Monday, February 23, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapter 45

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, there had been critics since the beginning of time. Tr'iTone, in his quest to find the Fountain of Inspiration, introduces himself to Dr. Kerr. Dylan, back in New York, wonders why Cameron isn't answering his texts, so he calls a chat-friend to enlist his help. Tr'iTone reveals he has Cameron's letter, the one from Beethoven. That's when he remembers texting about it with some guy named Fred, a Facebook friend of Dylan's. Kerr recalls how he and Sullivan had once talked about "searching for the dragon's blood" as a quick fix and now here Kerr's hearing it from the (granted, rather repulsive) lips of one of Sullivan's own students! Meanwhile, Dylan's chain of contacts manages to work as one of them reaches a friend in the Schweinwald Security Force.

= = = = = = =
Chapter 45

"Would you do me the honor of playing a game of chess?" Tr'iTone's cordiality was a dissonance with his appearance, as he leaned forward, handing me two pawns – one white, another black.

My look of disbelief probably confused him.

"Will you do the honors?"

I shuffled them around in my hands.

When I held out my clenched fists, he tapped the left hand which I opened, revealing the black pawn.

"Ah, good," he smiled. "Black, they tell me, is my best color."

He nodded and turned the board so the white pieces faced me.

"If you've forgotten, that means you begin."

I pushed the pawn in front of my King forward two squares.

He did the same on his side so they now faced each other in the center of the board.

His idea of playing chess had stunned me, after ripping the tape from around my wrists so I could play but not so I could examine the statue and solve the clues. There was so little time to solve them or find his fountain and now I'm playing chess with him.

But he had already killed Rob and, presumably, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, not to mention the guy up in the vestibule. Where was LauraLynn? And what about Cameron? How could I say no?

If the music wasn't already annoying enough, my host and adversary kept up a steady stream of distracting commentary.

"But isn't it a shame how the United States," he rambled, "can't hold a candle to Europe as a civilized society, except in the pretense of arrogantly maintaining its own superiority?"

He wondered, well into some on-going discussion, why government support for the arts was elitist but necessary for corporations.

I assumed he wasn't being entirely rhetorical.

"Your move, by the way?"

Barely able to listen much less concentrate, I took my king's bishop and sadly moved him out to c4, thinking Tr'iTone would move his bishop out to a face-off in c5.

But instead my opponent confidently moved his king's knight out to f6.

I had no idea what came next.

"What do Americans cut first from their budgets?" But before I could answer, if it was even expected, he responded, "The Arts, naturally – and I'm speaking of 'Art' with a capital A. It's pathetic that one of the major attributes by which we measure human civilization has become so pathetically cheapened. The discussion today is unfortunately more about how 'relevant' classical music is rather than how powerful it can be to preserve the human soul against everything striving to tear it down!

"It's not how 'relevant' classical music is to politics or pop culture – Mozart, the Lady Gaga of his day! It's fuckin' ART, dude – " (pumping his fist) – "it is its OWN relevance!"

His tone of voice fluctuated between the genteel demeanor of Dr. DhabbodhĂș and the taunts of a rabble-rousing protestor.

"How do we evaluate success in America," continuing without dropping a beat. "We judge everything commercially, by the corporate way. A film's success isn't determined by critical response but by box-office profits. So a concert succeeds or fails by the number of tickets sold, unrelated to how well it was enjoyed."

It was hardly the idea of succeeding that prompted me to move my Queen's pawn cautiously forward a block.

His response was immediate, cool and natural, sliding a pawn into c6.

"I believe, unless I'm mistaken, Dr. Kerr, you call yourself a composer?" his tone still cordial but suddenly becoming oily. Sitting back, I didn't trust where this new topic might be going. Without waiting for a response, he threw his head back and laughed, a big barrel-chested laugh, theatrical and cringe-worthy.

"It seems anybody can call themselves a composer these days, I suppose, anyone putting two chords down on paper. And now, they don't even need paper, with all these computer programs!"

Tr'iTone sputtered wildly, trying to control himself. "No, I mean composers worthy of the term, true artists with vision, with innate self-respect for their own integrity standing atop their creative pinnacle. And not just a modicum of indefinable talent to get them by, but true, unmitigated genius – awesome, freakin' GENIUS!"

He leaned closer to me until I could feel his stinking breath on my skin like a blow-torch, searingly hot, his eyes glowering at me looking like every cliché in the book.

"Someone," he continued, "who'll restore the focus where it belongs – unlike you! Are you going to move sometime tonight?"

Pretending I knew what I was doing, I moved my Queen's bishop as confidently as possible over to g5.

Without batting an eye, he moved a seemingly innocuous pawn to h6.

I had expected something flashier as he continued talking without any break.

"Popular music exists to entertain, people judging everything by its entertainment value – the artistic equivalent of the corporate bottom-line.

"How can anyone listen mindlessly to great music reduced to the background, constantly shifting wallpaper for their daily existence?

"People in power," he continued to rant, becoming increasingly insidious and hostile, "have forgotten what power Art can have and in their blissful ignorance, they will do so at... their... peril!"

After some scrupulous consideration, I moved my bishop from g5 to f6 and successfully scored the match's first 'take,' managing to pick up my opponent's knight, not that insignificant a loss.

Admittedly, it felt pretty good, even using as little ostentation as possible: the journey was only now just beginning.

"I love playing chess which, as you know, is an ancient game: 'the sport of kings,' they once called it. It's a war game straight out of the Middle Ages' feudal society. Yet it remains virtually unchanged even today despite its continued popularity among the more intellectual, less than aristocratic classes. Now what possible 'relevance' does chess have to our modern military world considering how easily it can be replaced: aren't the violence and technical ingenuities of, say, 'Warcraft' much more relevant? But no one I know of is seriously campaigning to simplify chess, making it more accessible to inexperienced players. Does anyone decry its demise or claim interest in it is dying?"

He gestured theatrically with mocking, grievous sobs, his hands fluttering over the board like one mourning its imminent end.

"True," I said, "Schoenberg invented a three-sided board and TV's 'Big Bang Theory' added orcs to their multi-level three-dimensional version, but those are hardly simplifications – if anything, they create greater intellectual stimulation."

My references to classical music's bete noir of elitism and to popular culture in the same breath was virtuosic.

"Yes, it's all part of an accepted elitism reinforcing its own integrity. So, what do you think of that?"

After less hesitation than usual, I moved my queen's knight to c3.

"Not much, apparently," he said, moving another pawn two spaces to b5.

"It is typical of apologists to bemoan the use of technical terms in describing the details of classical music."

Effortlessly, he veered off onto another tangent.

"Translate everything into the vernacular, explain every term mentioned – pizzicato, meaning 'plucked'..."

He snorted, pulling himself upright. "Now, I know nothing about most sports, except for wrestling, basically chess's physical equivalent. I wouldn't know a 'first down' from a 'birdie' or 'pop-up fly.'

"But," he hissed, "is anyone demanding they define every term so they don't alienate anyone unfamiliar with their rules? No, the whole point of enjoyment is to learn the necessary language."

I pulled my remaining bishop back to b3, not really sure why. Perhaps I should have castled my king.

Tr'iTone pushed his far-right pawn forward two spaces while arguing that the whole point was to feel that you belonged.

"That's what an 'elite' is – a private club, insiders with secret handshakes. If you wanted to belong, you would initiate yourself in its mysteries: cars, sports, science, computers – but not music?

"There is essentially no other way," he said, "to arrive at Truth than through some educated exchange of ideas, though it leaves people vulnerable to manipulation even in a Free Society.

"But without the discernment the Fine Arts are supposed to teach us, consider our commercial media and political propaganda. If that's not the case, why else do we have American Idol?"

I moved my far-left pawn into a3, then Tr'iTone, with mocking smiles, quickly placed his king's bishop on c5.

"What a listener hears in a symphony may have nothing in common with what the person next to him hears, the power of the Idea abrogated by its lack of absolute meaning."

"Would it matter," I pretended to counter, "that the next generation will devise new antitheses to prolong the cycle?"

Without fanfare or extraneous movement, I placed my king's knight in f3. Though it was directly in line with his Queen, I realized it was also protected by a lowly pawn.

Maybe it would be better to get this over with, I wondered, as he quietly nudged another pawn into d6, needlessly prolonging the agony further when so much needed to be done.

"True," he resumed, without showing much interest, "everything can be viewed through the conflict and resolution of the Dialectic. But, really, that's all very outmoded now, long invalidated by Marxist Communism – a philosophical version of discredited Darwinian Evolution – confirming in itself the on-going dialectic formula (rather cleverly, don't you think?).

"Isn't the problem," he continued, "the constant conflict of opposing viewpoints never leading to any kind of perfective resolution, always headed toward the unobtainable, every resolution a new but never-ending contradiction?"

I was trying not to exhibit the never-ending concerns I felt for LauraLynn and Cameron, not to mention myself.

"If you applied basic underlying tonal concepts," he said, "to free chromaticism, yet express traditional concepts of tension and release, you'd have a more systematized approach to writing with all twelve tones – not in a serial sense as Schoenberg & Company had envisioned it, but not in an 'atonal' sense, either."

I slipped my Queen into d2; he swept his Bishop into e6. Suddenly, I saw I could take that bishop with my own bishop on b3 so, without waiting, I did.

He just as quickly took my bishop with his pawn in f7 which, in my haste, I'd completely overlooked.

"Then the Jains use a construction that deliciously describes statements like this," he said, setting my captured bishop aside, "as 'maybe it is, maybe it isn't' and also 'maybe it's indescribable.'"

Again, he laughed before adding "That's enough to blow the cerebral cortex of any Western brain mired in logic."

The music began shifting again as the barely visible light became bluer.

"There is a dark side to creativity, that quest for autonomy outside the usual constraints of acceptable societal responsibilities. By stressing rules and orders, we're teaching people not to be creative."

I decided to castle my king, placing it in g1: why not? If nothing else, it slowed him down.

"But isn't it important," I countered, "to learn the process to understand why these rules work in the first place, so that we can understand why the rules are what they are, whether they appear to work only for convention's sake, or work for us as expressions of our creative intent? Can't we adapt, bend or actually break them if we have some constructive alternative to put in their place?"

Why shouldn't my tone, I wondered, be just as obfuscatory as his?

"Ah yes, as the Italians say, Imparte l'arte, e metilla da parte: 'Learn the craft, then put it aside.' But without genius, isn't craft only a limited paradigm of acceptable procedures?"

"Without craft, isn't genius attempting to find some wheel that needs reinventing? – again the dialectic of Intellectualism versus Intuitivism?"

I rather blithely moved a pawn into h3 while he, deep in contemplation, cautiously moved his knight back to d7, uncharacteristically keeping his fingers on it while working out several alternative possibilities.

"It allows Beethoven to become Beethoven," I said, "building on Haydn's legacy, or to break more obviously with the..."

Tr'iTone made two successive moves, first to e5, then surprisingly to f3, announcing quite gleefully, "Check, I do believe!"

"But, you can't..." I spluttered, "that goes against The Rules, doesn't it?"

"What's the matter, doctor," he said, taunting me, "your cerebral cortex unable to process a little thinking outside the box?" He turned his head to the side and grinned maliciously at me.

There was a difference between outright flaunting of the rules in a game, I knew, and sheer desperation, however.

"It's all part of the Warnsdorff Algorithm," he said with final authority. "You have heard of that, I imagine?"

"But," I whined, "not as a way to subvert the... wait, what...?"

There's that name again: Warnsdorff – the one Zenn had mentioned so mysteriously as we left his castle earlier tonight – referring to the intricate pattern established by a knight's movements in chess.

A 'Knight's Tour' was the path it could take covering the board without hitting any square more than once.

There's more to it than just a pattern, something vaguely recalled from reading Georges Perec's novel, Life, A User's Manual, how its structure was based on Warnsdorff's principal of this 'Knight's Tour.' It seemed arbitrary, visiting all the inhabitants in a Paris apartment building at the time of one character's death.

Instead of a chessboard, though, Perec's reader traveled through every single apartment in this building according to a plan which, by glimpsing every individual's personal story, created a snapshot in time.

"The poem on the statue is not what it seems," I shouted.

It was Tr'iTone's turn to say "wait... what?"

"It's not Lohengrin's journey, but a knight's tour we need to follow."

"What the hell are you babbling about?" Tr'iTone stood up and swept the chessboard away with the Beethoven statue.

"That marking on the base," I said, "it's an 8x8 matrix, see? Look carefully: I think it's a map!"

"You didn't tell me this?"

"You're the one wanting to play chess..."

Becoming increasingly enraged, Tr'iTone roared and tossed the statue into my lap.

"Time is running out, Doctor," he yelled. "I have to go pee: you will solve this before I return!"

He slammed the door shut behind him as the music got louder.

"At least, I hope it's a map..."

= = = = = = =
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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