Friday, September 21, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 6 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, we caught up with N. Ron Steele, the disgraced CEO of SHMRG who's being hunted by the International Music Police and the FBI for various musical crimes as well as his involvement in several murders. His current “undisclosed location” is an island in the South Pacific, where he is accompanied by his trusted secretary, Holly Burton, and his I.T. Guy, Agent Bill Cable who has discovered a new project that might help restore SHMRG's fortunes. It seems some has-been composer named Thomas Purdue has developed an Artificial Creativity program called “Clara,” though Steele (who's using the pseudonym Rex Fisher at the moment) is not quite so impressed.

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *


Both tables around Tom's computer, wherever there was space, were littered with numerous white cardboard take-out containers and a pizza box, more than I'd imagined necessary to feed the five of us, waiting patiently, the air thick with the mixed scents of Chinese, Thai, meatloaf and pepperoni washed down with beer, soda or plain water. I doubted Purdue's dark and almost musty basement ever smelled like this before, certainly not so noisy as it was now, while Zeno looked on with some confusion, watching us from the bottom step. With Cameron and I, take-out in hand, hovering around behind her right shoulder and Martin and Dorothy leaning over her left, Amanda, once Purdue's computer started humming back to life, inserted the flash drive. Ironic, I thought, considering we were hoping this would answer all our questions, proof Clara was in fact alive and well.

Amanda first tried the computer in Purdue's study – I'd noticed a blister pack for a USB drive in the wastebasket, there – and while it took forever to boot up, you could feel the anticipation. But the computer couldn't read anything on the drive, insisting it was empty; using another port kept bringing up error messages. Shutting the computer off along with all the lights, we trooped back downstairs, grabbed some dinner and headed into the basement. We realized by now anticipation was not enough to feed our growing hunger.

When anticipation mounts, we expect it to resolve in a satisfying way which was how we felt leaving the dance school until we realized those police cars we'd heard were parked down the street. And there, right beside our getaway car, stood the unmistakable figure of Detective Narder silhouetted against the headlights: we'd been trapped. They must've been called because someone reported a break-in at the dance school, so the proverbial jig was once again up. Fortunately, Dorothy's skill as a sweet grandmotherly type convinced Narder nothing was amiss.

After driving around partially lost while trying to lose anyone on our tail – policemen or SHMRG agents – we returned to Purdue's. How odd it must look to neighbors, all those cars parked in front. Between the five of us were four cars – was Tom throwing a party? Wouldn't the police be suspicious, all those cars?

Before we did anything else, I suggested we'd better move the cars to the parking lot across from the cemetery entrance. Amanda said it was where the Old Albert Ross House stood years ago. We'd each drive our cars there, Cameron ferrying all of us back in mine, hoping none of the neighbors would notice. Just to be safe, if the police or agents from SHMRG were watching, we decided Martin should keep the flash drive. He joked if approached by anyone particularly nefarious, he would swallow the drive.

Dorothy thought this was all too much bother, acting like a bunch of conspiracy theorists seeing “dark possibilities” everywhere we turned. “Next thing, we'll have to run to the store for some aluminum foil.”

“But, Dorothy,” Martin asked, “what if that police detective – Narder? – comes to check on Tom and recognizes your car?”

“Or me!”

As cars slowly filed away from Purdue's house, I wondered what happened to the police cruiser keeping the place under surveillance. The whole operation took only a few minutes; with any luck, nobody'd noticed. Once back, we first threaded our way upstairs to Tom's study, where Amanda told Martin she was ready for the drive.

He started riffling through various pockets trying to find the thing but couldn't, fretting maybe he'd dropped it in the car. In one pocket he found some cough drops. “Oh, wait, here it is...”

Then we trooped to the basement hoping this time would be better: “what if it doesn't work with that one, either?” I was always skeptical about technological inconsistencies which for me happened quite often. “What's the point of having a back-up device which becomes obsolete next year if you never know you can re-open it?”

This always irritated Cameron who insisted files were safer on a back-up drive, were easier to store and to copy from. “Unlike paper copies which burn in a fire.”

“No, I imagine these'd melt.”

Amanda inserted the drive into one of the USB ports and, after a bit of hesitation, announced it started to open, followed by a unison five-part sigh as we watched it whirr into life. The menu listed only a handful of files, some of them audio files, including one considerably larger text file marked “Tonality.”

“Perhaps it's an analysis of the Clara pieces,” she suggested. “These are wav.-files for the audio and pdf.-files for the scores.”

“Don't forget, 'key' is another word for tonality, like the Key of C.”

“Oh,” she laughed, “files that would unlock the program and reactivate the software – of course, the missing 'key'!” We all cheered.

Then Cameron and Amanda looked at each other, both wondering if it would be safe to re-install this. Amanda momentarily hesitated.

“What are we looking for? Maybe the Professor removed this for a reason?”

Martin spoke first. “I'm assuming we're hoping to find some clue as to what Purdue was afraid of, where he might have gone: did he disabled Clara for a reason before choosing to disappear?”

“Maybe there's some coded reference – not computer code...” Dorothy took another bite of the meatloaf and pronounced it “quite good, actually.”

“Assuming we're hoping to locate Tom and either help him or rescue him, he might have 'told' Clara where he'd go.” That and we also needed to give him an alibi for the police.

The only way, Martin and Dorothy agreed, was to activate Clara to see if Tom had left a message with her. “Removing the key would keep anyone else from getting in to ask her.”

“We can always re-delete it when we're done.” Amanda looked up at me. “Well, let's hope I know what I'm doing.”


Wasn't that what Tom had said to me that afternoon I'd visited him while he was still recuperating in the hospital? When was that, back in May? – like five months ago, right before exams. It seemed years ago, now, when I'd gotten that e-mail from Purdue's assistant, a student intern of his named Amanda Wences. She wrote to inform me of “the Professor's” heart attack and surgery, how he “could use his friends' thoughts and prayers” which struck me as rather odd since Tom had never been particularly religious. It was several years since he and I had last been in touch, so it's possible something significant may have happened, but even so, facing one's mortality after a heart attack would've been enough. Cameron was finishing up his own final exams, so one beautiful spring-like afternoon, I bravely drove down to Marple by myself.

A hospital probably couldn't look less hopeful on a sunny day, your soul tempered by the world you'd walked in from, faced with fluorescent lights and the scent of sickness, the sense of urgency. The room I was ushered into – I'd just missed “Ms Wences” – was stark, all beige and white, glistening steel, without windows. As if tubes and monitors, beeping screens and this low-frequency hum weren't enough, no matter how well you have prepared yourself, the friend you're here visiting lay there like a computer waiting to re-boot.

Again, it was that odd sensation I was standing in a corner of the room, the proverbial fly on the wall, observing everything that happened then several months ago like it was happening now. There I was, though I looked little different from what I do today, talking to Tom lying there amidst these machines. He looked older then than I remembered from another visit over the summer, not just grayer and paler – maybe more diminished – but tubes sticking out of you and being on oxygen could do that.

It had been a shock to see him like this after not having seen him for, what – five or six years? – wondering what had happened to the friend I'd once been so close to. I remember thinking how I'll need to tell Cameron “definitely no selfies with me after I've come out of any surgery!”

Tom had been gradually swimming to the surface – the nurse mentioned they'd given him something for the pain not long ago – when he furrowed his brow and mumbled something that sounded like “hello, stranger.” The words formed slowly, surfacing just as gradually, how he hoped his brain was still stronger – or better – than his heart.

“You know you need a quorum from both,” I said, pressing his hand, “especially if you intend to keep on kicking?”

“Like one could function without the other,” coming slowly and with considerable effort.

I gave him a sip of water when a nurse came in to check a few things, giving him more pills.

“These pain killers are great,” he told me, “been places you wouldn't believe...”

But he was more concerned about this project of his that's been interrupted.

“Some new piece you're working on?” Great news!

It wasn't a new piece, at least not one he was working on, which made it all sound even more mysterious, but I knew how, when faced with mortality, artists feared for unfinished works. Would there be time left to finish it? If not, what's the point? Feeling lucky to be alive isn't always enough.

That's when he mentioned he'd been experimenting in the field of “Artificial Creativity,” like Artificial Intelligence but geared specifically to composing.

“Well,” he said, taking deep breaths, “let's hope I know what I'm doing.”

When Tom and I went to Faber together, there wasn't much in the way of “technology” to be a geek about: computers were something primitive on the periphery of our lives, toys for scientists. Tom had taken a course in Fortran, one of those computer “languages” offered as an elective, but never talked about it. Some time after we'd gone our separate ways, he'd mentioned having done some work with a computer scientist where he taught. It hadn't been anything more than curiosity, basically, figuring out how they worked. Eventually, over the years, he had become more involved in new technological developments, things that began permeating our newest musical trends. “And not just the notational software for people with sloppy calligraphy like you. But I couldn't hold a candle to these kids writing with their laptops. Instead, I was after the computer's 'creative' potential.”

So, lying there kept alive by these machines – his surgeon had even used a computer to give him a double by-pass – he told me how he'd begun experimenting like some scientist in his garage. “There are things anybody could buy, now, to start some program from scratch, or ways to infiltrate existing programs for material.” He didn't like to think of it as hacking, in so many words, and had no intention of stealing anyone's copyrights. “I'm not planning to sell the program commercially: the thing's just for me.”

Originally, the idea was to develop a program to explore the “diverse potential” of the material he had come up with, “since I'm great with 'ideas' but suck at what to do with them.”

Imagine if Robert Schumann had a machine like this: think of the possibilities, all those great melodies he wrote so easily?

True, Schumann was one of those composers who had difficulty working out the expansion of his material, what theorists called “development.” Unlike Beethoven whose material came with considerable sweat yet unfolded itself so effortlessly.

“Isn't that what serialism was all about, basically,” he had argued decades ago, “distributing creative logic across pre-cognitive patterns – automatic development? You take twelve notes, set them into some order, and there you go. Now you expand that by playing them upside-down, backwards, finally upside-down and backwards. Wasn't this the ultimate game of creative logic?”

Serialism was the principal driving force behind classical music after World War II, the closest thing to a universal stylistic language, and one which alienated the general music-loving audience because of its mathematical abstraction. I'm not sure the “system” was to blame as those who abused its possibilities as an excuse for lack of talent. Many composers became mathematicians sticking to their rigid principles, music's newest academic rules, 19th Century “fugue-churners” reborn with their heartless laws. What's the difference between that and having a computer do it for you?

I had never found serialism a congenial fit – its constant tension lacked resolution – but many of the alternatives were equally unattractive. Atonality – music without a sense of “key” – seemed arbitrary for the same reasons. Neo-tonality sounded either old-fashioned or simplistic, like dredging through left-overs one more time. We'd both agreed there should be another way.

Tom, meanwhile, had started using a looser approach as a place to begin despite “real serialists” saying that wasn't really serialism, until eventually the Style Wheel turned another rotation and serialism was soon deposed. He tried this renewed tonality with rules similar to those we'd learned before but everything sounded derivative, a parody of Romanticism.

Eventually he decided the problem he was facing was either one of sincerity or a lack of willingness to work harder. What if it wasn't combining Intellect and Emotion? What if he lacked talent?

After getting himself more comfortable, he started feeling more alert and began telling me about this “project” he was working on. It began as a simple process to sort out “variable patterns and possibilities.”

“I hadn't intended it as anything beyond that, something to simplify the process but also speed it up, save me time. So I'd plug in note patterns which automatically proliferated into various harmonic ideas and I'd pick the ones I liked best. From there I could figure out what order the best presentation would be.”

He could've come up with them on his own eventually but it would've taken days of sketching and hours of improvising. “It was like having something pre-fabricated to my specifications, then I assembled it.”

This made him curious about what other things he could “make it do.” “So next I plugged in lots of chords.”

By coming up with algorithms created from the resolution of tension permeating the essence of tonality at its most basic level, he was able to produce the equivalent of harmonic progressions using non-traditional chords. “It was like having a book with every possible combination at my fingertips which worked at the click of a mouse.”

Granted, several solutions sounded academic – he could flag those in the computer's database. “Eventually it 'learned' to make certain aesthetic selections. That's why I decided to give it a personality – and call her Clara.”

“So, Dr Kerr.” I could hear Amanda's voice in the distance. “Why do you think the Professor named this computer 'Clara'?”

When I didn't respond right away, Cameron suggested it might be some acronym.

“You mean like 'Computerized Logical Analytic Referential Algorithm”? I could hear Amanda giggle. I could also imagine Martin rolling his eyes.

“No,” Martin said, “it's obvious Tom would have named it after Clara Schumann, muse to her husband Robert – and Brahms, too.”

Dorothy mumbled she was surprised he hadn't named it Odile, speaking of muses.

Tom was about to explain it to me – small wonder I'd forgotten all this: I thought sure he must've been hallucinating. A nurse rushed in with more pills as we faded into the background.

That's when I heard a voice like one of those computerized “virtual assistants.”

“How do you wish Clara to help, Master?”

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

to be continued...

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

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