If you've only just arrived here and have no clue what's going on, you might find it easier to start with the introductory post, here.
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"Dr. Purdue isn't in today, I'm sorry," the secretary for the Fine Arts department at St. Sisyphus Community College told me. "He only teaches classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays during this year's fall semester."
When I wondered if maybe he'd be coming in for the recital tonight, she repeated he's only in Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"Do you know if he'll be at the dinner at Escher House tonight?"
"I'm sorry, you'd have to ask him that."
"Someone at the Foundation might have that information?"
"You could ask them, certainly."
"Maybe I could call Dr. Purdue at home? We're old friends from college."
"We're not allowed to give out phone numbers."
"Could you call and give him a message?"
"He'll be in next Tuesday."
When I looked around to see if Dean Wilsher was in her office, the secretary said she'd left for the day.
At the pre-concert talk, recalling the exasperation I'd felt mounting throughout the day, I wondered who this know-it-all was, sitting there. To say he "looked something like" Tom Purdue didn't make lots of sense. Besides, why would Tom attend my talk and not let me know it unless this was his idea of a joke?
"That was probably it," I thought, smiling back at the man, exasperation aside. "This is some kind of disguise, isn't it?"
(But Tom would be my age, of course, and this guy's, what... 30-something?)
Come to think of it, when's the last time I'd heard from Tom? Had he responded to those e-mails I'd sent? I remembered writing once the commission was settled and again about the concert. Just to make sure, I'm sure I'd also sent that one to the address they had listed on the college's website.
But I don't think he had ever responded, as often as I'd checked, not that Tom was ever big on correspondence. I assumed he was just filing them away: maybe he hadn't received them?
It was like a three-voice fugue, giving this pre-concert talk about my "Labyrinth", focusing on my well-crafted, written-out, carefully timed material, dealing with this annoying man and his comments, and then wondering about Tom.
At one point it actually occurred to me, before I'd concluded my remarks: was Tom avoiding me because he was jealous?
Though I'd arrived too late to hear Ericson-Torres rehearse "Labyrinth" in the hall, I expected we'd talk briefly about the piece after Dean Wilsher apologized for needing to leave us in the student lounge. But other than the fine weather, the rigors of traveling and his impending concert at Carnegie Hall, he wasn't very talkative.
"Don't you have any questions for me," I asked him, reminding him I was the composer of the piece he's premiering.
"No, not really – I think I've got it," responding with a mischievous smile.
He apologized for not being in touch before – "so very busy, you know" – and disliked "talking shop" right before a concert: "tends to spoil the surprise of the performance," he added, "especially a premiere."
Taking another sip of the beer which he was thoroughly enjoying, he casually mentioned, "There are a few changes I've made."
For one thing, he continued, he felt that the climax wasn't big enough, "so I decided to repeat a couple measures – it helps in the build-up: you know, that spot where the fish dies?"
"Excuse me, 'the fish dies...'?"
"Oh, I added a story of my own," he mentioned, "since I couldn't figure out yours."
That meant he had to change some things around that didn't fit, anymore, "but it all makes sense in the end."
Surprise indeed – like me, rolling over in my grave, not even dead yet...
Late in more ways than one, I finally arrived for the dinner where I imagined I would be an honored guest: while they had already started without me, I went to find my place.
"Oh, Mr. Curr," Dean Wilsher said, pointing to a place near the far end of the table, "I believe you're there."
Like most rooms at Escher House, the dining room seemed much larger than one expected from the size of the house, but it was still a tight fit squeezing myself around all the guests.
Dean Wilsher quickly introduced me, somewhat miffed that I was not on time, to the President of the college, Roderick Ascher, to Sarah Fuller from the Foundation plus members of the administration and faculty.
I asked if Dr. Thomas Purdue would be here, but Dean Wilsher shrugged, saying "No, why - should we have invited him?"
There was a long wait before the soup was ready to be served, not leaving me much time to get ready. I rose to apologize that I needed to get changed for my talk.
Then the old woman stood beside me with a soup ladle in hand, whispering "I must warn you..." and then disappeared.
"Don't forget the President's Reception," Wilsher said, "it begins right here at 8:00."
"But so does the recital...!"
"Everybody's so busy..."
They resumed talking as the butler named Bernard White continued serving the soup.
Thinking about the salmon paillard molé I was missing at the dinner (Madeline Wilsher assured me it was 'to die for'), here I stood on this beautiful fall evening wishing it'd soon be over. There were few people attending the pre-concert talk – a worthless expenditure – who seemed interested in hearing me talk about my piece.
After listening to Ericson-Torres who had no understanding of the piece I wrote, I realized it didn't matter what I said: the music they're about to hear isn't the piece of music I'd composed.
All the careful work that had gone into its planning, in composing it, all the hopes I had for its success, and all I could do was sit there while this man butchered it!
Now I understood what the old woman's been trying to warn me about: my composition – it was about to be murdered!
No sooner had Zenn asked if I'd be interested in his rejected commission, 'absorbing' it so as not to waste it, I didn't even wait to see how the dePaula Escher Fund would respond. Even if they weren't interested in 'recycling' their commission to an unknown composer, I suddenly had an idea for a piece. By the time they contacted me for an interview about 'redirecting' their commission, I could show them sketches for a Work-in-Progress. From there, they'd have a better idea what they'd get for their money.
My own aesthetic was not very different from Howard Zenn's 'intellectual' abstract style: considering they were commissioning him to begin with and what they'd be expecting, it seemed I might be a good fit. Though they were initially reluctant, at least I was a friend of Zenn's and after all had been hand-picked by him.
Since they were interested in a sonata, something more substantial than the shorter "moments" Zenn was composing in his old age, I would give them a multi-movement work (which 'sonata' implied) but handled differently. Rather than just following along with the traditional three or four consecutive movements, I'd phase in and out of them concurrently.
There would be five sections, basically, each one of recognizably independent, contrasting material, all weaving in and out through each other, some of the sections overlapping at points but each distinguishable by their contrasts.
The idea of a labyrinth came to me almost immediately if somewhat skeptically: the quest for tonal resolution was so much a part of traditional form, how could I translate this into something 'labyrinthine'?
I didn't want it to tell the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the idea of being trapped inside a maze. But wasn't it comparable to the idea of stating a tonic key, digressing through various modulations to some dramatically contrasting key, then finding its way through the development back to the expected tonic resolution?
Technically, I'm told, a labyrinth does not contain the usual wrong-turns and dead-ends typical of mazes where one becomes easily lost. Still, if one needs a long thread to find one's way out again, even the labyrinth Daedalus designed for King Minos was more than a long, circuitous path to something hidden at its center.
But I had no idea who I was writing for, assuming since the Foundation commissioned Zenn to create something for him, the pianist Carter Ericson-Torres must be acquainted with music of similar technical demands. You would think he'd hardly have approved spending his grandmother's perfectly good money on something he had so little sympathy with. Granted, the repertoire list on his website was vague about any modern music, listing only "several world premieres" without further details. I had assumed he didn't wish to scare off the more traditional presenters.
Maybe he wasn't a champion of New Music, but I hadn't expected his acquaintance with the style to be so tenuous. Wasn't it like a reader unfamiliar with Russian looking at those illegible letters and making it up as he went along, figuring others also unfamiliar with Russian would think his gibberish made perfect sense?
For many composers, the process of completing a piece is almost never done. Even during the first performance, we'll sit there wondering if we'd done this, here, how would it have affected that, there? And along with Artur Merlynski, we might agree, "It's as if all my faults came to the surface to taunt me."
I was only glad that my friends weren't here to share this debacle, especially Cameron or Tom Purdue, for that matter. It would take everything I could manage to scrub this from my memory.
The old woman, whoever she was, had been right – or what I assumed she was trying to tell me was right: my piece was in danger; in fact, it was going to be murdered. Though how, I wondered, did she know that? Who was she and what was it she had tried warning me against? Was she the spirit of the pianist's grandmother, the name behind the Foundation, the ghost of dePaula Escher herself, resting uneasy, come back to tell me her grandson had no business playing my music?
As I sat there listening to a piece which I'd supposedly composed but could barely recognize except by process of elimination – it could never have been mistaken for either Beethoven or Schubert, could it? – it occurred to me I was present at the scene of a crime, indeed a witness to my own piece's undoing.
There was the poor victim, slowly having its life throttled out of it, a long, slow, certainly agonizing sort of death, the perpetrator beating it senseless with his bare hands, the blood splattering everywhere. The pianist, with the complicity of the instrument he was beating it with, was clearly cast in the role of murderer.
And I – was I not also a victim at this same crime scene, suffering through the loss of my own child? Was I not helplessly watching it being destroyed right in front of me?
And these others, sitting here in the dark, also watching (if not listening): aren't they all witnesses, every one of them? When the music police arrive with their yellow tape, what will they say? Will they have the courage to tell the police what they had seen? Would they even know what they had seen?
"I didn't like the way he played Beethoven, officer" one witness might say, "but, God! that new piece was downright awful!"
And then more of them would weigh in, complaining "it deserved to die!"
They might even have been applauding the performer – what difference was there between 'perp' and 'perf,' I wondered – condoning the violence. Perhaps there were several witnesses who felt the composer got what he deserved.
Did the woman mean to warn me I was the one in danger? Had she seen I'd become the prime suspect?
Not the first time I'd been asked how a composer finds his voice, it was one of those more interesting moments when I was sitting on a discussion panel of, unfortunately, only two composers. A student, probably a sophomore in college, had piped up with considerable concern as if it'd been dogging him for years. On the one hand, he looked hopeful as if our answer would mean his own success was just around the corner. On the other, he saw hope was futile, his life already a failure.
My fellow composer on the panel was fresh out of his master's program, a young man who was half my age, whose works I'd found so far full of promise, if a little uneven. Past fifty at the time, I was cautious about thinking I was probably already on the downward slide of my career.
I suspect I liked my colleague's works that were imitating composers I liked and for which he had an evident understanding, considering other works I found less striking because this 'knack' was less evident. At the moment, he seemed to be interested in a frenzied, tonal minimalism while the darker, atonal piece's angst seemed superficial.
There were two works of mine on these programs, written fifteen years apart and to me they were quite different pieces. I could imagine, though, to the casual listener they might seem quite similar.
My colleague (whose name, I add parenthetically, was Stewart Klein) laughed and said, "I don't know, I'm still looking for mine. Some day, maybe I'll find it if I'm lucky – don't worry about it. It wouldn't be a conscious effort but a process like distillation where things you don't like evaporate, leaving things you do."
"Your job as a student," I added, "is to absorb absolutely everything you hear, imitate this, figure out how that's done."
"Right – eventually what hasn't been discarded becomes the basis for your own fingerprints."
"In fact, even at fifty, I'd say I'm still looking for mine because it's an on-going process as you continue growing." I explained how my two works were really miles apart in their thinking. "The more recent one is simply a more refined approach to older ideas. Every new piece searches for its own solution."
Looking at my sparse audience at this ill-starred pre-concert talk, only dimly interested, even paler under the room's feeble fluorescent lighting, I quickly explained how it worked for Beethoven or Stravinsky, their 'three periods.' Their early works were derivative, imitations of their elders, until something unexpected happened which others deemed 'original,' their first mature works.
"It wasn't that it suddenly happened: it was a gradual process of elimination. Beethoven – and Schubert, too – went in a more right-brained direction, away from classicism; Stravinsky went completely left-brained, and became a neo-classicist."
It reminded me of how Merlynski would talk about the music's core as opposed to the surface language we could hear. There were guiding principles underneath a composer's 'fluid surface' that never changed, regardless. It was this that made Late-Beethoven still sound like Beethoven, or how Serial Stravinsky still had his roots in Le Sacre.
"That doesn't mean," I tried to explain, "it gets any easier, just as that young student I mentioned was bummed out, discovering that there was no easy solution, that finding his voice took time.
"Every note we struggle to put down on paper or in the computer is part of finding – and maintaining – that voice."
Even as our own speaking voice changes over the years – mine's becoming raspier in recent years – it is still recognizably ours.
The same thing happens with our musical voice – "if," I added, "we're lucky."
First on tonight's program was Beethoven's Op. 2, No. 3, the C Major Sonata that opens with those wicked parallel thirds, an exposed little figure in the right hand difficult to play as written but, I'm told, much easier to play on a keyboard from the 1790s than on one of today's massive modern grands. It's one of a set of three dedicated to his teacher Haydn more out of politics and marketing than sheer devotion – Beethoven was 24 when he wrote it and fairly new to the business.
Speaking of a great composer finding his voice – and Beethoven was about the age my fellow-panelist Stewart Klein was back then – it's interesting to hear the teacher's heavy thumb-print evident in the student's music. But in 1795, it was probably enough for the old-fashioned periwigs to wonder what was happening to the music they loved.
As Ericson-Torres walked confidently out from the wings, not a very great distance since the stage was neither wide nor deep, you could tell he was a no-nonsense kind of guy from the beginning. Only barely acknowledging the audience's welcome, itself not so confident, even somewhat hesitant, he barged immediately into the sonata's opening measures.
That might have been a suitable gesture for a more dramatic beginning (thinking of the last sonata, the great Op. 111). But this delicate opening with its filigree turn needed a more tender hand.
Though written under Haydn's "supervision," one assumes, this is not your grandfather's sonata: once beyond the opening, Beethoven's dynamics and especially all those unexpected, off-beat accents quickly prove this is no namby-pamby C Major. Even as it's written, it must've blown Haydn's wig right off his skull. There's a great deal of thunder and lightening.
Usually, these dynamics are taken down a notch, otherwise they'd sound too exaggerated on a modern instrument compared to Haydn's fortepiano. We should realize they must be translated for an early-21st Century grand piano.
Unfortunately, it seemed Ericson-Torres took the approach that, if Beethoven had set out to demolish the poor fortepiano he was playing, he must work much harder to bring a seven-foot grand to its knees.
By the end of the development with its endless measures of modulating arpeggios, I was ready to raise the white flag.
The audience broke into cheers as the first movement crashed to a close, shell-shocked perhaps but thrilled for surviving the onslaught. And yet it was one way of interpreting what Beethoven had written down. Faster, louder and above all over-the-top translated into sheer visceral excitement for a generation of listeners entertained by "American Ninja Warrior."
The slow movement, comparatively, was a long slog, all very tedious and dry, too soft or, when called for, too loud. The audience, often fidgeting, was as bored as the pianist seemed to be.
If everything in the second movement was flat-lining with miles of meandering passagework, the last two were all chaos and exaggeration. The scherzo was full of rhythmic inaccuracies any teacher should've nailed him for. The last movement's tempo was determined by how fast he could manage different passages which meant the speed was constantly fluctuating.
From my limited vantage point – somewhere in the middle of the right side – I couldn't see very much of the audience. Without turning around, I couldn't see anyone who'd been at the pre-concert talk. I was curious to see what the know-it-all would make of all this but nobody I saw apparently knew the piece.
Despite the crunching discord in the final cadence – he miscalculated and hit a G-flat instead of a G in the bass – the audience rose and cheered: God help me, but my piece was next...
It was a dull, dark, soundless Autumn afternoon when I managed to arrive at the place the sign called "Escher House," my heart like a suspended lute, skittishly resonating to even the slightest touch. Clouds hung low behind the house whose three stories rose ominously before me, shrouded in insufferable gloom, the eye-like windows vacant. I was glad that I was staying here only for this one night, everything arranged as a guest of the Foundation's. Not knowing what it might be like inside, I couldn't imagine staying longer.
A large clump of birch trees by the sidewalk had fallen into decay, sparse white trunks needing to be cut down. A line of gnarly yews, ancient and unkempt, nearly blocked the downstairs windows. The house, built from granite blocks with steep slate roofs on several gables, appeared to still be damp from recent rains.
Walking up from the campus, I noticed the house stretched back not as far as one would think, viewing the façade. It seemed rather truncated, like an old-fashioned model of a square turreted castle. Curiously, the front of the house stood on higher ground than the back which appeared to open out onto an embankment.
A flagstone path led to the front door, winding through a landscaped garden of large overgrown shrubs and mostly dead plants. A similar path ventured around the house and disappeared into some woods beyond.
The front door was made of heavy, dark-stained wood with an iron knocker, ornate iron hinge-plates and doorknob plus matching kick-plate. On either side of a raised central rib were six deeply carved panels. They reminded me initially of Ghiberti's 'Gates to Paradise' (despite looking more like the entrance to Hell) until I'd looked closer.
That's when I realized they were deeply three-dimensional woodcuts in the style of M. C. Escher and his famous optical illusions. One by the doorknob consisted of people ascending and descending an endless loop.
Unable to see the rest clearly in the gloom, I approached the door, trying not to think I was being watched after I noticed a quick movement at the one window to my left.
I stuck my shoulders back, sighed heavily, and went to ring the bell. What's the worst that could happen to me?
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to be continued... (link becomes active at 8am EDT, 6-13-2016)
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The usual disclaimer: The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, which you've no doubt figured out by now, is 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, occasionally by personal experience. 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