Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #4

In the previous installment of the "Intermezzo" which begins The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, Kerr tries to find the room where his pre-concert talk is to be given (why is it always such an up-hill battle to find anyplace at St. Sisyphus Community College?) then recalls his recent visit to the Bavarian Alps, meeting his friend Howard Zenn, and the issue over "Style Wars" at one of those not-quite-new music symposiums he'd attended some time ago (or maybe it was a dream).

(If you're completely lost, you could start at the beginning, with this introductory post, then follow the links into the subsequent installments.)

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Sitting on my back porch on an autumn-like day during this up-and-down summer, it was a respite from the recent humidity that had been turning the past few mild days into barely tolerable ones. It had annoyed me, being cooped up in the air-conditioning all day long, when the temperatures should have been so pleasant. After a series of storms and heavy rains – a bit too heavy, unfortunately – the weather, as they say, eventually turned "fine." It was pleasant to begin the day watching the birds at my feeder. Looking across the yard sloping toward the woods and the stream behind me, I felt more relaxed than in recent weeks. Not that much had changed since last time except being that much older. But it felt good to sit there with my coffee and my paper. For the moment, everything seemed to be ideal.

Over the years I had let the woods encroach more into my yard, expanding the natural refuge for the local wildlife. This became a buffer between me and the park should anything ever change. Each summer I dreaded hearing news the parkland would be sold or developed. Town spokesmen long described this park as "under-developed." From the back yard, I could ignore the fact I lived in suburbia, the steady noise from the nearby highway aside. Out back, there were deer; out front, RVs shuttled children to soccer practice.

"It's not that it's been easy, you know," a familiar voice was saying, "growing older like this, just sitting around – waiting."

I looked up but couldn't see anyone there, nor anyone in the house.

Was there a call on the answering machine? But I'd missed the ring.

"And what have you been doing with yourself?"

Again, looking around, I wondered who this early visitor was and saw nobody – that is, nothing but a squirrel sitting there.

I recognized Tom Purdue's voice – it's been years since I'd last seen him.

The squirrel sat up, folding his hands across his chest, tilted his head.

"You know," he was saying, as he strutted forward cautiously, his tail scruffy, "maybe you could offer me some sunflower seeds?"

It made me think maybe Tom had died and his soul, transformed into this squirrel, was stopping by to warn me.

"You remember that time we were talking about 'natural talent' after leaving Grimmoire?" He hopped up on the table beside me. Curiously, the squirrel looked a bit like Tom, too, mostly around the eyes.

"Yeah, actually, I do," I said, giving him a bit of my cookie. "It was something we'd both considered a curse."

As a kid, I'd thought it was great, like having a "Celestial Radio" and writing down whatever transmitted into my head.

Tom had the same feeling until reality got in the way of everything.

Of course, for him, much of it had to do with his wife Susan who divorced him after a few years, reluctant to go through life called "Sue Purdue" like some comic book character.

"It wasn't that the radio wasn't transmitting any more," he said, "I just couldn't tune in the right frequency, you know?"

The problem was, with natural talent, you didn't have to work as hard; then came the time it wasn't good enough.

"Suddenly you were 27 but writing no better than a 17-year-old with potential."

It was like you'd suddenly outgrown your prodigyhood and discovered you didn't have a solid technique to build your future on.

"That was a mess," Tom the squirrel said, "when everything fell to pieces. Well, I worked hard – then it happened again."

He shook his head slowly. "That was worse. You got any beer around?"


Sliding the glass toward her, I asked her, "A little more wine, then?"

Sondra's sudden appearance startled me, especially in Paris. I'd never been to Paris except once briefly as a student eons ago. We'd talked about going there for a honeymoon but settled instead on Florence despite the fact her maternal grandmother was French.

We're sitting at one of those ubiquitous sidewalk cafés enjoying l'heure du goûter – the French equivalent of 'tea' – near the Louvre. Our waitress Lili brought us some mille-feuilles imported from the boulangerie next door.

Sondra looked no different than she had that week we spent having lunch at this trattoria on the Piazza della Signoria or walking toward our hotel past the Casa Bardi where opera was invented. She looked radiant in the Florentine moonlight as we strolled along the Arno: somehow, she hasn't changed very much since then.

As I handed her the wine glass, I noticed wrinkles on my hand and almost wondered aloud how that could be, before seeing the reflection of white hair – mine! – in the window behind her.

"Do you really want to go to the Boboli Gardens again?" she asked. "You seemed so bored there the other day."

It occurred to me, before I could respond, that it wasn't really boredom: how thoroughly old I must seem by comparison. What must she think of me, having let myself fall apart like this?

For a few years, after I'd started teaching at Klaxon University near Doylestown, she still observed her grandmother's l'heure du goûter, home from her job at the town's public library by 4:30 or so. I rarely joined her, given my afternoon seminars, but when I could make it in time, coffee and pastries were rejuvenating.

There was a place in town that opened up that year, "Nadia's Bakery," which specialized in French pastries like those mille-feuilles. Occasionally, I might find a carefully wrapped chocolate Napoleon waiting on my desk.

The diagnosis that winter had been unexpected, already advanced – an ugly word, cancer – not an easy death as she faded away. Holding up the wine glass in my hand, I noticed she was gone. I sat there unable to recall how I'd reacted to her death, then, beyond a depth of numbness lacking in tears.


Tears were the normal response whenever we managed to outwit what we referred to as 'The Child' that summer in Maine, stuck with a 10-year-old tagging after us three aristocratic high schoolers – cool kids. Rob's parents had ordained that, as the children, we balanced the adult demographic and therefore belonged together as a self-contained unit. Cousin Maurie broke down and cried when we were able to disappear somewhere, leaving him behind, alone in the big house, or out around the island somewhere which was more cruel if not dangerous.

It was difficult to get lost on the island since one could always see where the hill at its heart rose and from there one could easily find the house facing out to sea. Maurie should have been old enough to figure this out, we had decided, but he simply hated that we'd beaten him.

Rob Sullivan's cousin, LauraLynn, called this vacation "the Summer of Jekyll & Hyde-'n'-Seek," considering how Little Maurice could change his personality, switching from the sweetly innocent boy before his mother into a detestable monster. He was determined to ruin the summer for us, claiming we'd ruined him and in the process stunted him for life.

He took to carrying a large stick, too big a walking stick for him, which he would often point at us.

"You will rue the day," he'd whisper, "you cross paths with Maurie Harty!"

Cousin Maurie, as we called him (though I was only Rob's childhood friend), was a short, odious child, ill-tempered and vindictive, who'd grown up into a short, odious adult, even more ill-tempered and vindictive. It didn't take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce, as the years marched on, he would be a thorn in our sides. He'd become, as Rob described him in a letter a few years ago, "five gallons of craziness in a three-gallon bucket." After they'd branched out into their respective careers, Maurie became their strongest competitor.

As a banker, Maurie nearly destroyed Rob's father's company and made it so uncomfortable, LauraLynn retired early from the Harty's corporation. When Rob had been murdered, LauraLynn wondered if Maurie wasn't somehow behind it.

Surprised he'd remember me all these years later, I felt myself cringe when LauraLynn warned me about my impending "Momento Maurie."


Back and forth, back and forth it went: my mind wouldn't stop racing, like I was trapped inside my own brain – but instead, it was a huge room, circular, dimly lit but weirdly silent. There was no place to hide, no safe place I could run to after having been chased down the rabbit hole. Constantly running from Tom the Squirrel, dreading meeting Cousin Maurie at LauraLynn's wedding, I would suddenly see the memory of Sondra whom I couldn't reach out to or find a way to rescue her.

What kind of parallel universe had I slipped into this time, I wondered? Why could I only remember them in dreams?

"Fine dimension you've gotten yourself into this time, a very fine dimension, indeed!"

Brahms was nattering on about Wagner's endless endlessness before being hooted down by a group calling itself the Harmonic Liberation Front.

Does history repeat in cycles, musical styles moving in waves or never-ending circles, or does it swing infinitely like a pendulum?

"It's like a march – right-brain, left-brain, right-brain, left-brain – the slow march of time."

Everything became very still, suspended, a momentary hiatus between logic and the irrational. (Here comes the pendulum again – I'd better run.)

Charging across a bright open space, I saw a spiraling staircase, a globe of clearest crystal suspended over its bottom step, luminous, as if it could contain everything that ever happened deep inside it.


Just as I reached to ring the doorbell, the front door screeched open, a low, resonant scrape against the inner soul. "Welcome to Escher House," I told myself as I set down my suitcase. The soft moan that escaped from inside was enough to chill any heart and I nearly stopped, frozen in my tracks. The air I could sense more than feel as it wafted past me was much damper and chillier than I'd expected. It gave me a slight awareness of metaphysical discomfort rather than anything physical.

Before my eyes could begin to focus in the dimness beyond the door, I was aware of the presence of someone who, standing in my way, could so far neither be seen nor heard. The room appeared small, confining – as most vestibules went, it was hardly welcoming – before I realized an old woman stood there.

Her hair was long and care-worn, gray like dull pewter rather than silver, falling lankly about her head to her shoulders and straggly as if I'd awakened her early from a habitual afternoon nap. The face was pale, her expression indicating little curiosity at who I was, her hands clasped unwelcomingly across a thin chest.

"Dour" was a word coming easily to mind as I stood there waiting, my expression hopefully masking any sense of dread.

"You must be our overnight guest," she said without much change. "Come in."

As I reached to pick up my suitcase, she very quietly said something about there being much we needed to discuss which struck me as unlikely and certainly unexpected, not knowing who she was. When I looked up, she had been replaced by an equally dour-looking butler, rather old-fashioned and portly with a condescending smile.

"Welcome to the House of Escher," he said, his voice deep and well-modulated. "You must be Dr. Curr," mispronouncing my name.

"Yes," I stammered, not sure if I should or needed to correct him.

"Uh, the woman who'd been standing here," I continued, "who opened the door...? Who was she – and what happened to her?"

"Woman, sir?" He stopped with a condescending nod. "I saw no woman, here."

He looked at me with a slight bemusement.

"Did you have a pleasant journey, sir – hmm? Not too over-taxing, I trust?"

Looking over my shoulder, I noticed a long line had formed behind me, everyone of them holding suitcases, impatient and annoyed, all eager to get into the house before it started to rain again.

"If you'll excuse me," the butler said, speaking to the people in line, "I need to see to Dr. Curr first."

"But I'm Dr. Curr," someone behind me said, despite looking nothing like me. Several others started arguing they were Dr. Curr.

"No, I'm really Dr. Curr," a buxom woman in a red skirt shouted.

"Well, you can't all be Dr. Curr, now, can you?" the butler intoned, peering down at me with slightly pronounced skepticism. "Do you have any identification, sir, to prove these others are mere imposters?"

"Actually," I said, pulling out my lecture notes with references to my composition, "the name is Kerr – K-E-R-R – rhymes with 'car'?"

"Come this way, then, Dr. Carr," the butler said, archly over-pronouncing my name. The others had vanished into wisps of mist. "My name, should you need it, is Bernard White – I'm on the staff."

Not sure what I was sure of any more, I quietly followed him, still carrying my own suitcase and watching carefully.

There were several turns but we only made left ones, it struck me, before going down steps and through the basement.

Going up flights of steps, then through a window, I was quite lost.


The side entrance to the recital hall was directly across from the classroom where the school had scheduled the pre-concert talk, though unfortunately neither Beethoven nor Schubert were able to make it (as advertised). As it turned out, not many others were able to make it, either, judging from the attendance, especially among the students. Perhaps those members of the faculty or the foundation's administration I'd met who weren't able to make it to the talk would already be waiting in the auditorium to hear Ericson-Torres play my piece.

And where in all this had my old friend Tom Purdue been? I haven't seen anything of him since I arrived. Despite our proximity, he and I had not seen each other in years. We hadn't even traded telephone calls since I'd left Klaxon several years ago, nothing but a slight handful of occasional e-mails.

There'd been no questions at the end of the talk, an unresponsive group; everyone made a hasty bee-line for the door. Unable to retrieve my CD from the computer, I'd contact someone tomorrow morning. Wandering into the hallway, I noticed everyone had gone off to the right: but didn't this door access the recital hall?

As I opened the door into the auditorium, I wondered who I'd see. It was almost dark: there was nobody there. With fifteen minutes before the concert began, why hadn't they opened the house?

I worked my way through the empty hall, stumbling artlessly over what steps I could barely see in the dim lighting, knocking my shins against what was probably a chair propped against the wall. It occurred to me perhaps I had accidentally wandered into the wrong place, unaware there was another auditorium down the hall.

Just then, a bank of lights over the stage flashed like an explosion, filling the hall with an unbearably gaudy brilliance, as I stumbled from the shock and then collapsed into a handy seat.

Somewhere in the distance, laughter expanding out across the ceiling of the hall as if it would surround me with menace. The doors across the back of the hall opened as if on cue.

One by one, some people began filtering in, including the buxom woman with the red skirt from Escher House – a critic?


"Over the years, critics have gotten a bad rap from the general populace, too often an easy target, ripe for ridicule," I explained to those stalwart few who'd come out to my pre-concert talk. I then looked around the room sheepishly, asking if anybody was a critic but was met with nothing but stony silence.

"Basically, every time we see, hear or read something and react to it, we become in a sense our own critics, forming our own opinions but rarely getting beyond an initial 'like' or 'dislike.'

"It's more important for a good critic to tie in a work's factual content and relate it to some cultural continuum with whether the composer – and the performer – succeeds in communicating with the audience.

"I will give you some basic factual background – the context – of my piece, leaving you to react as your own critic."

I explained how the commission had come about, the result of a curious coincidence in which I was visiting Howard Zenn the day he received a commission he knew he'd be unable to fulfill.

"He suggested I should write it as a centennial birthday tribute to him and it would be premiered in his honor."

"So instead of a new work by the great Howard Zenn, one of America's leading composers," the know-it-all said, sneering directly at me, "we get sloppy seconds from someone no one's ever heard of?"

It was too difficult to ignore his attitude, his beady eyes penetratingly amplified behind the thick lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses. He had challenged me, expecting a response, though I had to ignore him. Was he the local composer on the faculty who felt overlooked by a commission he felt should've rightly gone to him?

It occurred to me in a searing flash, the headache now more intense, if not Tom Purdue, was this Purdue's son? But I had never known Tom had a son, he'd never mentioned one...

Collecting my thoughts, wishing for a glass of water to calm my nerves and trying not to look directly at him, I continued how this tribute to Zenn influenced the nature of my piece.

"Another influence was Dr. Thomas Purdue, on the faculty here – an old friend..."

That was when I had a startling epiphany!


When Ericson-Torres mentioned earlier in our brief conversation that afternoon with Dean Wilsher he would need a page-turner for my piece – he preferred the security of having the printed score in front of him – she said she would do her best to find someone despite the fact most students would be going to the dance.

Following a brief pause after the Beethoven, the pianist returned to the stage, acknowledging the rather scant applause, then sat down. A scowl of concentration indicated the seriousness of the moment about to unfold.

The demure young lady who'd hesitantly followed him out at a discreet distance was dressed in pink slacks and matching sneakers and looked for all the world like someone being led to her execution.

She fumbled with the music, spreading it out carefully on the music rack, and barely sat down when the pianist began.

Even if she could read music, it probably would have made no difference: she immediately stood up then sat down again. It was obvious she'd no idea where he was – just like the pianist.

Perhaps he'd told her to turn the page when he nodded his head: unfortunately, he was of the old "duck-and-weave" school-of-playing.

At one point, he knocked her arm away as she tentatively reached forward; during a quiet passage he shouted out, "Now!"

I wouldn't have been surprised had she suddenly run off the stage, screaming.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

To be continued...

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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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