Dissonance

Dissonance

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by Lisa Lenard-Cook
     
 

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When Anna Kramer, a Los Alamos piano teacher, inherits the journals and scores of composer Hana Weissova, she is mystified by this bequest from a woman she does not know. Hana’s music, however, soon begins to uncover forgotten emotions, while her journals, which begin in 1945 after she is released from a concentration camp, slowly reveal decades-old secrets

Overview

When Anna Kramer, a Los Alamos piano teacher, inherits the journals and scores of composer Hana Weissova, she is mystified by this bequest from a woman she does not know. Hana’s music, however, soon begins to uncover forgotten emotions, while her journals, which begin in 1945 after she is released from a concentration camp, slowly reveal decades-old secrets that Anna and her family have kept buried. Dissonance is a quiet and dramatic novel that offers great emotional urgency and wisdom. It is bold in its scale, placing readers at different eras—in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and in the scientific world of Los Alamos, New Mexico. With extraordinary sensitivity, the author unfolds the story of a woman musician inheriting the “score” of another woman’s life, reconciling its themes of self-discovery with the processes of self-discovery in her own life, and, finally, freeing imprisoned memory.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

". . . this beautifully written novel defies its apparent fate: It weaves through the history of the bomb and the Holocaust without feeling depressing. To my mind, it is everything a novel should be." —Catherine Ryan Hyde, Huffington Post
Library Journal
Pianist Anna Kramer, who lives in New Mexico with her physicist husband, is mystified when she is bequeathed the musical compositions and diaries of a stranger named Hana Weissova. Upon reading the diaries, she comes to know Hana, a survivor of Theresienstadt, a World War II concentration camp where artists and musicians were forced to entertain the Nazi elite. The discovery of Hana's history has quite an effect on Anna, as she learns of the relationship between Hana and Anna's mother, bringing skeletons out of the family closet. The descriptions of musical pieces are particularly beautiful, and many readers will be intrigued by discussions of the various meanings of music and its connections with physics. The only flaw in this gem of a debut novel is the disappointing, formulaic ending. The manuscript of Dissonance deservedly won the Jim Sagel Prize in 2001. Recommended for libraries that collect literary fiction or fiction dealing with the Holocaust.-Lisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781939650115
Publisher:
Santa Fe Writer's Project
Publication date:
09/01/2014
Pages:
196
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Dissonance

A Novel


By Lisa Lenard-Cook

Santa Fe Writers Project

Copyright © 2016 Santa Fe Writers Project
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939650-12-2


CHAPTER 1

The piano is unique among instruments for its double stroke. The player touches a key, C, let us say, and the key's depression moves a hammer onto a string: Do, says the piano. Or, the player may strike a number of keys simultaneously: C, E, G, and then the piano will sound a C-major chord.

In the 20th century, composers have moved to more dissonant chord constructions. The listener balks. But it is, in its way, a fitting metaphor for what this century has wrought.


My name is Anna Kramer, and I am a piano teacher. Monday through Friday afternoons, from three-thirty until six, I entertain children in various stages of their movement toward adulthood with the mysteries of the instrument. My Steinway Grand sits in a plant-filled room with good, filtered southern light, and in winter as the shadows lengthen, the plants etch mottled patterns across both the keys and the faces of the young students. The keys are white and black; the students are white — Anglo, as we call them here — and the shadows are a translucent grey that border on an illusion. When the shadows surrender to the dark, I turn on the single focused light above the music stand, its glare causing momentary blinking in the student. "Again," I say, as if I have not noticed the darkness, as if I have not noticed the way a sudden spotlight can startle a living creature into stillness.

"Again," I say, and the student's eyes move to the top of the sheet of music, to the opening refrain of Für Elise or the Moonlight Sonata. I am traditional in the music I choose for my young students. The dissonance will come soon enough, with or without me.


My husband is a nuclear physicist, as was my father, though my husband is Jewish, which my father was not. My father, Leon Holtz, was a Major General in the United States Army, and, during World War II, he was in charge of what went on here in Los Alamos. My father was among the men who pored over a map of Japan and decided: Hiroshima, Nagasaki. My father was proud of his work and the way he performed it. My father was proud that his decisions helped end a war that had already gone on far too long. Is it only I who now wonders at his ease, at the facility with which he touched that map and said, "There. And there"? Is it only I who sees her own existence as a counterpoint to those other lives? Survivor's guilt, I have heard this called, though I have not suffered as those true survivors do. No. I am only the progeny of the man who made certain few of them did.


We have no children, my husband and I. When I was a girl, there were air-raid drills, and we sat cross-legged under our desks with our heads down, hands knitted behind our necks. I did not think that I would see adulthood, when I was a girl, and so I did not consider children a possibility.

Of course, it is possible that my sterility is a result of growing up here in Los Alamos, but nobody knows for certain. But my husband and I do not have children. The closest I can come is my students, who, of course, are not really mine at all.


My husband's name is Paul Kramer. His parents, of whom only his mother is still alive, were in Auschwitz together, though they somehow did not know each other at the time. After Auschwitz, both emigrated to Buffalo, New York, where my mother-in-law, Rose, had a second cousin, and my father-in-law, Isaac, an old friend from the town where he had been raised. Buffalo is where Paul grew up, and I met him at a party in Ithaca years later. I was his roommate's date.


The mailman rang the doorbell; the letter was registered, return receipt, and he needed a signature. It was from a law firm in Albuquerque, and something about it kept me from opening it right away. I made a cup of tea, and when it was ready, I took it and the letter to the kitchen table and sat down.

I slit the envelope carefully with a knife; it seemed to demand it. Inside was a Notice to the Heirs of Hana Weissova. The name set off an odd humming, distant, but no recognition. I read on.

To the pianist Anna Holtz Kramer, of Los Alamos, New Mexico, I do give, devise, and bequeath my journals and my original music scores, to use as she shall see fit.

I skimmed the rest of the gives, devises, and bequeaths, but that was all. I read the other names: a sister, Raja Weissova BenTov, in Haifa, Israel; a godson, David Stone, in Albuquerque. Hana Weissova. I heard the humming again, an aria perhaps. But I couldn't place the name.

I dialed the number on the letterhead and asked for the lawyer who had signed the letter. I agreed to drive down to Albuquerque on Saturday, when an estate sale would be occurring at Hana Weissova's home. The lawyer gave me directions. I hung up and made another cup of tea.


The drive to Albuquerque still thrills me, though there's much more traffic now and the interstate is completed all the way from Santa Fe. The land on either side of the interstate is painted in muted pastels, and changes according to the time of day. Distances are different, infinite even, and the emptiness is at once startling and soothing.

Midway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, an outlet mall sprawls where there used to be a stuccoed bar sheltered by cottonwoods, the latter the place we always stopped when I was a girl, for Cokes and to pee or to just stretch our legs. The building's still there, boarded up, and I worry, absurdly, that one day when I drive to Albuquerque it will be gone.

Do buildings leave some essence behind when they are no longer there? Certainly people do: My father speaks to me every day, his voice unchanged, still directing my life from his command post. My mother appears in gestures of my own: hair brushed off a cheek; legs crossed twice, at both the ankle and the knee; or a certain bend to the fingers as they come down on the Steinway's keys, a touch that the piano translates to music, and for which the child yearns.

The boarded-up bar was still there; I drove by about 10:30 that morning and traffic exiting for the outlet mall backed up in the right lanes on both sides of the interstate. To the southeast, clouds curled over the top of the Sandias, and to the west, the sky over the Jemez was a dull and uniform grey. The air smelled of cold and snow, and I closed my vent, something I do not like to do. I tuned the radio to KUNM; they were playing Sousa marches, which I ordinarily avoid but which somehow seemed appropriate to the weather. A half-hour later, I exited the interstate at San Mateo and went into a coffee bar in a strip mall to clear the freeway buzz — and perhaps the Sousa — from my head.


While I drank a cup of hot tea, I read the letter again. I unfolded my Albuquerque map, which I'd brought in from the car, and looked up each of the street names. Albuquerque, except for its very old center, is a planned city, easy to navigate once you've memorized the main roads, set at one-mile intervals from the western volcanoes to the eastern mountains and from the Air Force base in the south to Sandia Pueblo in the north.

The estate sale was in the South Valley, where the majority of horror stories on the nightly news took place (all New Mexico television stations are based in Albuquerque, its largest city), and, except for a visit to the zoo as a teen, I was certain I'd never been there.

I studied the map, looking for a route that might be relatively free of drive-by shootings, trying to recall which streets were most often mentioned by the newscasters. I looked up and around at the others in the coffee bar. A man in jogging clothes sat at the next table, reading the Albuquerque Journal, while on my other side another man, in jeans and leather jacket, stared unseeing out the window, drumming his fingers on the table. I opted for the jogging suit.

"I've never been there," he admitted when I asked, but stood to study the map over my shoulder. "I'm sure this would be okay," he went on, pointing to Bridge and then to Atrisco. "What's the name of the street again?"

I showed him where it was on the map. "It dead-ends at an acequia," he said, indicating the blue of the irrigation ditch, "so you can only get to it from Atrisco. You get off at the Cesar Chavez exit, and go right. You'll be fine, but you might want to keep your doors locked."


It turned out to not be so bad at all. Immediately off the freeway the houses were shabby and small, with faded paint barely covering their stucco, nothing but dirt and dried clots of soon-to-be tumbleweeds in the small, chain-link-fenced yards, and iron bars on every window and door. Then, suddenly, everything changed. The road bustled with businesses, produce stands, taquerias, used clothing stores. Hand-painted signs leaned against pickups, offering piñon nuts and firewood displayed on lowered tailgates. Beyond the business area, which was perhaps a half mile long, the road crossed the bridge. Now, open places appeared and the cross-streets that went north and south disappeared into cottonwoods. Atrisco was the third of these, and I turned right, then found the street I was seeking and turned left.

When I saw the house, I was immediately glad I had come. A high adobe wall abutted the uncurbed road and surrounded the front courtyard. High cottonwoods, their leaves brown and rattling in the wind, arced over the top, and a faded wood entrada stood open, the ornate estate sale sign's arrow pointing invitingly inside.

I found a parking place where the road dead-ended at the acequia and walked the half-block back to the house. The weather was such that you know you will remember it forever after as the distinct feel of a certain type of November Saturday morning, the wind both a threat and a promise, and the air unusually damp, chilling even the bones.

But inside the wall, everything changed. The agents had set the outdoor items for sale in neat rows — Adirondack chairs and huge terra cotta planters with browned stalks withered in their dirt, chile ristras of all sizes hung on metal coat-racks, and garden implements leaned tidily against black wrought-iron tables.

The brick path led to an open front door, which was painted a lovely sky blue — azul, the Spanish word, fits this blue so much better — and I followed it in. Both the merely curious and the more serious sale aficionados milled inside, moving from room to room, inspecting furniture and the smaller items set out on tables. Discrete agents offered help without being pushy, and I asked one, a young woman with a blonde buzz cut and flowing flowered skirt, about an abalone dresser set that reminded me of one my mother had once had. I decided I did not need it, at the price. The house was somehow familiar, in that way strange houses sometimes are. It was almost as if I had been there before, in a dream perhaps, though I am not, like so many in New Mexico are, one who puts much stock in such things.

The piano was in a conservatory at the back of the house, and the conservatory itself was both unexpected and perfectly suited. Although it followed the eastern style — large, windowed, facing out to a well-kept garden — it was southwestern as well, with thick adobe walls, viga-beamed ceilings, their wood dark and weathered, a kiva fireplace in one corner in which an inviting fire was indeed burning. The floors were a dark Saltillo tile, covered with worn Navajo rugs, and bookcases had been built into the walls, bookcases that now displayed neat stacks of what looked to be very old papers.

I asked the agent in that room where the lawyer was. The agent was an earnest middle-aged man, a white carnation in his lapel — he rather reminded me of Tony Randall — and he led me to a man seated discretely at a table in a far corner. I introduced myself, and he snapped open his briefcase without further conversation, then carefully lifted out a stack of plastic-encased scores. All at once I had to hold one myself, and I reached for one, nearly grabbed for it, and he seemed to jump back, though of course that is not as it was at all. He handed it to me carefully, as if it were a flower long-preserved which could quickly turn to dust. I touched the music through the plastic, and then I heard it, an arrangement unlike any I had ever heard before. The first touch of music is quite unlike any other in its echoes, in its evocation of memories not yet known.

"Did you know Hana Weissova?" the lawyer asked me. How could he have known? I did not, I said, and so he told me that she had been a composer and music teacher in Czechoslovakia before the War, not terribly well-known but making a name for herself, until she was interred at Terezín.

"Terezín?" I asked.

"Theresienstadt?" he said. "Perhaps you know that name?" I shook my head. "A minor concentration camp, as concentration camps went," he said. "Noted for its many artists, writers, and composers. The Nazi brass used to go there for concerts, can you imagine?"

I felt the music through the plastic sheet, its haunting cacophony of strings, and the piano, insisting its melody above them. "She wrote this there?" I asked.

"Oh no," the man said. "In fact, her manuscripts from before the war were destroyed. She tried to recreate them, after, but these are what came out instead. Do you play?"

I nodded.

"Perhaps you would like to play that one you're holding? To hear it?"

"I can hear it," I said, perhaps a bit too harshly.

But he only said, "I'd like to hear it, too," and pointed to the black Kawai Grand set by a potted weeping fig.


It is hard to describe what music does, though we have all felt its various demands. Some music rouses us, while another makes us remember and still another can set us unaccountably weeping. The same concerto played well or badly can either elate or disappoint, and a good blues singer can obtusely cheer us up.

Hana Weissova's sonata, that first one I saw and played on that odd November morning, yielded emotions I had done my best to bury years before. The strings, which I heard only in my head that day, bore down insistently, tried to enclose the piano, or the player, or the listener, or, perhaps, the composer, but the piano would not be confined. Glissandos ran its length, while the bass improvised chord constructions I was surprised to find my small hand could cover.

It was a brief sonata, and when I stopped there was silence in the room and then applause. I looked up, startled to find the room so full of people, startled to be in that unfamiliar room at all.

The lawyer hovered behind me. "Thank you," I whispered. "I don't know why they're mine, but thank you." Then I started the piece over and the room receded once again.


Dissonance, Stravinsky once noted, is an element of transition, a complex or interval of tones which is not complete in itself. It plays the part, Stravinsky went on, of an allusion, and is no more an agent of disorder than consonance is a guarantee of security. Even dissonance must ultimately be resolved to the ear's satisfaction. Even dissonance, in other words, yearns towards harmony.


I fill my mornings with music: After I have washed and dried the breakfast dishes and perhaps, if necessary, dusted or swept, I move to the room where my Steinway waits and select a piece from the shelves of music that are beside it.

While my ear favors Mozart and Chopin, my hands seem most competent with more modern composers: Copland and Bernstein, Shostakovich and Fine. When I play these latter pieces, my hands become quite separate things, and I, detached, will watch them dance across the keys like mating cranes, advancing and retreating but never touching. The music that these hands make seems not to fill the room as more classical music does but rather to seek a way out. It reminds me of children, then, and of children's games, though I suspect my memory of those games is not what they really are at all. Even with the one true friend I had as a child, I did not play them.


Paul tries to be home for dinner by seven, but there are nights that he forgets. The nights that he remembers, he will tell me about his work — the things he is permitted to tell me — and I will try to understand. These days he is working on something called containment, a procedure which involves half-lives that go on for many thousands of years.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Dissonance by Lisa Lenard-Cook. Copyright © 2016 Santa Fe Writers Project. Excerpted by permission of Santa Fe Writers Project.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lisa Lenard-Cook is the PEN–short-listed author of the novel Coyote Morning, the writing guides Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir, and The Mind of Your Story, as well as numerous trade nonfiction and ghostwritten books. Her short fiction has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Rosebud, Southwest Review, and other journals. She is a faculty member at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and the Taos Summer Writers Conference, and a 2014 featured writer at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Dissonance 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lisa Lenard-Cook brings together music theory, the creation of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, and the concentration camp at Terezin in a novel that explores the 'dissonance' of the 20th century, and ends on a hopeful note. Highly recommended.