teacher. He composed music that was, briefly, performed and (generally) well received in academic circles and was highly regarded (generally) by colleagues and students.

He’d been happily if briefly married – the death of his wife after ten years was viewed as one of those sufferings that creative artists are expected to endure – even if (too bad) they didn’t have children.

While the quote about Mozart proved an important epiphany in his coming-of-age, there was another quote that never managed to sink in: what became the Corporate Golden Rule, “Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You.”

Too hopelessly idealistic, he fell easy prey to the academic in-fighting of departmental politics, disillusioning him till he decided to seek fulfillment elsewhere.

It was a different world, this new reality, a new century discovered at a time when he was now officially middle aged, an awkward time to be “starting over,” to be “reinventing” oneself, learning “new tricks.” Offered a job at the magazine, Philadelphia ArtScene, he’d cover the region’s classical music, writing reviews, previews and informative articles about the music.

The editor then, a former Klaxon student who’d once taken a course of Kerr’s, found himself unexpectedly replaced six years later by the sleeker and trendier Misha Goss (Mikhail or even Michael not being trendy enough).

Changing the magazine’s mundane name to Phillie EnVerve!, Goss, viewing Kerr as a dinosaur, was himself oblivious how much of the younger public he was hoping to attract viewed his product, contents aside, as a dinosaur. Unable to see the seeds of destruction, he imagined, by assuming the “cloak of coolness,” they would perceive him as one of them.

Within another year or so, the magazine had gone from being a respected if staid component of the local cultural scene to a struggling periodical coming to terms with its hemorrhaging circulation and declining ad revenues. The economy was to blame as successive budgets were balanced by a number of critical staff reductions, including turning Kerr into a part-timer.

Goss became the magazine’s flamboyant host “Misha!” while performers’ photographs were laid askew against psychedelic back-drops to appear more like rock concerts. Kerr was told to write about Mozart as the Lady Gaga of his day.

Laid off the week before his 60th birthday, Kerr at least escaped from the culture of paranoia created by Goss’s corporate mentality, even if it was only one symptom of years of decline in American culture. He had seen himself sinking into something that was not a part of him, choosing between what was either him or his persona.

Unfortunately, various aspects of reality – the economy only one of them – combined to place Kerr in a situation without income or purpose, largely dispirited by the unavoidable necessity of constantly putting himself at future emotional risk.

Being on unemployment was not exactly part of T. R. Kerr’s dream when he was a teen-ager, hoping to become a composer of symphonies and operas, making a contribution to society by teaching at a university.

But then neither was writing for a magazine who felt it was okay to attract young audiences by shamming classical music as “faux-rock.”

Time was moving too quickly: as an old friend put it, “my life is in fast forward and I’ve lost the remote.” With loneliness came the endless meditations on the past, the over-weaning unbearableness of regret.

He found himslef making the distinction between growing older and growing old, reflecting on the wasted life, conscious of new aches, old pains.

Friends told him to take the summer off, meet new friends, get out more, not mope around the house grieving for the past.

“Easier said than done,” he thought, as ever the creature of habit and procrastination.

So it was with great excitement he spontaneously decided to catch a Saturday train, off to New York to see Berg’s Lulu, delighted to discover the only tickets left at the Met were for standing room.

As he’d walked past Dante Park toward Lincoln Center on this beautifully sunny day, he noticed some down-and-outers standing around, looking disturbingly sullen.

A middle-aged hag in black, her mound of grizzled hair like steel wool, shrieked, “You! You will be the ruin of me!”

Not “you were,” but “you will be,” he noted, walking quickly away from her.

It made him wonder at which point had his life changed, when the downhill slide began and everything started turning into failures: was there one person (other than himself) responsible, one particular event that stood out?

If he had the chance to choose one thing, able to go back and fix one point in time, what would he choose?

= = = = = = =

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

No comments:

Post a Comment