Thursday, December 25, 2014
The Lost Chord: Chapter 26
(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)
In the previous installment, LauraLynn tells Dr. Kerr and Cameron about her foundation's study of creativity particularly in composers. Meeting Howard Zenn, they sit down and discuss Rob Sullivan's creative legacy and what impact that may have on whatever it is the killer seems to be seeking.
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"'No new technique in the Arts is created that has not had its roots in the past.' Who said that?"
Robertson Sullivan looked out over his audience, eyebrows raised in rhetorical consideration.
Most of the students I could see looked around with mild interest or scratched their heads at least metaphorically.
If any of them were trying to figure out which great composer might be responsible for this insightful quote, the 'irony' it was attributed to Schoenberg registered with only a few.
"We wouldn't expect something sounding a bit reactionary coming from a composer accused of destroying our musical comfort level," scanning the audience to see if there was any sense of disagreement. As he expected, there wasn't, given the general attitude toward Schoenberg's reputation: how many of them knew his music?
As usual, these lectures sponsored by FRED were only moderately well attended, a smattering of fifty or sixty college students plus a small handful of adults filtering in gradually from the street, the Foundation for Research in Educational Diversity holding its new series on creativity in the arts at Lincoln Center. Arriving just in time, I'd settled toward the back of the hall – characteristically, the golden section of the auditorium – those who came in later sitting mostly in the rows behind me.
If Rob was disappointed by the turnout, his enthusiasm didn't show it, speaking as if to a full house, someone who'd always been engaging in discussion, a respected and mesmerizing teacher, obviously passionate about his theme – his topic, "The Continuity of the Past" – and secure in his knowledge and experience. He had been quite excited at first when they contacted him, offering the opening talk for the new series. Recorded for college distribution nationwide, it would no doubt broaden his reputation.
After introductory remarks, he established a rhythm with a few thought-provoking quotes, then identifying the composers who'd made them, invariably not the ones you would anticipate, in fact often the opposite. It felt like the spoken equivalent of a deceptive cadence in music, the expected resolution replaced by the unexpected.
Even though Schoenberg's whole idea of 'composing with twelve tones' seemed revolutionary, it wasn't something actually coming out of nowhere, normally how we might think of revolutions, breaking completely with the past.
"It might be simplistic, equating the development of art to historical revolutions, but let's consider this, for a moment."
He mentioned the Industrial Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, even the American Revolution, serialism being most like the French Revolution, toppling the tyranny of tonality in favor of equality for all pitches.
"Consider the word's derivation – Revolution – from the Latin revolutum, to roll back or turn again ('another revolution in orbit'), not quite the same as we usually define it, 'to change completely.' Even if it isn't the reaction against the past we normally imagine, perhaps it's more of a new start."
He played a few phrases from Schoenberg's Suite, Op.25, a serial work, and then a phrase from a Mozart sonata which, even with an imaginative harmonic twist, sounded quite tame by comparison. Without stopping, he morphed into some Beethoven, starting in the same key, leading into an excerpt from Wagner's Tristan.
He ended back at Schoenberg's Suite again by way of a passage from one of his earlier atonal works and suddenly it didn't sound so 'out-of-left-field' as it had by itself.
"Sorry for the cultural whiplash", he joked, turning back from the piano – the audience offered a smattering of applause – "but in a few seconds, we'd covered 150 years of music history, this Reader's Digest Condensed Version perhaps making this particular point more obvious, going from one end to the other. If we could hear all these otherwise familiar incremental shifts in between, Schoenberg's serialism doesn't sound quite so new. When we let this create some context, maybe it sounds more... 'evolutionary.' As Schoenberg's atonality grew from Wagner's chromaticism, pushing it beyond its limits, Wagner pulled Beethoven's tonal sensitivities into new directions, just as Beethoven's harmonies expanded what Mozart's old-fashioned listeners already considered improper. We imagine the artist either looking for ways to shatter old boundaries or, like a craftsman, creating something marketable.
"Were Beethoven, Wagner and Schoenberg thinking of their music as radically different, a complete break with the most recent past? Wagner, certainly, talked a great deal about his 'Music of the Future.' We assume Schoenberg was consciously out to change the course of music, whether intending to 'destroy' tonality or not. Beethoven was probably the first composer to think about writing for posterity, unlike Mozart's generation writing for the here-and-now – but Schoenberg certainly wasn't the first to hope for some future acceptance.
"There are many people in the world who're subjective or objective about... well, practically everything in their daily lives, though most of us are a mix rather than just one, exclusively."
Rob paused and took a quick glance around the hall before continuing, weighing his hands, his palms held upward.
"Beethoven probably didn't care about whether he was this titanic force, expanding music's horizons beyond anything his contemporaries imagined. Wagner made the conscious decision to become what Beethoven had naturally been.
"Usually, a composer, if he's honest, is merely looking for the way that best suits his inner voice's needs, and very often that 'way' is something somebody else has tried before. However we react to the immediate past, we're still building on this foundation whether we know it or not."
He paused. "Writers describe the creative process dialectically, either as Apollonian for the classical or Dionysian for the romantic though today, scientists use the logical Left Brain or the emotional Right, just as we could mention the Mozart Brain or the Beethoven Brain – the one presumably spontaneous; the other, meticulous."
Rob briefly described how Apollo was the logical, balanced architect of beauty, how the wine-loving Dionysus was emotional, spontaneous. Mozart's works seemed born perfect while Beethoven stubbornly struggled over every phrase.
"Beethoven sounds inspired to us, everything... organic" – again he paused for effect – "how the phrases gradually expand, the harmony unfolds, but it really is this careful working out of all these details. We know this because we have his sketch books, often laborious, indecipherable, probably scribbled down in 'inspired' white heat."
Rob sat down at the piano again, starting with some simple chords which began to sound more and more familiar, not Beethoven, not Wagner, certainly not Schoenberg but like something mundanely uncomplicated – that tune Rachmaninoff wrote for his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the one that makes everyone audibly sigh.
"It's really very simple, right?" he asked, breaking off at the climax, "but remember Paganini's original theme, the caprice?" He played it sharply with brusque chords before repeating the Big Tune.
"Paganini's memorable theme – simplicity itself – is made up of little mosaic fragments." He played them in isolation – little blips – before singing them back, continuous, his hands marking subsections of the phrase. His gestures created little arcs in the air, moving between the beats, before doing the same with Rachmaninoff's tune.
"Whether you're conscious of it or not, this big, luxurious tune – perfection – is the exact opposite of Paganini's caprice, the negative image turned positive – with fast, slow; minor, major; upward, downward.
"Looking from an intellectual perspective, this moment of extremely gorgeous apparent spontaneity," he continued, his hands making flip-flop gestures, "is nothing more than Liszt's melodic transformation or Bach's detailed invertible counterpoint. And it's not very different, really, if you examine the technical aspects, from how Schoenberg inverted his twelve-tone rows."
Rob continued, describing how, regardless, it was the surface level of music that we perceived changing from generation to generation, that underneath, music's tension and release (however realized) remained essentially the same, something I remembered from those distant discussions back when we were students, how he initially scoffed at my idea.
"It is this legacy from the past which we, as today's composers, inherit through our teachers, this collective aesthetic whether we subconsciously agree with it or even act on it ourselves."
He admitted never tracing his teachers' genealogy beyond Ferruccio Busoni, his great-grandteacher, knowing the attitudes students accept or reject, though it'd be interesting to see how far back he could go.
"There's no easy fix, no pill, no... gizmo to automatically help you... discover how this inner secret works, yourself."
Considering others sat there waiting for him to impart this collected wisdom, it was an enigmatic point to end on, the spattering of applause slow to increase into anything like an ovation. Eventually, they realized the talk had concluded, Rob taking an awkward bow before the lights came up almost immediately.
As others stood up to leave, I noticed this tall, skinny student, still attentive, sitting in front of me who continued to quietly nod his head in agreement or, perhaps, understanding.
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
He sat at the lecture long after the lights had come up and the speaker had gathered up his notes, turning to exit stage right in mild perplexity after the applause ended. The two cameramen filming the talk were already taking down their equipment, eager to pack their cables and leave. Everybody else seemed just as eager to be making their hasty exit, streaming toward the doors in the back except for one guy who headed toward the front of the stage.
The student, an intense young man still in his early-20s, sat there, thinking over some of the salient points, occasionally looking at the one-page program as if checking the speaker's name. He was tall, more lanky than skinny, his eyes large and ambiguous, his long hair unexceptional and largely uncontrolled.
Dr. Robertson Sullivan, composer, looked like any ordinary man in his forties when he walked out into the near-empty auditorium and was met by another middle-aged man, probably some friend of his.
The student, standing to his full height, was nervous about going backstage; here, Sullivan would walk right past him.
"This man must know 'The Answer,'" the student said in hushed tones. "The secret every composer needs to discover!" He decided he had to... no, actually, he will study with him.
"It was now or never," the young man thought, "now or never," as he moved sideways down the row, waiting till Sullivan approached with his friend, a rather mousey, inconsequential-looking man.
Stepping forward, he said, "Excuse me, sir, but... oh, man, I'm sorry," realizing he was standing on Sullivan's foot.
"I just wanted to say how inspiring your talk was and I'd really, really like to study with you," modulating his excitement down a notch, trying not to sound overly eager.
"Thanks very much," the man told him, "but I don't teach privately. You'd have to be enrolled at Juilliard."
The student said he'd thought about applying but hadn't mustered the courage.
"Well, apply – if you're accepted, ask about my class – if there's room...?" Shrugging his shoulders good-naturedly, Sullivan walked away.
His large hands swinging by his side gave the impression the student was swimming up Broadway past the Juilliard School where he inexplicably stopped and stared for several minutes before moving on. The crowd automatically parted like a stream hitting against an implacable rock, jostling its way around him, reordering itself.
"He blew me off, the flarking bastard," the student mumbled to himself, using one of his favorite made-up curse-words. "Blew me off like I was nobody," he continued his sing-song rant.
He remembered an old college history professor going on about the Corn King – or was it the Oak King? – speaking of building new ideas on the ancient myths, our collective legacies. How was it, he tried to recall, something about the new king killing the old king – ritually? Literally? Both...?
The student turned down a street four blocks north of Lincoln Center, a long stately row of old aristocratic brownstones though his home, inherited from his parents, was more gray and flint-like. His black cat, Maleficent, greeted him sourly at the door and growled but his mind was on ancient rituals.
"Perhaps," he thought, "Sullivan's secret lies in something akin to the Eucharist, something eaten, then all would be revealed?"
Or was it, perhaps, less transubstantial, this gizmo he mentioned, than metaphorical?
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
Munching on little sandwiches or crackers with bits of sushi on them wasn't his idea of an evening well spent, but N. Ron Steele understood this ritual kick-off to his latest project. He knew his backers would think him less than confident about it if he didn't even make the reception. These were men (with the occasional woman) of business, powerful financial figures, who could care less about the music: their primary concern would always be the monetary return on their investment. Most of them watched the time waiting for the concert to end, hoping the reception would get underway soon, another concert with another prodigy not yet ready for the big time. She was too young but played fast, looked great in her gown, definitely a shoe-in for the Wunderkind Sweepstakes.
His smile broadening proportionally as he glad-handed those who'd made considerable contributions, Steele looked around and beamed his usual confidence, always his job's hardest part, pretending not to be ruthless and obnoxious. He had not a clue whether the kid was any good as long as everyone cheered at the end. Skripasha Scricci seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic, though he could be as musically stupid as he was financially naïve, why Steele decided that Amanda Hackett's capable hands should oversee this project.
Steele was always impatient with these routine festivities, looking around for anyone he hadn't honored with his thanks and hand-shake, having suckered them into parting with vast quantities of their easily-earned money. That they were grateful for the opportunity he found continuously, amazingly inspiring ("Is this a great country, or what?"). Whether he was in New York, London or Munich, it was all the same, the powerful, all-mighty American entrepreneur. Soon he'd see his company, SHMRG, high on the global 2Big2Fail Index.
"Holly," he said, taking his secretary aside, "great job on the catering, but we'd better get moving right away. I've had bad news from Widor again, some kind of horrendous screw-up. We must hurry to Munich and from there, off to goddamn Schweinwald: that rehearsal tomorrow must not take place."
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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.