Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Commission (I)

It's getting close to two in the morning. The family is long since safe in bed and I've already been editing a score for close to three hours. Serious eye fatigue, but the only responsible answer to my insomnia. The phone rings and I rush up the stairs from my basement studio to get it before anyone else wakes up. The voice on the phone, southern German or Austrian by accent, but attempting to use his best schoolboy English, asks:

"I am speaking to Dr. Wolf? Composer in the Frankfurt telephone book? Can you make fast composition? It must sound as classical music. Mozart, Haydn, Czerny..."

("Czerny?" I ask myself.)

"Why not use real Mozart or Haydn?" I ask him back.

"No, it must be a new piece, not a modern piece, a new piece in the classical style. And it must use the name of my woman ("Frau", he must have meant, so it's unclear -- girlfriend, wife, or perhaps the "other" woman). Her name is ____ ____, you see, many good letters for making a melody."

(Aha, now I understood the reference to Czerny).

"And you want classical music?"

"Ja, it must not be a big piece. No Sonata or Symphonie. A piano piece. Not difficult, for music lovers to play at home. Leicht, but leicht-easy-to-play, not leicht-entertainment music. Maybe for music lovers to play to their lovers. (He laughs with a light falsetto, strange to hear from an otherwise bass voice). Maybe dances, like minuets."

"But don't you know that I compose modern music, new music, experimental music, fifth-of-Wild-Turkey music, you know the stuff that scares the dog away..."

"But you are an educated composer?"

"I suppose so."

"Then fine, you can compose classical music, easy as American pie, okay? But please, make it taste like Strudel, not American pie!"

"Why not ask a German or Austrian composer?"

"Germans are too serious, Americans are -- how do you say 'heiter'?"


"Yes, cheerful, like a boy scout."

I started to protest a bit more, but his mention of a commission, no, it was the scale of the commission mentioned, more than enough to replace our terminally ill refrigerator and then some, that rapidly weakened my protest into an enthusiastic acceptance. But:

"The piece must be finished soon. 24 hours. To give to the pianist."

"And who is the pianist?"

He then mentioned a name that I knew, a big-time piano player, and not one who ran around in penny-pinched new music circles. If you wanted a classy performance of classical music, this was not a right name but the right name.

"One more thing, Dr. Wolf, this is a private piece for a private concert. My courier will come to you tomorrow, you will exchange the score for the money, and we will be then finished with our business."

"And the music, is this work for hire or a commission -- do you want to own the license for the music as well?"

"After the performance, it is all the same to me. It is your music. Plagiarize yourself. Play it in elevators or undergrounds. Let a thousand mobile phones ring with your music. Stuff it into music boxes. Stuff it into cereal boxes. Send it into space on a golden platter with a V-2 rocket. But you must not expose the name of my woman. That is private. That is what I have bought from you."

He paused, sighed, then:

"It is very late. My courier will call you tomorrow afternoon to arrange the transfer. I suggest that you sleep now and write the music by sunlight. Dream well, Herr Doktor."

1 comment:

MikeZ said...

That story sounds like a piece out of a Le Carre novel. With interesting overtones - Czerny? OK, lots of scales and arpeggios.....

I'm almost given to wonder if the gentleman's first name is Richard, and that of his Frau, Cosima.

I seem to remember that Mozart, Haydn, and a few others got the occasional commission, and I suspect the conversations may not have been very much different from yours. With the same timeline - heck, if it can be played in 17 minutes, why should it take 2 days to write? Ja?