by Dominic Blackwell
It was the legs he saw first. They pulled his eyes to them, no act of will was needed. She sat in the gangway at the top of the high seats. Her legs were crossed in a skirt whose short length shocked. She was far off in a sea of faces. The music in around him sounded turgid. “Minimalist music is great…when it stops!” went the old quip.
But he liked a lot of the lively kind of minimalism. It danced with hypno-rhythms and grooves and riffs which played out again and again with subtle changes now and then. Like a look at another place, where time’s flow is slow. Where he could feel the jiggle of atoms slowed to the scale of time of humanity.
This did not sound like that. It grew from other roots. It had schmaltz and fake piety. No pulse that could be heard gave life to it, no tunes from it sang in his mind and it gave him a static bland ache which would not stop.
This sort of music was not nice when it stopped. It was that music which made him rage. It made him wronged that this bilge with its false weight had spent a precious hour of his finite life. It made him angry that critics spun words which meant nothing around the hollow core of its ‘spirituality’ and would not say that the king had no clothes on. He was vexed that the program of the concert made him sit through it. And then this program made him play a few short notes in the other piece before the break. Why couldn’t the brass section have gone to the bar for the first half of the gig?
And so it wasn’t a shock that his mind went off. But he was thrown that he had not seen her before. As he had come on stage the audience didn’t look special. No-one drew his gaze. Perhaps she had been on the door. Perhaps she had showed people in. He couldn’t have not seen her. She sat with an elegance which made him think that once she had danced. Poised. Graceful.
In his world, he never saw a woman in a skirt that short or with a shortness anything like it. The women in his world showed a strange mix of quirk and frump, as if they clung tight onto a creed of ‘not for women my age’ and a lack of faith in their looks. They showed off ill-drawn, vague-sketched scorn for anything like a female look. Of course that muted their spirit. Half made looks which stopped in their tracks when they could gone all the way and looked better.
She looked different. True to herself and with no shame. And that skirt was a choice. She didn’t seek the gaze of men. The rest of her look was played down — a neat white blouse and the flat, slipped-on shoes of a woman who stood for a lot of the time. No, she had nerve, she told a simple tale. She knew that she looked good. She chose that she shared it with the world.
In front of him the haze and shimmer of the music went on. The massed desks of strings drew out endless repeats of the composer’s dull chorale theme. He had no faith himself but he got religion in music, when done well. Bach’s beauteous depths and force of feeling told of a human throng who suffered mightily. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis strove for a great, transcending leap beyond the merely human. Mozart’s last words on life and death in his Requiem broke the heart with its beauty. All of that made sense.
But this stuff made a hell of heaven. Not the blazing inferno of myth, but the Hell he heard that the Church of England had recast as a ‘state of complete non-existence’. Where time stopped and you tried to see what was worse, the earthly realm where you were stuck with this life-denying dirge, or the nightmare vision of heaven that it showed, one where pointless blandness was forced to sound for all eternity.
He stole a glance at her. And them it happened. He was sure she looked straight into his eyes for a brief moment and smiled with a slight nod of her head. His face flushed and his skin pricked. When he got back a grip of himself, a brief glance showed her as before, sat with grace and her eyes cast into space.
A hallucination. It must be. It’s that I’m bored. It’s this sound with no end that drags itself around before me. It’s my hopes and dreams as they cry for mercy and yearn for escape from this place. It’s my muse as she flees from this dead heavy sound which binds the soul.
The first chord change came. He had heard from one of the string players how many times the conductor had gone over this change. The maestro wanted it with no join. That was not hard. The new chorale dirge, with slight changes, was just as bland as the first and the casual hearer would not have felt the chord change. Slightly. With no added character. It took some warped skill on the part of the composer who had wrought his music as devoid of feature as this, he thought.
He looked at the players. Feigned passion in the vibrato on each long note. Pleas of angst on the face of the conductor who acted as if this music meant something.
He scanned the bits of the audience away from where she sat. They were normal for a classical gig. A range of ages, but more old and more rich than a random pick from a crowd of people in the street. They looked kind and engaged but not moved. The odd one looked as if they glanced in their minds at their next day’s diary. But of course they were polite and sat still in silence.
He let himself look at her one more time. When he first saw her she had a perfect stillness. Now he sensed she felt tense, just a bit. The foot of the leg crossed on top of the other traced a slow ellipse. She’s bored. That’s all it is. Nothing to do with me. We are just both bored.
He tried to get his focus back. He looked at the parts on the stand which held the sheets of music in front of him. Not hard work. He could play this stuff in his sleep. No idea why this piece had brass in it. He’d play few quiet notes when the rest of the orchestra played full tilt. No-one would even know that he played unless they looked up. He would play what the composer wrote, in time and in tune because of his own standards but as for his sound that would be heard, he could have clocked off until after the interval.
Back in the real world, dull chord came after dull chord. He saw the woodwind section pick up their instruments and ready themselves for the music they had to play. This meant that half or so of the piece had elapsed. Bland chords from the wind mixed with the bland chorale on the strings. No craft and no character. All those hues on his palette and the composer blended them all to a formless grey. Flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons made to play so they sank in the bland chords scored for the strings.
For what had the modernist composers revolted? Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring sparked riots when it was first heard. And to what end? So that those who came after could evoke drying paint with their music?
He looked round the audience, saw the music stretch their patience too. They feigned interest less well now. Of course no-one would go so far as the checking of text messages but he could sense that some people thought about what the real world out of the hall did while they were not there.
He felt fear at what would take place if he looked at her again. He did not want to stare at her. As slow phrase came after slow phrase, he was sure that his mind played tricks on him. He must have looked at her more than was OK. He was the one on the stage. She had not come here so he could watch her. But against his will, he glanced at her. She was still beautiful.
And at last the minimalist nightmare on the stage ended. The audience clapped with relief. The conductor smiled at his players, wistful. Back to the real world. He lifted his instrument from its stand, drained the moisture from its slide and breathed warm air into it. He knew that he must focus now. No more dreams. No more thoughts. It was time he put his head back in the right place.
He was back in the world of practical music now. He chose his loudness with skill and doled out the right portion of rich and golden tone for each passage. What’s more, he dodged the split notes and the missed entries which blight the way a brass player plays on an off-day.
And after the break he was back, calm, loose and sharp in the way a musician must be when he plays well. He soared above the rest of the orchestra when the music needed him to. He added the right amount of edge to his sound at the climaxes and gave warm padding to his fellow players with the long accompanying notes which made up most of his role in the orchestra.
It was done now. The conductor waved the musicians to their feet and the audience clapped, enthused. He went backstage, packed up his instrument, went out of the stage door.
As he left with his instrument case, his mind was back on the mundane. How would he get home? What would he work on tomorrow? He heard in his head some ways some chords could be voiced in an arrangement for a quintet he played with.
But as he walked out of the door, he saw the legs which stunned again, and their beautiful owner sat cross-legged on a wall with a coat on and a stylish bag slung from a slim shoulder. She smiled. While she looked straight at him. There was no ambiguity now.
“Hi. You know you looked bored out of your mind up there? Don’t blame you though! That first piece! Thought it would never stop…Anyway, I want a drink. Do you want to grab one with me?”