Monday, June 06, 2016

The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #3

In the previous installment of the Intermezzo that opens The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, our narrator, Dr. Kerr (to call him a 'hero' might be pushing it a bit), has finally arrived at St. Sisyphus Community College to attend the premiere of his latest composition, a piano piece he calls "Labyrinth." But this is a dream sequence and even the dream is not going well. In fact, giving the pre-concert talk or listening to the music he's composed, you could say it's become a nightmare. Along the way, as one scene modulates into another, he's attending a symposium (or two) where certain composers prove to be an opinionated bunch; and trying to figure out who this old woman is he'd first seen on that interminable bus-ride to Marple who keeps popping up in the oddest places...

(If you've arrived a little late for opening night, you can read the introductory post here and follow the links to enter The Labyrinth there.)

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The lobby was not only empty but dark – little more than emergency lighting – as if the concert were some other night. Maybe I was here on the wrong day? No, that poster said 'tonight.' In the darkness it was hard to tell: that was the pianist's photo though they'd managed to spell my name wrong. Of course, it was an hour before the program was set to begin so it was still early for the audience. My pre-concert talk started in fifteen minutes, however, and there's nobody here yet. The other problem I noticed was there weren't any signs around to indicate that they were even having a pre-concert talk much less where it was being held or who the speaker would be. Maybe I'd be talking to an empty room, assuming I could find it, or they'd be waiting for me somewhere else.

When I'd met Dean Wilsher after the pianist was rehearsing earlier this afternoon, one of the things I remember her saying was the room's right through those doors to the left of the stage. But the recital hall's doors were both locked, a folding table with a box of programs on it barring the way. Taking a handful of programs from the box, I decided to head down the hallway to the left of the auditorium. Though dimly lit, it should get me to the area behind the stage.

What was I even doing as their guest, walking around here by myself, no one from the school to greet me? Not that I hadn't been used to this, a composer fending for himself. As an introvert who'd rather work on his own than with a committee, shouldn't I be in my element with this? It helps to know the lay of the land, considering I was never good at figuring out directions on my own. Directions were difficult enough to ask for when anybody was around to ask.

Once I noticed the hallway around the auditorium kept leading away from it, I tried imagining some architect's "you-are-here" floor plan, nothing but left turns and dark rooms that were neither classrooms nor offices. Soon, I was in the "Ancient History Department", populated by stoop-shouldered, long-bearded professors, none of them helpful in pointing the way.

That was when I first saw the small sign that said "Pre-Concert Talk," its arrow pointing back the way I'd come, though I'm not sure how I could have missed anything along the way. As I neared the lobby again, minutes later, a dimly lit corridor I'd not seen before veered off to the left. As I walked cautiously toward a lighted room down at the farther end, I noticed a signboard on a music stand. It read:

Meet the Composers – Beethoven, Carr, Schubert

("Well, this should be interesting").

My fellow composers on the program, not surprisingly, had yet to show up – the room was empty except for Sarah Fuller who was busy setting up the computer with its CD player and screen. She explained how the system worked, too rapidly for this Luddite to comprehend, and then turned to leave with her apologies.

Looking quickly around, she explained, "So many things to see to with this event," with a wave of her free hand, the other loaded down with a bureaucrat's burden of folders and loose papers. "Oh, don't be disappointed if there aren't many students here," she continued, "there's a big dance tonight, first of the semester."

The room was a cinder-block cave that might once have been painted pink with chairs more suitable for a middle school. The cover on the piano was still locked and I saw no key.


By the time I'd discovered what the problem was, the taxi sped away, leaving me no time to check the seat to see if I'd left my suitcase (or more importantly, my notes) behind after such a strange ride that took me – I swear – all over town for a short distance I could have walked.

"It's the one-way streets," the cabby said in a flash of talkativeness, "they all go the wrong way – a philosophical conundrum..." He sounded like he was from Boston, perhaps, most likely a former professor.

The sun was out when I got off the bus the first time but that, I realized, was the wrong stop, though I could see the entrance to the campus off to my right. It had clouded over and threatened to rain the second time I arrived, the entrance now farther off to my left.

Carrying my suitcase and tucking my notes securely back into my coat pocket, I walked up to a rather unremarkable doorway, typically generic like so many academic institutions today, despite housing the arts departments. Red tulips and daffodils, nodding in the breeze, made it even more generic, everything having been designed from a pre-packaged box.

When I got inside and looked around, the hallway was empty of people and reminded me of my old high school. Then I saw an elderly janitor, half asleep, standing beside a potted ficus.

"Oh, I know what you're thinking," he said, leading the way to the recital hall, "how easy to be a janitor – though we prefer the term 'custodial engineer,' ourselves – 'wish I was a janitor.' How much training could it take – right? – keeping everything so clean and healthy-looking? I don't mean book-learning – things you can't teach! Why, it takes a lot more than just swishing some old mop around – tricks-of-the-trade we must pick up, not just dust! Think what the place'd be like without us – a sorry mess, for sure."

He pointed to the lobby and continued walking. "Takes a lot of hard work, late nights especially with a tough stain. Not that anyone would notice unless we weren't doing our job, would they? People think it must be fun – 'Why, I wouldn't want to be paid just to have fun.' Well, here you are..."


It was an intriguing thought, really, how a child becomes interested in something, deciding what he wants to be, growing up (or she, of course – my male bias showing through, lacking a suitable pronoun): at what point do children of either gender (or gender persuasion, to be correctly politically correct) decide what their futures hold? We talk about child prodigies when it comes to the arts often enough – the market is full of them, these days – but where are the youthful experts when it comes to bureaucrats or janitors?

What would most people do if their children saw a commercial on TV and decided they really wanted to become venture capitalists in their professional lives – or even worse, used car salesmen or politicians? Many have no idea what they want to do for a career until faced with the need to earn a living.

It seems odd society is transfixed by images of children singing and dancing when society doesn't offer them a living wage once these children decide to become singers or dancers in an adult world, or pursue a solo career, play in an orchestra or even compose – good grief, what's more counter-productive than becoming a composer?

As if those who barely have enough talent to succeed realize how much work it'll take to achieve their childhood dreams, do we need another piano-playing janitor bitter over failing to reach a goal?

Of course we do – well, maybe not the bitterness part exactly, but shouldn't everybody play the piano, sing in a choir or have some artistic experience acting in a play or painting the sunset? Experts tell us art helps wire our brains and makes us more sociable but funding for the arts is constantly disappearing. And the only thing that really tells us is, while it's fun, it's not actually necessary, your dreams aren't that important: what you realistically need to have, art aside, is a reliable "Plan B."

Wouldn't it be great if we all had the talent and the self-confidence not to need a "Plan B" behind us, that we could all develop ourselves to find some way of being productive? Since we judge members of society on how productive or unproductive they are, what could be nobler than becoming a janitor?


Sebastian Crevecoeur stood with me outside my office at the far end of the building that housed Cutler University's music department, a self-consciously modern building which hadn't aged well, lacking dignity and academic charm. Though small, the problem was my office's location next to a small lounge with its loudly clanking candy and soda machines. Barely big enough to hold a cat much less swing one, they then squeezed a small upright piano through the door. I had to crawl over the piano bench just to reach my desk.

Most of the boxes of books I needed were piled in the hallway since there was no room inside to unpack. Any student coming for a consultation would have to lean against the door. Sebastian agreed this was a problem as we walked down to the departmental office, but this was my first year teaching...

The hallway, winding past offices around sharp corners, alternated between darkness or light, and seemed to take forever to get there. The Dean, as it happened, was out to lunch, his secretary told us.

When I asked her to consider my request as politely as I could, she said, "It's already moved – across the hall."

There, between the mail room and a supply closet, was a much more spacious room, my books and piano already installed. In one box, my cat Schroedinger looked dead, then sat up and stretched.


Threats of winter storms were taken seriously in the Bavarian Alps above Garmisch-Partenkirchen, especially in the chalet where Howard Zenn lived, overlooking the alpine valley between the Zugspitze above and the Loisach River below. He'd recently hired a couple of servants to help look after the place: otherwise, he and his nephew lived there alone. Unless the storms were expected to be really fierce, Zenn was reluctant to leave just because it was going to snow. But come Christmastime, he was more and more concerned about being totally isolated. He decided, given the forecast, it was time to make the seasonal migration to his flat in Munich a little earlier, activating decades-old routines to close up what was originally a 14th Century castle. It was like wrapping everything in sheets on the summer estate to move back into the city house for 'the season.'

Cameron and I had arrived for our visit just a few days before, finding ourselves in the midst of furious packing, several of the smaller rooms already closed off, the library full of boxes. Even though the Munich flat, still a sizable living space, was completely furnished, he still moved a fair amount of stuff. By our second day there, the servants and the movers had put everything on the truck and driven off to Liebigstrasse, leaving Zenn and Will to follow in their private helicopter before the storm.

Zenn apologized to us between the chaos of moving and his need to compose at least a few hours a day, especially with his 100th birthday coming up and new works still to finish. When we set up our trip, he'd planned on staying through Christmas Day, but an ominous weather forecast changed all that. There was considerable snow on the ground after a not unusually difficult storm, but this was one of those "monster storms," the kind American meteorologists loved to scare us with on the evening news.

"Rather than take the train in from Garmisch," Will suggested, "why don't you ride along with Howard and me to Munich? I'll be flying the heli right into the airport – there's plenty of room." We'd be taking a jet directly to London in time for LauraLynn's wedding, assuming the weather didn't get in our way.

One of the leading if less-known American composers of our day, typically more talked about than performed and recorded, Howard Zenn had a penchant for black turtlenecks, bluejeans and usually shabby, brown tweed jackets. An African-American living in Germany since The War, he'd become a successful millionaire more from his investments than from his music. If you didn't recognize him or his voice, you might mistake him for an old retainer, the retired gardener, most likely, but he was one of the more highly regarded "challenging" composers writing today.

Zenn's latest string quartet had only recently been premiered by the Drang Quartet – its American premiere would mark his 100th birthday – but there were still requests coming in to accept commissions for new works.

"And where were any of these," he groaned, "back when I was thirty, longing for recognition after my first major premiere?"

In that day's mail was something from some foundation near where I lived, hoping to commission a brand new piano sonata written for "the brilliant young pianist, Carter Ericson-Torres" whom neither of us knew.

"I'll write them and decline but say you'll write it 'in my honor' – well, if you want to take the commission...?"

Walking into his living room, hoping not to sound too eager or grateful, I swore I saw someone outside the window, a large, bald man in a tuxedo who, in a flash, had disappeared.

Howard immediately set Will to writing the reply – "e-mail, since it'll be quicker" – apologizing for being unable to accept their commission but suggesting they consider a friend of his whom he could highly recommend.

Reading it over for errors, Zenn peered into the computer and then smiled – "you're okay with this, Terry?" – then hit 'send.'

He said I would be doing him a big favor, helping him out, since this way they'll have a new piece rather than him just telling them, "sorry, but I can't quite manage it."

"Besides," Zenn pointed out, typically how his mind worked, "your names are 'near-palindromes' – Carter Ericson-Torres and Terrance Richard Kerr? (close enough)" – as tenuous a way of connecting a composer to a performer as ever.

It would be some pretty big shoes to fill considering their original plan but, hey, a hand-me-down was better than nothing.

After a leisurely lunch of left-over roast lamb, Cameron checked the forecast and noticed the storm's arrival had been moved up: instead of sometime tomorrow afternoon, the front edge might reach Garmisch before midnight.

"Well then," Zenn said, pushing his plate away, "perhaps we'd better leave now?" Cameron and I quickly cleared off the table.

Will, having cleared the flight plan, said we could leave in fifteen minutes since everything was packed and ready to go. Cameron and I helped Zenn with his Scorrevole (*), following him down the hallway.

Zenn rode this scooter (something like a high-end Segway) everywhere around the house, saying it was much better than a wheel-chair. This hallway soon turned into a secret passageway carved deeper into the rock. I tried not to look over my shoulder, thinking we were being followed, but occasionally I kept hearing something behind us.

Before long, it opened into a cavernous room with an immensely high ceiling: there was Will waiting beside a futuristic-looking helicopter! Within a few minutes, we'd climbed inside and settled comfortably into our seats.

The wall in front of us opened to reveal Garmisch-Partenkirchen far below us as the helicopter flew out over the valley. We'd been inside a hangar built deep in the side of a cliff!

Looking back toward the hangar which proceeded to close behind us, I wondered: "Whatever happened to the man in the tux?"


Sitting around the student lounge at Grimmoire Conservatory, Tom Purdue and I discussed things we'd been told in our weekly lessons by the once-eminent composer Artur Merlynski who had once studied with Nadia Boulanger. During the first semester's lessons, typical of Grimmoire, Merlynski offered some basic information to help us unlock our own creative secrets. This involved a whole different approach to listening to music of any style and getting beyond the "like" or "dislike" reaction, so often the usual approach to hearing a piece for the first time.

Most composition lessons dealt with the abstracts of craft, those regulations of harmony and rules of counterpoint which students must absorb, though of course the real essence of one's creative success isn't academic study: "it's the thing which cannot be explained – nor, alas, can it be taught, that thing which we normally call, simply, talent."

Lessons with Merlynski, by then in his mid-60s, sounded like studies in alchemy passed down from one wizard to the next, a long line of wizards keeping alive the musical mysteries of the past. It wasn't a philosophical constant like a stone but something more fluid, ever-changing, something which we jokingly called "The Composer's Potion."

"It's not," Merlynski said, "merely following the instructions – like cooking with a recipe to concoct, from our own ingredients, a symphony: by understanding how these function, we might create music that lives and breathes."

If we thought of each aspect of what we hear in the music as part of a living person, he said, we could make every aspect of this music work together like a body.

"Melody, then," Merlynski explained, "is like the skin and harmony, like the muscles that support the skin and give it shape. Rhythm is the life's blood of the music, bringing its energy to everything. And form – the structure – is the skeleton, like our bones holding everything up, just as a person stands, walks, and moves."

He told us not to think of one aspect (or "parameter") at a time but all in relation to each other. "What makes the music 'work' isn't a beautiful melody or a chord progression. The muscles couldn't possibly work without the bones. The skin, beautiful or not, is a pile of skin cells without either."

This made the analysis of music, something which I already thought rather gruesome, more like an autopsy done in the morgue, focusing on one particular aspect at a time before coming to some conclusion, painstakingly examining every aspect of the music's body – skin, blood, muscles and bones – not to make too much of the analogy. Yet the result, the coroner's report, might seem as inexplicable as life itself, that the melody worked because of this particular rhythmic pattern here at a specific structural point defined by that harmonic resolution.

It made me laugh sitting there talking about this with Tom – still does – considering the work we'd put into composing something, then a performer brings it to life before it's killed by a critic, and then have some overly scientific theorist lay it out on a slab and unmercifully tear it apart, bit by bit.

"How far back," Tom asked, "do you think we can trace Merlynski's wizardry?"

"You mean like 'The Begats' in the Bible?"

So we went to the library and found the volumes of Grove's Dictionary.

Starting with Merlynski's teacher, Nadia Boulanger, we found she studied with Fauré who studied with Saint-Saëns – so far, all very impressive – then back to Halévy and the great Cherubini, then Sarti, Padre Martini, Perti, Corso, and finally Giacomo Carissimi in the mid-1600s: an unbroken chain going back over 325 years, yet changing with every generation.


And that was going back almost a hundred years before Johann Sebastian Bach which most people would probably consider overkill, anyway, since who these days, beyond the "experts," cared much about music before Bach? How unlikely was it this would automatically put us on a list of great composers and teachers in some future generation? Most would remember Saint-Saëns' name even if all they knew was 'The Swan,' and musicians might recall Cherubini from history classes, but how many had knowingly heard music by Fromental Halévy or Giuseppe Sarti? It was also unlikely the man who composed the oratorio Jepthe around 1650 – we'd figured out Carissimi would've been our 9x-great-grandteacher – would have any impact on who we were as composers in the 1970s. What amazed us, sitting amidst volumes of Grove's, was the continuity of it, all these centuries of the torch being passed.

Over a few weeks, recently – and I don't attend many organ recitals, now – I'd heard two performances of Bach's 'Gigue' Fugue (that's BWV. 577, for those of you following along in the Big Book) which were so different, it amazed me they were both the same piece – and both performers played all the right notes. Unfortunately, I no longer had any students I could point this out to, unable to use both performances as in-class examples. One was a well-known organist come to town; the other, a local student.

Of course, one friend of mine thought the touring virtuoso was the better of the two but I disagreed with him, remembering what Professor Merlynski told me at that lesson over forty years earlier, thinking that the student had a better grasp on what made it dance and not because his tempo was slightly faster. His performance immediately struck me, as a listener, that he understood how the rhythm, the harmony and the structure worked together, reinforcing our expectations from what Bach had been able to put on paper.

There are two misconceptions that organists must overcome – the instrument (as Stravinsky once complained) "never breathes"; Bach sounds like a sewing-machine – and which can be taken care of by a judicious use of phrasing. Doing it, unfortunately, is easier than explaining it: not everyone hears the difference, plus there are those who simply won't notice.

This brief fugue is essentially not a complicated work despite being intricately complex (the difference between the surface and underlying layers) even if all you do while you're listening is automatically tap your foot. It skips along with its steady rhythmic patterns which make the surface dance while its less obvious structural expectations flow underneath. Tempos aside (the difference between a youthful dancer and someone who's more middle-aged), the manner in which the long melodic note is released gives direction toward the end of the phrase: articulation is energy.

Two of the segments veer off from the home tonic into related keys – not that it matters to the untrained ear – but with no distinction between them, one loses the resolution of returning home. If the performer doesn't have any sense of what is high or low, everything before us becomes merely flat, doesn't it?

Yet despite the bouncing rhythms and the constant increasing and decreasing of textures, independent lines moving in and out of awareness, this little jig's still a fugue, one of music's more fearsomely intellectual terms. We have, on the surface, something we can enjoy without stretching our brains with something intelligent underneath to augment our hearts.

It is how these meet at certain points which makes a performance the sum of its parts or a loose collection: nothing in the recipe tells us how to combine the heart and mind.


The panel was already underway when I walked past the room's open doors and caught the fractious sounds of an argument which sounded fairly heated as various voices rose to challenge each other simultaneously. I checked the signboard to see if I was at the right place: "Classical vs Romantic: Apollo & Dionysus Meet Again!" It had been scheduled for this cavernous, ornamented space called 'The Cube Room' in this house so evidently inspired by mathematics. There were flashes of gold amidst turquoise and cream upholstery and marble fireplaces.

"His music sounds like trigonometry," one voice bewailed, "mathematics barely disguised as music – nothing but formulas and graphs, dry as dust."

"Sounds like somebody'd gone and died from an extremely nasty case of constipation."

"Better than that gaudy musical harlotry we heard last night – savage, incoherent bellowings. Beauty is no longer admired, only the hideous!"

Apparently we were not going to have any civility in this on-going discussion, judging from the hoots greeting the last speaker who sat down with a glowering expression on his face, contemptuous and dismissive.

"This afternoon's recital included a perfect example of old-fashioned music – Brahms' 'Handel Variations' – that ended with, of all things, a fugue!"

"One sees what may still be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them."

"If, for some reason, anyone would want to do that," another one laughed.

The symposium was going along at full tilt, just as Sauerbraten had predicted: "You see why they're calling it 'Style Wars'? It invariably descends to name-calling and arcane partisanship, regardless which generation it is."

Some of those on the panel I recognized – there was Liszt, looking annoyed – but most of them were unknown to me.

"In the past, music was meant to delight people" – Tchaikovsky had started speaking – "but now we're tormented and exhausted by it."

"You should know," someone else sneered. "Your violin concerto stinks in the ear!" It was the very strong stench of a cigar that got my attention when I looked up and saw Johannes Brahms. He smiled at me, nodding, then turned his bulk inquisitively toward the noise.

"Ach, they do go on about this year after year," he said, smiling. "I mean, after all, what's the point – seriously?"

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To be continued...

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(*) scorrevole: Italian for (as you might guess) "scurry" and a favorite descriptor in Elliott Carter's music. A favorite composer of mine, Carter died shortly before his 104th birthday and was an obvious inspiration for the character of Howard Zenn. Here, scorrevole is used as a brand name for a kind of motorized scooter Zenn uses to get around his chalet. Elevators may have gotten him from floor to floor, but that is all explained in The Lost Chord.

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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

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