If you've only just arrived and have no clue what's going on, you might find it easier to start with the introductory post, here.
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When I went to push the door open, I found it wouldn't budge so I pushed harder, wondering why it's locked. The janitor, our friendly "custodial engineer," simply reached forward and pulled it open. Too embarrassed to see if there was a sign anywhere that said "PULL," I nodded at him with a mumbled thanks. As the door closed behind me, I imagined him, going on about how difficult it is to be a good janitor, clucking in dismay, muttering, "and I bet that one even has his PhD."
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the recital hall, not as large a space as I imagined, with a modest rake down to the stage, shallower than it was wide. It might seat a couple hundred at best but probably rarely needed to seat more for a small school like this.
Given the size of the college not to mention this rather diminutive auditorium, I wondered why they're holding the concert here except it's apparently the "try-out" for his appearance next month at Carnegie Hall. But then I remembered it's the home base for the dePaula Escher Foundation, whatever else her ties were to the school.
The commission existed specifically to supply Ms. Escher's grandson with a new piece: perhaps he's a distinguished alumnus of the school? I might have overlooked something about his being on the St. Sisyphus faculty.
The door clicked shut behind me, echoing through the not quite empty hall (I could only see one other person, clearly) and suddenly I felt self-conscious for having intruded on a class or rehearsal. Despite arriving late from that infernal bus ride, I was still early for the pianist's rehearsal before his performance, wasn't I?
I could hardly believe, after all this work and all this endless waiting, I was about to hear my own composition! I tried not to dwell on how important this was for my career.
My concerns were interrupted by a loud rush of notes on a piano, an upward sweep resolving onto a crashing dissonance which itself resolved to a loud expletive – "Shit!" – before the passage was repeated.
This time, the passage resolved to a different chord and a louder expletive when I realized this was from my piece.
I scooted along to a seat in the back row of the auditorium, somewhere that would be out of the way, not wishing to distract him as he continued struggling with this difficult passage. Not wishing to draw attention to myself, I would listen to him first and then, once asked, make comments – not before.
He continued working on this one brief passage yet never once managed to land on the right chord for its resolution. I hadn't thought there were so many options yet none made logical sense.
A tall man, he sat hunched over the keyboard, concentrating on his hands swirling up three octaves in a vertiginous pattern as if willing them to find a place to land on their own.
Each attempt landed on a cluster of wrong notes with more imaginative cursing which, after a dozen tries, became unbearably annoying.
I looked over at the other person I could see sitting in the shadows a few rows in front of me but it wasn't Tom Purdue – a woman, instead, in a rather mannish-looking suit.
She stood up and said, "you wanted to know when it was 3:00."
"Good, yes," he said, stopping suddenly. "That's enough."
"They told me you were starting your rehearsal at 3:00," I piped up.
"And who are you," he asked rather testily.
"I'm Richard Kerr – the composer?"
"Excellent! I've just finished – let's grab a beer."
Fortunately, I'd grabbed a handful of programs before going back to the room where the pre-concert talk was to be held, so I gave one to each person as they wandered into the room, mumbling a quick greeting with either a "thanks for coming" or, on occasion, a "so glad you could find the room." No one was responding beyond a tenuous nod or a slightly sour-looking smile, offering no information nor any form of welcome. Nobody appeared to have any interest being here – "a cheery lot, this bunch."
I felt like the teacher of an unpopular requirement at the start of the semester who'd best get it over with. Two of them were slightly older than me, another was in his mid-30s. One man, middle-aged, with long straggly hair and horn-rimmed glasses, could've worn a button that read "Good Composer = Dead Composer."
The woman in the red skirt began looking at me with some suspicion but said nothing, glancing back at her program. Other than getting the title wrong, I wondered what else was a problem. My program notes, about 1/4th the space allotted to Beethoven or Schubert, had been edited down to the basic biographical background.
The photograph of me included in the notes was of someone else entirely. I smiled: googling my name using their misspelling, someone may have found a Terrence Carr who was a podiatrist in Poughkeepsie.
Small talk seemed superfluous, everybody sitting there stone-faced waiting for me to begin but I waited a few minutes for stragglers. I was about to begin when I heard a commotion in the hall. A small group of students hurried in, three of them quite trendily dressed-up, two more wearing the usual t-shirt and jeans. Each took the program I handed them and sat down with embarrassed giggles, the one telling me how they were all taking Dr. Purdue's music class, but it was still early in the semester.
It renewed my sense of young people these days, that they would postpone going to their dance to attend a recital. Figuring they'd party till midnight, I mentioned the recital would conclude around 9:30.
I no sooner started talking than all the students got up to leave: "Sorry," one whispered, "it's time for the par-tay!"
Before the recital began, I looked around, having been standing at my seat – I'd chosen an aisle seat on the right, easy for me to get up and acknowledge the applause after my piece – and noticed with some sadness that the hall was barely one quarter full, counting at best maybe sixty people so far. With over half the auditorium behind me, it was impossible to tell who else might have entered after I sat down, but nobody, after this point, came in and sat in front of me.
There was no one there I imagined young enough to be a student – even the student ushers had already taken off – and though I'd met only a few people, not one had yet arrived. I kept looking around for a glimpse of Tom until the houselights dimmed, but he also was nowhere to be seen.
At least, I assumed Dean Wilsher would make an announcement from the stage, introducing the soloist in the semester's first recital. But the program began without an official college welcome or any other remarks. The audience in front of me was certainly enjoying the performance so far but I wished the evening were already over.
The Beethoven was one thing, Ericson-Torres' remarks made after we'd met disconcertingly another, but I couldn't help wonder whether or not he'd pepper the premiere of "Labyrinth" with an array of deftly interpolated profanities.
The music began – barely recognizable – and already I could sense the audience's withdrawal. I might close my eyes so as not to watch those around me, but I couldn't close my ears from listening. Every mistake was a jab to the ribs, a punch to the head, and there was no way to defend myself.
Not sure I had the strength to get up, too weak-kneed to stand, I felt sick to my stomach from nerves, amused what people would think if I walked out on my own composition.
Supposing I didn't bother to stand up when the pianist acknowledged me afterward: who'd recognize me sitting there (since I didn't look like the podiatrist from Poughkeepsie), pretending to look around for the composer?
Would they greet it with approval or indifference or, I wondered, will they be coming after me with torches and pitchforks?
I dashed into the bathroom, feeling the urgency, seeking both relief and refuge. I was a nervous wreck after everything happened, the dinner that conflicted with the pre-concert talk and that awful bus trip. It was bad enough opening my suitcase to see the wrong clothes inside, but that pianist was icing on the cake.
If only Howard Zenn could appreciate what he missed by refusing this commission, not that he'd be able to attend it. Fortunately, I had succeeded in sparing him that – but why me, O Lord?
It was one of those frequent instances where the worse my nerves were, the more adamant my aging bladder had become, sorry I had to leave the dinner early to dress for the concert.
And this bathroom on the main floor of Escher House was elegant, spacious, more than three times larger than my bedroom.
After a sense of calm managed to return following this seemingly endless pee, I checked the medicine cabinet over the sink, hoping to find something to calm my nerves a little stronger than aspirin.
Doubtful I will be able to make it through the rest of whatever the evening offered, I zipped up my fly.
Closing the cabinet, I saw in the mirror not mine but the face of the old woman staring back at me.
"You'll be wrongly accused!" (Or was that the squeak of a rusty hinge?)
The student lounge at St. Sisyphus Community College was located in the Stone Administration Center that connected directly to several buildings including the one housing the recital hall, Fine Arts, History and Language departments. Once Dean Wilsher apologized for leaving us to prepare for another faculty meeting, Ericson-Torres ordered a beer – "preferably ice-cold" – for himself.
"That's one thing I do rather hate about living in England," he said, "their habit of drinking beer at room temperature. You should really try the house special, here, an old-fashioned brand, 'Rolling Rock.'"
Normally, I didn't drink, only rarely since the time I was a student, but given the way things were going today, this would be a really good excuse to knock back a few brews.
Missing lunch because of that interminable bus trip, I ordered some hot food but decided to skip the "Tantalizing Shepherd's Pie."
Eventually, I opted for a salad and iced tea, much to Ericson-Torres' dismay as he sat there, waiting impatiently for me. He'd chosen a small booth beneath a sign celebrating the school's football team. They were called "The Stones" but they'd had several losing seasons of late. Alas, their rivals were calling them the "Sissies."
It must have been a thankless job, dressing up as the school mascot which was nothing more than a large rock. Lacking both arms and legs, it couldn't induce much excitement just sitting there.
Considering Ericson-Torres had never contacted me beyond letting me know he'd received the finished score – nothing more than "it looks hard" – I figured it was too late to ask if he had any questions. This made the unfortunately necessary ritual of Small Talk something of a challenge and I sorely missed having Cameron's extroverted presence.
I noticed his eyes wandering around the lounge and saw he was following one particularly tall, buxom student wearing tight jeans.
"I wonder if she'll be coming to my recital tonight? One only hopes..."
"Somehow, I suspect she'll go to the dance."
"What dance? There's a dance?"
I told him about the semester's first dance. "Sarah Fuller and Dean Wilsher both said not to expect too many students."
"Maybe we should scoot over to this dance after the recital? I'm sure it'll be far preferable to that stuffy reception."
Since I said nothing, returning to my salad, he apologized for not being very talkative with the recital coming up later.
"I'll probably go find an empty room somewhere and do a little meditating."
He explained this was his normal routine a few hours before a performance, then go have some dinner after it's over.
After getting up for another bottle of beer – I politely refused his offer to join him – he heaved a deep sigh.
"It's a tougher program than I thought, doing three challenging sonatas like that."
I looked up at him, fork in mid-air. "Mine's not really a sonata, you know, just because it's a large-form piece." Would this prove a safer topic for discussion rather than arguing about interpretation?
"Yes, it is," he argued, looking slightly startled. "It's got multiple movements – I just don't know where they begin and end..."
"Well, there are five contrasting sections, sort of like movements, but they weave in and out of each other," I said, "more like a single movement with five themes developed by their individual juxtapositions."
He sat and stared at me while I finished my tea, looking dumbfounded.
"I didn't think of them as self-contained movements."
"Look, if you want to make some revisions to the piece, I understand. I can always postpone the premiere till later."
"Fine, then call them movements." (It wasn't called "Labyrinth" for nothing, you know...)
Someday, hopefully later than sooner, when I'm old, I'll be lying on my deathbed poring over any regrets in my past and not wasting precious time worrying about whether I should've called them movements. This premiere may well be something to regret, but it brought about what I think is a pretty darn good piece. With any luck, as all composers hope, it will survive its first performance and maybe even manage to outlive its composer. Who really cares what the premiere was like, listening to Beethoven's Violin Concerto?
Will I regret standing up to this performer, telling him he isn't ready to play it and have the performance canceled? Would I regret instead having let it go just to get it heard?
Or would I more likely regret having to return the foundation's commission fee, accused I had written something he couldn't play?
And what would I regret? Certainly something, more likely, as I "become old," not that I've thought about it except during the middle of the night at the bottom of some dark, lonely spiral.
"If you could go back in time to fix just one thing, when would you choose and what would you fix?"
It's like those questions people bother you with, thinking they sound terribly philosophical, but you can't answer them, except in theory. It can't be done, it's scientifically impossible, so why bother dwelling on it?
But I have so many things I wish might have turned out differently: having had more time with Sondra, for one. If we'd stayed at Cutler, dealing with everything, would it have been enjoyable? Leaving there was a matter of faculty politics but a few years later, teaching itself had changed, was no longer fun.
I could say, "I wish it hadn't changed," but life isn't like that. Just as you find yourself saying, "Ah, stay a moment, for thou art fair," it's over: nothing ever stays the same.
Of course, looking back at a point when there was no more future, wouldn't I mourn dreams that were never realized? I could wish my luck had been better, but that's too late, now.
Would I feel the loss of all the music I never heard performed, all the pieces I never got to write?
It was one of the best "a-ha!" moments I had, teaching at Cutler, when the old-fashioned light bulb had gone off, the look of comprehension on a student's face in the middle of class and I remembered telling Tom Purdue about it years ago, how we laughed, how envious he was it happened so easily. It was one of those anecdotes frequently told that I'm sure never had quite the same impact on anyone hearing it as it had that promising spring afternoon in my 20th Century Styles class.
After covering Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, it was time to introduce Bela Bartók, one of the early century's more innovative composers, but unfortunately less well-known to the average undergrad than any of these others. I had no sooner said the name than one of the students, a clarinetist named Tony Stadler, grunted derisively, "Pffft, Bartók...!"
"What's the matter, Tony," I said, interrupting myself. It wasn't unusual for a student to dislike some of this "contemporary" music. "I take it you don't like Bartók's music?" Actually, it hadn't surprised me.
He quickly rattled off a litany of sins – motor-rhythms, machine music, biting dissonances, simple-sounding tunes and a host of other transgressions.
"But you like Mahler, don't you," I asked, knowing he's more familiar with Mahler's symphonies than I was at that age.
"Oh, yes," he said, lighting up, "Mahler's like a god – compared to Bartók!"
So I asked him what it was about Mahler that he liked so much, considering how many people didn't "get" Mahler. Others in the class, knowing this passion, either chuckled or rolled their eyes.
"Well, I love that incredible length, how climaxes take so long to build, how he keeps spinning out melodies and harmonies..."
The next question seemed obvious, so I asked, "Did you always like Mahler?"
"Oh no, the first time, I hated it."
He described how he couldn't stand the length, the slow-building climaxes, never-ending melodies...
"So," I asked him, "what was it that made you change your mind?"
Defensively, he challenged anyone who didn't like Mahler: "I had to listen to him a lot to get used to it."
The silence lasted only a few seconds before he said, rather sheepishly, "Oh..."
"Bingo," I said. "Perception, you see, is everything."
Perception – or the loss of perception – may be the most difficult thing any artist has to deal with, reaching middle age. I remember when Sebastian told me that before he decided to quit teaching. And Merlynski was always warning his male students about the inevitable Mid-Life Crisis. It sounded like some conspiracy against the young.
I wonder how Tom Purdue handled all this: disappointment over a career that never took off, the fading of early recognition. He and I found ourselves in the same boat – those with "unrealized potential."
Rob Sullivan had been lucky, at least as far as that was concerned. He'd "made it," achieving fame, teaching at Juilliard. He'd written an opera that had been premiered in Europe to great reviews.
Of course, the opera also got him killed so maybe, yes, given my luck with politics, failure's been healthier for me.
For composers, going through a "style change" was another form of Mid-Life Crisis – I'd recently described it as a "Mid-Career Crisis" – when an already established composer feels the need to find that "new voice."
But it's more work now than before and I've become too old to put that kind of work into it anymore.
This was why, perhaps, I'd put so much hope into this new piece of mine, a chance to rejuvenate my career.
To be noticed once again? Was this, perhaps, why I'd re-entered the labyrinth?
The Dean had suggested Ericson-Torres and I head down to the student lounge if we wanted to have a quick beer, reminding us that the President's dinner at Escher House would begin at 6:30. She sounded a bit like a mother warning her children not to spoil their dinner even though it was only 3:00.
Madeline Wilsher then offered to point the way, neither of us able to see what it was she was pointing at. Apparently, it was somewhere in a nearby building, connected by a tree-lined walkway.
Since the afternoon had turned cold and stormy and sudden brisk winds were now whipping the leaves around in the courtyard, she recommended taking one of the underground passages that connected several campus buildings.
They all led to the Stone Administrative Center, she explained, named for Dr. Roland Stone, founder of St. Sisyphus Community College.
The door to this particular stairwell over which was inscribed something I could not quite read – "Lasciate ogne" something or other – led to a series of steps that went deep into an underground hallway. Except for the occasional arrow that pointed vaguely in both directions at once, the walls were pure white without discernible lighting.
And yet everything the full length of the hallway was bathed in a flood of intense rays reflecting a ghastly splendor. Frankly, it freaked me out and I was glad Ericson-Torres remained mostly silent.
The hallway was completely empty – perhaps it was different during breaks between classes – even if it didn't sound like we're alone, the walls echoing with the sound of our footsteps which were loud enough. I couldn't imagine what it must sound like when the corridor was full of students, talking, hurrying from building to building.
Footsteps aside, it was quiet enough in a different sense of the word, I swore I could almost hear myself think and wondered if I were thinking hard enough, could Ericson-Torres read my mind?
"Why'd you never get in touch," I thought, "ask me about the piece? You were treating me like a dead composer."
"Most composers that I play are dead, anyway," I heard him thinking back.
Wasn't that the challenge, trying to figure out what a composer was saying?
"The game," he thought, "was identifying the game."
There were dead composers everywhere I looked! Amazing!
"Too bad Cameron hadn't come along on this one, Sebastian – he'd love it."
"Yes," Crevecoeur said, pointing at Stravinsky behind the drinks table, "and Zoe, too."
When he'd first guided us all around Harmonia-IV, we gawked at the composers we saw like most tourists gawked at buildings.
Cameron had been a student of Zoe's but it had been a while since I last saw her, Facebook posts aside. The last time Sebastian saw his granddaughter was when we attended Mahler's premiere.
That had been quite an event: everybody on Harmonia-IV was there, it seemed. They let us back in because of our role in rescuing the score after it had been stolen by that conductor.
Mahler conducted his "Doomsday" Symphony December 21st, 2012, and fortunately nothing had happened, considering an Earth premiere might've had disastrous consequences.
"So, Sebastian, where is this symposium being held?" I knew this wasn't on Harmonia-IV – usually people scheduled conferences in exotic locations.
"I'm not sure," he said, pointing out Schubert who smiled and waved back.
The house was huge, ornate, like an old English palace, full of art, but everything curiously asymmetrical and not very Palladian-looking.
"I understand the owners rent out the house's public side for special events, but now they've allowed us the entire house."
It was time for the next panel. There was that crystal globe again.
I have always hated arriving at some place when I was by myself. It was one of the many reasons I felt comfortable having Cameron along, not just as an assistant or merely company. There wasn't that much for him to do but still, just his being there took a weight off my introverted shoulders. Of course, people looked askance a lot at an older man traveling with a younger man – a student – as a companion. But nowadays, I didn't give a rat's ass and he thought it amusing.
This is the school which seemed to be the right school and the building which seemed to be the right building – I was pretty sure though not entirely certain it was the right day. Not that I necessarily warranted a welcoming committee, but I looked around for someone who could at least confirm I'm expected.
I pushed open the door into a dark, empty lobby where a sign stated simply, without further assistance, "You are Here." Cameron would've pointed out that may have been all the confirmation I'd get. Maybe there's time to locate Tom Purdue's office and see if he's in but I saw no other map or directory.
It made me wonder why Tom never answered my e-mails, especially about today. Had I said something that maybe offended him? Then I noticed somebody standing there, behind that ficus tree: was it Tom?
Wandering around Escher House, I hoped to find where dinner would be served since it was to begin promptly at 6:30. This made for a tight schedule given my pre-concert talk was at 7:15. The problem was, losing track of the time, I was running so late I still needed to change for the concert.
"These doors looked imposing enough," I thought. "Perhaps this was the dining room?"
But when I managed to push them open, all I could see was an overly decorated room fit for a funeral.
Above the fireplace was an ornate, old-fashioned inscription:
Slayeth ye dragon, thy shield to win! (*)
Beneath this lay a casket, nearly surrounded by copious lilies and lilac blossoms.
I opened the lid and looked inside.
There was the old woman – dead!
Her eyes burst open with sudden, unspeakable fear...
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To be continued...
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(*) Who entereth...: This is a near-quote from Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, where the narrator is reading from Sir Launcelot Canning's story, "The Mad Trist," which he recalls as one of his friend Roderick Usher's favorite books. Shortly after this passage, he hears a noise that then leads to the revelation of the tale's final catastrophe.
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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