Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Lost Chord: Overture

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller 
by Richard Alan Strawser)


"Yes – it's not just how to suffer" – someone in the audience laughed – "the artist's traditional fate since time began, right? Not like that's hard to figure out, once you've read some biographies. Think of the solitary hours spent practicing or writing down a composition: is this not a form of suffering?"

The speaker looked out across the audience which reacted with intermittent interest, a sparse gathering (in so many ways). It's clear his being here was for him a form of suffering.

Everyone knew he was a wealthy man, this business executive turned composer who inherited his family's Wall Street fortune and was now a guest on the FRED series, lecturing about creativity. Maybe he spent hours perfecting his craft alone in a room somewhere, but did he really know about suffering?

Loneliness, he knew, wasn't suffering, not really, though it might've been uncomfortable: it was more than just a failed relationship – it's the pain you overcame in life that made your art meaningful.

"Yes," he leaned back smugly, "that's it – that's how you measure suffering. It isn't just a series of inconveniences."

There was more than the agony of hearing your music badly performed or the self-mortification of reading bad reviews. What was worse than writing happy music though your heart was breaking?

There was one person in the audience paying particular attention to what this man, this famous composer, was saying, a skinny, tow-headed boy of no particular distinction whom nobody would notice, the kind who'd had sand kicked in his face all his life – was this not a kind of suffering?

It was what Robertson Sullivan said next the young man remembered most, joking later how it changed his life, the sort of thing any budding composer would sit up and notice.

"We're all looking for the dragon's blood – an artifact, some gizmo to guide us to the Fountain of Inspiration – some magic potion that we can mix from a long-guarded, secret recipe."

But it was the way he said it, the tone of voice – like some enticing preacher – "Come unto me!"

Was this what drew him to the speaker he found so inspiring who, after slyly avoiding to reveal the answers, made him feel it was imperative he had to study with him? Deep down, teasing him with wanting more, this man knew the answers, obvious from his constant side-stepping of them. The speaker artfully danced around the solution, dodging the implications so deftly, while twisting the knife deeper inside you: he was like a hypnotizing charlatan on one of those TV commercials.

After already having dropped out of college – "useless," he spat, "totally useless" – he knew that to study with him, he would have to apply to Juilliard, the nation's most prestigious conservatory! That in itself became an arduous process which took him several years but finally he applied – and gained entrance!

But at every lesson, the boy discovered his teacher always complained about his skirting the necessity of hard work, how he's always looking for some quick fix, complaining there're never satisfactory alternatives. He knew, without being given these answers, he would forever be blocked from acceptance to this elite secret society. Even then, as if turning the tables between them, teacher and student, he'd remember that old and oft-quoted adage which every teacher dreaded hearing, how "by your students you'll be taught."

So they all stood as a group on that bright sunny day, the light streaming in through the main entrance, the open doorway such a fitting metaphor to graduates facing their futures. The Great Teacher, glass raised, toasted them over the other students' cheers: "their hardest work was only just beginning."

"WTF?! I barely survived four years studying with the great Robertson Sullivan – hadn't that been enough of an ordeal? Now he's saying there's even more work after I've finished this degree!?"

It was then, at that very moment, some photographer snapped the picture, capturing forever the expression on his face, an expression either of fear or anger, this facing of new demons. But yes, it was that very moment, feeling confident he could succeed, when he decided what he should do.

In that briefest instant of a flash, he considered everything he learned, what skills had been passed on to him, the craft of ages past he struggled to perfect through diligent application, the wisdom of the great dead masters his teacher revealed to him and all the tiniest details about creativity. Yet there was nothing – not one nano-particle of wisdom – he could recall, beyond that simple phrase he'd once said, like it was the most important thing about learning how to compose.

More recently, now, living in a spacious brownstone not far from Juilliard, the house he long considered his home, he continued to watch and to wait and, mostly, bide his time. This had become another form of suffering, watching his teacher's career evolve while waiting for his to get started.

"There's not much time," he always said, "especially now – time runs out. I must hurry and make myself ready." He had been waiting years for this: the time was never better.

Looking at the photograph of himself standing next to his teacher, that inconsiderate moron incapable of recognizing true genius, he held it closer to the flame and let it catch fire.

"This is how I, Tr'iTone," he bellowed, "will join your little club! It's how you will learn to... suffer!"

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

It floored me when his letter arrived in the mail that morning, even though I'd expected to hear from him. It looked so formal, printed that way, like an engraved wedding invitation. The embossed envelope was even addressed to "Dr. Terrence Richard Kerr, PhD," a little too formal for my tastes.

"Robertson Sullivan requests your presence at a special celebratory dinner," it read, "to be held at the Benninghurst Colony."

After the particulars of date and time, he'd added these hand-written words:

"Hi, Terry – sorry for so much confusion – a lot happening – please come – little time – almost finished – let's talk! – Rob"

His telegraphic style didn't ease the mystery around our previously foiled plans.

But it'd be my last chance to see him for a while and driving to Benninghurst was a pleasant...

Without warning, memories of last summer's visit to the old Crevecoeur farm – speaking of pleasant – not that far from Benninghurst, flooded back to me like a dream, getting lost late at night, then meeting all those famous dead composers in some distant parallel universe – what was it they called it, Harmonia-IV? Sebastian Crevecoeur was there as our host, twenty-some years after his death, but there was something about Mahler, too. And how did Cameron end up with that letter written by Beethoven?

Yes, that was also the visit when I'd first met Cameron Pierce, a violin student of Sebastian's granddaughter, Zoe. He was now studying psychology in Philadelphia, living with his partner Dylan. With the summer now in full swing, he stayed on to work while Dylan went home to New York. We'd become good friends and Cameron frequently helped me as an assistant, so I'd invited him to come along since he'd been so interested in meeting my old friend, Rob Sullivan.

Cameron was always curious about composers' lives, how lives affected their music, particularly our talks about the creative process, so naturally I was glad he agreed to go along with me, considering, since I'd made that long descent from middle age into retirement, how much I hated driving by myself.

My own music – at least my mature stuff – was always well organized, maybe not as pristinely organized as Rob's was, but much more mathematically inclined than my lack of mathematical skills indicated. It still got me in trouble with several of my academic colleagues for being too intellectual or not enough. There'd always been those famous historical animosities, the politics of aesthetic competition – Schoenberg versus Stravinsky or Wagner versus Brahms – but even by today's classical music standards, the stakes seemed so small.

I remembered when my friend Sebastian Crevecoeur, after failing as a 'populist,' decided he would compose mostly for himself since the audience he was writing for wasn't interested in him anyway. Eventually, he figured, if it interested him, it would interest someone else, but then that didn't always happen, either.

Hadn't that been the story of my life, as well, I wondered, dashing around in a hurry to get ready, comparing how my career never took off against Rob's incredible international success. But in the back of my mind wasn't there some little pride when he said we needed to talk?

I looked around the house at the clutter I was leaving behind, hurriedly rechecking all the doors and windows. From the car, Cameron honked the horn, eager to hit the road.

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

"I'll probably be the only one there wearing a tie," Rob joked, checking which one he thought would look better, "not that anyone should really be surprised: it's my dinner, after all."

It was being held in his honor at the prestigious Benninghurst Colony the night before he returned to Europe.

"It feels so incredibly wonderful," he added, "just to have it finished," slipping a CD-Rom into his coat pocket, the back-up disc of the full score for his brand new opera.

There was that familiar rush he enjoyed with a sense of accomplishment runners must feel after winning a race, exhausting themselves in the final stretch to cross the line in time. Yet every time he started a piece, it was the same thing, like taking on some grueling athletic challenge.

Robertson Sullivan was a stickler for detail with everything in its place whether in his clothes or in his music, even when he knew it wasn't easy to accomplish what he wanted, where every aspect of life or art had its own supreme logic and the secret was to unlock it. Of course, some people called him 'finicky' when he announced his plan to completely rewrite the opera's last act, arguing there wasn't time before the premiere, but here it was – finished!

He learned two very important things in all the years he'd spent juggling a life between business and music: everything you did involved taking certain risks – otherwise you never moved forward – but you never took a risk unnecessarily that hadn't been thoroughly examined without every aspect of it carefully understood.

Every chord progression in music increased tension that had to be resolved, often with various possibilities that transcended expectations. Life, he found, already in his sixties, wasn't usually all that different.

Given all the unexplainable things that were suddenly happening in his life, he began to wonder what it meant, not just the good things like his creative accomplishments and career successes. Some insane attacker killed his favorite aunt, his mentor's death wasn't accidental – now he himself feared for his sanity.

He was on the verge of greatness – everyone was telling him that; had been, ever since he was a boy. Success after success came easily to him both as composer and teacher. Ever since he was a small child dreaming of composing like Beethoven, he'd worked hard to attain his goals. And now the opera he'd just completed was about to be premiered, his latest goal these past several years. Plus he'll direct a major European festival and resurrect its prestigious academy.

He chuckled how he compared writing music, requiring skills and necessary risks, to an adventurer's quest for hidden treasure, an arduous path littered with death-defying obstacles deterring you from your goal, like finding this mythical Fountain of Inspiration after solving the riddle posed by some ancient artifact, some indecipherable gizmo...

Whenever he told it to his students, that story made him laugh, but recently it seemed someone took him seriously, considering the threats he'd been receiving lately about revealing the fountain's whereabouts. Making one last adjustment to his tie, Rob looked in the mirror, and wondered when fantasy intruded on reality.

He patted his pocket to make sure the disc was still there as he locked the door behind him. Still, despite all these doubts and fears, his future seemed very bright.

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

"The only good composers are dead composers," a teacher once told him after he first started to take piano lessons and dreamed of playing the 'Moonlight' Sonata on the great concert stages. But the boy found practicing the piano took lots of daily work, spending fifteen minutes just on exercises alone.

"Maybe," he thought, struggling with his scales, "I'll write my own music, then nobody'll know if I'm making mistakes." That's when he decided, then and there, to become a composer himself.

Someone also said becoming a composer was a lot like Russian Roulette – "sometimes you win and sometimes you lose" – which sounded like a pretty cool game, once he figured it out. After all, what was the easiest way to become a good composer? Of course – by becoming a dead one.

And so he purified his creative spirit to prepare his chosen path through less labor-intensive ways to reach the goal, with ritual preparations that clarified the mind to embrace a higher creativity. It was something else Sullivan had said, taunting him with its possibilities, sounding almost as significant as the suffering.

For years, Sullivan denied any knowledge of such an object, this 'gizmo,' but the time for truth was near: the truth about the blood, the artifact – the location of the Fountain.

It will be like the Oak King Ritual of ancient Gaelic lore, not the springtime sacrifice of a virgin. He lifted up his sacred, thrice-blessed knife to test the edge's sharpness. The New King challenges the established leader in the great sacrificial ceremony that ensures continuity in our sacred art. They will meet in mortal combat, the Old King and the New, in this battle of wits and skills – the victor will attain Beethoven's greatness through the suffering of the vanquished.

"It's time," he thought, leaving the motel, "for everything to be revealed: but first, the Truth must be unveiled. There is much I will teach you as you could've taught me.

"But for that," he thought, looking heavenwards, "I must have your soul.

"And," he added, "your little doll, too."

= = = = = = =
to be continued...

- posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

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