by Dian Parker
Infused with the adrenaline of spring, bird song warbles, twitters, screeches, mews, twitters, trills and cascades. Matthew sits down to study the cacophony of sound, when all at once everything goes quiet. Then, as if on cue, the chorus of birds starts up again in full force. He wonders who the birds’ conductor might be − a shift in wind, a passing cloud across the sun, the cross-town bus − some mysterious interference. He also wonders why his music isn’t as complex and beautiful.
Matthew shivers on the hard stone bench. A memory intrudes upon his reverie. It had been a fine morning, one where he felt strangely at peace. Now this! He tries to keep the memory at bay (it will be deadly if he lets it in). The end of the undiscovered new and the encroachment of that dreaded old.
He jumps off the bench and begins to jog, anything to dislodge the onslaught of these insidious thoughts. The loafers on his feet are not exactly suited for this type of activity, nor are his thick corduroy trousers, wool blazer and the heavy leather satchel flapping against his hip. But which is more painful − the new loafer gnawing at his big toe or that horrible night, extending, surrounding and drowning him?
At first, only a few...and then…everyone. Every single person in the audience.
That anguished memory now has his undivided attention. He doesn’t even realize he’s pulled off the path, stopped running and slumped down on top of his lumpy satchel.
Hisses and boos. If it had been Mozart’s day, they would have thrown rotten tomatoes and eggs. But he stood there, baton limp and hanging, sweat pouring into his eyes. Under the bright stage lights he couldn’t see anyone in the audience, making it all the more horrible – those ghastly, phantom sounds thrown up at him from the faceless abyss.
He didn’t move. What could he do, run and hide? It was done now. The verdict was out; the act witnessed. Slowly the hissing tapered off and the house lights came on. He continued to stand on the square platform, watching the lot of them file out of the auditorium. He stood rigid, barely breathing, and watched as a man in a long brown overcoat put on his hat; the last person to exit the theatre. Even that person did not look back.
Matthew waved. ‘Goodbye, all of you, goodbye.’
Slowly he turned around. The stage was empty. Even the orchestra had deserted him. He sat on the conductor’s platform and stared down at the black satin stripe running down each leg of his trousers. After flinging his baton at the first violinist’s chair, he pressed his fingertips into his eyelids, muttering – ‘horrible, stupid, horrible, stupid, horriblestupid.’
The sound of footsteps, high heels. Matthew knew it was her and couldn’t bear it. She’d be all sorry and coaxing. She always enjoyed it when he was down, then she could take care of him.
“Are you out of your mind, Matthew?” Her voice was pinched and shrill. A new development. He looked up at her. God, she looked good in red. “It wasn’t even complete! Why didn’t you wait? I just don’t get it.”
Matthew watched the flurry of her red silk skirt swish in and out between her legs, the matching high heels clicking across the wooden stage as she paced back and forth in front of him.
“Insane, Matthew. You deserved it, all that hissing and booing. In fact, we all should have walked out after the first movement but no, no, we were subjected to six more tedious, pedantic ones and then you don’t even give us the satisfaction of a finale. Some kind of ending. Something. What the hell were you thinking?” She said all this in a fast, clipped manner, like a legal secretary, he thought. She stopped in front of him and bent down so her face was level with his. He smelled the sandalwood oil and closed his eyes. Delicious.
“Look at me, damn it. I’ve never had your undivided attention, ever. I’ve given you all of me but you’re just too caught up in your work for anything else. Bully for you because this wasn’t music tonight, it was trash. What good were all those long nights trying to help? Tell me. It wasn’t ready and we both said so. The symphony never had an ending.”
Matthew said nothing. She was right. As usual.
“This is the last straw. We’re done. It’s over. I can’t take it anymore. Here. Here’s your finale.”
She took off the lapis ring and threw it at his feet.
He watched it clink to a stop. He tried to think but couldn’t seem to manage.
Finally, he looked up. “You’re leaving me because you didn’t like my composition?”
“Oh God, Matthew! You’re impossible! I’m getting my stuff out of the apartment. Tomorrow. Goodbye!”
After the clicking of her high heels faded away, he reached down and picked up the ring. He shoved it into his tuxedo pocket.
‘Well, that’s over now too,’ he said to the floor.
They had been lovers for nearly two years. When they met she was a budding actress who taught acting at a local college. At first they agreed to live separately, maintaining their mutual need for solitude. She was vivacious and loved to roughhouse. Matthew appreciated this, knowing he needed to loosen up, as she so often reminded him. She fluffed him up, helped him to laugh and suggested interesting jaunts to keep him light, at least for an hour or two − the zoo, planetarium, a horseback ride in Brooklyn, the Ethiopian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. They would stroll down the street, she with her hand tucked in his arm. She would tell him stories about theatre life; forgetting lines, the director’s sexual innuendoes, the demands of sustaining one role for weeks on end. He would half listen, enjoying the rich modulations of her trained voice more that the words themselves, all the while whistling a Bach fugue. He also appreciated her long, dancer legs, which could bend in so many different directions. They often spent entire afternoons in bed, exploring the complexities of lovemaking. He enjoyed this time with her the best and was sure she did too, as she was the one who always suggested it first
They’d only been living together for three months. But it was over now.
Someone touched him lightly on the shoulder. It was the stage manager, a mere 17 years-old.
“Excuse me, sir, but I’ve got to shut all the lights down now. Do you mind?”
“No, no. Of course not.” He rose off the platform and his knees creaked, yet another embarrassment. “Goodnight, Cassie.”
“Goodnight, sir.” Then, in a low whisper, she added, “It wasn’t all that bad.”
He pretended not to hear.
This is the single moment he recalls over and over, like a mantra, sitting on his satchel in the park − It wasn’t all that bad. It wasn’t all that bad − the very worst comment, as if his composition was merely a tin of tapioca pudding.
Matthew stands up and blinks; back to the present, the persistent present. His buttocks are sore from sitting on the satchel buckle. He is cold and stiff, and terribly tired. Another morning wasted in reliving that fateful night. Few people, at least outside the conservatory, knew anything about it. ‘After all, it was only a high school auditorium in Boston. Nothing major.’ There had been no reviews. Some friends, fellow musicians, a number of his students and their parents; perhaps 50 people in the audience. And Isabelle, of course, but it wasn’t that. What bothered him the most was his pretense, talking to acquaintances about music as if he knew what it was to compose. ‘I need to stop talking, that’s all.’
After all these months he still hadn’t gone on a single date. He was even considering going home to stay with his mother for a while. But for now there was rehearsal and his new unfinished score smoldering in his satchel.
He looked at his watch. If he didn’t leave now he’d be late. He had to face it, but yesterday’s rehearsal was even more distressing than usual. The final movement was a disaster. Sergio had had the orchestra play it fortissimo, even allegro, when Matthew had distinctly told him to conduct it quietly and with reverence. Not only had it sounded wrong, he’d also noticed the grimaces in the orchestra. He also hadn’t missed noticing the first violinist rolling her eyes when asked to repeat the movement. They were not happy playing it at any speed.
His head is throbbing and he realizes he has a headache. Bang bang bang, swelling and pounding, like the beating of the timpani. The pounding of his head seems to align with the rhythm of a passing runner and all at once, Matthew finds himself leaping off the bench in pursuit.
The young woman jogging in front of him is wearing a hot pink halter-top and blue shorts. As he follows close behind, he concentrates on her skinny blond ponytail bobbing up and down.
It is keeping time. This is the tempo of the first eight measures!
The beginning of his final movement now beats in his head as he follows the runner. He can hear it, clear and bright. The timpani, bountiful and flourishing. Rich and ripe and ready to rip. Yes, yes. This is it!
Matthew keeps his eyes fixed on the flapping ponytail in front of him. He begins to sweat. It feels good. He is warm. He is getting warmer. He hears the crescendo of the orchestra. It grows louder and louder and he bellows out a new line for the tuba section, ‘Boom da da Boom Boom da da Boom.’
Under the arch of the stone bridge, the running woman shouts over her shoulder, “Idiot!” The word echoes inside the tunnel, broadcast to the wind. Matthew veers off the path as she accelerates up the slope. He sinks onto the soggy grass, shoving his lumpy satchel under him, sitting again on top of the protruding brass buckle. He tries to catch his breath. His throat is dry, his new loafers covered in mud, and now he’s too sweaty to go back to the rehearsal hall. The music will be panned anyway. As if to punctuate this thought, a blue jay cackles in a nearby tree. “Can’t you do anything original?” shouts Matthew to the bird.
He really should write down those new notes for the finale before he loses them. He really should go home. He really should change his clothes. But I’ve no clean shirt! This statement of fact makes him feel inexorably alone.
He tries to stand but his leg cramps and he falls to his knees. Now look what you’ve done, man. The trousers are ruined. She was right. I am an idiot. As he trudges home, he thinks about how much work it took to get even one composition performed.
He should be more grateful to the orchestra but frankly he is not. They don’t appreciate his robust chords and fanciful intersections of poise and madness. Oh how he loves tweaking arpeggios into chords into fermatas, then crescendoing to a climatic harmonic pitch. He truly believes he receives his compositions just like Mozart, alles zusammen − all at once. His greatest challenge is to get each note onto the blank page sequentially, meticulously, calmly.
I must remain calm. You hear me, Matthew? Calm.
The other day after rehearsal one member of the orchestra had introduced himself. He was a botanist as well as the oboe player. He wondered if Matthew would like to have a drink. At the time Matthew had only said maybe, but now he wanted that drink with Clark very much. They would talk. Maybe discuss the difference between music and nature. Anything to calm down. The rehearsal would go on without him.
Clark is delighted. They meet at a neighborhood bar near Matthew’s apartment. It is just dark enough, in case it becomes too uncomfortable. But it doesn’t. Clark is intelligent and charming. Soon they are well into that discussion about the difference between nature and music.
“Nature is all thrust and fecundity,” Clark said. “She knows no stop. Music is almost too deliberate for me. I like the cascading cacophony of brush, flower and weed. Its riot. Give me soil, worm and sod. Protect me from the damn tuxes and all those stuffy concert halls.”
“I agree. Just listen to the variety and beauty of bird song. But what is one to do?” Matthew looks up at the ceiling. “I receive my compositions with riot too. It takes immense discipline to get it all down on those five little black lines. I’m always fighting with myself as I try to transcribe accurately what is in my head. But when I try to create order out of the chaos, I risk losing the life and verve of the piece. I’m no bird or plant, Clark. None of us are, damn it.”
Here I go again and I promised myself I wouldn’t. It was that damn final movement, yet again. He keeps waiting to receive it, just like Mozart, but he only has eight days left. Perhaps force will bring it on. Sleep deprivation, opium or a night of orgy, anything but this emptiness.
Clark pats Matthew on the shoulder. “At least we’re having a conversation, Matt. Talking to one another. I mean all these infernal emails − first drafts cluttering the blogosphere. Those blasted Smartphones. No one talks anymore. Everything instant. Greatness takes time, Matthew.” Clark finishes his scotch and looks deeply into Matthew’s eyes. “And we need atmosphere, Matthew. Just like nature.”
Matthew thinks this might be the missing link. Atmosphere.
The talking is doing him a world of good. He needs to talk more. Go to bars. Live it up. Stop being so serious. He’ll have a drink every day after rehearsal with Clark and by the end of the week, he’ll finish composing a smashing, mind-blowing finale.
Matthew lifts his scotch to Clark. “You, my man, are greatness exemplified. I’ve always thought so. Yes.” He drains his glass. “As I was saying, I receive my compositions alles zusammen and it takes all my discipline to get it written down. But during the writing down of notes, I always hear this little voice complaining − not another fermata! Not another D minor chord! Ridiculous, I know, but what can I do? I’ve just got to ignore it, don’t I? Just keep recording until it’s done. But the voice keeps on demanding – you can’t think this is IT! And it never is. It never is over. I never can get a finale because there isn’t one. Is there, Clark? Not until death.”
So this is it. So blatantly obvious. There is no finale, not until death. Of course he can’t find it. Death is the ultimate mystery and an ending is ultimate, mysterious. How blind of him.
He needs another approach, some way into that Sanctum Sanctorum where the great mysteries lie. Besides, he isn’t ready to die.
The next day he decides to skip rehearsal again and run. They’d do better without him fretting anyway. He buys some good running shoes, shorts and a light T-shirt. After all, hadn’t he heard the potential of a finale while he was running?
In his new gear, he sets out at a leisurely pace on the track in Central Park. It is a bright, clear morning and the water of the reservoir sparkles. This is just the atmosphere he needs to create. The track is brimming with runners but Matthew is determined not to let them distract him. He jogs close to the fence.
Starting with the third movement, he plays through each note in his head. He keeps his pace steady. But nearing the end of the movement, he begins to sweat. The closer he gets to the finale, the more he sweats. Now it is in his eyes. He closes them. And then…the last note, in his head, rings out…that D minor chord.
In that very moment something hard is struck. Is this the finale?
He falls to his knees and blacks out.
When he comes to, the pain in his head is like a trumpet blast, sharp and exact. Yes, this is the answer. Why hadn’t he ever thought about trumpets in the finale before? It is perfect. Another blast, and then a third, fourth, fifth. Okay, enough now, something else, but the trumpets won’t stop. A kettle drum joins in; six times, seven. The oboes swing in now, and there is Clark playing in the front of them all.
“No, Clark no,” Matthew screams. “That is too much! I want a slow crescendo.” Instead, a flotilla of harps appears, twenty of them, joined by tubas and French horns and piccolos. Piccolos! Matthew never uses piccolos.
The music is too loud. It is excruciatingly loud. His head feels ready to burst.
It does. He dies.
As he hovers over his body, he sees the form lying under a white sheet in a hospital bed. Isabelle is standing beside the bed. She is crying. Why would she be crying?
Isabelle, the one who left him, is crying…because… he is dead. Dead and gone. Forever.
Final enough this time. Fini.
But there is no music. No harps and piccolos. Only silence.It is, really, such a relief.