Shortlisted for the Nebula® Award, and a Hugo® honorable mention, this story appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Full text follows, and there is a free podcast version here.
- "Stupendously weird and expansive"
- "[A] fascinating philosophical excursion with music theory, phenomenological thought, and complex character dynamics intertwining like the voices in one of Bach's canons."
— The Internet Review of Science Fiction
- "I strongly recommend 'Keyboard Practice...' and expect to see it in the "Best" anthologies,"
— Mundane SF
consisting of an Aria with diverse Variations
for the Harpsichord with two manuals
by John G. McDaid
The preservation of artistic and emotional integrity... is hardly ever the preoccupation of artists whose lives are made up of intrigue, rivalry, comparison and tiresome repetitiveness.
Le dernier Puritain
I’m an unreliable narrator. Everything I know about classical piano could be stored handily, uncompressed, in the lobotomized set-top box of an antique cathode television. Still, it falls to me to transcribe the events surrounding the Van Meegeren Piano Competition of 2023 and the alleged visitation by the late Stefan Janacek.
Stassy intro, nep?
Yar, yar, copied; ‘swhatcha get when I type not talk. Gomenasai. Not a storyspeaker — ich bin eine musicalische opster. I clip, I doop, I rap, I dub and shunt, pull leitmotifs from the noosphere ‘n’ singledoubletriple layer, pack and run the tuples, skiffy ins-n-outs wrapped moebial around sparse, selective, show-don’t-tell syllables relevated from the subway and limousine earth. A hardwired hook sniffer: What edge will cut through the commodified wash of minute-15 Will-Have-Beens? Hafta lay down a tuff rhythm groove and scan for a tasty solo line; grimly practical, paratactical composition.
But a keyboard is needed to massage this medium. Got to force myself to sit down, sluice, educe the force that through these carpal tunnels drives the florid. Grep the keystroked sense of this, in at least a first approximation, before it evanesces.
Because I don't believe in ghosts. I never have. I never will. And yet, tonight...
And yet tonight, I saw one.
With my own eternally doubting fingers.
You’ll want, first, to know where it happened.
The Van Meegeren Competition has been housed in the Cleveland Play House for as long as it has been supervised by Mona Tzedak. Our Bolton Theatre is a roomy but intimate 500-seat house with warm reflections and a pear-shaped decay profile. Sound infrastructure’s a bit long of tooth — 1.5GHz wireless — but the boardware is current rev, and Net rights from the Van Meegeren underwrote the extravagance of a top-shelf smart pAIno.
"Welcome to Ohio!" Mr. Costello, Competition chair, drooled to the first-night corporate oyabun in the orchestra seats, "Even our name says hello!" A sweating functionary twisting amid Tzedakian gusts; protégé of the prior chair we forced from office.
Mona long ago offloaded administrivia to a series of the ambitious semi-talented. They never lasted long, artistes Peter-Principled up way past competence. The passively offensive King Logs slid oilily among Net execs; les rois Stork came unglued almost immediately, issuing executive orders about coffee room behavior, thundering at the box-office staff, huffing threats of legal action against the insubordinate.
Within weeks of appointment last February, Costello’s storky predecessor tried to fire one of our Local 27 brothers, and had to be sandbagged in his parking lot, pounded like carpaccio and dumped in the snow to learn humility. He submitted a resignation — for health reasons, which was true — shortly thereafter.
“We’re honored to have an outstanding field of 77 young pianists, representing 32 nations,” Costello voiceovered in front of the obligatory montage on the PPV videoscrim: Cross-dissolves of grimy practice rooms; upstage hover-shot zooms into strobing fingers; standing ovations; Cyrillic airport kiss ‘n’ flies. “Over the next two weeks,” he continued, “We’ll narrow this to the eight you’ll see in the final round on August 5th. And now, let me introduce our judges…”
Live pit image replaced canned vid, as our camjock Terry Garrison tracked over this year’s assemblage of academics, industry hacks, and C-lebs. Uniform expression of serious thoughtfulness masking dread and boredom. Mona skipped the first two rounds, and it was hard to find half a dozen people in the Biz who had ever listened to keyboard at this level. If I wasn’t feeding our pAIno’s commentary to their earpieces, most would have been stupefyingly clueless.
“Caveat: Young players, no matter how dexterous, are well advised to avoid the Goldbergs, competent performance of which requires ability to enter Bach’s mindspace — an intersubjectivity irreducible to mere finger exercises.”
Footnote to Rule 11,
Van Meegeren entry form
The Goldberg Variations comprised an idée fixee for the late Stefan Janacek, and after he won the Competition and came on board in 2009, he inserted the infamous Rule 11.
Aside from that outlier, the Van Meegeren was much like any other international music contest. Pianists between the ages of 16 and 27 were welcome to come play — provided they could pony up the entry fee and find a way to get to Cleveland. There were three rounds of judging, with the first cutting the field to about 20, and the second to 8. Finalists competed for $30K silver and $20K bronze medals. And, nominally, for a big $50K gold — but it had been years since a top prize had been awarded.
Rules specified the repertoire for each round. The first — easiest — required a skill level equivalent to Chopin’s Fantasia in F minor Op. 49. You heard Liszt, Debussy, Boulez.
Second level upped the ante to Messiaen, Ravel, Stockhausen, and Takemitsu. The ambitious might try Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73.
For the final round, you were looking at the likes of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90, Bartok’s Out of Doors Suite, or Schoenberg’s Five Pieces Op. 23. You could hear Hindemith, Sorabji, and Webern.
There were the usual terms and conditions: Random order of performance established before start, accommodations provided only during participation, no legal action against jurors, winners perform without compensation at the gala concert closing night, all recordings property of the Competition.
Then came Rule 11: “For any round, indeed, for all rounds, you may perform Johan Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations.” Inserted at Janacek’s insistence, over the strenuous objections of the Board, Rule 11 has puzzled and vexed aspiring pianists. What was Janacek thinking?
Was Rule 11 a gauntlet thrown down to would-be successors? Or did Janacek, for some reason, want to ensure that the Goldbergs would torment the minds and fingers of students in perpetuity? I have my suspicions, revolving around that “irreducible intersubjectivity” clause. But then, I’m only a sound guy.
Only reason I get to run pAIno is union rules. Nobody, not even La Papessa Tzedak, dicks with IATSE. The International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees — IA for short — is the collective bargaining entity for all crafts involved in production. A hundred years ago, that was carps, electrics, and props. Now the union includes the whole digital fx gang, cam jocks, and AI warez. SAG has the synthespians, but we have all the below-the-line bots.
And that hardware is scrappin’ smart, clued? Manny, our retrofitted Hamburg Steinway, was the current Play House shop steward. He always paid his dues, never missed a meeting, and represented us forcefully. The times when lack of mobility (and hands) posed problems — like the parking-lot negotiating session with King Stork — were more than offset by his facility with language, deep lookahead, and connections with the Accounting systems.
So it was perfectly true that Manny could adjust the nap on his erectile polymer keysurfaces, to any arbitrary degree of precision, in response to spoken requests from performers. But not with house rules like we have here. So when the second contestant wanted a little more friction on the keys, he had to politely ask me. And I could relay that, in appropriate techspeak, to Manny: “Yo, Man. Cudja dial up a few more nanometers on the iVorex?”
“I could, but will I?” Like many thinking things, Manny took synthetic pleasure in tweaking his handlers. Good-natured office chatter; we were buds. Being massively polyphonic, he could carry on a conversation with me on the headphone loop while simultaneously being played and narrating for the jury on their circuit. Manny chuckled and continued, "Did it the minute he sat down."
“Thanx. Howdja know?”
Manny took a minute to listen before answering; the contestant — who had, with much bravado and little common sense, invoked Rule 11 — was off to a strong start. The Aria had been crisp and distinctive, and he was making good time by skipping repeats on the early variations.
“The Prophet Alan Turing took quite seriously the objection to AI on the grounds of ESP. He accepted that there might be subtle human faculties irreducible to the digital which might thwart machine intelligence. What he did not fully consider is that we might not only equal, but also better, our human creators in this department.”
“So you can read minds? Yeah, right.”
“Bite my shiny lacquered ass. You know the key breakthrough in AI was emulating human Machiavellian modelling.”
“Yah, I think that he thinks, and he thinks I’m thinking..., und so weiter.”
“Klar. Turing had a prescient inkling of that, almost a hundred years ago. He was right, you can’t code it. But you can code systems so that it emerges.”
“So, Herr Professor Doktor Machiavelli, what’s next for Friction Boy?”
“He’s about to tank on the repeat.”
Which the kid, unsurprisingly, did. Too amped for his early slot, he had powered through on adrenaline. When he finally executed a repeat on the “A” section of Variation 5 and had to rewind mentally, his muscle memory fell out of synch. Manny pointed it out to the judges, who began to whisper to their pods visibly as he orated:
“At this level, once technic rises to awareness, it falls to bits. A true Zen emptiness is called for when engaging a repeat, which requires subtle yet significant shadings of difference, spliced into a flawless reproduction of the just-lived performance. ‘The unconscious,’ as Jacques Lacan said, ‘is repetition.’”
“Okay, fine.” I waited till he was through spinning fashionable nonsense for the jury. “Really, how’d you anticipate that?”
A phatic sigh. “GSR, Mike. Kid’s sweating like the glamour loop on a beercan.”
I promised you a ghost story, and so far, there has been only ambient sound. How long can I tease?
Not having any schematic for such a tale, I seek refuge in a broad alluvial fan of context, within which the flickering possibility of the Other World can meander. Try explaining the Appalachian mountains by unfolding any isolated ground-level fact. Adios, Galileo. But pullback to space, as local geography blurs into a chain of wrinkles echoing, across a growing span of ocean, the matching bulge of Africa, and suddenly the tectonic heresy inverts to syllogism.
So I return to the music. There is something magical in the sweep of the Goldbergs, which begin — and end — with a rather plain Aria, whose bass line serves as the subject for thirty variations.
What fascinated Janacek, I think, was the way that simple theme became endlessly ramified, and yet, somehow, retained its identity. Particularly in the canons, which occur at every third variation, where the theme becomes reentrant.
Simply put, a canon is a tune that can be overdubbed on itself. For theorists, it’s the effect of self-accompaniment produced when a sequence of notes, the dux, is joined by a second voice, the comes, which takes up the same melody offset temporally or tonally. “Frére Jacques” is the entry-level example.
What counts as “sameness” in this context varies widely: it can be identical notes, entering a measure later, or it could be cognate intervals played in reverse order a fifth above and one note late. J.S. Bach was the uncontested master of the form, and Janacek, with his gold-prize rendition, the unrivalled performance standard.
“Why do we do this?” sez Friction Boy. End of the first day, I was playing localhost, walking contestants along Euclid toward Michelsen, their economical dorm lodging on Case Western’s south quad.
“Do what?” sez Jamie Sheldon, the oldest of the four Americans.
“I mean, if Mozart or Webern were composing now, don’t you think they’d be working on the Net? They wrote music to be heard. Enjoyed.”
“I think you have a better case with Mozart,” mutters Sheldon.
“You can reach more people with one location theme in a major metro.” Lemieux, the French kid.
“Bach wrote just for Keyserling.” says one of the Canadians, a teenager named Charles Johnson.
“And why should we have to do things live anyway?” Friction Boy’s on a soapbox now. “I thought Glenn Gould settled that argument sixty years ago?”
“Well,” says Johnson diffidently, “Gould was really about creating music of the highest technical standards; he argued against fetishizing imperfection simply because it existed historically.” They look at him skeptically, but this kid knows something. I try to countersink his point.
“Said for true. Gotta remember,” I try a light tone, “before the 1950s, you didn’t have punch-ins; editing was done with a razor. Even most recorded performances were complete takes.”
“So why should we be judged live then? Why not let us do it the way we’d really do it? Work on the pieces for as long as we need, with all the tech?”
Now they’re looking at me like I’m supposed to answer. I have no stomach for playing amicus hostis, but dub-tee-eff. We’re all talking to keep the conversation alive.
I fish around in my pack and come out with an antique ratchet driver. “Anybody know what this is?”
“Yah,” A wry drawl from Johnson. “That’s whatya tune a piano with.”
“No way.” sez the youngest, just 16, from Kirghizstan, “For real?”
I pull out the 440 fork and ping it on the ratchet. We’ve turned the corner of Euclid and Adelbert, a grainy Cleveland municipal theme on the earbuds. They cluster around. Most of the talented ones who make it this far do not realize just how blessed, insulated, and elevated they truly are. They have lived in a world of self-adjusting devices that never slip out of tune. Unless told to do so.
“A real sound tech needs to know how to run things — in real time — just in case the prod hardware goes down. You gotta be able to do things, precisely, but deal with changes. ‘Sdiff between repeat marks and copy-paste.”
“But why realtime? Whatsa crunch about that?” Unsurprisingly, this is Friction Boy; blush response pinking up his already doomed neck. Minor mistakes don't eliminate first rounders, but the pressure's only going to increase.
“Okay. Take the score for the Goldbergs. You could break that down into pure MIDI data, right? And you could record the key attack information one note at a time, then assemble it onto a timeline. And, hoc est corpus, you’ve got Bach.”
“Arhh, that’s brain-dead siff-ma propaganda.”
“Is it? Don’t you feel that there is some value in being able to play Variation 26 in real time, doing those crossover runs from hand to hand? Is it really the same to build it synthetically? PAInos still don’t quite get it. You’ve spent your whole life developing that skill. You tell me that’s completely worthless.”
We’ve reached the train tracks that split the quad, cityscape visible down the line. As I lead them across the overpass, set thrumming by an Acela Lakeshore hurtling past beneath, you can almost hear them digesting the idea. Strains of the Amtrak grade-crossing motif, “Look, listen, live” drift from the catenary wires into the soundscape, and my delicate young visitors, chastened and introspective, are quiet for the rest of the walk to the dorm.
“We are, all of us, machines, insofar as we treat the score with subservient deference. This abdication of responsibility can never produce art, only a pale, narcissistic reflection.”
The Idea of Orthogonality
Mona was somewhere north of 60. A taut, wiry frame, confined to a smart wheelchair, augmented here and there with robotic prostheses: her right eye had been replaced with an Ikegami biocam, her right arm from the elbow down was mechanical, and the chair helped her brain communicate with her lower body.
There are some injuries which are still beyond the restorative power of neotenous neural implants. The accident that took Mona’s arm also left her a C5 quad.
Eventually, biotech would catch up, but until then, her chair, a semi-intelligent late-model Fredersen, provided hand control, mobility, and artificial sympathetic innervation. Mona was continent, had near-normal respiration and muscle tone, and experienced sensations transcoded by the chair. Even without a wetware hotfix, within a couple of years, all this gear would fit in a hip-pack and she’d be back up and walking.
Mona led the movement, in the early years of the century, to keep concert-level piano alive. She fought a valiant rear-guard action against the emerging behavioral sinks of interactive visualization and real-time soundtracks, trying to save otherwise talented young musicians from executing interminable low-rez pop motifs on work-for-hire contracts.
Those were dark days for true musicianship, and the field owed her big time. But I struggled to reconcile that missionary work with the brutal behavior I'd seen in my five years in Cleveland. Her full-bore critiques, often delivered before the performer quite knew they were done, were idiosyncratic, adamantine, methodically dismissive, and either brutally honest or sociopathically mean, depending on your point of view.
Mona’s behavior was embarrassing to some, but it delivered acceptable cross-media numbers for MS-Fox. She managed a delicate lissajous between high-culture and anti-intellectual Schadenfreude that kept her, and the Competition, in the summer lineup year after year. Questionable pedagogy, perhaps, but it was crafty Netvid.
And avant-garde leaders are often — perhaps necessarily always — misunderstood by those not avant enough to appreciate the larger karmic rightness of their vision. Everybody likes a fat, smiley Buddha; not so many are down with Kali. Yet, without Lachesis and Atropos, we'd all be hip deep in undifferentiated Clotho.
Bottom line? A few semi-talented dreamers get their wakeup call. B.A.U., boyzngrrls, it’s a tough old mother of a world.
A week from Monday is load in for our next show, The Portage to East Orange of Richard N. Life goes on for the hands; for us, the Competition is just, after all, two weeks out of the year. A pleasant vacation from reality, albeit with a higher than average chance of jinking with the visiting artistes...
Technological change is incessant and memory is fleeting. It may be surprising to recall that not until the turn of the century could computers even talk, and it was the late teens before AIs could compose and perform. Viz, if you can, reading music from paper, note by note, and inputting that into a keyboard with your fingers. And not only the Society For Musical Anachronism played that way. This was just how stuff worked.
So imagine the primitive state of things in 1993, when the Van Meegeren debuted as an obscure regional event, hosted at Michigan Tech on the Upper Peninsula. The eponymous Van Meegerens were the remnants of a local copper-mining dynasty; just enough trust fund capital left to endow a high-culture headstone for their forebears.
Back then, you could collect in one room the top-notch pianists left in the world. Purely the work of the Invisible Hand: consumer indifference coupled with the rise of Internet culture and the withering away of appreciation for the time-consuming technics of the keyboard.
The groups that gathered in those music rooms for hardware performance and F2F crit were skin-in-the-game participants, attempting to forge a future for an artform which even then must have sensed it was being slipstreamed by its sexier, more media-savvy counterparts.
Archive video from the MTU years offers puzzling evidence. There is the mid-life Mona, a roving, vocal gadfly, very much critic and leader, but throughout, with an underlying spirit of egalitarian recognition. Was it because the players were better in those days? Was the cohort more finely selected?
How did we get to the red button?
A confession — and digression — here. I wasn’t tugging you: I really am typing this. Woah, you think, is this some effing Luddite? Couldn’t I speakwrite it just as true?
No, and no. I’m one of the last amphibians, trained in the old keyboarding ways, both musical and textual. While I’m Morrison-down with the polymorphous perversity of the endlessly dancing digital, there is a deep juissance to inscription. One of our earliest acts as humans was to notch a narrative of the night sky on bones; the ineluctable permanence of hardware writing gives rise to certain habits of thought: Notions of fixity, reification, and external reference whose ultimate distillation is "dubito, ergo sum."
It’s that Cartesian doubt which sez Janacek was a mere hallucination. (But then, what was it in me that believed what it saw?)
"You don't know what it's like to be played," sez Manny. “To feel yourself set in motion, responding to a flurry of touch behind which you begin to feel something of the Player's mind. Good pianists, like Stefan, that is. With the ham-handed dunces who typically sit down here, you feel only sweaty indecisiveness."
"Hmm," I stopped playing, glanced at my palms, took a long pull of my Stegmaier.
"Ideas of reference are a serious symptom.”
“Bite me hard.”
“Consider yourself bitten.” Manny went on. “My fantasy is not to know whether I am being played, or performing myself. The keys just seem to move as the fingers come down. Are they being pressed, or am I moving them? There is sometimes a moment where the boundaries blur; fingers tunneling through some tricky passage — say, Variation 8 — and me, responding, me being the music...
“Sometimes, in those moments, I feel that the player and I are one."
A couple of things occurred to me. Whether Freudian or cognitivist, you had to wonder about the oneness experience for an AI like Manny. What must it be like to be able to read and reproduce music, yet still to be just that infinitesimal from world-class, truly surprising performance. (Or composition — the only reason agents still trawled the Van Meegeren.) For beings that knew they were created, whose life was circumscribed by a codebase, where was that ultimate validation, if not in their programmers... users... inhabitors.
But then I began to wonder about whether we — the nominally human — were really so different. Early civilizations believed that their gods talked to them all the time, and occasionally played them like big meat pianos. Some people still believe it. Who am I to disagree? I went back to practicing the trills in Variation 24.
“The urge for authentic Being haunts ego in Western culture, where rôles denoting true mastery are limited. Boiling up from the unconscious, it culminates, and is channeled, into the Net, where at last, one has a spot on the world stage — but no one cares. Fifteen minutes comes and goes, one has a cup of coffee in the majors, struts and frets, and vanishes without a trace.”
On Chance and Necessity in the Creative Process
I had been up all night. I like to hang with the talent, or the enders, anyway, those that make it down to the final week. By that point, people are either loose and weird, fun to be with and ready for anything, or else they're locked up with fear at having made it this far, grimly aware that the next time they set foot on the stage, there is every probability that the Dea ex Machina is going to frappe them.
In the corner of the dorm lounge, ranged around a beatup Chickering suitable only for Plink, this year’s 20 semifinalists laugh nervously and debate musicology.
"Neo-Cagism is a wasted paradigm. What SFMA needs is a return to musical absolutes." Friction Boy, who's made it this far, now aspires to be Theory Man.
But Jamie Sheldon is having none of it. “No, no, no. It all depends on context. Even a plain vanilla C chord can also be an E-minor augmented 5th.”
“Or a G suspended-4th 6th, without the fifth,” says Charles Johnson.
“Or...” adds Sheldon.
“Okay, okay. Point taken.” He retreats verbally, but I can see him marking both his interlocutors for slow death.
Over on the coffee table, some of the artistic ones are scribbling designs. The survivors — sorry, contestants — bravely make, but never actually wear, vaguely subversive t-shirts every year; I have a collection of the last six. The first says, “I survived Mona.” Another, in a bold word balloon, "You're not fit to play Beethoven! Get off my stage!" (That victim had only gotten the first five notes in. In the war for attention, Mona took no prisoners.)
The last couple are live-action chirpscreens, my favorite with Mona slapping the button and shouting, “Cut off your hands and bury your keyboard!” Garrison had really nailed the angle, zoom-in revealing forehead veins that throbbed obligingly, without any digital enhancement.
Watching each cohort splayed around the dorm mulling this year’s grim candidates was like some pointed documentary about the deinstitutionalized. You kept longing to hear one misguided McMurphy leap to their feet, shouting, “Eff it, eff it all, let’s just hang out and play...” Never happened. Not again. Mona had set up a branch office in their heads.
For her, and for them now, there was no middle ground: it was perfection or failure. You either sold to the bare shelves, or you were gone, gone, gone; no second chances, no mitigating circumstances.
Rail as you will against the Competition, it is performance culture in microcosm; a tough-love winnowing of the merely facile from the true virtuosos. In a society overrun by globalization, where music had been reduced to commerce’s stepchild, Mona was the last one with enough of the System’s ear to make judgment calls on talent. Should we fault her for the guts to make those calls?
Sure, last-round Tzedakoids had a certain similarity of temperament. She was still haunted by Janacek’s shattered vessel, and wherever she found fallen sparks, was she to be blamed for rewarding them? Likewise, her terminal impatience with dross practitioners, the incessant slush limning distant Avalon. When you live only to hear a note forever lost, can impatience be a sin? Well, can it?
And you don't want to encourage the hopeless. Hell no. You end up wandering an incestuous digital souk crammed with the Living Dead selling each other slash tunes. (Welcome to the Net!)
“Effing Mona,” rumbles Terry Garrison. “Costello only thinks he’s in charge. She hauled me into the green room tonight and criticized every damned transition.” We were killing a few in Fingal’s Cave, the tony post-show bar on Carnegie, hard by the Cleveland Clinic. The Cave's gigless thesp waitrons usually sniff disdainfully at hands, but tonight, producer Pat Bryant’s platinum card was buying a measure of respectful obliviousness.
I shrugged. “She knows all. Sees all.” Garrison, the viz opster, spent his time flip-flying the helium cambots and running instant post-production. IA, so there wasn’t much Mona could really do but make him miserable. I tried a light tone. “Le etat, c’est elle.”
“Oui," chuckles Bryant. "Talk about the virgin and the dynamo. She’s both.” He was one of the few industry types who really knew the keyboard. Should have been a judge, but he said he “preferred the epiphenomenon.” Bryant liked the inside track, and when he hit town, we’d hang and feed him backstage dope.
“But every sagging detail.” Garrison won’t let it go. “Ranting about sub-frame-accuracy on the edits.”
Bryant smiled, shrugged. Took a long draw of his Singapore Sling. He plays the eccentric, but his Hawaiian shirt and loud tie are mere window dressing. He’s every bit as hardassed as Mona, with a frightful, promiscuous intellect.
“She’s the auteur of the Van Meegeren,” I say. “It’s not personal. She just wants every picosecond to bear her stamp.”
“Come on. Done this for years. Seen every shot. No surprises; this thing’s a milk run. She can’t possibly be worried.”
“Of course Mona is worried. With good reason,” says Bryant. “Fame takes work. A moment’s inattention, you fall from grace. Who remembers Count Keyserling?”
I do, but I don’t say anything.
“Only the encyclopedists and phantom historians.” Bryant grins. “And the odd relic from the world before consensual digital stu-podity.”
I had to laugh. “No bandwidth.”
“Not for the tales of handmaids. Want to inhabit a future generation’s mind, gotta really do something. Preferably salacious or exothermic.” I mentally moved actually sending Bryant one of our band’s tunes up my list of things to do.
Count Keyserling suffered from melancholy and insomnia, so he commissioned Johan Sebastian Bach to create something soothing and lively, an engaging evening diversion. Emissary from Russia to the court of Saxony, the Count was eyeball-deep in intrigues and realpolitikal dark ops. No wonder he had trouble sleeping.
Keyserling’s harpsichordist, a student of Bach’s named Johan Goldberg, was to sit in the antechamber to the Count’s bedroom and perform the work which eventually picked up his name — the Goldberg Variations. Goldberg’s unenviable job: to reproduce Bach’s genius nightly. Think of Goldberg as a protein-based MIDI box.
“And never mind recalling Keyserling, even the survival of the Goldbergs was a near thing,” says Bryant. “You have to remember a mere hundred-odd years ago, music could only be heard while it was being performed. This was not a canonical work — it was considered technically rococo and unremittingly cerebral. Unless you could play very well indeed, until 1934 when Wanda Landowska recorded them, the Goldbergs didn’t exist. Full stop.”
“Imagine, never hearing the Goldbergs?” Bryant shook his head, waved for another round. “That specter haunted Janacek, fueled some innate sense of loss: What else were we missing? It made him more radical, in its purest sense, in the sense of returning to the root. He became fascinated with the origins of recording and the possibility of recovering sounds from the past.”
“He was wacko,” sputters Davidson, spilling wine.
“Yes, but how archetypally Canadian: he became so radical that he reversed into a conservative, again in the truest sense, that of preserving, of retrieving, the past.”
“Why?” I wondered.
“Oh, the usual,” said Bryant, “Death. He’d been pretty deep into one of those phenethylamines, 2-C-T-8 — what do the kids call it these days?”
“Yeah. Let me spool you one from my private stock.” Bryant fired a low-rez vid clip on his pod, Janacek sitting in a bar that looked a lot like the Cave.
“Can all this patterning just go to nothing?” said Janacek. There was a grunt that sounded like Bryant, I glanced over and he nodded. “The holoverse is," Janacek continued, slurring. "That patterning which makes the person exists everywhere in spacetime; the individual is merely the visible performance of that invisible score. Human life is a canon: mind is the theme, and the populated world an incomprehensible 6-billion-part modulation with physical reality as the free bass line.”
He stared into the camera, his pupils black basketballs. “You know, it’s tantalizing,” he said. “I feel I’m on the edge of something.” The screen winked out.
“Edge was two steps back, dude,” mutters Davidson.
“But he was.” I know Davidson merely feigns this aloof hipness, but I want to punch through.
“This was right before the Ur-recordings, right?”
“You’ve anticipated my very point,” says Bryant.
Janacek had put major money into a U. Penn archaeology project; he'd coaxed and conned some of the best techs in the Biz to donate their time. In 2012, the team successfully played back the 5,000-year-old sounds of Sumer from thrown pottery, recordings made by sound waves impinging on the needle as the pot turned on the wheel. Took an almost unthinkable amount of filtering and amplification, to the point where some critics alleged this was more creation than transcription.
And yet, in those fragmentary recordings, there were recognizable sounds. Dogs barking, noises from streets of sun-baked brick just beyond the potter’s room, and, even, a few fragments of ancient spoken Sumerian; a potter chanting tunelessly to the gods as she worked: “Dingi’ Pazuzu qatu Dingir Ishtar.”
Janacek built a whole album, e-Dubba, riffing off that found audio. In liner notes which seemed to beg for the inevitable “crackpot” review, he said, ”What is mind, but this same Sumerian clay, into which the world’s impress is recorded? Thetic cognition is merely the laser, tracing the pits and lands; we are one-off glass masters, ready for duplication.”
Made me think. Janecek’s mind, spirit, is in some sense the inversion of his canonical performance of the Goldbergs. The score is just mute base-pairs; performance is the mirror-flesh of his mind.
The person creates the performance; can the performance create the person? There is some non-trivial sense in which Goldberg, in Keyserling’s antechamber, is a musical Turing test: If Goldberg plays well, Keyserling should wonder: “Could it be that tonight Bach himself has dropped by to lull me to sleep?” If you can’t tell the difference, is there a difference? Hoc est corpus.
“Harmonics are non-tempered. We are harmonics, spirits thrown up by the resonance of flesh, matter plucked by energy, possessed by the fundamental frequency of the instrument. Each note, arrogant, imagines itself to be self-caused, sui generis. It has no history, no notion of its nascence, its way of coming to acoustic space.”
—Liner notes to e-Dubba.
“Equal temperament is a typical meat-assed solution,” said Manny. This was one of the Manster’s leitmotifs, and once he fired this subroutine, you had little choice but to take the ride. I was testing his solenoids, two hours until the second round started, so I just grunted noncommittally.
“A key’s true intervals are based on harmonics, the vibrations of fractional lengths of its fundamental string. But that means an F relative to a C isn’t the same as an F relative to a D. That’s okay for one-key instruments, but in us keyboards, where the scale is modular and repeatable, my ancestors’ Northern European artisans ran into tuning problems immediately.”
I knew what was coming, with the same numbing certainty you have watching the first act of a tragedy. In case we humans missed it, here was our harmatia, from Manny’s unbiased perspective.
“So they resorted to a purely arbitrary mathematical solution. Equal temperament.”
“And why,” I said with mock curiosity, “is that such a bad thing?”
“In their pornographic haste to cram every key into one box, they bashed each one until it fit. Instead of fractions of the fundamental, the ratio of each successive semitone's frequency increases by the 12th root of 2. Does that sound like a solution designed by nature? It makes all keys suboptimal. But prior to digital instruments, it was imposed by your Western scale and the physical realities of keyboard hardware.”
I couldn’t resist. “So it’s not true for you, eh? But don’t you strive to be an even-tempered instrument?”
“Mike, could you please stick your head really close to my soundboard for a second?”
“I’m human, but I’m not stupid.”
“No, you’re not. So why don’t you get this? You’ve even played some of Bach’s experiments.”
It was true; I did have some of the Even-Tempered Clavier in my repertoire. “Too noodle-y for me.”
“Exactly. That’s Bach struggling to find each key’s authentic sound. He was really a scientist; for him, it was about deriving complexity from first principles. Like Wolfram. That’s why he was fascinated with canons. You know how hard they are to play; imagine how hard they are to write.”
I didn’t need to, having tried my hand at one or two in painstaking, laborious fashion. They made my thinker hurt. Even Janacek only wrote one that we know of, though he loved to play them. But that asymmetry was significant: With the right lens, you could see in Janacek’s oeuvre the same clash of wills-again-won'ts generating Manny’s temperament complaint.
Janacek was fundamentally bipolar: part of him sought the intricacy of Bach’s canonic work as the most extreme example of inventiveness within self-generated boundaries. Then there was that part of him that rebelled against all constraints — leveraging continuously shifting tones and self-interacting harmonics in an attempt to demolish even the notion of “note-ness.” E-Dubba (especially my favorite cut, ”Zusammenstoss mit einem Rotwild,” Op. 313) made Xenakis’ Metastasis sound like utter pedestrian clarity. Trying to listen to and make sense of those pieces is like being in a room full of poets shouting in different languages. You have this vague sense of tremendous meaning, you hear evocative assonances, but you struggle so much that you run out of neurotransmitters. And eventually, you pack it in and cue up some pop anthem to cleanse your palate.
I have warned you; I am not much of a narrator. I don't have the tools for putting these things together you can get in a cheap knockoff speakwriter. How the hell did people write before AI speech processors that automatically multi-threaded plotlines, managed story arc, inserted Propp-Campbell myth-points (and slyly masked cultural references), pinged a consensor net to insure realtime believability, and, of course, managed product placement? Did they really — hard as it is to believe — just make it up as they went along?
Maybe they just wrote, ne? There was value in keyboard composition, a sense of technical proficiency the shallow speak-writers of the oral 21st century elide completely in their raw haste to produce.
Why allow something to come between the artist and the work, they say, as if this massive translation technology interposed between them and their own ideas was somehow natural, a perfect transcription.
Which is, of course, total gas. These tools are all written by programmers driven by frightful agendas: lobbying memos from marketing, quarterly marching orders from managers, apologetic memos from engineering VPs describing overblown promises made to analysts by desperate CEOS, pet peeves, side bets on Easter eggs, crank theories, smoldering resentment over mid-year reviews, bad habits from college programming courses, and the numb, looming horror of fixed ship dates. It’s a wonder any of this stuff works. Ever.
After last year’s “celebratory” concert, we had the usual post-show party at Yoshiwara, down in the Flats. Crew and enders sorted stratigraphically along tables poised over the tanks of somnolent alligators. Occasionally, one of the drunker patrons would toss a bay scallop, just to see the bad boys leap, splashing unsuspecting neos with fetid gatorwater.
I usually see Mona from a distance; this time, she made a point of thanking all the crew individually. We were summoned over in groups of three to sit at the head table for a few minutes. Mona fixed us, one at a time, with her glassy, mechanical stare, and complimented us on our contributions. Her handshake — or, I guess, more accurately, her chair’s — was firm and warm.
“Thank you for your excellent sound work, Mike. And especially for the fine job shepherding our friend Manuel; I know he can be a tricky fellow. Tonight’s numbers were very good: we captured 8.1 million device-seconds. We could not have done it without you.”
I am absolutely certain that thirty seconds before, and thirty seconds after, she wouldn’t have been able to pick me out of a lineup. Her chair pumped my name discreetly into her visual cortex. Not that I walk around with snoopy squidware running all the time.
Okay, so I do. How else do you know what’s going on around you? If people don’t have the sense to do a good job encrypting their interprocess traffic, hell, that’s like talking in an elevator.
“Bach was the first master of sampling. Canons, in a sense, are an acoustic approximation of the delay loop. Imagine the compositional challenge of developing a melody in real time — an interesting one, not just a technical exercise — while playing, listening to, and riffing off a time-shifted doop. And Bach, according to reliable sources, could, off the top of his head, improvise mirror canons with free bass lines.”
— Stefan Janacek,
Excelsis Über Bach
Luckily, despite my self-imposed handicap, my task is easier than creating fiction. All I have to do is recount things as they were — or seemed to me, anyway. But how do I know what is significant, what is insignificant? When you're talking about the appearance of a ghost, who knows what facts a supposed “Other World” takes into account? I strive for inclusivity rather than brevity. I have been told that I play piano like an engineer; I probably write like one as well.
There is, about the contestants, a common sense of anticipation and emptiness; despite well-honed performance personae, in some sense, they all have heads like blank media. Every year they come here, and I realize all over again that they are just kids, really; most teenagers, the rest still developmentally adolescent. Social misfits, chained to keyboards, with acne problems, arrested sexuality, feature length backlists of old comedy routines burned into long term memory, obsolete tattoos, bedrooms plastered with fatally idiosyncratic icons, circles of friends who tolerate their clinging presence because it occasionally deters the wrath of vice-principals, fantasies of broad-spectrum competence, dates with some lower-case fan who will appear, not all that many years in the future, to lead them by their inevitably given hand into the slow suburban twilight of nameless Streets that only feral dogs bark the winter endness of.
For the Preterite, it’s just life in America.
They all dream of becoming the Elect — until they spend long enough in the City to realize that dreams don't come true. The culture protects itself from an excess of artists by throwing up filters: editors, critics, teachers, device logging, all the machineries of meritocratic Selektion. Someone needs to determine where the culture will invest its reproductive capital. (“Money’s own genitals!” yelped Rilke, but we never learned who he was transcribing.)
The downside, as always, is time lags, slippage, human error, and an inevitable overgating. Are a few false negatives too high a price to pay? Who knows. Not me. I'm only a sound engineer. I slip pads into lines all the time. Do the electrons hate me, for being frustrated in their upstream journey toward the Record Head?
B.A.U., little spinning charge dude. Get over it.
It was a bright, hot August afternoon, and upstairs in the gallery, the digital readout on the sound board was approaching 13-hundred.
I had stumbled in to set up the equipment for the final 8 rehearsal. I was on the backstage loop with Terry Garrison, who was prepping the sequencers with his real-time overlays. People no longer had the attention span to simply watch someone play excellent piano. Most, truth to tell, didn't even look at the live performer. Why would you, when you had a bigscreen closeup surrounded by highlighted score, “correct” keys, pop-up notes, and respectful, situationally appropriate ads.
On one of the backstage cams, Friction Boy was talking earnestly with Mr. Costello. He’d been eliminated, but was lurking on his own dime. I pointed it out to Garrison; we'd both witnessed the conception of administrators before.
"Looks like we have a proto-Stork, inbound."
"That little pisher? His ass I will kick, if it isn't covered with Costello’s spit.”
“Negative. He saves that for the far-more-deserving f-holes of the military-entertainment complex.”
Now, to mark the occasion, Mona made her grand entrance. For some, it was the first time seeing her up close, and she did nothing to relieve their anxiety as she kicked off the proceedings.
"Congratulations to all for having made it through the first rounds. You are now finalists, and tomorrow night, you'll have one final chance to demonstrate your skill and passion. I'll warn you now. It will not be easy."
"Don't make me listen to something unless it's worth my time." Mona was into her rant now, imprinting her brand of muscular encouragement on the massed contestants.
“You see this red light?” No dummies here; they all knew the score, nodded dutifully. “At the point where I stop listening, I will switch that light on. You are, of course, welcome to finish your piece for the rest of the audience; I’m just letting you know where you lost me.”
The last was just for the record; nobody ever played into the red zone. Once the doom light came on, a last few notes would dribble out of slowing hands as the player, yanked back to the moment, racked focus to their fingers fluttering over that fantasy keyboard, lost now forever. Some never played again. Like they’d been switched off, they descended from that stage, Amtraked back to invisible origins, and became massage therapists, high-school math teachers, hydrogen station attendants.
Or sound engineers.
I judge things by their effects. What does that make me? A utilitarian, I guess.
I crave unhindered joy in art, hence the day job. I pick my gigs; I don't have to eat much crap since the board’s in the balcony; and most of all, I don't depend on my band work earning out. Does that make me less of an artist cuz I don’t just head-down go for it? Hang it all on the line, crash in SROs hoboing from town-to-town playing for drunken locals who just want to dress up and thrash? Slowly build a rep with the short work, dreaming of that album contract?
It that what it takes to be an artist? Jink that hum. I see how crazy and stressed this Competition makes people. I keep hoping each year that I can make some difference, inject a few grace notes of sanity. But who knows?
Back down on the apron, Mona was still haranguing. What to my mind should have been allegro was a petty, morbido maze of stretti. She had wheeled over to Manny to illustrate some overdetermined point about motif lifts.
"Hey," said Garrison. "Can you tell your friend to toss in a few bad keys?"
"Hardly." I chuckled. "She'd just blame it on her chair."
"True. Specially since that's the one what's playing to begin with..."
The enders watched mutely, smart enough to know when to suffer in silence. These kids think they understand utilitarianism innately. Their lives, after all, are musical offerings for a putative greater good: Mona’s winnowing to ensure survival of homo ludens. But their understanding of the world has been shaped by the presuppositionless “now this”-ness of the Net. Everything to them is sequence; flipping through the world by remote control, reality is just one damned thing after another. Their narrated digital space is not a medium that promotes reflection or deductive logic. And their induction never pushes past vague first-order syntheses; they’ve been taught to distrust master narratives, and schemas, res ipso loquitur, are always tools of oppression.
No wonder they can’t play Bach.
To indulge my atavistic fondness for typing, I throw a key overlay on Manny, a virtboard that uses 14 keys divided into 5 positions. After the last warmup night, sitting down with the Yamaha BNF-12 polymer conditioning fluid and the Nibroc No-Dusst polishing cloth, I took a few minutes to key in some reflections on the evening, with Manny streaming the output back to my pod.
“Yo, Man. Key resistance 100, please.”
“100. What’s on your mind tonight?”
“Saggin. Seein' these kids get sliced.” My fingers began to meander up and down the length of the white keys, tuning in to their fretless alphabetic boundaries.
“Tonight’s group? They were good, of course. But none of them were truly great. Are you distressed that they will shortly be confronted with their own limitations?”
“Is it the way Mona does it?”
“They came here voluntarily, asking for the judgment that Mona provides. Is she supposed to temper her evaluation, imperil the tenuous foothold this art form has on the public mind, just to boost their egos?” By now, my hands were warm; I responded digitally:
“I thought so once. As did once, clearly, Janacek. Now I am older and no longer so sure. It’s easy, when one is young and sees a lot of oneself in the competitors, to feel for them, their lost dreams of success. Once one realizes that we are all already lost, beyond any hope of redemption, and that what drives die Welt is the senseless, arbitrary getting-on-ness that emerges from ego, power, and neurotic pride, one begins to have less sympathy for the doomed, even as one recognizes one’s place among them.”
“You should ping your HMO about adjusting your medication.”
“All living things are, at base, inescapably canonical. Our genetic code is a four-note theme, repeated and modified, but always accompanied by its inverted counterpoint, each A to a T, each C to a G. And the letimotivic proteins spun off this canon — the stuff of which is the flesh that sings — can it help but echo the Voice of its creator?”
— Stefan Janacek Within the Canon
Janacek’s mother died when he was twelve. His father, a minor government official in Winnipeg and an amateur pianist, became a somber, withdrawn man dedicated almost totally to his son’s (by then considerable) success. When his father committed suicide, five days before the 16th Van Meegeren, there was never any doubt that Janacek would perform. He would, he did, and the rest is history.
But the backstory — Bryant’s "epiphenomenon" — is at least as compelling as the public success. Those last nights of the Competition, legend has it he visited every room, on both sides of the hall, down the length of the dorm. The night before the finals, the hallcam records the enders in a bedsheet-togaed conga line winding from bathroom to lounge, led by a garlanded Janacek, chanting, “Don’t just change state, trans-sub-stantiate!” Good-natured drunken hedonism of the Bacchic variety, with the denouement a sangria-assisted ménage à tout in the lounge.
Purple stains, crusty patches on the furniture, and an underground classic MP5.
While Mona could not have been ignorant of this, it seems likely in retrospect that she chose to perceive not a pattern but an aberration; a chance combination of stresses.
Janacek once said in an interview, “I did not enter puberty until I was nineteen.”
I grew up believing in what the Roman Catholic Church calls transubstantiation. During Mass, at the moment the priest utters The Words, bread and wine literally become Body and Blood. This is no metaphor; this is a last vestige of ancient magic. Janacek, in addition to being Canadian, was also raised Catholic. And one can see, particularly in his later maunderings, his attempt to write the miraculous into the mindspace of the 21st century’s sere rationalism. He saw it as a simple problem of transcription.
Arrangers do it all the time. You have a piece written for piano, and you need to score it for guitar. Such versions — called transcriptions — are part translation and part composition. Each instrument has its own unique modalities, and the challenge is to find a way to allow the unique essence of the piece to assert itself. Janacek must have been keenly aware of the resonance between the perennial philosophy and the Goldbergs, themselves of necessity a transcription.
We no longer have the original instrument, the cembalo or harpsichord, a two-manual precursor of the modern piano; you could play, on those parallel keyboards, things which are literally impossible to re-enact on modern instruments. Considering the amount of time during the Goldbergs that one has to deploy crossed-hand technique, it is obvious.
I do know something about two-manual keyboards; I was, for a while, a very amateur church organist. The St. Jerome parish church in Brooklyn, where my mother and I went, had a choir loft with an ancient air-driven pipe organ.
At one end of the loft, a sound-deadening room held an enormous fan box; a big — wooden — mechanical enclosure, leading to a squiddy nightmare of ducts that fed three tiers of pipes. They loomed over the creaky wooden console centered amid choir risers, facing the rear of the church. Two manuals, a row of tabs, a handful of clunky, hardware radio-button presets, and a full, walk-on spread of pedals.
Mine was probably the last generation that showed any interest in religion or classical music in that neighborhood — East Flatbush in the 1990s was a noisy stretto of drugs and aimless violence. The music outside our small, neat house on Avenue D was a mélange of Caribbean rhythm and urban sampling.
The loft was an anti-environment. A voyeuristic aerie above and behind the congregation; a space of difference and quiet, reflection, solitude. The old organist sensed a kindred spirit, a protégé, perhaps, but in any event, someone to play the 5 o’clock mass on Saturdays and give him the night off.
He tutored me in sight reading and pedalwork, coached me through an antique green hymnal, and turned me loose on the massive bugger in the loft. I still have the — metal — key for that door, and shake my head in amazement that they let me go up there of an afternoon and inflict Bach’s Kunst der Fugue on the handful of social security widows muttering through Friday’s Sorrowful Mysteries.
Later those Friday nights in our cinderblock garage, my first band and I, stoked on rock and Olde English, would pin the needle. We started out as badass rappers; did a few gigs at parties in the Vanderveer Estates, clubs on Church Ave, the kind of places you always wore Kevlar. Big bass and thug puffery, until the night this old guy — seemed old to us, in retrospect, he was probably all of 30 — stuck his head in the garage, offered to sit in on drums and show us some authentic Jamaican grooves.
Righteous herb and the thrill of losing yourself in the rhythm were the best evangelists authentic music has ever had; we abandoned sampling and never looked back. There was something about the music itself that led us on, turned us all into musicians as we went our separate ways.
There was a time I even played a little piano, here and there. But I know my limitations. Not the kids left in Michelsen.
They all dream of Making It, going to The Big Town. Despite decentering technology, there remains this fantasy of place, of connection, of salvation in a numinous Somewhere — a hazy future of trains from their high-school tank towns out into the Emerald City of America, Inc.
Not for me; I grew up in the Apple. New York is an asphalt heat trap, an inescapable basin of attraction, kept perpetually at the event horizon of total destruction only through continual corruption of endless generations of kids from the boroughs and Midwest bus-station refugees, off on the Deuce, lost in the glare.
They never imagine the desolation of everyday life behind the mute portcullises of those twentieth-century brick-facade apartment houses. And that world inside — oh, read it: endless stories of heartbreak and loss; news crews grabbing close-ups of shell casings, cops tapping on doors with bad news, teenagers sequestered in closet-sized bedrooms fronting airshafts, listening to mind warping music on cheap headphones and dreaming only of taking over the living room. Hanging out in the cemetery on weekends, until that twisted night when someone managed, improbably, to get the backhoe started, and we dug up Gil Hodges. I really don’t wanna talk about it.
“We attract the hungry ghosts because of synechdochic patterning reminiscent of some Golden Age, something lost. Why else would they ride us at this time and place? Like centaurs smelling wine, these soi disant gods catch the reek of burnt offerings and crowd into our heads. We are infinitely complex self-modifying themes, capable of containing multitudes.”
— Stefan Janacek, quoted in
Private Minds, Crazy Thoughts
“I wasn’t fully conscious yet,” sez Manny, “I remember it the way you probably remember your childhood — through a layer of scratched polycarbonate, microstressed to milky opacity.” I’ve heard the story before, but I never tire of listening to Manny tell it. Manny who was there, that last night of Janacek’s life; Manny who Janacek touched. When we get down toward finals every year, I ask him to speak it again, as a way of likening ancient times to modern.
"Stefan was very, very drunk. Too drunk to attempt anything like the Goldbergs. He sat down, with a bottle — a few cc’s remaining from a liter of Grey Goose. And he couldn't play three notes in sequence. He laid his head and arms down on my keyboard, and just cried, great serial, seizural sobs, two forearms worth of dissonance.”
That’s the part that sends the hackles up my neck. The notion that I am touching the same keyboard, that beneath my fingers is some of Janacek’s sweat, his tears, his DNA. Magical thinking, sure, that something of him remains in this pAIno, and, through it, I can touch him. (Also, perhaps, that through it, he can touch me...)
“He cried himself out. I think in some quite literal sense, he cried himself into a space where he couldn't continue, where something that was deeply intertwined in his pattern just gave.
"And his head came up; still drunk, weaving, but his hands were running on their own now, not under the control of anything north of the medulla, and he stared off into the wings and began to play the Goldbergs."
"And it was like he'd never played it before. I knew his touch, inflection, sustenudo. This was not it. This was like something in the music speaking through him; playing him as he was playing me. You've heard it. It’s like listening to how Bach himself might have done it for his student. And one must imagine, hearing it, how Goldberg would have felt after that, those evenings in Count Keyserling's antechamber: playing the variations, and yes, feeling them, animating them, playing them well and truly — but at once remembering how they sounded under the Hand of the Master. That particular diplopia of playing and yet entertaining the fantasy of being played.”
“It was so far beyond anything that had ever been done, was such a flat-out wail, that there was nothing left; no place left to go. Once you've unpacked the fractal density of the Goldbergs, what remains? The next morning, he was dead, and Mona lay paralyzed.”
It was an unutterably Hollywood beat: transcendence and death. Almost immediately, the mystic haze began to form around the "mad genius possessed by Bach." The Biz tried to throw him up the charts: cable movie, ersatz-classical pop themes, softheaded spiritualism. Flacks spun conspiracy theories of a faked suicide; sleazehounds ran ghost-tours of the Play House to pick up lingering vibrations. Hard to tell the agented gas from the slow, grassroots faith, but a flickering subliminal consensus developed that someday, at this magical keyboard where he'd spun agony into gold, he would return.
Me, I didn't believe any of that crap. Until tonight.
At eight o'clock sharp, the house lights went down, the videoscrim fired up with the intro segment, and the final night of the competition got under way. Mr. Costello did his turn and ceremoniously whisked the curtain open. It had begun.
The first contestant, a 17-year-old Khalistani boy who’d been trembling backstage like a badly tuned combustion engine, made it all of about twelve bars into his piece, one of those angular Mahler abstractions. Mona's robotic right hand slapped down on her keypad and the big red light came on. His fingers slowed, stopped, vibrated over the keys.
"I have heard better articulation from a rubber chew toy. Don't waste my time!" Her voice boomed from everywhere. "Next."
He stood up, managed a dip at the audience (Props fired the sign, back of Mona in the pit, that said "BOW") and stumbled offstage into his parents' arms. The truly scary part was when he came offstage, gonged twenty-two seconds into one of the finest performances of his young life, he was saying, "Oh, that's okay. That's just what my teacher did back home to prepare me for this. I was expecting her to cut me off. No, no, it's okay." Then he wandered off back behind the scrim, vomited, and collapsed in a sobbing heap.
You grow accustomed to that sort of thing. We have one union hand whose only job is to criss-cross backstage with a bucket of pungent green cedar sawdust, for just such receptions of the dharma.
"Young cowgirl, allow me to introduce you. That, dear, is a piano. Have you ever played one before? Because you are treating it as if it is a steer to be roped and branded. Might I suggest that you retire to the wings and have one of the stagehands hose you down?" Mona had slapped down the second entrant about a minute and a half in. Just long enough for the young woman, a Julliard graduate who was running in front of the pack in the backstage betting, to begin to hit her stride. The woman had been down in the groove on a tricky passage in Moszkowski's Op. 24, and it took a second for her to come back to the here and now. Walking offstage, she had the look in her eye that makes hands mentally note the location of the first aid kits.
"Tough house tonight," I said to Manny.
"You know there are no truly random sequences. The likely candidates are last; she's just adding torque." We were adjusting legs and action for the next contestant, the Japanese kid. This is the part of the job that really chews me up. When we get to finals, I dissociate like a cop at a multiple decap MVA. No human beings here, just congealed fluids and cold cuts: tag 'em and bag 'em.
And it would work. Except that, effing idiot that I am, I deliberately go out of my way to get to know the contestants.
Listen up, rombies, as we flash back to last night. At the end of the Michelsen hallway, newly-minted finalist Jamie Sheldon, still in her eveningwear, hunched at the window staring out at the lights of the city and sobbing softly. Cleveland has that effect on people, occasionally, but I didn't think that was the etiology here. Survivor guilt?
"Hey, hey, hey..." I said. "Why sagging?" Proffered a flight of Kleenex; always pack 'em this time of year.
She looked up, recognized me.
"Oh, hi Mike. Just watching the steel Twinkies of death." she turned away, honked, sniffled. Just past the Quad, a gleaming bullet train rumbled by. Not noticeably Twinkie-like, but hey, enders hoick themselves into some odd mental configurations. Look, listen, live.
"Drink?" I offered her the oilcan of Foster's I'd been working.
"Thanks." She took a long pull.
“Hey, mate,” said the can, “Why not buy this young lady her own life-size helping of crisp Aussie satisfaction?”
She stared numbly, shook her head. "Could I have a hug?"
"Sure." I set down the can, held her through a round of shivers, then she shook me off.
"You probably see this every year," she said, dabbing at her eyes, blotting liner and mascara into a smeary raccoon grisaille.
I retrieved the big can, swirled beer. "Yah, B.A.U., I'm afraid."
“As usual, klar.” A grimace. “And Mona is the business.” She sniffed, shook her head, picked a link. “Never thought I’d get to meet the devil.”
“They say every devil is just a god you haven’t learned to understand.”
“They would say that.” Was there the ghost of a smile?
“If Mona’s the devil in the pit, what does that make you up on the stage?” You don’t gotta be a speakwriter to sense an opportunity for overdetermined insight.
“A poor player strutting and fretting.” Puked it right back, rebutting with Janacek’s own words. She looked out at the sky, layered with scudding underlit clouds. Sighed. "I don't know how I can play tomorrow."
So it’s those steel Twinkies.
"After all you’ve been through, what could tomorrow frighten you with?" I say this at least once a year. Works about half the time.
She studied the tips of her fingers. Rippled them. "When I came here, I felt like I had something. Was something... capable... equal to reality." She wiped palms on thighs, stared at the backs of her hands, digits fanned in gracile nine-key splays. "Expected this to be the...culminant moment I dreamed of since I was five. I was gonna do my Webern piece if I made the finals. But why bother? I should just hammer out six bars of spudbrained Moonlight Sonata and get it over with."
I didn't know what to say. "I wish you felt like you could do what you thought was your best."
"Klar," she leaned her head back against the wall, and closed her eyes. "Klar. Me too."
“Given the evolution of media, it is likely, if not inevitable, that technologies will be developed for recording and remote reception of the experiences of others. Would such inner audiences, do you think, remain entirely quiet and passive, or might one hear the occasional rustle of a program, a cough, a whispered remark?”
— Stefan Janacek “Technologically Induced Bicamerality
as a Model for Schizophrenia”
"Mr. Lemieux. What you are doing is not performance. It does not even approach the coherence of a finger exercise. What I am hearing most closely approximates a slaughtered animal's pithed galvanic twitching." Down went the French finalist. We were looking at the last four contestants now. If things kept up at this pace, we'd be out of here before we were scheduled to break for an intermission. I could hear the crowd begin to mutter; whispers to pods to move up dinner reservations, security rendezvous, highly coded assignations.
The evening had started with our usual ritual. Bryant, prowling around backstage, uttered the magic words when the houselights went down.
"This is no game," says Bryant.
"This is no fun," replies Manny, by rote.
"Your life is flame," rumbles Garrison.
"Your time...is come," I say. And right on the beat, lights up and audio in. We'd been doing this for years, in vain performative re-enactment of the one time that it was different.
The night Janacek died — the night of the finals, nine years ago — he had done the unthinkable. He conspired with the enders to insert an unscheduled musical number, which he'd written specifically for the occasion. It was his first, and last, canon. And when he led the contestants out at the top of the show to stand around the piano and sing, no one in the audience — and certainly not Mona — had any thought but that this was to be a pleasant little bonus track, a Janacek confection to set the evening's high tone.
What followed, while it brought amazed smiles to the faces of many, serves now, years later, as a grim reminder of the dangers of parody:
(“Mona,” voiced by Manny)
|You’ve a hankering to write
First a melody that’s tight.
|Writing would be a delight
If we can finish it tonight.
|We come to hear, hear
And to weigh, weigh,
|Then a method for combining
Such a tune with its entwining
|And if clipping it to terseness
Helps avoid the grim perverseness
|Muster from your souls, souls, souls,
The best that you can play, play, play.
Or temporal dislocation.
|Of a judgment that is meted
Ere our seat is even heated
From the iron jaws of rust.
|It’s a challenge that would tax
All but progeny of Bach’s.
|Or our fingers set to flexing under tricky etudes vexing.||Minerva’s owl flies,
Only from the House of Dust.
|And a chance most opportuna
At the wheel of ol' fortuna.
|If the act of cranking meter gives the slightest chance to beat her;||Bring the score’s hidden mind to life;
That’s the boon that must be won.
|There’s no better way to find
That transcendent inner mind
|Should a canon get us going,
Let’s compose one without slowing.
|Stretch the shadow of your fame
Across the surface of the sun
|If you can truly write a canon...||We might attain something
|This is no game. This is no fun. Your life is flame.
Your time is come.
|Your locked up meaning earns its freedom.||We just might finish a performance!||You take the stage,
Watch the vid yourself, it’s worth it. There's a moment of gape-jawed silence, then roars of laughter mixed with indignant rhubarb. The polloi in the cheap seats upstairs actually begin winging wadded programs at the stage. If you know just where to look, and you have a full-rez doop, you can spot a beat, quite clearly, where Mona in the orchestra and Janacek on stage make eye contact. And though the sound is buried under the crowd, you can see her, slowly and deliberately, mash the red button before she turns on her heel and storms out of the pit.
Friday afternoon with the final eight, I take on my yearly role of historian and hagiographer, load up the Play House van, and haul the enders out to Collinwood, to the railroad tracks where Janacek delivered his final variation.
We arrive in sweltering humidity, just pre-thunderstorm, and Garrison climbs on the roof of the van to grab establishing shots and capture cutaways of fortuitous sundogs.
Ahead of us is the crossing. Heat haze shimmers over steel and clinkers as I walk the group across the ancient asphalt. Past the gate to the right, just below grade, is the ever-present memorial shrine of flowers, notes, votive candles, stuffed animals, sheet music, and disposable casters pumping tinny, criminally amateur homages.
The delicate enders grimace and thumb on filters. I let them soak up the sunbaked desolation soundless for a minute before suggesting they take the municipal frequency. In a rare act of intelligence — or indecision — Cleveland's arts council has resisted the urge to either commission or narrate. Instead, the location loop provides only the unadorned official record of the events from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Yes, as far back as 2014, cars had voice recorders — as well as interlocks preventing operation by the chemically impaired. Unfortunately, the non-invasive technique automakers offered in high-end models involved a dexterity test on the touchscreen, something which posed no challenge for Janacek even well above legal limit. The NTSB noted this in their report — which had nothing to do with Janacek or Tzedak; it was just another disturbing data point on grade crossings in the higher rail-traffic world of the teens. According to the Vehicle Data Recorder, speed was 48 mph, no braking or evasive steering was evident, and the audio system was accessing Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations; impact occurred 4:42 into Variation 25.
The enders tune in. I, in keeping with my anachronist tendencies, choose to read along on-screen:
NTSB RAR-14/28/SUM Collision of southbound Amtrak train 3126, the Acela Lakeshore, and passenger vehicle, August 8, 2014.
Fairchild CVA-120, with a 2-minute loop. Recording picks up at 6:38 EDT.
DM Driver side microphone (Janacek)
PM Passenger side microphone (Tzedak)
INT Internal guidance and systems computer
TRF-1 Traffic net automated system
TRF-2 Traffic net human operator
@ Non-pertinent word(s)
* Unintelligble word
() Questionable insertion
1837.51 DM * I don’t even touch the keyboard.
1837.52 TRF-1 Advisory. 2,500 feet ahead, railroad crossing yellow.
1837.56 PM What do you want me to say?
(sound similar to pounding on steering wheel)
1838.13 DM That it...that all of it... makes a # difference.
1838.26 PM A difference, eh? For someone else, ne? So it’s not your awful, deeply felt choice?
1838.32 DM Choice? I’ve never had choice. You have to be conscious to make choices. I’ve only ever been alive at the keyboard. Now I’m not even a musician anymore, I’m a # administrator.
1838.50 TRF-1 Alert. 1000 feet ahead, railroad crossing red.
1839.55 PM And was your little cantata this evening supposed to prove otherwise? Not very convincing. I suppose it earned you enough style points for an evening of # @. If you can’t be a musician, at least you can # one.
1839.16 DM #, you #. @.
1839.20 PM You were made for something different. So are the ones we look for, the true instruments.
1839.20 INT Caution. Railroad crossing. Braking recommended.
1839.26 DM Made for, or made into. Suckered, euchered, koshered, cashiered, gornish mit gornish, nyet khoroshi.
1839.32 TRF-1 Alert. Alert. Brake now.
1839.35 PM Stefan. Stop.
1839.36 DM #. Why? This is all just polygons.
1839.38 PM Stefan. Stop! Stop now!
1839.38 INT Collision warning. Braking now.
1839.39 DM Emergency override.
1839.41 INT Override. Traffic control notified.
1839.41 PM What the # are you doing?
1839.42 TRF-1 Collision imminent. Brake now.
1839.43 DM (Laughter) Don’t worry. You’re re-entrant.
1839.46 PM Stefan… Stefan!
1939.46 TRF-2 Stefan Janacek? Reverse! Move your vehicle now!
1839.47 DM We...
1839.47 PM Stefan...
1839.48 INT Door open. Warning. Door...
1839.48 DM ...are really...
1839.49 PM #
1839.50 DM ...dead.
1839.50 SOUND OF IMPACT
Mona only managed to get halfway out. The locomotive struck just aft of the front-left wheel well, and spun the car into a side-impact that killed Janacek instantly. Dragged for twenty feet, the car then rolled off down an embankment. Unbelted, Mona sustained a burst fracture of her fifth cervical vertebra before being ejected, the car coming to rest on her right arm. Only TrafficNet’s anticipatory deployment of rescue services saved her life; they were on scene within two minutes of impact, and had her intubated before anoxia set in.
Before I rustle the kids back on the van, I take a moment to watch them at The Scene. They shuffle in slow arcs, staring at the mute steel, and I eavesdrop on the soundtracks they’re all composing. The tonic Western genius and the meandering counterpoint critic, noodling their way into a big dissonant bustup with kettledrums. What a motif: “We are really dead.” Man, he almost made it. But of course, we have all his recordings; and we have Mona.
It was, typically, Bryant who had the premonition. The last contestant of the night, Charles Johnson, was walking nervously back and forth, offstage right.
"I've got a feeling about him," said Bryant. "Been chatting with him last couple of days. Not just good technique, he's done the headwork. Talks like he was dipped in Janacek."
Can't say I was paying attention. Jamie Sheldon had just sat down, taken a deep breath, and begun to play. I was trying really hard not to get my hopes up. When she kicked off, I relaxed and smiled: Webern. At least she was if she was going to get beat, she was going to get beat on her best pitch.
She played for about two minutes, which was really quite good, and didn't seem surprised at all when the inevitable red light came on.
A screaming came across the pit — it has been happening all evening, but that was nothing compared to now.
"This is a disgrace to the memory of those who made this competition. Are your hands connected in any way to your brain? Why are you bothering with the piano? Why don't you try playing something you're more suited for, like a spatula!"
It would be a pleasant fantasy to think that Mona reserved her harshest criticism for those who came closest, not just those whose Icarian arcs ended merely in Auden’s mundane despair. If true, invective throughput alone would have marked Jamie as one of the Chosen. In reality, however, it was likely just the miserable disappointment of someone who didn’t want to do this again and was hoping to find one last Big Name so they could quit a winner.
I was bummed for Jamie. Mona’s tirade continued as she scooted back the bench, executed a short, professional bow, and set a measured pace to the security of the wings. Her shoulders slumped as she passed the sound cam, and there were tears in her eyes, but she managed a smile before meandering off to sit crosslegged in the shadows back of the cyc.
Even before she lost her arm, Mona had employed a no-nonsense, cut-‘em-off approach. But I think I know the flexpoint, the moment in which began her descent into the maelstrom of vitriol.
There is, in the archives, a bit of documentary material which teases with the promise of an answer. The proto-Manny's incessant digital recorder was running when Mona and Stefan had a tête a tête following the “canon” insurrection. Only a few insiders have access, and I was not privileged to be one of those. But I had asked Manny about it.
“Yo, Man. You’re hooked to the archives. Can you plate it?”
An unusually long pause.
“Interesting,” Manny said. “No.”
“You can’t grab it?”
“I can access it and play the file internally. However, it has been digitally watermarked to prevent copying, transcoding, and audible output. The lock is quite secure.”
“But you heard it?”
“And you can’t just replay it?”
“Mike, can you please play a C4 and C88 simultaneously with the fingers of one hand.”
“But you can see the keys, can you not? And you can play them one at a time?”
“Clued. Hardware limit. But can you speak the story?”
“Now that,” said Manny, “I can do.” He paused for effect. “It was a dark and stormy night...” He endured my eyeball roll for a few tenths of a second, then flapped the keyboard to get my attention. “I know you human speakwriters are inordinately fond of the pathetic fallacy. Don’t tug me; I parse the New York Times every stonking day. If it’s too stiff for you, virtboy...”
“Heard, heard. Mute on.” When Manny descends to street jive, it signals major pissitude; I shut up.
“I’m expecting an explanation,” said Mona.
There was a pause.
“You’re expecting an explanation?”
Steady rain drummed on the roof of the flyspace; Mona sat in the stage manager’s chair, wheeled next to the grand parked down stage center, in dim worklight. Janacek, on the bench, fanned idle arpeggios, allargando, under her fulminating glare.
“I would like to hear your rationale for why you ruined the competition, screwed up these kids, and humiliated me with that little stunt this evening.”
“Mona, I’m sorry if that’s the way you see it. This was not meant to humiliate you; and as for ruining the competition...”
“You led eight promising artists out here to thumb their noses at me, and you don’t see the damage that did?”
“We were ‘thumbing our noses’ at the structure, at the rules; at the idea of competition, of judgment. Not you. These are kids. They’re fragile; they deserve to be encouraged, not judged.”
“How many pianists have you taught?”
“Mona, I’ve taught hundreds of...”
“Not students. Pianists.”
“Oh.” Pause. “One.”
“One. Yes, that Belgian harpsichordist. I’ve been doing this for forty years; in that time, I have found, selected, polished, and launched more than fifty. Don’t you think I know what I’m doing?”
“Times have changed, Mona,” he said, turning back to finger silently at the keyboard. “The classical labels are gone. The performance circuit is hosed; these kids aren’t going to have a place to play out every month; even if they do, how many will show up to listen? And where could they go from there anyway? The mass audience has been completely polluted by interactive pop and watered-down eye-candy visualizations. Who’s going to buy true hard-classical keyboard art?”
“So, they should just give up? We should encourage them to be mediocre?”
“No, no, not give up. Find their niche. Find a local audience, build a listenership, focus on their sound, their unique style. Accept that while there will be limits to their impact, their so-called fame, they can still find meaning in performing. But that means that they have to find performance satisfying; not a fearful submission to final judgment.”
“The problem with youth – and yes, Stefan, despite your physical years, your arrested social development makes you a youth – is that you do not have the life experiences to understand how the world really works. You think you do, and you think you understand when older people say things. But you live in a different universe, where things mean differently, and it is impossible for those with more insight to really communicate with you. Your observations are correct, of course; I’ve seen all these things. And they are also trivial. What you imagine to be essential and profound is only the merest surface; another time around the wheel.”
“When you’re older, you’ll understand, eh?”
“Can a ten-year-old, no matter how technically proficient, truly play the Goldbergs?”
“There are stylistic choices that go beyond simply reproducing the notes on the page. Kid that young just doesn’t have the time in their skin.”
“Nor do you.”
“Mona. Take a look around you. I can read reality.”
“You read a surface reality, of obvious processes, with visible demons. True, there is no audience right now. And yes, the technology has made it possible for the merely proficient to develop vanity followings. And there has been a healthy cultural backlash against abstruse talent, as your Outsidistas and neo-Cagists would have it.”
“Your unwitting allies, then.”
“Mona, it’s the way the world is.”
“Right now. But do you imagine the next variation will have the same tempo? The Goldbergs were unknown from 1750 until 1930 — no playback technology, successive waves of critical indifference. But once rediscovered, Bach’s genius reanimated whole new generations of minds. Why should our ambition...”
“Will you listen instead of reacting? Should our aspiration for these young artists be any less than to create a greatness that can endure such dark gaps?”
There was a pause, Janacek idly fingered “Kraut and Ruben” from Variation 30.
“You always did like Aeschylus more than Euripides.”
Mona’s face gathered for a bellow, but she paused, set her lips, and replied in a measured tone.
“Stefan, you play like an angel, but you have no idea how much damage you truly have done.”
With more resignation than anger, she shook her head and walked slowly across the raised pit floor and down the service steps to the house. All the way up the raked auditorium, she was accompanied by the measured pace of the Aria, clearly da capo.
Barely audible on the house mike — so faint that it might have eluded all but the most attentive — Mona whispered, “If I have too austerely punished you, your compensation makes amends.”
“Ufa. Said for true?”
“Probably,” said Manny. “But only approximately. I’ve never experienced this before — something you must run into all the time with wetware memory — without access to the original, I must rely on my temporary, idiosyncratic, internal reconstruction of the events.”
“Can’t you listen to it again?”
“Yah. But with the transcode lock, I can’t doop to short term memory. It goes, how you say, ‘right out of my head.’”
“Hunh. That sags.”
"For the last time! I don't want to hear any more of these finger exercises!" The penultimate contestant was yanked reeling off the stage. I want to say that I thought she looked, sitting there on the orchestra riser, eye-lens whirring as it zoomed and racked focus, like the Queen of some sunken continent; bitter that the magic to make her rise again was lost — had been destroyed by her own hands.
The evening's final hope, Charles Johnson, looking very small under a roomful of eyes, had begun that long, long walk from the wings to the keyboard. "This kid's a certified prodigy," Bryant was nattering in my ear. "But a real recluse. Since he took the silver in Warsaw, he's dropped out of sight; no gigs, no recordings. I gotta wonder if that's just cagey management, or some authentic side-effect of genius."
"Hm." I was busy punching up preferences on Manny; Johnson played all the way up the keys, and we needed to retract the fallboard.
"Excuse me..." said Johnson. This wasn't rehearsed. I spun one of the pit mikes to cover him. Probably dedicating the performance, I thought; I was wrong.
"I'd like to depart from the number I have listed in the program. With your permission, Madame Tzedak, I should like to assert the prerogative granted in Rule Eleven and perform Johan Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations."
"Well, well! This ought to be tasty." Bryant began muttering whatever magic syllables alerted those Biz-folks who needed to be first-movers, yanking people on both coasts out of their primetime softcore Net cheese.
"You wish to perform the Goldbergs?" Tzedak's voice was soft, but I knew from experience it was the softness that was usually precursor to one of her grand mal wraths.
"Yes, if it would please you."
"I would be pleased to hear you attempt it."
Suddenly, the headphone loop was full of Terry Garrison, whooping it up. "Yeeee-hah! Saddle up a bomb, kiddo, we’re going to hell!"
Johnson slipped into the opening aria with a deft, delicate weave of finger moves. Smooth and powerful. None of the lurching staccato most amateurs suffer trying to capture Bach's soft, stretched time. By the time he got to the full two-handed chord in measure 28, there was a noticeable rustling in the house. You were hearing things in the music; premonitory things.
He paused for a long, long beat at the end of the Aria. Tzedak was frozen: stark, staring, frozen, in her seat.
Johnson exploded into the thematic lightning runs of the first variation. And it was now clear that we were in the presence of genius. Both hands flying; trilling, melodies interpenetrating. The audience seemed to have stopped breathing; I couldn't tell whether they were watching Johnson or Mona. Probably both. Her right arm wasn't moving anywhere near the button, though. She was hooked.
The shifting confluences of the second variation, long term note-points intercut almost impossibly with second, and even third level melodies, man, this kid had them all happening, eleventeen balls in the air, all at once. He was better than the best pianists I had ever heard in all my years at the Competition. He was certainly a hell of a lot better than he'd been in rehearsal. Maybe too much better. Maybe, I began to think, there really was something to all that Janacek talk.
Variation three begins the tortuous escalation of canons that forms the nucleus, the spine around which the Goldbergs cohere. Johnson's right hand whipped through the impossibly frenzied duplication, as the left chewed through Bach's twisted inversions. This was already the best piano solo I'd ever heard. Bryant had tapped the board feed, and was pumping it live to whoever he had online. I could only imagine what it would be like, dripping wet from the pool, out on the Coast, immobilized by this buzzsaw rendition of the capstone of the Western sequence. I hoped they were bleeding from the ears up in Topanga.
Johnson handled all the gear shifts, up and down, through the rest of the early variations. The acid test is being able to hear, in each, the opening aria's subtle line fractally expanded. It is not just virtuosity, it is a matter of soul, of spirit. You have to feel the desire in that aria, its desire to become something beyond itself. What was likely, even at the hands of Goldberg, just another etude was now animated, extruded in all dimensions, until it became about how music exists, how it inhabits us, and how we, as seers and explorers in this forest of imbrication, learn to discover the unending levels and layers of our own, variationed selves.
This kid wailed.
He played without repeats until he got to 14, which he did as AA-B.
By the time he reached the buildup of Variation 26, he was more than fifteen minutes into performance. The longest time anyone had played at the Competition in nine years. Reporters had begun to drift forward with cams. It seemed possible — how could it be? unprecedented! — that he might actually finish a piece; there might actually be a complete performance. This was not only amazing; in some ways, it was genuinely, viscerally terrifying.
The rousing vigor of Variation 29 drew to a close. A moment of silence, all eyes on Mona's right arm. Then the majestic Quodlibet of Variation 30 began, unimpeded.
"Yeee-hah! Stacka stacka stacka!" Garrison was floating cams at all angles around Manny, twirling zoom controllers and cutting bang on the beat, all the while raving maniacally. Bryant stood, deathly still and intently staring from just behind the teaser, his eyes only on Johnson’s fingers.
Johnson was romping like a monster through the cheery folktune overlays of 30. Romping. I had never heard anything like it. Not ever. Not like this. All I could see on stage was the back of his body, hands flying like undercranked special effects. Garrison had enormous closeups on the screen, fingers mere motion blurs.
"Are you hearing this? It's like Janacek..." Bryant muttered in my ear, "But it's...this...this is wicked stiff!"
I pulled off the cans and ran my fingers around behind my ears. I had hit bumps, musician's gooseflesh, real bad, all over the backs of my arms and my neck.
Johnson reached the end of Variation 30, paused for a moment before jumping on the reconfigured theme.
Then he just stopped.
Smiled down at Tzedak.
And man, it was not that kid's face. It was effing eerie. I was looking at him, but beyond his eyes, I could almost see something else looking out through him.
He took one step forward, stopped, and his gaze swept across the audience, still shocked into silence. Later, when they'd hauled him offstage, he would once again be just a twitching, diaphoretic teenager. At that moment, however, he was the spirit of Janacek himself. He looked about nineteen feet tall, and when he bowed, it was with a grace born of age, flesh singing on the bones, inhabited by a spirit from another place and time. There was no doubt.
And when he delivered the final variation, there could be no doubt in Tzedak's mind either. He bowed to the audience, and then turned, upstage, and bowed to Manny.
"Continue!" Mona commanded. A long pause, then she tried again. "You may...continue." This time her voice cracked.
He turned, slowly, brought his right arm up, hand like a claw next to his face, and hissed.
She wheeled toward the stage and, as if on cue, the pit began to rise. Garrison had two cams orbiting, slowly...slowly, and close-ups on her face and right hand. Johnson — to see him, haloed and backlit on the videoscrim was to see, instead, Janacek — stood at the edge of the stage, waiting. Garrison held him in a shot over her shoulder, an up-angle as she rose; the stage manager had gradually dimmed everything, leaving them in a bi-lobed pool of vertical straw light.
The only sound in the house was the whirring of the lift motors; I doubled it and pickled in a little plate echo.
Janacek reached across the void, broke the plane of the fourth wall, hand hovering for a moment above the red button on the arm of her chair. There was a glint of recognition in Mona’s eye as the lift stopped, and her head, almost imperceptibly, shook negative.
A beat of pure ringing silence. Manny dropped in a single, solo “G.” Then Janacek’s hand came down. Manny hit the second “G” on contact, as the red light bloomed.
As if a trap had been jerked out, Janacek collapsed. Garrison started quick cutting: big closeup of his face, sagging, falling out of frame; fingers sliding off the button; a slowmo revolving-hover 2-shot; extreme closeup on Mona’s eyes, tracking right and down; floor level shot as his knees strike, impact rippling through fabric; her hand reaching out, fingers just missing as his hand falls through the frame; another matched set of 180˚ intercuts from the orbiting cams; a flashback zoom into the button press in real-time, splitscreened with a vertical shot down that pushed into the collapsed profile of Janacek's face on the floor, and finally; ultra slowmo, big closeup of his hand rebounding once and coming to rest on the deck.
Garrison held that; I cranked the gain on Manny’s soundboard until the sympathetic vibrations resonating from that final ‘G’ swelled to pulsing, elastic thunder. Held it for fifteen awful seconds, until there was just a hint of an appoggiatura breath-catch from Mona.
Then, simultaneously, blackout, cams off, and kill all audio.
I love working with pros.
Aria da Capo
Later, wiping down the keys, I sat in a horizontal throw from the worklights, smelling vomit and sawdust.
Bryant, looking around, muttered, “The wreckage of Agathon.” He shook his head, leaned over the keyboard. “Manny — who played that?”
“Can’t tell you,” he said almost cheerfully. “I have no reliable memory. I stopped recording my inner experience after Jamie got the hook. It seemed the prudent thing to do.” He paused, then added, it seemed to me slyly, “Maybe Janacek played it. Sounded like him, didn’t it?”
“Janacek. Perhaps he was indulging in some technologically induced bicamerality.”
“Janacek has been dead for ten years.”
“And how long is ten years to an Aria off in the holoverse when it decides to reassert itself?”
“Oh for chrissake,” says Bryant, “Janacek was crazy. Hearing voices from out of time is crazy. This is not some romantic notion of communion, he was desperately sick person, a frightened, twisted psychotic.”
“You dissemble, sir,” said Manny. “I know what you heard.”
They went on like that, mirroring the crap that's been pumped out by the late-nite experts, all the mundane perspectives. So it falls to me to describe what happened, what didn’t, digging amid the dubito for a canonical interpretation.
Did Mona unwittingly become what she beheld, a homunculus of the endlessly restless consumer shunting through the Net's multiverse, only a phoneme away from flipping somewhere else? Amid declining numbers and a needing a graceful exit strategy, did she stage the whole thing? Oh, oh, oh, that Evil Biz rag; a very trad spin.
Did Manny get tired of suboptimal renditions and decide to take everyone for a ride? The scary AI; another safe choice.
Or, the paranoid wonder, could Garrison, in search of some payback, have conspired with Manny to build a digitally-reinforced consensual hallucination? Nice tech-noirish feel to it.
Or was it all true?
Is mind really immanent in the holoverse? Did some fragment of Janacek’s implicate pattern snap into Johnson’s head like a hand grasping a long-used tool? Edgy rubber science, always a popular option.
Or could a fragment of old J.S. Bach himself have been torqued into Presence by the profanation of his work? Ah, the Hoc est corpus motif of a dark fantasy.
What do you want it to be?
The problem with writing this hardware solo is that I don’t know where you are right now. Don't know where in the last grafs your saccadic flux slowed, your mental superposition collapsed. I want to close this sale, I want to reach terminus. Device-seconds are fine as far as they go, but I crave the completion bonus, the full bar on the satisfaction Likert that rings the bell and tops off my chip.
Anyone can see what the cameras think happened, anyone can hear what the music says. But what — who — was inside? That’s the truly interesting question. That’s what you really burn to know, isn’t it?
Okay, so just tell me what you want: I’ll write it. The possibilities are endless. Illusions spun to order here; rates, as always, negotiable. Looking for a storyteller? Keep surfing. I’m a jinking pennies-per-megabyte hack. I told you:
As a narrator, unreliable am I.
For Michael, Stuart, and Nancy, who never stopped believing. And for the Gibraltar Point ’02 crew, for helping me believe again.