Wednesday, June 01, 2016
The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #1
You can read the "introduction," here, to find out what to expect with this third (and therefore presumably final) novel of the "Klangfarben Trilogy." Subsequent installments will be posted at Thoughts on a Train on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings throughout the summer until the end of August.
Many novels, thrillers or otherwise, begin with prologues. This one begins with a seemingly self-standing short story which not only recalls characters and episodes from the previous two novels in the Trilogy, The Doomsday Symphony and The Lost Chord, it also looks forward not just to The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben but even to the next novel, In Search of Tom Purdue (which I'm currently working on - will it become the fourth in the Trilogy? Hmmm...).
Essentially, we'll enter the Labyrinth through a visit to the House of dePaula Escher.
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INTERMEZZO: IN THE HOUSE OF dePAULA ESCHER
by Richard Alan Strawser
As my friend Howard Zenn always said – re-reading his letter reminded me – "one might as well start at the beginning, even if it's not always a straight line from there to the end" (that's from the letter I'd received over a year ago in early September, not the one that arrived this past week). Zenn, who would soon face his 100th birthday, having survived our "summer adventure", was looking forward to writing several new pieces, feeling healthy and fully capable of being around to celebrate his own centenary. In the process of meeting the demand for a number of celebratory concerts – more in Europe than in America, of course – he received more requests to compose new works than he could possibly handle. In fact, he said he had barely finished a new string quartet in time for his friends in the Drang Quartet.
Since many people, he complained, wanted to have "a piece of Howard Zenn" even if it was something they'd rarely program, he had to draw the line limiting commissions to old and loyal friends, performers or presenters who had over his long career as a "not-always-famous composer" championed his music and premiered his latest works. He had his nephew (who was actually the son of his late lover) craft an apology that he'd had so many commissions, being an old man, unfortunately he'd be unable to fulfill their request.
One of these well-meaning presenters asked for a new sonata for one of their pianists, an offer he couldn't consider seriously, a rather substantial work that would be far too time consuming for him, and he hoped they might consider asking me to write something for them "dedicated to Howard Zenn on his 100th Birthday." It gave him the idea of "farming out" the commissions he couldn't accept to other composer-friends as another level of celebration. And this one, he thought, was an obvious if humorous natural for me.
And so he set me up with a group previously unknown to me – The dePaula Escher Foundation – through a near-by college located in a suburb of Philadelphia not very far from where I lived. They'd wanted Zenn to compose a new piano sonata for Ms. Escher's grandson, Carter Ericson-Torres – mirroring my name, Terrence Richard Kerr.
Maybe I should go all the way back to the beginning and complain about the name my parents saddled me with, a tribute to each of their fathers who'd died before I was born. Professionally I go by Dr. T. Richard Kerr, most people calling me "Richard." My oldest and closest friends call me Terry. It seemed a natural, once I went into music, to be named after the term ricercar, from the Italian, "to seek," and it sounded better to my ear than being called Terrance R. Kerr.
Perhaps my sense of curiosity – always looking up anything I didn't already know – led me into the field of music history. When I'd started composing, each new piece was like looking for a solution. Even if there weren't a mystery to solve, invariably one always found me: eventually, I became known as a "musical detective."
It's not that it became an alternative career (complete with a deer-stalker hat) but it enlivened many an otherwise boring summer especially after I quit teaching and was then laid-off from the arts magazine where I had managed to build a reputation as a local music "personality" writing articles about various aspects of classical music.
Some of my more academic former colleagues accused me of "dumbing down" while my editor, Misha Goss, considered me too high-brow, though fans thought I managed to explain some of music's mysteries for them.
I completed writing my "Labyrinth" for Mr. Ericson-Torres a month ahead of schedule and had sent it off full of anticipation, wondering whether he would hate the thing or find it impossible to play, but beyond acknowledging he'd received the piece and pronouncing it to be "difficult," he said nothing more to me about it. Along with a couple e-mails about how the piece was put together and what "inspired" it, offering him some interpretive suggestions, I proposed making arrangements to come hear the piece whenever he was ready.
In time, other projects and the occasional performance took my mind off his excuses about being busy performing mostly in Europe, how when he returned to the States he would get back in touch. Then I received a letter from the dePaula Escher Foundation about the premiere that scheduled me to give a pre-concert talk.
Finally, the day arrived for my trip to St. Sisyphus Community College in Marple, PA, where the premiere would take place, an "on-the-road preview" before Carnegie Hall which would be the "official" world premiere. The location had been chosen because Ms. Escher had lived there for years and remained a major benefactor of the college.
Mr. Ericson-Torres whom I had yet to meet – he'd just arrived from Paris – suggested I come to his rehearsal that afternoon. From there, we'd go to the dinner being held at his grandmother's house.
Cameron Pierce, who was both friend and assistant, couldn't come to the concert – something about a big exam the next morning – so I was, for all intents and purposes, on my own this time and so took extra care writing my notes, refreshing myself about the piece, and packing what I'd need in my suitcase.
I could've taken the train but found the bus a more direct route, since I hated driving even short distances myself, eliminating the likelihood I would no doubt become hopelessly lost and inevitably late.
Not habitually an organized person (except when composing), I'd made a detailed list from doing laundry to printing out my talk, packing the night before, even picking up my bus ticket days in advance.
Considering I'd been an "absent-minded professor" as a teaching assistant in graduate school, this trip was going to be a challenge.
The President of the college, Dr. Roderick Ascher, had invited me to be a guest of the Fund, even if only to avoid the long late-night drive back home, by staying at their headquarters (even though they operated most of their business from an office in Manhattan), the Escher House on the edge of campus. A private mansion in the grand old style and long a Marple landmark, the house had been donated to the college and served as a kind of museum and social center for community-related events. It would spare me the ordeal of booking rooms at a local motel and meant I could probably walk across campus rather than contend with cabs or being dependent on someone for a ride. It had turned into a fine autumn day, pleasantly mild despite the forecast, and that much I was looking forward to.
It's not that I wasn't looking forward to hearing the performance, after all, the end goal of a long year's work – what composer in his right mind didn't want to hear his own music? It's just I was nervous, thinking about it, not having heard how it was going until the day of the concert. But people assured me that Ericson-Torres was a fine pianist, well-known in Europe, even if it was obvious from his web-site with all its up-to-date technology he didn't play a lot of new music.
Not one to do much traveling, I'd planned to go to London for LauraLynn's wedding before Christmas (arriving on Beethoven's birthday!); the year before had seen trips to Bavaria involving Rob's opera at Schweinwald. How could I know, going to see Rob at Benninghurst, the writer's colony, that would've been the last time we'd meet? And now Zenn, in his latest letter – he never was one for e-mail – suggested, since I was going to be in London, why not come out a little further and visit him in Garmisch-Partenkirchen?
No, for me these days, especially since Sondra died and I've officially retired, even a trip into Philadelphia was an adventure, a challenge just getting to the airport much less getting on a plane. But I could take the train into the city for an evening concert, then spend the night sleeping on Cameron's couch.
While I admit the whole process of Ericson-Torres' commission took me by surprise not to mention the ease with which I sat down and wrote a very complex piece in so short a time, it was also something of a surprise to discover an old friend whom I hadn't seen in years lived in Marple. It turns out he also had retired prematurely but apparently due to illness (though nothing I could find on-line mentioned what), continuing to teach part-time at St. Sisyphus as an adjunct professor of music.
Tom Purdue and I were students at Grimmoire where we both studied with Artur Merlynski who was already close to retirement. We had a lot in common back then and spent hours "talking shop." But over the years, going our separate ways, I'd lost track of Tom, only once in a while seeing his name.
So the day of the concert came and here I was, as nervous as if I were playing the piece myself (my work as the composer was long finished: it's the performer's responsibility, now). But if I wasn't careful, without Cameron looking after me (I'm so helpless), I might forget something important – and then what?
Getting on the bus, I checked my script and the score – both affirmative; all the clothes I needed were neatly packed. Asking the driver about stopping in Marple, I sat back ready to begin.
After a slight delay as an old woman, having arrived barely in time, settled in with a suitcase and her knitting, the bus pulled away from the terminal in downtown Doylestown and headed south. I once again checked my pockets and with a great sigh of relief realized my score and notes were still there. I figured, since Marple is to the south and then a little west, given an estimated distance at around thirty-five miles, this should take maybe forty minutes or so, then, according to Crowe's Law (*). That would depend on variables like traffic and how many stops there were, how much time we spent at each one and also any number of other things that could happen along the way. But yes, regardless, it should get me to Marple in plenty of time to find my way around the college's campus.
The schedule sent to me by Sarah Fuller at the dePaula Escher Foundation wasn't very complicated for one day's single event, involving only a dinner before my talk and a reception after the concert. My talk before the concert would take place in one of the class-rooms down the hall from the auditorium's main lobby. I would check in at the Escher House then walk around the campus to the music department's building and recital hall. According to an on-line map, it's practically next door to the Escher House.
My mind soon began to wander as the familiar suburban landscape flashed by – store fronts and parking lots, houses and driveways – and the clicking of knitting needles lulled me into a sense of contentedness. There was a middle-aged man who didn't look quite honest sitting opposite me, reading Charles Rosen's book about the classical style. We drove past one of those new mega-churches, signs advertising a barbershop quartet, which had nothing to do with yesterday's news – a possible meeting arranged between Pope Francis I and Britain's Prince of Wales...
Though I had already received my payment for "Labyrinth" from the Escher Foundation, I caught a glimpse (in my mind's eye) that the composer's name on this evening's program wasn't mine but dePaula Escher's. Had I missed something in the contract's details (had I even signed one?) before dismissing it as paranoia about identity theft?
It reminded me of a story a friend told me once, long ago, how she had gone to visit her brother who still lived in the family's country house not very far from Dresden, the first time in several years they'd seen each other since the war, the letters between them few and far between. She was surprised to discover that her brother, a rather limited amateur musician, suddenly developed a previously unrealized talent for composing and in fact had already published quite a few pieces of considerable advancement.
"When I arrived that afternoon," she said, "I heard someone playing the piano in the family room and went to investigate but instead of my brother, I found a girl dressed as a maid. She quickly got up, apologized, then said she would go fetch 'Master Charles' and moments later my brother entered the room.
"'Franny,' he'd said, greeting me warmly, rather embarrassed, as if I'd caught him doing something I'm sure Mother would not approve. He had not changed greatly over the years beyond becoming a successful composer. 'I see you've already met Amalie – my maid,' he added with a nod as the girl curtsied and closed the door."
Something jolted me into consciousness, a sign to Maple Glen which seemed out-of-the-way, prompting me to ask the driver about Marple.
"Don't worry," the bus driver told me, "Maple or Marple, we'll get there..."
Francine resumed the circuitous story of her visit (as she gradually unfolded it) though I was less than interested in what she said her brother wore than in what music he'd been suddenly composing. This was only one of the many topics she seemed vaguely curious about; moreso the relationship between Charles and his maid. Not that she could do much about it, Charles being her older brother – she was only the baby sister, after all. Since he had inherited the estate years ago, she would only be meddling.
When she asked him to play some of his recent compositions for her, Charles excused himself by saying his abilities at the piano, never very adequate, never advanced as much as his creative mind. But when she realized the maid was able to play them from memory, she began to comprehend her brother's sudden blossoming.
"If the girl had composed this music, which I was convinced she had," Francine confided to me with a cautious smile, "she must have given it to him willingly – and along with what else?" She seemed to think an affair with a maid was morally more repugnant than his profiting by stealing her creative identity.
When she confronted her brother with her concerns, he broke down and confessed: he was only helping get her music published. Only a maid, she would never be taken seriously by the music-loving public.
Francine could understand the temptation to do this, as innocent as it sounded, especially since he could pay off his debts. Was Amalie so naive just to be grateful her music was in print?
Of course, all this struck me as idiotic since I had worked all my life trying to get my compositions published. And now she's telling me her brother made a fortune out of nowhere and had become a successful and famous composer, while my music barely made enough money to buy groceries for a month?
I found myself hardly able to listen anymore, everything had become so far-fetched, and I thought she was making it up, but then she said something about the maid "dying of a broken heart."
It turned out her brother had trouble explaining to his friends and publisher why he could no longer compose any music.
Too many composers, myself included, didn't need any excuses when having difficulties composing. "Writer's block affects composers as well as writers. The fear for any artist,” Sebastian said, "is 'will that creativity eventually resume?' Painters, choreographers, architects, even those working in offices considered to be 'idea people' – it's the same for anyone who is creative."
"Young artists paint their portraits in quick, bright strokes," one older composer quipped, "with shades of the immortal, invincible and immune. We draw our inspiration from a never-ending well, a fountain that always flows."
"There comes a time, sooner than later – right? – maybe we hit a wall," another of Sebastian's colleagues added, then he laughed. "The well runs dry or it's momentarily low; new ideas are suddenly reluctant."
"Yes, that first moment we realize perhaps we're all closer to death, now, thinking 'maybe we're not so immune, after all.'"
Lunch felt more like a bit of hazing, the senior composers telling the New Guy horror stories of what's to come, like old age with its debilitating illnesses and the deterioration of the spirit. Sebastian Crevecoeur took me to this Composers' Symposium held at a college in Pennsylvania where I'd met several of his friends.
"It seemed a good idea," he apologized, "taking along a fresh-minted doctorate like yourself to meet other composers teaching in Academia." (I had only recently started teaching at Cutler where I'd first met him.)
The two older composers had names I didn't recognize – and still can't remember them, even now – with compositions I had never heard. One of them had a string quartet played at the symposium that evening. The only thing I could say about it was that it sounded like it had been written by a disappointed composer. In those days, few composers were famous enough to be a composer exclusively, without some university position to earn a living, but many I'd met there were clearly frustrated by their lack of success.
"The American university," Sebastian said, "was like the aristocratic court of Haydn's day, giving composers a place to write and perform – like many of those courts, it offers little fame beyond those ivy-covered towers. Academic composers," he explained, "relegated to a limbo where creativity is only part-time often long to escape from their parallel universes."
One session we attended was on the "importance of the university composer in the training of future generations," influencing young composers not yet advanced enough to enter the conservatories to study with "big-name" composers. This imposing panel was made up almost entirely of staunch New England serialists with the exception of one Copland-imitator from Indiana.
"The university is, of course, the training ground for future artists," they argued, "as well as future scientists and English teachers, and as such it's the front line in the continuity of American music."
The Coplandesque composer argued the teacher's job was to expose the student to as many styles of music and lead him – adding with a deferential nod to the woman on the panel, "or her" – to select what was the most logical expression of his natural musical voice and decide on any specialization in graduate school.
"Of course," a colleague continued as if indulging a country cousin, "the purpose of an undergraduate composition course on any campus is to instill the basics as they do in English, learning the grammar, since a future author doesn't spring from the cradle automatically writing like Faulkner or Henry James."
"...or Hemingway," Dr. Indiana countered.
Another argument followed the line of "Instilling the Craft," learning old-fashioned skills – especially in harmony and counterpoint – but in new ways; others argued for a free-range concept that let the teacher rein it in.
There was a smaller panel after lunch that proved to be quite interesting, mostly younger composers – those still in their twenties – who of course were looked upon with mild suspicion by their older colleagues. These, Sebastian pointed out, were probably this conference's answer to the "Young Turks," slightly more disheveled with an arrogance about them. His two friends thought this might prove entertaining, having some fun with them and watching them self-destruct in their own high-mindedness, before Sebastian reminded them in their day, once, they'd been considered Young Turks.
Their concern, judging from the panel's lack of clear definition of any topic, was to cover something overlooked in composition curricula at whatever level you cared to discuss, undergraduate or graduate, university or conservatory. I thought this could have included the psychology of creativity or dealing with issues like style-change transitions or creative mid-life crises.
For them, this overlooked and all-important topic which no self-respecting artist should ignore was, simply, popularity and how to achieve it, especially considering if composing music today meant doing anything to attain financial success. We all knew how Mozart struggled with finances and Schubert died in poverty: how could we today avoid the same pitfalls?
This seemed to be rather dangerous territory they were embarking on, I thought, the idea popularity not only counted for something but that it counted for something quite important, indeed substantial, in reaching success.
"Yes, Schubert made a meager living off those countless dances he published for amateur pianists (perhaps his main source of income), and Beethoven wrote Wellington's Victory, cashing in on the mania over 'current events.' But this had died over the past century, this ability to be flexible, just as composers lost touch with being performers."
But some on the panel argued the extreme: if it wasn't popular, it had no business in the business of art. Even this "business of art" was enough to make certain traditionalists walk out.
"Modern composers are losing the pulse of the audience they are writing for."
"That's the old argument about shoes or Shakespeare!"
"If you put quotes from Shakespeare on shoe boxes, you could have both!"
"So, who is their sponsoring organization," Sebastian asked.
Looking at the program, I said "some music licensing group calling itself... SHMRG?"
"But it didn't really help Schubert, did it," Cameron countered, "this so-called 'cross-over'? Or Mozart, for that matter, don't you think?"
I didn't understand what his point was, about this issue called "selling out."
"Well, you said they earned some money writing dances for the popular market, but didn't they both still die in poverty?"
It was an old argument that writing music to appeal more directly to the crowd was a sin, I told him, but composers in the old days did it as a matter of course.
Even Shostakovich wrote his music to appease the Communist Party so he could write his more 'artistic' symphonies and string quartets.
"But the problem is," Cameron pointed out, "detractors say this cheapened his Art."
Yet people record and enjoy listening to those dances by Schubert and Mozart, saying "Ah, what gems!" – it's all very unfair.
Cameron had been helping out as my assistant most of the past year since we'd met that summer at Crevecoeur's farm. Once, he acted as my driver since I hated driving in New York. Friends of mine were performing a string quartet program at Alice Tully Hall and invited me to do a pre-concert talk. Their program could hardly be considered a "sell-out" in any number of ways, all music usually describe as "difficult" and "uncompromising," Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit and Carter's First surrounding a quartet of mine.
For some reason, even though we were going to this concert and it was an important New York premiere for me – significant for my career, such as it was – he was dressed rather casually. A red and yellow Hawaiian shirt with bright turquoise Bermuda shorts and sandals seemed a bit out of place in December. As I told him, I was all for breaking down those stuffy barriers that alienated young people from going to concerts, but this went beyond being a little casual: he just shrugged his shoulders.
If I'd gone to a rock concert with him and Dylan and wore my tuxedo, sat there with my arms folded and shooshing everybody dancing and talking around me, I'd be considered a freak. That's not how you were expected to behave, not at a rock concert, but every group has its set of conformities.
The snow on the streets had become swirls of leaves along the road: different time, different place, back on the bus. It felt like an hour had gone by and we still weren't there. The bus driver looked up in the mirror and announced the next stop – Ardmore, only about six miles northeast of Marple. The old woman started putting away her knitting and gathered up her suitcase, looking eagerly out the window, checking her watch. Checking mine, I noticed ninety minutes had gone by since we'd left Doylestown.
As the woman stood up, a bit wobbly for having sat so long, I reached forward to help with her bag as the bus slowly pulled to the curb and came to a stop.
She gave me a look I didn't understand but before she could speak, the driver was helping her off the bus.
Cameron continued navigating through evening traffic on Broadway, heading north past Lincoln Center to our designated parking garage behind Alice Tully when he asked me one more time about the directions I'd given him.
"Which side is the garage entrance on...?"
"I turn left, here?"
And so he turned right.
"What're you doing?"
“It's a one-way street,” he said. It would take forever to work our way over to Amsterdam and 65th Street, now.
I saw the left-turn sign for Marple ahead.
The bus driver turned right...
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To be continued...
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(*) Crowe's Law - the relationship of the shortest distance between two places "as the crow flies" compared to the actual distance between two places "when the crow has to walk, rolling a flat tire."
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The usual disclaimer: The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents of its story are more or less the product of the author's imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used." The town of Marple in Pennsylvania (or rather, Marple Township) does exist though I've never been there and my use of it - aside from being a logical locale for a mystery inspired solely by the association of its name with a character created by Agatha Christie - is entirely fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, but then, as Klavdia Klangfarben keeps quoting a former professor of hers, "Perception is everything." Yadda yadda yadda.
©2016 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train