Monday, December 22, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 25

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Kerr has begun to figure out the code in Harrison Harty's 1880 Schweinwald Journal and they realize, at that point, Harty realized if his roommate Gutknaben had been killed, maybe he was also in danger, now? They arrive at a medieval fortress, having followed the directions, and are met at the door by a frail old man, the soon-to-be centenarian, composer Howard Zenn.

= = = = = = =
Chapter 25

LauraLynn had been uncomfortable at Benninghurst after the murder of her cousin, despite their offering us a place to stay so we could be accessible to the police during the ensuing investigation. It had been too much of a daily reminder for us both, looking down that hallway to his room. Instead, we stayed at a quaint inn – the old-fashioned, rustic Wampanaug Inn – just a few miles down the road. Cameron said the Colony was pretty empty, most residents having already left.

The beautiful spring-like weather, sunny and pleasant, didn’t help lighten our mood, overcast by recent memories unwilling to disappear, as we sipped our tea out on the otherwise cheerful garden patio. The other guests stayed clear of us, having heard the awful news with a mix of consideration and curiosity.

There were interviews with the local police, most of them gruesomely repetitive, and plans to be made for a funeral with lots of people to contact, relatives, friends and colleagues to call. I took her into town to buy some new clothes, suitably black, since everything she’d brought was stylishly upbeat. It was only intended to be a few days’ visit from London, meaning there were several calls back home, meetings to be canceled or arrangements with the friend babysitting her dog.

She began telling me about her foundation, the Center for Creative Studies, funding research into aspects of musical creativity, a specialty usually overlooked by most researchers in the field of science.

“A demiurge, for instance, originally meant a 'public worker,' craftsman or artisan before becoming associated with some all-creating deity.”

“Oh, like in Plato’s Timaeus where a demiurge is this benevolent creator trying to create good in a world,” Cameron chimed in, “imperfect because it’s created from indeterminate and chaotic non-being?”

“That’s one sense, exactly,” LauraLynn responded, turning her full attention to Cameron. “In the old Platonic arguments, the material world’s creator is intrinsically malevolent and therefore regarded by nature as evil.”

“Right, but artistic creation is part of the non-material world, therefore good, by re-ordering elements of the existing universe.”

“In ancient Greek,” LauraLynn continued intently, “there is no word for 'create' just as there is no word for 'art.' The closest word they have to the idea for either is techne.”

“Right,” Cameron nodded in recognition, “which implies a set order of rules, a word giving us ‘technique’ and ‘technology’…”

“…the very opposite of what we consider ‘art.’ What we call ‘creating’ something was more like ‘craftsmanship’ to them, taking something already in existence, which becomes something that previously didn’t exist.

“It was only centuries later that Christians began using the term ‘create’ in the sense of a divine creation. No one started writing about man-made creations until sometime during the Renaissance.”

“Which,” Cameron followed, “was either God-given or inspired by the Greek muses. So why are you studying composers specifically?”

LauraLynn looked up at him with renewed interest and shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps because – like Mt. Everest – it was there. Scientists wrote about a wide range of other scientists – mathematicians, engineers, inventor-types. That’s fine, except in all their research they included very few artists and never came up with anything convincing.”

“They never seem to draw any conclusions, specifically about composers,” Cameron continued. “Most of them only relate anecdotal material but not nearly as much in-depth data as they did with scientists.”

Feeling I was quickly losing control of the conversation I was in, I interjected, “well, that would make sense, really, considering scientists only feel comfortable with facts they can quantify and prove.”

“Not to mention re-create by running the experiment again on other subjects,” LauraLynn added, turned back to face me.

“...where, with artists,” Cameron continued, “they would never reach the same conclusions considering their results would always be different, since every original composer has a different way of solving the issues...”

“…thereby not proving their theory,” LauraLynn concluded, “because the data’s not comparable,” folding her arms defiantly across her chest, imitating some old professor ending the argument more through intimidation than fact.

“Which,” I suggested, “may explain why musicians have always called the study of music’s rules theory rather than fact.”

“I mean, you could hardly,” LauraLynn continued, “slide someone like Elliott Carter into a scanner while he was actually composing to study how much of his work is inspiration versus intellectual technique.”

Cameron imagined studying Schoenberg, considered inspiration’s killer for inventing “serialism,” a mechanical method of composing with all twelve tones.

“Exactly,” LauraLynn added, throwing up her hands. “Rob spent his whole life developing intellectual skills to elicit emotional responses, hopefully achieving what he thought was beautiful even though not everyone agreed.”

Like politics, like religions, like any kind of rational thinking, there was always an irrational and thoroughly equal reaction, those who for whatever reasons disagreed – often violently – with whatever your viewpoint. It wasn’t enough to believe your way while others believed their way, agreeing (in essence) to disagree without opposition. Imagine if there were never any wars, political strife or religious intolerance, but how is the human brain wired? Humans were always egocentric enough to feel everyone should believe their way.

This divisive, age-old “us-versus-them” mentality, whether producing political parties or conspiracy theorists, also brought us the artistic “Style Police,” those arbiters of cultural correctness who insist upon one true creative path. Whether it’s Liszt versus Brahms or the Ars Antiqua of medieval France, there was always someone who’d oppose you.

“So is it possible,” Cameron wondered, “a modern version of Style Wars could be behind the murder of Robertson Sullivan?”

We looked back and forth, nodding at each other in stunned silence.

Wasn’t such a thing possible these days when simple arguments might often be settled by someone drawing a gun?

Rob was about to have a break-through premiere, his controversial opera, a very political statement both musically and aesthetically, and clearly someone didn’t want that premiere to take place.

But why...?

We’d assumed the whole point of the break-in in the first place was to destroy his newly completed opera, damaging his computer beyond repair and stealing the back-up disc I’d seen. It was difficult explaining to the police why we felt this stolen disc shouldn’t be mentioned to the press.

But what if stopping the opera’s premiere was not the main reason behind this break-in that went so horribly wrong? What if the motive all along was something more sinister than that? What if someone wanted to kill Rob, eliminating him before he became too powerful a figure of aesthetic opposition?

Was someone in Europe angered that an American interloper had been given an opportunity denied to a German-born composer? Perhaps some conservative tonalist imagined Rob’s success renewing popular interest in complexity?

But that seemed so far-fetched, LauraLynn thought, since Europeans were less divided between the extremes ranting across America’s blogosphere. Beside, Cameron mentioned, the murder had happened here, not over in Europe.

“Yes, at a dinner party,” she mused, “such an operatic thing to….” She gasped and paused, frozen in mid-sentence.

Thinking she was trying to come up with some dramatic opera scenes where violent death happened amidst social frivolity, I waited patiently for her before she cried out, “Oh, my God!”

“The wedding reception,” she gasped, almost speechless, “what if Rob had been the real target there, not Aunt Katie?”

She had been killed after an intruder had broken through the window.

“LauraLynn, can you remember anything about the intruder, any kind of description, something possibly tying him to anybody here?”

“I never got a good look at him – I was too far back in the room, not far from Katie – when I heard glass shatter, the scuffle with Rob, then the shot. When the intruder stood up and went to dive toward the window, I turned to see Katie had fallen. She was complaining about who that man was who’d ruined the party even before she had hit the floor. That was when I saw the blood and started screaming for help.”

All she could picture, piecing memories together, trying to stop the chaos at the frame before Katie started falling, was a blurry image of a man, possibly a big man, muscular. “Dressed in black – masked,” she shook herself, “someone yelling about a… gizmo? I’m not sure – did he say gizmo?”

“What was the significance of the word gizmo,” I asked her patiently, since it seemed to inspire another momentary freeze. “Was it something Rob had mentioned before?” though it sounded pretty generic.

She put her hands over her eyes, as if trying desperately to block out the rest of the world.

“Something in his will he’d mentioned recently, some ‘gizmo’ he’d left blank – what it was or who’d inherit it… But I remember him saying he’d fill it in after the premiere.”

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

Despite the place’s outward foreboding, while you wouldn’t call the interior “intimate,” at least it was not dank and dismal, the traditional image of a castle keep built so many centuries ago. Just inside the massive door, we stood in a broad entrance hall larger than many of my friends’ apartments. A long row of tall lancet-shaped windows cut into the stone wall stood opposite the stark windowless exterior wall. Pressing a button behind us, Zenn waited as the door swept shut.

He may be a frail old man, a thoroughly wizened, white-haired African-American who hardly looked his nearly 99 years, but he certainly wasn’t the intimidating figure worth inciting my innate paranoia. Dressed in baggy blue jeans and a shabby jacket over a turtleneck, he looked more like the castle’s gardener.

“Some 20th Century amenities make it bearable,” our host said, turning away as he motioned for us to follow him. “Let’s cut… uhm, through there,” he beckoned, “it’ll be much more direct.”

Zenn stood on a compact scooter-like contraption which he called a 'Scorrevole,' rolling ahead at a comfortably steady pace.

“I live up there,” he said, pointing to some vast corner windows as we followed him across the courtyard. “The rest of the place, I’m afraid, is rather superfluous, these days.”

Zenn casually began making some observations about the place he called home, the front part from the original fortress – “yes, in fact, it is 14th Century, completed sometime around the 1320s” – abandoned during the witch-hunting hysteria in 1597 and largely demolished by 1650, only to be rebuilt in the 1790s.

“Walking along, you can see the seams: medieval there, renaissance here, classical – the chalet, then, is the most recent, built between 1891 and 1901 – it’s only a little older than me.”

The Nazis had confiscated it in 1938 but then after the war, Zenn bought it from the Bavarian government. “Bought it for a song – well, as castles went in those days. They weren’t too pleased about me being Black and all, I’m afraid, or that Bastian and I were gay...”

Zenn apologized again for our slow pace once we reached an elevator, an old-fashioned gilded cage with a hand-cranked gate, though quite rapid considering we had traversed six centuries in mere minutes, seven if you bothered counting a few more recently added surface details – electricity, phones and of course the Scorrevole.

The elevator came to a stop at the third floor living quarters – not the top floor: there were others.

“My nephew – well, Bastian’s nephew – lives upstairs. He helps care for me.”

The room was immense, broad and long, actually several rooms combined into one with probably a twenty-foot high ceiling. Everything was vast with sweeping pillars of dark woods and statues everywhere. Windows at either end looked out onto the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, or down into the valley toward Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

The room was filled with striking shapes reminding me of Aubrey Beardsley, all rounded lines, hyperbolas and arching plant-like motifs, though he said it had been designed by someone named Jürgens Tyll. The stone fireplace, immense at one end, was flanked by naked Rhinemaidens holding aloft fronds of palms and lilies-of-the-valley. Opposite this, a mezzanine level jutted out supported by two trunk-like pillars with stylized branches stretching to the ceiling, covering a lavish workroom with its ten-foot ceiling over a grand piano.

Howard Zenn had become one of the major figures of modern music, less often performed in America than in Europe mostly because he chose to abandon his long-time home in New York, preferring the silence of his Alpine retreat to cacophony in the city, his Manhattan apartment looking out across Broadway.

Initially, he showed modest talent both as a pianist and a composer, graduated with distinction from a mid-western university but later, because of his skin color, found it awkward teaching there.

Moving to New York City, having left Academia not far enough behind, he found it awkward being a composer whose music was expected to be jazz-inspired or based on Negro spirituals.

He served in Europe during the war, then afterward decided to stay, convinced new environments would yield new opportunities.

As a small child, he’d met Saint-Saëns when his parents visited Paris, remembering it more from the old family stories, how Saint-Saëns patted him on the head, wishing him a long life. They’d seen Debussy on the street and heard Ravel play the piano, though his parents didn’t care for Stravinsky.

Little had anyone thought someday he himself would see a new century, yet here he was, pushing a hundred, one of the more respected – if not more frequently heard – living composers.

Zenn remarked how, during the long winters, he usually stayed in Munich, meeting with musicians and giving impromptu interviews, since his isolation here became increasingly worrisome, given his age and frailty.

We followed him across the endless floor, headed toward a large desk by the window overlooking the valley below.

Famously, Zenn always urged composers, regardless how complex others viewed their styles, to “connect” with listeners in some way. “Art is not always necessarily about entertainment but it’s always about communication.”

“It’s like the chicken and the egg,” Rob had heard him say. “Which comes first, the heart or the mind? If music fails either heart or mind, it’s only half the equation.”

Zenn placed himself in his favorite chair and looked directly at us. “So, now: why exactly are you here?”

“Well,” I answered, unsure where to begin, “D'Arcy said Rob recently contacted some composer but didn't say who or why, and then only hinted how we might find how to contact you.

“We had just found this rather odd statue hidden in Robertson’s office,” which I slowly pushed over toward him. “Just then, the IMP agents showed up, pursuing us through the Festspielhaus, intent on retrieving this artifact from us. We only very narrowly escaped because D’Arcy stayed behind, acting as decoy.”

“You know about Rob’s death, Mr. Zenn, his being murdered at Benninghurst?” He nodded at LauraLynn with a frown. “A man we suspect of the murder has followed me to Schweinwald. I’m sure that was the same man who very nearly killed me trying to steal this journal from me.”

Without a word, Zenn lifted the artifact, not surprised at its weight, nodding with the familiarity of an old friend, then turned it around, one hand over where the head should be. He ran his index finger down the length of the statue’s spine, crunching his lips together, deep in thought.

Then he picked up the old journal LauraLynn slid across the table which he blithely started to page through until he got to the coded part, his interest noticeably more intense.

Meanwhile, waiting, I looked around the room and noticed all the busts, some plaster but several of them marble – all composers like Gershwin, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss (former Garmisch resident), even Saint-Saëns – when I realized they were all composers that he had somehow met, even as an infant having met Saint-Saëns. If the child Saint-Saëns had studied piano with a pupil of Mendelssohn’s whose mentor was Goethe who’d met Beethoven, wouldn’t that moment at Teplitz two hundred years ago connect with today? Shouldn’t this historical continuity be tangentially important, connecting the present and past, whether we’re aware of it or not? Didn’t it matter when the great Telemann died, Mozart was already 11? Didn’t it matter that a young chorister by the name of Haydn sang at the funeral of Antonio Vivaldi?

“It’s this whole idea of steady historical continuity which Rob began feeling was increasingly more important to him,” Zenn explained, looking up and telling us about several meetings they’d had only recently. “What can any of you tell me about this almost genealogical legacy which Rob had inherited through his teachers?”

“Rob credited John Corigliano with being his most influential teacher,” I said, sitting back looking off toward the Zugspitze. “How significant an influence his teacher, Otto Leuning, was, I don’t know.”

“It’s not so much style,” Zenn explained, “as the foundation that was built based on knowledge of the craft. And who was Leuning’s teacher?” He waited. “Well, it was Ferrucio Busoni. Now, if we’re going to trace the ‘begats’ even further back, remember: great teachers aren’t always the greatest composers.

“And Busoni was one who clearly treasured the past,” Zenn looked around. “He studied with W.A. Remy, little known now…”

“I bet ‘W.A.’ stands for Wolfgang Amadeus,” Cameron interrupted with a smile.

“Actually, it’s an anagram of his real name, W. Mayer,” Zenn chuckled, “but, yes, a tribute to the past. Busoni thought highly of Remy, ‘bringing to life points in music’ – I’m paraphrasing here – ‘drawing upon its entire history, giving character sketches of the great masters along with his own observations...’

“In ways that are similar to how this castle exists,” Zenn said, sweeping his arms around in an encompassing gesture, “extensions built from the past may look very different on the surface. There are certain common traits – the same stones, the idea of windows? – characteristics with some continuity from the past. Even if we react against them, we’re still always maintaining their vitality, connecting to them in our own way, building from these same blocks our own solutions to ‘what is art?’

“We know that Mr. Remy,” Zenn continued, “had been born in Prague and studied at the Prague Organ School with someone named O.F. or C.F. Pitsch – the calligraphy’s not very clear.”

“Was he a Dvořák student,” I wondered.

“Professor Pitsch was of Dvořák’s teachers’ generation: maybe he did teach Dvořák.”

Zenn mentioned little was known about Pitsch beyond some colleague’s vague reference to their being fellow students in Sechter’s class.

“Simon Sechter was once head of the Schweinwald Academy,” LauraLynn blurted out.

Pondering over a passing reference LauraLynn showed him in Harrison Harty’s journal, Zenn agreed it was significant, but why?

“Sechter, famous in his day,” he said, “was very much sought after, his most noteworthy pupil being Anton Bruckner. He’s best remembered for giving Schubert one counterpoint lesson before his death.”

Knowing Rob told her very little was known about the Schweinwald Academy despite having been in existence for five decades, it was clear this journal could shed valuable light on its history. But there was another question she considered: was this a coincidence or is this why Rob went to Schweinwald?

“So we have a forestful of composers,” I said, “stretching back generations, yet there is one tree in particular.” There was a similar lineage my principal teacher once discussed with me...

“And what that one tree,” LauraLynn wondered, “might have in common between my cousin Robertson Sullivan and our great-grandfather?” Deep in thought, she looked out the window into the woods below.

“Given a teacher’s legacy,” Zenn answered thoughtfully, “there may well be several: the question, I suspect, is of degree.

“But you have to consider how much further back he could go – Rob could go – to find his teachers’ genealogy. It’s much like researching your family tree, discovering who your great-grandfather was. So we’d found, snooping through archives as well as Wikipedia, that Simon Sechter was the equivalent of his great-great-great-great-grandfather – not exactly discovering he’s an old horse-thief… or an ex-slave,” Zenn added, “but a very significant name, musicologically speaking, and that essentially takes us back to the 1820s, give or take...

“Now, Sechter studied with Johann Leopold Kozeluch – whose cousin Anton originally had the same name before he changed it to avoid confusion, not that it helped – maybe Sechter studied with both? Anton was ‘the Great Contrapuntist’ who probably inspired Sechter to write a fugue-a-day for the rest of his career.”

“Is it really important to take it that far back?” LauraLynn wondered, glancing impatiently from one window to the other. “The sun is going to rise, soon, you know – the killer’s deadline.”

“Yes,” I added, leaning forward with concern, “it’s all very fascinating, really, but we have to locate this ‘fountain’…”

“Okay: Kozeluch studied with Duschek who studied with Wagenseil who studied with Fux, who wrote a book in… 1725…?”

“You mean Gradus ad Parnassum, one of the most significant harmonic treatises?”

“You’re suggesting that could be the ‘fountain’ our killer is talking about, a book as a fountain of knowledge?” Granted, for two centuries it was regarded as The book about harmony. I may have sounded a bit skeptical but any theory about theory was better than anything we’d found yet.

“Mr. Zenn, you’ve been talking about the importance of counterpoint,” Cameron asked, “but what’s so special about learning counterpoint?”

“You can find counterpoint,” Zenn replied, “everywhere: I discovered it through jazz.”

“You see,” I pointed out, “Rob is a direct descendent of the man who wrote the book on harmony and I know Rob would’ve considered that connection deeply compelling, a responsibility.”

“But,” Cameron paused, “shouldn’t a fountain be more than a technical manual? Unless maybe his skills just need sharpening...”

“'Belief in one’s technique as the only salvation has to be suppressed and the urge for truthfulness encouraged,'” Zenn continued, his finger raised in a serious warning undermined only by his smile.

“Who said that? Claude Debussy?” Cameron heard how Debussy supposedly flunked harmony.

“Actually,” said LauraLynn, “it was Arnold Schoenberg.”

“Dr. Kerr,” Zenn said, “you must have the courage of your convictions to see this through to the end, should this statue generates chord progressions resolving or modulating in any direction.

“Another, then: ‘No new technique in the Arts is created that has not had its roots in the past.'”

Cameron, brows furrowed, tried puzzling it out. “Well then, who is... Beethoven?”

LauraLynn sat back and shook her head. “That’s another Schoenberg quote, Cameron.” Was that her first smile this evening?

Holding the statue in my right hand and staring at its back, I knew how Luke Skywalker felt on Dagoba, receiving the wisdom of his Jedi legacy from the diminutive Master Yoda. I started thinking how could this thing – whatever it was: statue, gizmo – ever set any chord progression in motion?

“Is it because you have not yet learned to listen to it?” Zenn looked over and smiled at me.

How'd he do that, I thought, answering something I was only thinking?

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical 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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