A Harmonious Silence
Exposition, or Moderato
Broken octaves. Triplets. Careful, left hand. Pianissimo. Staggered. Fragmented. Abrupt change. Descending broken chords. Let the last note linger. Feel the harmony of the last D minor chord. Feel the strings vibrating. Breathe in the sound, slow pedal release.
“G..good, good”, his teacher stuttered. He opened his eyes, and saw that she was standing behind him, her nose twitching, sniffing for the last vestiges of the least chord like a wine taster. Her reflection was glossy and ruddier than her real self in the slick black surface of the Steinway grand. “b..but the old problem is still there.’ He winced. That again.
“Th…there’s n-not enough em-motion” Her voice was frail from the years of chain-smoking, and it sounded like someone was trying to strike a damp match. “This is the T—Tempest, one of Beethoven’s signature sonatas. You have to un-d-derstand him.. his music… at that period.. was ob-bstinate, a denial against f—f-fate, interrupted with brief windows of c—calm. His l-ife was a contradiction. You can almost call it… schizophrenic. Your emotions have to change with the music!” She paused to take a breath; despite being only in her mid-thirties, the smoking has taken its toll.
“I’ve s-said this a thousand times… but you still don’t understand. The first movement… is a perfect example. You have to switch between serenity and.. and anger, pain, defiance and regret.. here… the high notes…” And she leaned in, extending the bony fingers attached to her hand, which was wrapped in a network of purple veins like barren vine branches. Her perfume lulled him momentarily, and he could faintly hear a staggering mournful phrase being repeated again and again. It didn’t matter— he knew what she was saying and was about to say. Emotion. Emotion. Emotion.
“Are you even listening?” He snapped back into focus and nodded to her reflection. She was leaning downwards, and he noticed, not for the first time, her full lips , cracked and parched like her voice, and imagined how they would look moistened. He felt a strange surge of excitement— quite normal, he thought, for 17 years old boy… “and the second movement, even the long phrases…” have to be fragmented within, like you’re gasping for breath, he completed in his head. “and for the third movement, think of a sea, a sea that alternated between calm and rage… think of anything that would help you feel the music…” she paused for another breath, and he could see her reflection glisten. “You are my b—best student, you have a technique that is beyond any person of your age, but that’s not enough! The competition’s tomorrow, and you know how much it means to both your mother and I. Your mother has given everything to your musical education— she doesn’t spend a cent on herself, but tries her best to pay for any masterclass or lesson you want to attend. And I…” She broke off again, and leaned back. Her perfume lingered around him like a long fermata. ‘…and you, are my student.’
The speech seemed to have taken the air out of her, and he saw her reflection gesture at him to start again. “He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands— his own ritual. A sound like grinding sandpaper stopped him “Stop! Don’t do that tomorrow! It makes you look nervous! Why do you d-do that anyway?” He shrugged. He wasn’t going to tell her that this habit came from his childhood, when, as a way of keeping him at the piano, his mother would scatter flour on his sear and around his feet; she would tell him and it was a ‘game’ and that if he moved the flour, he would ‘lose’, which entailed a painful beating with a thin wooden stick. Being bored after two out of the required five hours of practice, he would draw tiny figures into the flour around him, imagining that he was playing with snow like the children outside their flat. Small angels and animals would emerge between movements of Mozart’s Sonatas, surrounding him and keeping him company. And each time before he played, he would rub his hands to get the flour off his hands.
But a shrug conveyed just the right amount of emotion he wanted to her, and everyone else, for that matter. He was about to start again when a series of slow mournful notes creaked their way through the room like the wheels of an old hearse. His teacher gave him an apologetic look and went over to the sofa to her ringing phone. She cut the call without picking it up. Coming back, she stuttered, “d—did you recognize that melody?” Shrug. A sigh. “W—wagner. Tristan und Isolde, Prelude. Do you know what it means?” Another shrug. “Have you ever l—loved?” No shrug this time. What has that got to do with anything? “Have you ever wanted, yearned or someone, something? Been denied? Tasted life? Tried crying but couldn’t find tears?” This came out as a torrent of words and gasps, and she was glistening with sweat from the effort of tethering the surge of memories bursting into her mind. He sat there motionless. His truthful answer would have been “I don’t know”, but he knew that wouldn’t do. He didn’t know because he stopped going to classes after elementary school. Sure, he was enrolled in a secondary school, but he only went to classes once or twice a month. His school didn’t mind— he was a ‘special case’, one that helped build their reputation. Having grown up around angels and animals sketched in flour; he wouldn’t have recognized love even if it was suffocating him like his teacher’s smoke scented perfume emanating from her plunging neckline.
Thinking that he was too nervous, she rasped “I guess you should go back home and relax now. Don’t p—practice too much today, just… go through everything once. And.. find some emotion.” The last sentence came out accented with coughs. His cue to leave.
As he was going through the door, her grainy voice trailed after him “I won’t be coming tomorrow… Good luck. To know how well you’ve done, once you’ve finished, listen to how long the audience remains s-silent before they start clapping. That moment is the most precious sound to any musician.” With her last word fading into his ears, he left.
Development, or Adagio
He was sitting in front of his piano, holding an old cassette recorder in his hands. His brows furrowed as he listened to himself; this was a technique his mother taught him, herself being a musician once. As the dry melody filled his small room, he imagined how it would sound on a proper piano, in a proper hall.
His teacher’s voice, thin and rough like the recording, whispered into his mind. “Emotion, emotion, emotion…” Anger. Pain. Defiance. Regret. Such big words. He left like a young child with dainty hands being told to play octaves. Helpless. He could hear his mother banging cutlery and pans in the kitchen, the sound barely muffled by the thin wall separating the flat into makeshift spaces that was void of substance, compelling him to fill it with the vibration of cheap piano strings, a much preferred alternative to the coarse vibrations of his mother’s shouting.
He stopped the recording. Was there emotion? He felt as empty as the silence around him. He surveyed the room, seeking something that might stir him. He tried with the old metronome his mother gave him. It was a small model, an old fashioned wind up one, made of dull crimson wood, bearing as many scars as it had left on him. His mother got it as a gift from the first soloist she accompanied, which later turned out to be his father. He left before the first wind-up was used up. An accompanist- that was all she ever was. He left a slight tug in his heart; if anything, he was angry at himself for not feeling anything. Tick for anger then? What about regret? Pain? Defiance?
He pushed the weight up the needle of the metronome, noticing that it looked like the small longsword of his childhood toy, a Viking warrior. The lower part of the needle was worn out, but the upper part— for slower tempos, was relatively shiny. He pushed the weight up to 70. Adagio. Nudged it gently sideways. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Two sounds. Already more interesting than his monotonic life. Tick. Tock. Win. Lose. Tick. Tock. From the distance, a siren approached with a breathtaking crescendo– tick- a surge of yearning to know what happened- tock- envious of the person inside the ambulance, because he could feel pain-tick- jealous of his friends and family, because they are in grief-
Decrescendo. The needle slowed to a halt, but his heart continued its pulse.
Recapitulation, or Appassionata
Broken octaves. Triplets. Anger. At himself. Staggering. Fragments. Defiance. Regret. Pain. Broken chords.
The tear on his pale skin rolled down with resignation like the descending D minor broken chord leading to the last note. He shut his eyes and could almost hear a siren approaching, a forlorn wail. He held the last chord, its tender form trembling through the concert hall.
He lifted the pedal. Silence. One. Two. Three. Four. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. He could sense the smatterings of an applause. Please. Longer. The performance wasn’t over yet. A slight commotion in the back of the hall. Footsteps. Close. The seedling of the applause wilted, and he was seized from the back—
“You are under arrest for murder. You have…” the right to remain silent, he finished in his head. The policeman’s voice was eerily thin and insignificant in the concert hall. Sweat and tears were flowing down his face now, like the blood blooming out from his mother’s neck; flowing, like the gush of emotions he felt when he plunged the needle of her metronome into her white throat. Anger. Pain. Defiance. Regret. He felt it all. The hall was motionless. He did it.
This was the greatest silence.
The Blobbing Fish.
This was an attempt at combining two of my favourite things. Still not sure if I like it or not, but writing it has been really enjoyable. Here’s the sonata mentioned in the story:
And for those of you who were wondering…. Tristan und Isode is a symbol for forbidden love in classical music.