Backing Track

Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more no more no more…

The muffled voice of the busker filtered through my memory-foam headphones. Like filtered tap water, it was free of additives, coming through as a mechanical recitation of fake enthusiasm. Unlike filtered tap water, the experience was not improved by this process. If anything, the incongruity between the subdued voice and the enthusiastic hip swinging of the busker left me feeling a bit guilty, as though I just refused to buy the program notes to a classical concert, thereby refusing to fully appreciate what the performer had to offer.

 

Notice I didn’t use the term beggar. Beggar implies that the person has nothing to offer you. Most people asking for money on the street nowadays do have something to offer.

 

Indeed, sometimes these people can tell you more about a city than any guidebook. In the Netherlands street ‘beggars’ come up to you directly and ask for money. This seems unlikely in any other country. In Berlin, some just sit in on the street-side with a cardboard sign proclaiming ‘MONEY FOR BEER AND WEED’. In both cases, they’re offering something that is in scarcity— honesty.

 

This busker was no different. Despite his knee length dreadlocks flailing around his head like a shipman’s whip, the expression on his face was unmistakably defiant. Here was a man who was proud of what he was doing— namely, playing the first few bars of the trumpet introduction, singing the refrain from Hit the Road Jack, and rocking his hips like he was trying to draw an invisible perfect circle. By not calling him a beggar, one acknowledges that his misfortune was not because of him per se, but because we didn’t have the capacity to give what he had to offer due appreciation.

 

I was faced with two problems at that moment. First was whether to pay him at all. A friend of mine— she’s the kind of person who would raise questions about scientific grounding when you mentioned the 5 second rule – once told me that ‘beggars’ sometimes operated in gangs, and if they see you’re willing to give money, they would target you for a robbery. But before I could worry about that, I had to decide whether or not to take off my headphones. If I did, the reality of his performance would hit me and I’d probably feel guilty enough to pay him, and I only had a 50 euro bill on me.

 

The way I saw it, I had three options, none of them appealing.

 

Option 1: Hey, love your work—do you have change for a 50? Say… 48?

Option 2: Hey, love your work—sorry man I don’t have change

Option 3: Leave the headphones on and ignore him when he comes to me with his plastic cup

 

Some would say that I could take the headphones off, enjoy the music, and wave him away when he comes over. These people obviously don’t know me.

 

As a self-professed audiophile (albeit a poor one), I belong to a generation who has their own backing track to reality. Of course, I don’t listen to music when I’m with other people. But when I’m alone, which I usually am, you can be sure that there will be something playing in my ears.

 

Sometimes this can be for dramatic effect. The break-up I witness feels all the more intense with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A playing— the scalding words coming out of their mouths become inaudible, the scene fades into a polaroid black and white, the grainy surging strings joins the tentative piano introduction, and I sit back for the show.

 

Other times it makes a serious situation comical. A man who was obviously high as a kite provokes two policemen and gets shoved to the floor. His silent screams were dubbed over by an all time classic— where were you when we were getting high…

 

With the click of a button, I can create my own backing track, or block out whatever I don’t want to hear. It’s a habit of mine to put on headphones even when nothing is playing. If people are saying bad things about me I won’t have to hear them; if I’m bored and want to people-watch, I can put words in their mouths.

 

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten so used to my own version of reality that taking my headphones off is like when I go back to Hong Kong after spending a long time abroad and have spicy street food for the first time. I can no longer handle the unadulterated version, and end up becoming a sweaty blob.

 

The train was nearing a stop, and the busker stopped playing to do his rounds with the passengers. Some people looked away, others smiled and gave him some change. As he approached me, my iPod decided to cue Hans Zimmer’s Dream is Collapsing from Inception. Each step he took was accentuated by a tuba blast.

 

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

 

He glanced at me, and in a panic I smiled and took my headphones off.

 

There was a frozen moment— the kind of silence you get when two people start talking at the same time and stop, both hesitant to be the one to start again.

 

There was a large hiss from the train stopping, and the busker was singing again, his voice fading away as he moved down the carriage.

 

Now baby, listen baby, don’t ya treat me this a-way
Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day

Still feeling slightly guilty, I put my headphones back on. The memory foam creates a perfect seal; one moment the roar of the train starting, the next the dull throbs of muffled sounds. The setting sun paints everything a rosé pink, and everyone sways to the rhythm of the train. I put on Joseph Arthur’s In the Sun, and the strumming guitar hits my earbuds like a heroin shot.

 

May God’s love be with you… always…

 

All traces of guilt vanish, and I sit back for the show.

 

 

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don’t clap

 

 

get up before
the sun go
to musky rooms

the light cheap
and start the
scales tattooed

onto our minds
brains hardly
booted and then

passages passages
again again
wrong wrong

don’t stop
then hours of
ensemble even though

to be honest
most of it’s
tacet

and then back
again again
wrong wrong

don’t stop
till the sun
gets tired but

it’s all worth
the fragile silence
magical static

last note

first clap

 

Day 4 of National Poetry Month’s April Challenge. I”ll be trying to write a poem a day. Please follow and share to support, and try it yourself.

A Harmonious Silence

A Harmonious Silence

I

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.

II

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-

Tock.

Decrescendo. The needle slowed to a halt, but his heart continued its pulse.

III

Recapitulation, or Appassionata

Broken octaves. Triplets. Anger. At himself. Staggering. Fragments. Defiance. Regret. Pain. Broken chords.

Emotion.

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.

Note:

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:

1st movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTzA6Mg_i7A
2nd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIsqFjiA7ao&feature=fvwrel

3rd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfjD-DQ5REk&feature=relmfu

And for those of you who were wondering…. Tristan und Isode is a symbol for forbidden love in classical music.

Coffee Stirring

Coffee Stirring

The man sat down gingerly at his usual seat at the café, like he did for the last year and a half. His seat was in the middle of the small courtyard outside the café, and he liked to sit with his back to the dysfunctional water fountain, facing the café itself. A weary looking waitress came up to him and inquired in a monotone “The usual?” He glanced at her; she looked out of place in the old café, out of place in the stained, stereotypically checkered apron, like so many other apathetic teens tied to it before her. The man slowly lowered his gaze, and lifted it again. Yes.

He wasn’t being rude. His neck lost the lost the youthful privilege of motion years ago. Now it holds his head defiantly, stubbornly in one direction only— forwards, and refuses to be coaxed either by acupuncture or the plethora of lotions, pills and creams stored in the rough leather bag beside his feet. Its surface looked parched and burnt, its gleam long gone; but it still served as a mirror reflecting the state of the man’s own skin.

The girl gave a curt nod and turned away, leaving behind a scent of expired dreams.

The man watched her go to the counter, and as she was about to reach for a cup, Noel Gallagher’s familiar voice emanated from behind her apron “Cos baby… be the one… saves me…” She fumbled and retrieved an old Nokia. “Yea? Are you coming or not?” She must have recognised the caller from the ringtone. She held the phone with her neck and absent-mindedly tamped the ground coffee into the portafilter, slotted it back into the machine and pressed the button.

He grimaced silently. Please tell me she tamped it properly… please. I can’t stand dilute espresso. This would never have happened when I was working in a café. Then again, I didn’t have phones to distract me…

She, on the other hand, was not pre-occupied with his worries at all, and continued talking on her phone. “You better come! I thought you had to bring that old woman out once a week? Well make it today then! God knows why you still volunteer at that godforsaken place… So you’re coming? Good. See you.”

His espresso was done. She took it and brought it to him. “Here you go. The usual. Cup of espresso, espresso in a cup, cup holding espresso.” He fought the urge to tell her that it wasn’t called a ‘cup’, but a tazzina, but the comment dissolved in his throat as the scent of his espresso hit him. “Thank you. Could I also have a glass of water please?” She rolled her eyes and went away. Her way of saying yes.

Again, he sighed in his mind— espresso should always be served with a glass of water, or else how could he get every last drop of the dark elixir into his system? And how could he get rid of that bitter aftertaste and the tell-tale scent from his breath? That scent is a caffeine addict’s equivalent of needle marks, and you can’t even hide it with a sleeve.

His glass of water came, and he turned his gaze onto the surface of the black liquid— he wrinkled a smile. It was opaque. He saw his own reflection on the surface. His white hair was a deep hue of brown, and the lines on his face were blurred by the miniscule vibrations of the liquid. He dipped his teaspoon in and stirred it clockwise. True, he didn’t have to stir, since he didn’t put any sugar in, but he used to put one teaspoon in every time, before his body decided to give him diabetes. Old habits die hard, and stirring clockwise not only gave him an illusion of the past, but also, he believed, brought him good luck. You see, his mother taught him to always stir clockwise, because that was how time flowed, and anyone who tried to do otherwise was a fool.

So, he stirred the liquid. Clockwise. Good luck. Clockwise. Good luck. His bony fingers twirled the thin handle of the spoon like a conductor’s baton, his joints working themselves into a fervour and then he pulled it out, clean. His heart lifted— the espresso didn’t stick to the spoon. It was good. He gazed into the perfect swirling vortex and reckoned that this was how time looked like, swirling pure blackness betraying a hint of unblemished white at the very bottom. The white soon disappeared, and he waited for the liquid to settle again.

He held up the thin teaspoon. It was silvery and thin, like a wisp of his hair. He turned it at an angle, so that he could vaguely make out who was sitting at the table beside him. On the back of the teaspoon was the faint outline of a man hunched over something. He seemed to be in a suit; probably a businessman. He turned it the other way. At first he couldn’t quite make out what was the oversized outline, but then he realised it was a couple entwined together, and he turned his teaspoon away hastily, embarrassed by their reflected vitality.

He had just put his finger into the handle of his tazzina when he heard the waitress shout behind him. “There you are! You took your sweet time!” He held up his teaspoon and saw a tall, lanky figure with a hunched one in tow. The man on the phone and the old woman had arrived. Once a week. He put down his teaspoon and put his gaze back onto his espresso, and tried to avoid thinking about what the waitress and the young man were doing. His espresso was still now, and he noticed how stationary the dull looking clouds were, their reflection on the black surface like fragments of a map.

There was a sound of scraping chairs and a faint grunt from the young man, who was probably helping the woman into her seat. He guessed they were sitting a few tables behind him. He held his tazzina and waited.

“Steady… Steady… whoops!” Something clinked onto the ground behind him. The girl was quick to remark “Oh it’s her ring! Actually it looks pretty nice!” “Yea it is. Give it to me so I can put it back…” A short pause. “Sophie? Can I have it back?” Another pause. “Why? She won’t even know it’s gone. She can’t remember anything, you said it yourself. You said she sometimes thinks you’re her husband. It’s…” “Look it doesn’t matter whether she remembers or not! Now…” “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? You can’t get a proper job, and I never see you because you’re always at that stupid elderly home! Think of this as compensation! She won’t even notice, see?” And she switched to a high pitched sing-song voice, as if she was talking with a toddler, “Hello! Is this your ring? Do you know what this is?” Silence. “See? She doesn’t even know! I’m keeping this, and you can just tell the people at that place it fell off somewhere without you noticing. If they ever notice that it’s missing, that is!” The young man stuttered but couldn’t come up with a retort.

The man’s fingers, still curled into the handle of his tazzina, trembled as they did fifty years ago when he put that very ring in Sophie’s hands on the finger of the woman sitting behind him. Before she became an echo of herself, before she couldn’t recognise him, before they told him to stop visiting her because it was too stressful for both of them, before he started coming to this café every day, hoping that that day would be the day the young man came.

The surface of his espresso shuddered, blurring the reflection of the clouds, which were no longer stationary, but gliding away like lost candyfloss blown away by the wind.

Clockwise indeed.

The Blobbing Fish.