Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 24

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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After the phone rang (another wrong number), I continued watching the cats romping about, chasing each other, playing whatever game they must consider the equivalent of tag. There were elements of hunting involved – stalking and pouncing – and the occasional but not consistent ideas of hiding and seeking. Mimulus would run toward the unsuspecting Fleance and would then dive over him at the last minute, turning a potential crashing encounter into a game of "chicken." Next, there would be a complete and instant change of focus – an imaginary bug halfway across the ceiling; a three-way dash to the window as a bird flew close to the house.

Later, after I finished my breakfast – a couple of fried eggs "sunny-side up" for their higher protein value, Sunday's change from the usual ritual of morning oatmeal – I settled into my chair in the study to listen to some music, hoping it might jump-start some ideas. Two days past the Britten Centennial, I decided this time on one of his last works, his setting of Phaedra, so economically told and beautifully written for Janet Baker whose recording I still preferred – a tragic love-story, a sad story on the decline of a composer's health.

Taking a respite from their play, curling up beside me on the day-bed, the cats eventually resumed their games, this time with wads of scrap paper which they shuffled around like expert hockey players: was Sisyphos the goalie of the fireplace? Would Fleance let out a roar of victory if he shot the paper past him into the ashes or would Mimulus succeed in scoring a point for an interception?

Listening to Britten's music again – it had been a while, for some reason – I was glad to discover how much it still meant to me. I had never grown tired of his music like I had Copland's. Perhaps because Copland's wide-open American sound was too easily – and too frequently – imitated to have any lasting value for my style. Even after I became more interested in the avant-garde composers with their almost anarchic flexibility and new soundworld, Britten's sense of style still spoke to me where others became old-fashioned.

Electronic music was something I always hated, mostly for its impersonality, even though I liked the swirl and clatter of sounds it opened up to me. Eventually, I sought ways of approximating them with live instruments and real musicians but found the excitement short-lived. Somewhere along the line, my musical pendulum swung back to the dense textures and simultaneous layers of sound-fabrics like one might find in Bach or late-Beethoven, initially because I felt the most serious thing my music was lacking was structure and a sense of control.

So I began toying with the sensual sonorities of the flesh superimposed on an increasingly “organized” skeleton, the marriage of the right and the left brains. The strict serialism which had too long been the lingua franca of the age I grew up in had never appealed to me but utilizing aspects of it, its constant mutability, intrigued me and I tried to integrate it into the whole – something Britten showed he could do if he wanted to.

There are some things Britten composed that are as complex as anything by Bach and yet they fly by without drawing the least amount of attention to themselves – like the final minute of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. Complexity and simplicity, the combination of the intellect and the appeal to the senses. Things happen consecutively as form and time as well as simultaneously as contrasting events, both nach- and nebeneinander all rolled up into one. How could that be?

Talk about contradictions! But this is the way many artistic minds develop if not evolve, swinging back and forth from reaction to reaction, whether it's an apposite and equal re-action or simply a change in taste.

When I interviewed for the opening at Selwyn-Morgan, a position involving both theory and composition (unlike my first position at Cheatham which was limited to theory and where I was restricted by other composers on the faculty who disliked the competition), the audition process did not go well. There had been a young woman there, Professor Scylla deVore, who kept grilling me about "aesthetic philosophy," and while I didn't want to appear discourteous about it, I shrugged off what she kept harping on as my "inconsistencies."

"I don't consider myself particularly doctrinaire, one way or the other," I explained, hoping to squelch any further and unnecessary argument. "As far as I'm concerned, as a teacher, I think it's important for a student to view something from a number of different vantage-points," and so on.

But there was one thing I said – I can't even remember what it was – that particularly galled her (a pigeon in every hole) and she threw up her arms in a theatrical gesture of intense disbelief. "That's a pretty odd statement for a pragmatist!" 

The only thing I could do was laugh and say that I had inadvertently let my subscription run out to their magazine, too busy at the time reading too many others to care much.

I figured by this time I would not get the job and was not even sure I wanted it. She was, I realized, only trying to impress her older, male colleagues who were trying to mask their irritation. At this phase of the interview, she was the only woman on the panel.

During the "mock class presentation," I was playing recordings in a word/music association game, and when we came to an excerpt from Stravinsky's Agon, she blurted out with a smirk, "Mensuration canon," as if trying to catch me with a naughty-sounding entendre.

Since it had not been going well and figuring I'd already lost this war, I simply smiled at her, nodded that she was correct but, smiling, added, "ah, so that explains it" before passing on to the next observation.

Several others (including the token student on the committee) laughed out loud and others sat back, trying to hide their smiles, concerned about the lack of professionalism they'd exhibit by joining in the laughter. So I was surprised and, at first, somewhat chagrined that, a week later, they informed me I was being offered the position.

Very quickly, I wondered if accepting it had been my latest mistake, though it was gratifying, a few years later, to see Dr. deVore denied tenure and she, not long afterward, left but only after threatening a discrimination lawsuit (fortunately, by then, they had added other women to the faculty).

Not everything, I always told my students, is black or white: there are more than fifty shades of gray, I pointed out, depending on the different vantage points you might assume.

It was a shock to hear Stephen's voice on the phone, finally – it had been over two weeks since he told me he'd call as soon as he got back from a business trip, but I decided I should not point that out. I could tell from his voice that things were not right. He might even have been a little drunk which, late on a California morning, was not a good sign. I decided I should probably sit down but decided not to pry.

"How are you doing? Any closer to finalizing your travel plans?"

As soon as I said that, I suspected he might have been calling me to cancel those plans and now I've put him in an awkward spot. It wouldn't surprise me, his work making the demands on his schedule it did. Even if it took him to Boston, there was a good chance he wouldn't have time to visit.

Half the time, if I don't initiate the conversation, he felt I wasn't interested in talking, that he'd interrupted me and put me in a negative mood. When I was busy working, in those years he lived at home, I'd asked him not to interrupt me unnecessarily but this eventually became more convoluted whether I was busy working or not: for a composer (or any writer), what constitutes work? Is sitting there thinking considered “work”?

"The weather looks bad," he said without much hope for elaboration.

"Yes," I added, "we're expecting a storm here – could be snow or rain, maybe in a couple days. Not sure about Boston."

"Yes." He paused and then stopped. This conversation would be going nowhere quickly. I listened for noise in the background: where was he calling from?

Stephen always had a very analytical and logical mind, the kind who would score 90% on the left side of the brain, I figured. He always had trouble with emotional responses – knew his stuff but had trouble communicating.

"Stephen, is – is everything alright?" I knew if I started prying, he would become defensive.


We are separated by time and space, but not so separated as all that: spukhafte Fernwirkung. Jetzt einander.

Again, he paused and I thought, this time, it's best to wait.

"I was laid off last week," he said after a bit. "Friday was my last day." Ever factual, ever concise, Stephen said it as if he were seeing it through someone else's eyes.

"What happened? I'm so sorry – what..." Then I decided it would be best not to pile on too many questions.

"I suspect there had been a complaint, not that anyone told me anything. I'm sure it was political. My division was getting downsized, anyway."

"It's always political even if they blame the economy, Stephen. I'm sorry..."

"Perhaps it was merely the luck of the draw, Dad – my turn."

"Not the most logical way of approaching it," I started and then remembered Dr. deVore's attack on my pragmatism.

"It's like faith and transubstantiation, isn't it? Believe it but don't analyze it."

"Philosophy and religion were never my strong suit, Stephen – along with math." (One could add to that "parenting.")

"And there's something else I should tell you. Leo's left – gone off somewhere."

They had seemed an illogical match, those two, looking at the wayward boy the scholarly Stephen fell in love with, opposites attracted.

"Said he wanted some new adventure before he was too old to care."

When dashing young Leo took a job that required haircuts and dark suits, I figured Stephen would soon lose interest in him, but I said nothing. Here it happened, apparently, not in the way I imagined: apostasy of the hypostatic.

We walked along the shores of the possible, talking for most of the hour, skirting the pain as if it didn't matter, bread and salt withheld from the wounds.

Ultimately, Dan Occam found (and lost) his razor.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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