The Lost Sonata

Sitting on this sunny veranda, the wind keeps catching the small string that pulls the curtain. Every time it does, my eye confuses the shadow it casts with a bug racing toward me, and I get a small jolt of fear. The fact that I already know it’s coming doesn’t seem to help. Life is a bit this way. You know certain things will happen. You see them out of the corner of your eye. You even come to expect them. But they scare you each time anyway. 


Comedy = Tragedy + Time 

It has been said that comedy equals tragedy plus time. More than two months have passed, so I think it is time. I was in Singapore, halfway into my tour of Asia and Australia, preparing for a big performance for the charity Room to Read in Singapore’s gorgeous Botanical Gardens. Thousands were expected. That fateful morning, I was working on the completion of the slow movement of my Sonata for Piano and Trumpet, the first and third movements having premiered a couple of weeks earlier in Philadelphia with the former lead trumpet from the Canadian Brass, Joe Burgstaller. I had finished the Finale, which I was particularly pleased with, earlier in the month and now decided it was time to have a listen to the whole piece. But, alas, to my great confusion (at that point it was still only confusion) the computer didn’t seem to find any Finale movement. Horror set in quickly. Followed by panic, fear, sadness, depression and finally, well, I guess this article. 


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What losing a composition means 

Now dear reader, I understand that to you, this probably doesn’t mean much. It’s not like Singapore and the Botanical Gardens suddenly disappeared, to the great bewilderment of the rest of Southeast Asia. (Well, actually they did in the recent haze, but that’s another story). It’s not like my grand piano fell off stage mid-concert taking out the entire front row. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why very few people sit right up-front. Nor was a Stradivarius violin confused for an elaborate piece of candy and consumed by a ravenous hoard of children during a recess break. No, this was simply me clicking on a file and getting an error message. Everything else was the same. My body didn’t ache. My eyes could see just as poorly as before. The Singaporean heat was just as brutal. Nothing was different except that possibly my most creative achievement to date had been lost forever. If you are not in the “creative” business, just try thinking of your best memories being suddenly taken from you. Gone without a trace. A bit the way you feel when you wake up from an amazing dream, but just as you’re trying to remember it, it vanishes. Only this wasn’t a dream, it was weeks and weeks of work. And not exactly the kind of work you can just re-create. (If you’re still not getting the picture, imagine all your savings gone, your house burned down, and a very large object placed on your toe.)  


All backed up 

The first question I am usually asked at this point is, “Wasn’t it backed up?” You were about to ask it yourself, weren’t you? I could see it forming on your face. And I know all the people who asked me that question certainly meant well. I believe the road to Hell is paved with similarly well-meaning questions. (Another reason why I’m strongly in support of gun control, to avoid messy outcomes in precisely these situations.) Suffice it to say, it wasn’t backed up, enough. At this point, all attempts at reasoning with myself fail. The mental dialog is not quite printable, but the G-rated version goes something like this: “Bleep…#*%@…bleep!” And people tried to help, really, they did. Too many to name. Too little to mention. For weeks after it happened, I would play the game, “What would you give up to have the piece back?” Meals? Possessions? If a kidney, which one? The condo in Miami? What condo in Miami? Did somebody say “condo in Miami”? Clearly the trauma is still too fresh to joke about. 


Getting a grip 

At some point, I took hold of myself and decided to follow a two-pronged attack (neither involving the injury of those who asked if it was backed up). (1) Desperately try to get the score back from the computer using any means available (Snowden, where were you then?). (2) Feverishly work on rewriting the entire score from memory. Tens of thousands of notes and I typically have trouble with phone numbers. Nonsense. I’m a professional musician, the principal themes are all still in my head. I can do it. It’s just a question of working out exactly the right order. On the afternoon I sat down to start rewriting, after a while I felt a bit like a complete lunatic. “I can do it, yes, I can rewrite it all no problem!” “No, it is hopeless, I can’t, I will never rewrite a note of it!” Repeat sequence. 


Am I alone? 

So, who else in history has lost stuff? Well, as it turns out, practically everyone. Of the works of the great 17th Century Claudio Monteverdi, only three of his 18 operas survive. Now that’s just outright carelessness. Salieri, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, and the list goes on. Many lost their scores at their own hands (trashed stuff they didn’t think worthy). For others the loss came after they had given up residence on the planet. (That careless mistress, history). Wars, fires, Nazi occupations, a flood here and there. You name it, reasons abounded. Apparently the only copy of a cello concerto by Mendelssohn was lost falling off a coach on its way to its dedicatee. Now is that not grounds for divorce? A pity no one had the good sense of starting the company, “You write it, we’ll lose it.” 


Is the book smarter than the author? 

The author Milan Kundera says his novels are smarter than he is. And it’s not only because they are in French and he is Czech. In a way, I feel that way about the music I write. It is more talented than I am. Maybe that was the source of the extreme anxiety this event caused. What if the proof of that talent was gone forever? The phrase “Past performance is no guarantee of future outcome” comes to mind. No matter what you’ve done, every time you do it again you must prove yourself all over. And I had just lost the proof. Could I re-create something worthwhile? 


Losers weepers, rewriters keepers 

In the end I had no choice but to rewrite the whole thing. Is it different from the original? For sure. Better or worse? It is hard to compete with a memory, especially a good one. Maybe for that reason I worked extra hard on the rewriting. You can judge for yourself if you come to my Carnegie Hall concert on Jan, 12, 2014, where it will premiere.  


A rose by any other name 

At least out of this gut-wrenching ordeal I got a crazy story and a good name for my piece, The Lost Sonata. What is it they say, “A name and a tale are half the sale.” Sometimes that’s all it takes to make the difference between an unknown composition and, well, a still unknown composition. Let’s face it, classical music is the niche market of all niche markets. But would Moonlight Sonata have been as popular without the name? True, Beethoven didn’t give it that name. Hmmmm, bad example. What about the 5th Symphony? No, just a number, albeit a good one. What about the Minute Waltz? True the reference isn’t to time but to size (Chopin was in France at the time); then again Einstein would tell you size and time are very related, though he apparently didn’t date much after figuring it out. 


Back on the veranda 

It just struck me that if I closed the curtain, my problem of the crazy insect shadow would be solved. Then again I wouldn’t see the fantastic view of the Mediterranean. I guess insects aren’t that bad after all. 


After losing his entire composition to the vagaries of modern technology, Julian started over, rewriting the entire sonata.
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