Friday, August 22, 2014

Completing the Klangfarben Trilogy

Writing novels in a series is a bit like Sisyphus and his rock: you work hard getting a novel started, then you finish it but then you realize you need to start writing another one so you start all over again, pushing that rock.

This past Wednesday morning, I finished the last remaining bit of the third novel in my series of classical music appreciation thrillers, the “Klangfarben Trilogy.” This began about four years ago with The Doomsday Symphony (which you can read, beginning with this link) and then continued last year with The Lost Chord and has now concluded with The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben which I began writing last September and completed this past June except for its... well... prologue, of sorts.

(Two excerpts from The Labyrinth have been posted on the blog: the story of the villain Nepomuck and the murder weapon, a white viola (you can read it, here) and the self-contained “Tale of the Master and of His Belovéd” about Beethoven and the Immortal Belovéd as told by a friend named Rainer Knussbaum who was also a figure in the second novel, The Lost Chord (you can read that excerpt, here).

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The Doomsday Symphony, set in the summer of 2012, introduced the unlikely hero, composer and retired music professor Dr. T. Richard Kerr, who, attending a house-concert in which a seemingly new work by his mentor, Sebastian Crevecoeur (who'd died, like, 24 years earlier) was being given its first performance. The mystery deepens when Kerr sees the completion date at the end of the manuscript – only a few months before – and then their host (the composer's son) disappears along with the manuscript.

From there, it involves rabbit holes that take the unsuspecting Dr. Kerr and his friends to a parallel universe where not only do they meet the late Sebastian Crevecoeur, they also end up at Stravinsky's Tavern where many of the late great composers go to hang out. You see, this is Harmonia-IV where dead composers go but continue composing.

Crevecoeur, it turns out, has discovered a plot in which a disgruntled musicologist named Klavdia Klangfarben has found a way she can go back in time and kill off the great composers of the past. What will happen to Classical Music as we Know It if the music written by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner and other works inspired by them no longer exist? And so he prevails upon Kerr and his friends to chase Klangfarben and her Harmonian accomplice, the lawyer Abner Kedaver, to undo all the changes they have managed to influence.

In the process, one of Kerr's friends, a frustrated but mild-mannered assistant conductor named Rogers Kent-Clarke (and who dreams of becoming a super-conductor) runs into Mahler who has just completed another symphony, this one inspired by the impending Mayan apocalypse. Kent-Clarke steals the score with the idea he would give the work its world premiere (back on Earth), unaware that the climactic chord in the final movement could actually initiate the much-hyped End of the World on December 21st.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

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The Doomsday Symphony was my first attempt at writing a more-or-less original “comedy thriller” based on Classical Music – speaking of “niche audiences” – following two earlier parodies on Dan Brown thrillers that became The Schoenberg Code (after Brown's The Da Vinci Code) and The Lost Chord (after his The Lost Symbol).

But when I realized I didn't really like this second parody, I was reluctant to just throw it away, especially given all the wonderful characters' names I'd come up with.

So I then set about completely rewriting it, keeping many of the names while changing specific plot details but keeping, confusingly, the title as well. Since there are already numerous uses of the title “The Lost Chord” in music, itself a perfect parody on Brown's title, it didn't seem as much a rip-off of a popular novel as a reference to, say, Sir Arthur Sullivan's hymn, “The Lost Chord.”

Considering one of the main aspects of the plot concerns inspiration and creativity, this Lost Chord takes on a deeper meaning.

Using some of the same characters as The Doomsday Symphony, this new Lost Chord version started out as just a second book until about two-thirds of the way through when I decided to introduce a new character who could be one of the villains from the previous book, the ill-starred, would-be femme fatale and former forensic musicologist, Klavdia Klangfarben. Having failed to achieve her mission, she ended up sending herself back in time to rescue her mother only to find herself stuck (cheap batteries) as an observer of her own childhood without any way of getting back to the present except to wait it out.

By the time she catches up to Dr. Kerr whom she essentially blames for foiling her plot, she's pretty pissed off, living all those years as a homeless person in Manhattan. But her attempted revenge fails.

I'll spare you the synopsis of The Lost Chord except to say there's musical-political intrigue behind the murder of Kerr's friend, composer Robertson Sullivan, placing his cousin, LauraLynn Harty, in grave danger. Also, there's a madman who calls himself Tr'iTone who is seeking the Fountain of Inspiration which Sullivan apparently has knowledge of. And there's a secret journal that had been kept by LauraLynn's great-grandfather, Harrison Harty, when he attended a summer music camp held at the legendary Schweinwald Academy with his friends Gustav Mahler, Hans Rott and Ethel Smyth and which could reveal information about Beethoven's Immortal Belovéd, perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in classical music.

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Even before I had finished this completely revised Lost Chord with its director of the ICA (International Composers Agency) Yoda Leahy-Hu, the villain Tr'iTone and the bumbling SHMRG agent, Garth Widor, the next novel in the series began to form itself in my mind.

And for this one, I returned to The Schoenberg Code, my original Dan Brown parody, again primarily to keep many of the names I'd come up with, most of them musical puns – especially agents from the International Music Police like Inspector Hemiola, Mimi Solfeggio or Ben Rubato, the conductor Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter and his companion Frieda F. Erden, among others – and then completely altered the plot (or at least, most of it: there are some plot details that are so typical of the genre, it would be hard to avoid them) after finally finding a way to make Klavdia Klangfarben, once again, the main villain.

It went through several working titles until I decided on The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben which also altered the details of the ending which I'd left vague hoping “inspiration” would somehow fill in the blank.

Again, let's leave the plot synopsis at “it continues the quest for the identity of the Immortal Belovéd and discovery that she and Beethoven had a child.” Was the conductor Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter murdered because he's about to conduct the opera that got its composer, Robertson Sullivan, killed – or because he knows who the Heir to Beethoven is?

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The other thing was, for matters of structure and proportion (which I won't go into, here), I didn't just need a “prologue” for this novel which, in its entirety, was to be a little less than 150,000 words: it required a semi-independent short story of about 27,000 words which I wanted initially to just be an “interlude,” perhaps a short mystery of its own. And since I'd decided the novel would open with Kerr, on a train, awaking from a dream and then, ultimately, close with Kerr, on a train, falling asleep, it seemed logical that this short story would be a dream-sequence. And in this, it would bring together various elements of the earlier novels – memories of the visit to Harmonia-IV, especially, and tying in some characters from The Lost Chord that were not as developed by the time they've shown up in The Labyrinth, like LauraLynn Harty's cousin Maurice who gets a nice Momento Maurie here.

The initial plot for this short-story was left very vague as I began the novel that would actually follow it: I decided I wanted to write the complete novel and discover what sorts of things might need a little more explanation – especially the fact that Kerr keeps thinking Phlaumix House (the great 18th-Century English house where most of the novel is set) was familiar though he'd never been there before.

Then, better yet, I decided to introduce plot-elements into it which would seem completely unrelated – a separate, self-contained case. It involved Kerr attending the premiere of his latest composition, a long-form piano piece he entitled “Labyrinth” but everything that could go wrong was going wrong. Around this were various sub-plots, some of which recalled elements in the previous books or looked ahead to what would (or might) happen in the novel itself. One of these involves a symposium about the pendulum-like changes in classical music styles attended by many of the great dead composers organized at some great old English manor house by Sebastian Crevecoeur.

This interlude – or “Intermezzo,” since I'm using musical terms – is primarily set at a community college in suburban Philadelphia. I had quite arbitrarily placed the home of Dr. Kerr in a fictional part of Doylestown, PA, but when I was half-way through The Labyrinth which is set in England, I discovered there is a town – more officially, a township – outside Philadelphia called Marple. Well... with a nod to Agatha Christie, I had to set my next mystery, there.

I created St. Sisyphus Community College whose football team is called “The Rocks” and whose mascot is a large stone without arms or legs, and where the student lounge serves “Rolling Rock” beer.

Finally, I hit upon the idea that the basis of the story should become the central plot of yet another novel and would involve Kerr's old friend, another composer and soon-to-retire professor named Tom Purdue who has inexplicably disappeared. Hence, the new novel will be called In Search of Tom Purdue.

For those who know their Proust, this is a take-off on In Search of Lost Time. “Lost Time” in French is temps perdu.

An Escher-like Illusion
Since the final scene of The Labyrinth takes place in a vast, round room with a giant pendulum which opens to reveal a possibly four-dimensional labyrinth, images of M. C. Escher came to mind and it occurred to me that a dream sequence, which has little logic to it anyway, could easily reflect not only labyrinths but also Escher-like optical illusions (or, in this case, optical allusions) so everywhere Kerr went, the paths were too long and convoluted or he'd walk through a door and end up in a different building across campus.

Another “allusion” would be to Edgar Allan Poe's “Fall of the House of Usher,” one of my favorite stories from my childhood (I'd set it as a chamber opera when I was in my late-teens). There are frequent references to passages from Poe – including the weird all-white underground passageway in one of Roderick Usher's drawings – the use of particular adjectives in particular ways. The President of the college where this takes place is Roderick Ulster; the Dean of Fine Arts is Madeline Wilsher (in the concert program, she is mis-identified as “Dead of Fine Arts”), named after the ill-fated twins Roderick and Madeline Usher. Even the name given to the otherwise anonymous narrator in a film version of the story appears as an assistant to the President. In the end, it is revealed that Tom Purdue (who has yet to be seen) has been diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a condition that leads eventually to blindness and deafness.

And the house where Kerr is staying on campus is owned by the foundation who'd commissioned his piano piece, the dePaula Escher Fund. The house is itself a cross between the optical puzzles of M.C. Escher and Poe's tale, a very dark fun-house of a place.

So, the title of the short-story became “The House of dePaula Escher” which nearly mirrors “The Fall of the House of Usher” as close as I could get. Granted, dePaula is an odd choice for a name but I needed something to reflect the vowels and rhythm in “the fall of...”

I had completed the “novel proper” on June 12th and now the short-story that would become the “Intermezzo” between the second and third novels was finished on August 20th, in so much as it “ends” (it's a dream-sequence: basically he wakes up before anything is realized).

(And yes, “The Klangfarben Trilogy” consists of three novels and a short-story... Deal with it.)

Normally, I like to wait a couple of weeks before going back to read through the rough draft and start the editing process, giving it a little time to settle.

But I want to get the second novel posted on-line even though it's been through two drafts already – I just haven't gotten around to it. So I'll do the third draft of the second novel and post it on the blog before I do the second draft of the third novel before starting on the first draft of the fourth novel.

- Dick Strawser