Wednesday, June 15, 2016
The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #7
In the previous installment of the "Intermezzo" which begins The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, the composer's nightmare continues: after almost getting to hear the pianist rehearse his new piece, he ends up joining him for a beer at the student lounge (and what do you think they serve at St. Sisyphus Community College?) which isn't made any easier when he realizes he can hear the man's thoughts. He recalls a student who didn't like Bartok but loved Mahler (though not at first); and after a few more appearances of the Old Woman, Kerr walks into the parlor at Escher House and finds a coffin laid out, surrounded by lilies and lilacs, wondering whose funeral he had walked in on.
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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The audience was finally brought to attention by the presence of Adam Whitehead, an eminent English musicologist from the late-18th Century who chaired the panel, "Bach, Harmonia and Perfection: Music from the Organic Garden."
We were meeting in the grand ballroom of this great house, resplendent in white and gold trim with rich burgundy walls. The panel's dais, placed before a large fireplace, sat under a fabulous painting of three elegant ladies robed in turquoise gowns with towering powdered wigs, standing in a small grove before a Greek temple.
Dr. Whitehead, nodding and bowing, began by introducing various members of the panel before explaining how Bach's music had grown organically from ideas that, "for all their novelty and invention, imitate and perfect Nature."
He also stressed that Bach was the middle ground between those rigorously "improved" French gardens and the Englishman's more natural landscape.
The first speaker, another 18th Century musicologist named John Farmer, began quite elegantly how Bach's music was dismissed for its complexity by people who were unable to comprehend the simplest applications of his art.
"And yet, because they failed to appreciate its beauties, they could not fathom how it possessed beauties to delight we connoisseurs.
"For those with no understanding of science to comprehend the writings of Newton," he continued, "once sufficiently advanced in their studies found they could not only appreciate them but easily discuss them quite knowledgeably."
The next speaker, whose name I hadn't heard but who somehow looked familiar, rose and carried the topic a bit further, how "True Art" had to be guarded by those who truly understood it.
To me, a lot of this rehashed that old "Trickle Down Enlightenment" theory, which meant only rich people could appreciate art.
If it existed for the cognoscenti, they argued, enough of it would survive to be experienced in passing by those who could, say, no longer afford to attend performances but sought to better themselves.
"I don't like all this talk about 'advanced education' and the connoisseurs finding delight in advanced Science." Sebastian shook his head. "Basically, he's saying only smart people with advanced degrees best appreciate something intellectual."
"I've always been a big believer in the More-You-Know Theory, myself," I said.
"Yes, but he's going far beyond music appreciation."
Most people had a casual acquaintance with art and usually didn't understand anything about it, the largest percentage of potential listeners, while other people knew what they liked (or rather, liked what they knew).
Some expanded that awareness, like increasing their appreciation of a sport by studying its rules and the subtleties of playing it.
"But nobody has to go to school and earn a degree in football so they can watch a game," Sebastian argued.
"This man's advocating Bach's music should only be accessible to the Learnèd Few?"
"When I say he's a 'bad man,' I mean he's the opposite extreme of those disciples of the Great Dumbing Down."
I knew, of course, Sebastian meant SHMRG, always pursuing the lowest, commonest denominator.
"I'd been studying these secret societies of the past," he explained, "seeking to exclude anyone not 'smart enough' to appreciate Art."
"So they're, like, members of the Classical 1%?"
Somebody behind us coughed slightly to let us know we were being overheard.
"Shhhh!" Sebastian looked around like he was caught in a conspiracy theorists' convention.
Fortunately, our seats were along the side aisle so we weren't that obtrusive when he rose to leave, grabbing my hand.
"Trust me," Sebastian said, his finger to his lips as we scuttled out, "it's not like you need to know this."
"But what're you scared of?"
"The Aficionati," he shuddered. (*1) "I'm afraid they're back!"
What did Ericson-Torres mean, "the game was identifying the game?" Was that it? Was premiering a new piece just a game? What about all the interpretive questions he might have for Beethoven or Schubert? And yet when he had a new piece that's never been heard before, he ignores a composer he could talk to.
We continued walking down the brilliantly lit underground hallway on our way, presumably, to the student lounge and a cold beer. There's no sense dwelling on any issues if he could read my mind.
In addition to our echoing footsteps and being able to hear Ericson-Torres' thoughts, I heard a quiet rush like distant water, perhaps an underground stream or maybe water or steam pipes somewhere above us.
Then I realized, like a sensory deprivation chamber, it was so quiet I could hear the blood coursing through my ears.
"How do I tell him I hate his piece," I heard Ericson-Torres think.
"Wow, this is awkward." I just kept walking.
"Why, you need a road map just to find your way through it!"
"It's no more complicated than the form of a Mahler symphony," I thought.
"He could have called it 'The Higgelty-Piggelty Variations'..."
Then he complained about patterns he found difficult to get under his hands, without calling it badly written for the piano.
"If all you play is Haydn and Mozart, Chopin's patterns don't come easily..."
It occurred to me – and this was weird – that I could hear his thoughts (since I wasn't actually reading his mind), but, given what thoughts followed, he wasn't responding to what I was thinking. Did that mean he couldn't hear my thoughts? If not, did that mean he wasn't smart enough to read my mind?
"At least his music suggests some nice images: like those chubby mooing crickets and mournfully chirping cows," he thought.
"Isn't it amazing, this power that music has?" The epiphany quite fascinated him.
As we reached the end of the hallway and approached the steps up to the ground level, I felt quite hungry. I know he wanted a beer, but what was there to talk about?
Then, too, there was a matter of settling myself in at Escher House.
The clock in the lounge said 2:30.
This wasn't helping me find the dining room or get changed in time. Speaking of time, what exactly was the time? It's as if every room in Escher House had its own time zone. And while every place I went seemed to be recently vacated by someone, I only ever saw this same old woman. Who was she and why was she there, every time I turned around, and what was she trying to tell me? It got to the point I was afraid to look over my shoulder.
She wasn't dressed like one of the servants, even from an earlier century, more like a widow who'd been a librarian. When I asked one girl who worked here, she immediately said, "Ms. Escher?" I'd barely described the woman I'd seen when she mentioned Ms. Escher's name. But she said she'd died sixty years ago.
Not keen on warnings from beyond the grave, I thought Ms. Escher's daughter – how old would she be now, I wondered – didn't actually work here any more but maybe had escaped from the attic. Could she have been the pianist's maiden aunt locked away with her dementia? Was she aware her nephew was performing tonight?
But surely, these days, there were other ways of dealing with elderly relatives suffering what used to be dismissed as senility? But that didn't help explain how she would suddenly appear then immediately disappear.
This door opened into a long room, narrow with large windows looking down over the town, the campus on the right. A quick scan of the room proved it was empty: no old ladies. Entering stealthily, I hoped I could reach my room from the opposite end. Then I noticed a painting by the window.
In it, a man looked out a window over a town, college buildings on the right – just like the real view! There was an old woman peering back at him through another distant window.
Beneath that window where the old woman stood, I could barely see another man looking at a painting of a town. Was this image replicating itself within the image? Someone stood behind the man.
That's when I could feel someone breathing against my neck. I turned slowly.
It was the old woman!
"What the hell...?"
And when I stopped running, I thought I'd lost Sebastian along the way – how far away from the symposium were we?
"Ah," he'd mumbled under his breath, "our leaving has been observed – hurry up."
He never really explained who these Aficionati were or what caused this fear. But there's very clearly something that's frightening him.
I didn't hear him say anything about separating, where we should meet, later: there must be millions of places to hide.
Once again, I was hurrying across this great hall with its magnificent staircase.
I could gaze into that crystal globe forever and see myself staring into its perfect sphere at everything it ever witnessed. Was this the Aleph that contained all things, from which all understanding flowed?
But that's not the point, I told myself, not now nor anytime soon. I must stay focused, steering clear of danger.
Will it tell me who the Aficionati are, why Sebastian's afraid of them? Is this another plot to destroy classical music? Has the pendulum swung back, the circle come 'round again, the wave collapsed?
But I can't get caught in another adventure, out to save classical music like that time we'd somehow landed on Harmonia-IV.
There's a crime scene I must attend to, my piece has been murdered: at least, I have to clear my name!
Besides, I can't be late for the wedding – I can't miss LauraLynn's wedding!
When I was a student – when Tom Purdue and I were both graduate students in our early-20s – our teachers were old, never really thinking much how old but old enough to be considered successful. It would take so many years to earn your degrees and become established but we never bothered to do the math.
Artur Merlynski had turned 50 some years before we arrived at Grimmoire Conservatory, not that it was much of a celebration. For the moment, yes, perhaps, but the glory soon faded like stale cake.
At the beginning of the New Millennium, nobody'd thrown me a 50th Birthday party with even a hint of cross-campus fame. By the time I turned 60, I'd been laid off a few weeks. So much for calculating an artist's age by one's success in the world. So much for retirement nest eggs and laurel-resting.
The dePaula Escher Foundation had granted me $8,000 to write a twenty-minute piano piece for Carter Ericson-Torres which I called "Labyrinth," half what they'd offered Zenn but I had less than half his fame. Perhaps they figured I could compose the piece in a few weeks' time, giving me (at my level) a munificent sum.
Even so, it took me almost six months to complete it, averaging about five hours a day, six days a week. I figured it out to $15.47 an hour, not exactly a princely wage.
The thought occurred to me to bring this up in my pre-concert talk – "The Economics of Composing" – but it sounded petty considering most people in the audience would think the Foundation had been robbed.
I could've said "Only $8,000 – I won't spend much time on this, then," dashing off something at least easier to compose.
But arguments about the longevity of art and the price of one's integrity interest the audience even less than the bureaucrats. Ultimately, I had only myself to reckon with and Howard Zenn to honor.
Still, there were daily fears, as I composed: I was losing my grip, that I'd never lived up to my potential, that the adventure (such as I imagined creativity to be) had somehow passed.
And yet there was Howard Zenn, pushing 100, still going strong, still composing. It was both an inspiration and a frustration.
You never knew who you'd run into at Patelson's, the Best Little Score-House in New York City to most classical musicians, and one afternoon, while browsing through Bartók, I mean quite literally "ran into." Visitors from touring orchestras and soloists performing across the street at Carnegie Hall mingled with professionals, students and music-lovers at Patelson's.
I had only ever seen photos of Sherman Cooke, not one of the big names in American music but highly respected. As a child, I had hoped to study with him some day, perhaps.
A romanticist at heart who was once considered brilliant as a young man, Cooke may have long ago passed his prime but he still had fans – like me – who adored what he'd already composed. It was a shame he'd written nothing new over the past dozen years. At 72, he had unfortunately outlived his reputation.
Academic serialists, then in ascendance if not in popularity, called him "Short-Order Cooke" who wrote mostly half-baked symphonies and cream-puff ballets. Friends said he'd never quite recovered from his last opera's failure, Anna Karenina. One critic dismissed it as "beyond his meager culinary skills and about as palatable as a soft-boiled egg that's arrived overdone."
Hearing a commotion behind me in the narrow aisle, I turned around and saw, too late, Sherman Cooke standing beside me. Without intending to, I'd stepped on his foot and he looked quite wounded.
"Art was how we perceived it," I'd say. "No two people could ever look at it, read it or hear it and react to it quite the same way. That's what makes it Art."
Everybody might agree, to some extent, that Beethoven's Ninth was a masterpiece but not everyone agreed it was a great symphony.
A student disliked Bartók because he didn't meet the criteria of the familiar.
"It didn't matter whether it was an accurate assessment as long as the person believed it was true: Perception Is Everything!"
But the process of turning the unfamiliar into something familiar – acceptable – took effort. One student in the back row wondered how we'd ever arrive at the truth if our perception was all that mattered.
She argued every answer was right whether I thought it wrong or not: "That's how I perceive it – that's what counts."
She wasn't there every time I recalled this scene, sitting in that back row, glowering at me like some all-suffering know-it-all. When I recollected this event, which of these memories was the real one?
Which, in fact, with any memory was the real one, edited over time? Was I imagining her – was this my perception?
I couldn't quite remember her name – usually quiet but often wildly argumentative, like the time she got into "Quantum Music Theory."
Then there was that mass of unkempt silvery hair, platinum blonde – Claudia Something-or-Other...?" (*2)
It never occurred to me I might've been such an idiot in college, a brash young student engaging in outlandish arguments. Perhaps I did it to impress my teachers, or more likely impress myself. If I could convince others I knew everything, they wouldn't see my insecurities. Then I could bluff my way through life.
I was as invincible as I was vulnerable no matter what I tried, even when only showing one side of that. There was no success in exposing our vulnerabilities, so we perfect our disguises.
All the bullshit I composed as a student, a bit of this today, another bit I tacked on the next day, all these bits making a longer piece by accretion, not by cellular division.
"What the hell're you doing," my teacher exploded. "That's not composing – that's quilting!"
I looked at him, shocked. "God, he knows...!"
Sebastian had somehow gotten ahead of me and motioned for me to hurry which didn't strike me as a bad idea. But what was the plan? (Was there one?) Where do we go, now?
He also motioned for me to be quiet, and to stay down low. The hallway began to fill up with people.
We ducked into one of the side rooms which was, for now, empty, and I barely had time to notice the array of geometrical shapes embedded in the décor and especially across the floor.
"Quick, someone's coming! Over here." Sebastian nodded toward a settee in the corner. We'd hardly gotten behind it when Beethoven entered.
"Ah, but even I," he was telling someone, "was constantly riddled by insecurities."
It was especially difficult after losing the love of his life and all the world wanted was the music of Rossini.
We could hear Brahms braying in the hallway. "Ach, Herr Tüsch'l-Püsch'l, will you continue torturing me by playing my music again?"
This outburst was followed by some nervous laughter and the smell of cigars.
It was a young woman with Beethoven – I thought it was Lili Boulanger.
"Is Brahms always such a jerk," she asked.
"Just last week, he was saying some awful things to Ravel," Beethoven explained, "such mean-spirited stuff that even poor Clara blushed.
"But come, I believe it's time for lunch." Beethoven gave Lili his arm.
"We'd better get out of here," Sebastian whispered. "We must warn the others."
The role of "we" continued to mystify me.
After Beethoven escorted Ms. Boulanger out the door, the room was again empty.
"I believe they're using this conference to revive their ancient ideas and rituals."
"You mean they're some Satanic cult – musical extremists...?"
"If they realize we're on to them and what they're planning," Sebastian whispered, "we could be in big trouble, I'm afraid."
I mentioned I had no idea who they were or what they've planned.
"Sebastian, who are these people you call Aficionati?" It sounded like some kind of medieval secret society, and no doubt sinister.
What he began to explain was just that: medieval, secret and ultimately evil.
"More importantly, why would they be after us?"
Then I noticed someone was standing there, blocking our way. It was Beethoven.
The woman I'd thought was Tom Purdue walked over and extended her hand. She didn't look in the least like Purdue.
"Hello, I'm Dr. Madeline Wilsher, Dean of Fine Arts here at St. Sisyphus."
I apologized for being late but was hoping I'd be able to locate an old friend of mine, Dr. Thomas Purdue.
"Ah, very sad about him, though, isn't it?"
"Sad? Why – has something happened?"
"About his having been diagnosed with Usher Syndrome...?"
That meant he was gradually going deaf and blind.
"How horrible – is he...?"
"Did you get to hear that new piece?" Before I could explain, she continued, "awful piece of trash – waste of money. And poor Carter hates it, can't make head nor tail out of it.
"I have been a life-long classical music aficionado," she added, putting special emphasis on the word aficionado, "just like my parents..."
I took a deep breath and interrupted her.
"Hi, I'm Dr. T. Richard Kerr, a.k.a. the composer of that new piece."
It was an awkward moment of recognition hanging in the air between us.
For that moment, I noticed a piercing glance which flickered, then quickly disappeared.
Suddenly weak in the knees, I became nauseous.
"Oh, I'm sure it will be lovely, tonight," the Dean said, smiling blandly. "The weather's supposed to be wonderful, I hear."
If a good forecast would help my nerves, maybe I would feel better.
Beethoven asked, "Gentlemen, what's the matter?" nodding at Sebastian before patting my shoulder. "What are you frightened about? There's..."
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to be continued...
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(*1) The Aficionati: where certain elements of the "Intermezzo" look back on previous novels in the trilogy or look ahead to the up-coming novel, this reference to the Aficionati looks forward to a plot-thread that will be encountered in the next novel in the series which I am currently working on, In Search of Tom Purdue.
(*2) Claudia Something-or-Other: this would be Klavdia Klangfarben, the villain of The Doomsday Symphony who also figured in The Lost Chord and who is about to resurface in the third novel of the trilogy. Because of the nature of time-travel in the first novel, the traveler could not always remember exactly what occurred while in the past and, since something critical happened to Klavdia during one of those time-jumps, she did not always reappear in Kerr's past experiences because, well... that's what happens when you mess with the past and therefore inadvertently affect the future, isn't it?
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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