“Etude #31” (excerpt, A Reading From the Book of Kelst)

Tobias Carroll

Jason Kelst was a composer who died in obscurity in 1983. He was fifty at the time. He spent his days working behind the counter at an Optimo smoke shop in a small town’s downtown, selling cigars and comic books to the area’s residents. He maintained few ties with the area’s residents. He lived in a small apartment two doors down from the smoke shop and rarely ate out or went to bars. He attended no religious institution, had no romantic connections that anyone knows of, and was in fact the perfect model of a recluse. He worked for years at the smoke shop and dropped dead of a heart attack one evening after finishing his shift and locking up.

Kelst, it seemed, had planned for this. One wondered if he had known that his life was nearing his end, through a racing pulse or a shortness of breath or simply an awareness that his time was slipping away.

Though he had little in the way of an extended family, he had made a will that checked out on all legal grounds. His frugality had paid off: he left a not insubstantial sum to a local nonprofit’s scholarship program. Even now, decades later, it continues to operate. His possessions were largely destined for thrift stores or the local dump: they were thoroughly unspectacular, durable and functional but not at all memorable or in fashion.

And then there were the scores.

It was here that a little digging needed to be done: Jason Kelst, it transpired, had in his younger days attended a music conservatory with another then-young composer named Davis. Though they had been close for several years, their paths diverged shortly after they left the conservatory. Kelst had become a recluse; Davis, the year before Kelst’s death, had received the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Jason Kelst had willed his life’s work, volumes upon volumes of sheet music and home recordings, to his old friend Davis Steinhardt. There was some question as to whether Davis would actually accept the donation, or if Kelst’s executor would be faced with the difficult decision of what to do with an unwanted oeuvre. The executor never had to wrestle with that question, however: upon her first request to Davis, Davis acquiesced immediately and was more than helpful in determining a means by which Kelst’s music might be transported across the country to Davis’s domicile.

In retrospect, it might have been better for all involved had Davis declined the work and Kelst’s executor consigned it all to a fire.

Davis was a gloriously media-savvy personality: he gave interviews regularly, he toggled between large-scale commissions and more commercially viable work, and he frequently collaborated with everyone from avant-garde jazz musicians to up-and-coming rock acts who enjoyed dropping his name as an influence so as to make themselves look more highbrow. So it wasn’t a surprise that a certain cluster of journalists and critics in his orbit soon learned of the life’s work of Jason Kelst. “What are those papers over there?” someone would inevitably ask. “Oh, those? Yes, those. Those,” Davis would say, “are the work of my dear old friend Jason Kelst, who passed away earlier this year.”

An obscure and unknown composer, held in great esteem by perhaps the most critically and commercially successful composer of his generation? It’s no surprise that an abundance of critics picked up the scent of a story here and were prepared to follow it wherever it led.

As yet, though, the journalists tracking Kelst’s work had little to go on. Kelst was forthcoming about one thing: he’d had little time to make a dent in the accumulated work of decades of solitary work from his old friend. He certainly recalled compositions of Kelst’s that had resonated with him when they’d both been in their twenties, and the handful of scores he’d leafed through most definitely showed great skill and an abundance of complexity. But the full scope of Kelst’s music — that would take years to fully appreciate.

Many of the journalists who’d had something sparked by the arrival of Kelst’s work filed this information away for later use. A handful of them kept at it: Davis would announce a new symphony or a new piece for string quartet or a film score. He would sit down for the usual press rigamarole, and would see a familiar face before him, a journalist who’d been asking him questions for a good slice of his career. And inevitably, at the end of the interview, the journalist would pause and, like an archetypal dogged detective, would have one more question. “Did anything new happen,” they’d ask, “with those compositions you’d inherited?” And Davis would shake his head ruefully. “Soon,” he’d say. “I’ll get to it soon.”

And in truth, I believe he intended to. But the business by which he made his own living kept interfering, and for good reason. The years passed and the papers comprising the collected works of Jason Kelst still sat in one corner of his office, and Davis awoke alone one morning and realized that he was no longer young, or perhaps even middle-aged, and felt pangs of guilt at the prospect that Jason Kelst’s work might vanish if he was not a capable steward of it.

In those days Davis was the composer-in-residence at a well-off university, and as such had the benefit of some student labor if he required it. And it struck him that he should have asked for this before. He summoned a promising young music student and set her to work organizing and documenting the works of Jason Kelst. Once it was done, perhaps some recordings could be made. Perhaps his old classmate’s name would begin to show up on concert programs around the world.

Karen Plinth was her name: a sharply-minded young woman who shared Davis’s enthusiasm for helping to usher a previously-unknown composer’s work to the wider world. And so she spent days at a time digging through the work Kelst had left behind. Much of, she thought, was brilliant. She left notes on each piece as she finished it: loose commentary, points of comparison, what sort of ensemble it had been written for. She endeavored to be as comprehensive as she could: this was, after all, someone’s legacy.

Karen Plinth continued this process over the course of a semester. Near the end of it, she sat with Davis and spent a day reviewing all that she’d discovered. He felt enthusiastic about her discoveries, but noticed that there was something reserved in her voice, the sort of tone that balanced wonder with something more abject.

They’d gone through nearly everything, and finally Davis noticed one folder sitting off by itself. “And what’s that?” he asked Plinth, gesturing quietly in its direction.

Here Karen Plinth sighed — not from exasperation, but in the manner of someone forced to read out the fine print declaiming that one’s prize is less glorious than it had been previously been believed.

“That,” she said, “is Etude #31.”

“All right,” said Davis. “And why is it all by itself over there?”

“Well,” said Karen Plinth. “I’ve been looking at this for the last few days, and I’m not sure if playing it is humanly possible.”

Davis asked her for the sheet music, and she handed it to him. He looked it over. It began rationally enough, in a style and manner akin to a restrained Charles Ives. But as he followed along, he realized two things almost at once: first, that Karen was correct and this would be nearly impossible to play; and second, that if it ever could be played it would be a tremendously beautiful musical work.

The rest of the filing and organization of Kelst’s music went relatively smoothly. And in the end, Davis’s instincts were accurate: the story of Kelst’s compositions was indeed catnip for a few journalists of his acquaintance. One of them in particular, a well-liked journalist named Iris Jort, took a particular fascination in Kelst’s work, spending several days at the informal archive that Davis and Plinth had established. Iris had trailed as a concert pianist for much of her youth, until finally she realized that a career in classical music would not be ideal, and so instead opted to pursue a lucrative career in arts journalism.

The feature she wrote on the life and work of Jason Kelst was published that autumn in The New Yorker and instantly put Kelst’s name on the map — a small map, admittedly, but one nonetheless. The university at which Davis taught offered to become the formal and permanent home of Kelst’s papers. Several respected orchestras announced plans to program some of Kelst’s works in the coming years, and a respected conductor signed a contract to record three of Kelst’s compositions.

Etude #31 remained in obscurity in a file folder in the university’s archive. It had come up in the conversations that Davis and Plinth had had for the New Yorker article, but that aspect of his work had not made it to the final version of the piece. Iris had written a short paragraph about it, but it was eventually cut by her editor, who felt that it read like a digression more than anything that might be of interest to the readership. “Every composer has their trifles,” he scribbled in the margins. This was true, but most composers’ trifles were not lethal.

Jason Kelst’s posthumous reputation remained golden for almost twenty years. Kelst’s work became an integral part of the repertoire of many a regional and national ensemble. A performance of one of his string quartets bewitched a Chicago audience under the stars at Millennium Park, and the Prospect Park Bandshell was treated to a dance performance set to a minor but charming work for dance orchestra. The off-beat details of his personal life had also not escaped the public notice,  and an Oscarbait biopic picked up a handful of critical awards for its cast.

The generation that had been born as Kelst’s music circulated the nation began coming of age. As they did so, Kelst’s work became the topic of several graduate-level theses, and a handful of prestigious private schools offered courses in Kelst’s body of work.

Cue Leon Paul, 23 years of age, and of a similar rigorous bent to Karen Plinth, his predecessor in the study of Jason Kelst. Leon Paul decided to visit the Kelst archives and explore the composer’s works that had not received wide fanfare, no pun intended. He requested access, and was granted it. He applied for grants and was given them. This would be his PhD thesis: The Unheard Kelst. Upon hearing of that, an aging Davis chuckled. “It was all unheard. All of it!” he muttered to no one in particular, made a note to email this wry observation to Karen Plinth, then promptly lost the note.

Etude #31 did not look like a weapon. It did not look like a torture device or a haunted object or a relic used for some barbaric purpose. When Leon Paul slid it out of the file folder, it did not whisper to him in an arcane language or trigger a migraine or give him a nosebleed. It looked like any other musical work. That, perhaps, was the trouble. Had someone scrawled “RUN” at the top of it where other works featured the tempo, things might never have gone so wrong.