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Vermis Odium

The structural formula of metal consists of a classic rock ring in its most basic 1-5 manifestation and an extreme state of dynamic compression, and is generally distinguished by the presence of one or more tritones (TT). A progressive rock (PR) chain of varying lengths may also be present (Figure 1.1). Like those molecules to whose structure it is closely related, metal and its derivatives mimic and potentiate the synaptic action of norepinephrine (NE) in the central nervous system, particularly in the cerebellum’s vermis, while inhibiting frontal lobe activity. A second, sedative-hypnotic “rebound,” thought to be associated with increased serotonin levels, has also been identified, and has become the subject of some clinical attention.

Metal was first synthesized at the end of the 1960s by O. Osbourne and his legendary team of occult doctors. Working secretly in laboratories around Birmingham, England, it is said that Dr. Osbourne did not immediately recognize the combination of dissonance, distortion, blues riffs and pounding rhythms as a distinctly new molecule, and that it was only upon mistakenly ingesting a small quantity that he cried out, “What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black which points at me!”

Usage of metal increased steadily during the 1970s, although abuse did not become widespread until the early ‘80s, when derivatives like glam and speed began to be synthesized for use in a wide variety of recreational settings. The latter represents the beginning of a disturbing trend in the history of metal abuse, as the speed derivative greatly increased the potency of the original molecule by adding one or more hardcore (HC) groups, and by turning up the volume of ingestion. Indeed, perhaps no other aurally-ingested drug has been so widely abused as metal, leading to concerns about its impact on public health. Over the last two decades, despite brief dips in popularity, metal has remained a drug of choice among the young, with new, even more potent derivatives appearing every few years, such as death, doom, goth, and black, as well as “designer” compounds, like nu and groove. Chemically, these derivatives can be distinguished by the addition of a rap group (HH) or EMO ion, and by the multiplication and permutation of PR, HC and HH molecules.

The increasingly potent strains of metal that continue to be synthesized are a logical response to tolerance, which develops quickly (5-10 albums) in many users, as is the increasing use of metal in combination with other drugs, either to intensify its euphoric effect or mitigate its toxicity. Research into clinical varieties that exploit the sedative-hypnotic “rebound” effect in the treatment of Obnoxiously Violent Disorder (OVD), ADD, and other anxiety and mood disorders continues despite concerns about the drug’s highly addictive qualities.

Characteristically, metal produces a state of euphoria. Psychomotor performance may be improved, although this is quite erratic and improbable. Users also experience augmented alertness and the fight/fright/flight response, increased wakefulness, and feelings of power, invincibility, and the urge to dominate. In its post-stimulant, sedative-hypnotic phase, metal acts like a low dose of barbiturates, inducing a mild euphoria almost indistinguishable from that experienced at low-dose ingestion, as well as an increased sense of well-being, relaxation, and relief from anxiety. In its everyday use, metal is often combined with amphetamines, marijuana, alcohol, and, less frequently, with hallucinogens.

Despite the number of derivatives available, the effects are quite similar to that of its generic parent, mostly varying in the quantity that needs to be consumed; therefore, so-called “classic” metal will be discussed at length, and its derivatives compared as differences present themselves.

Pharmacological Effects

Effects vary markedly with the dose of the drug. In general, though, they may be categorized as those observed at low-to-moderate doses (5 to 50 minutes at medium to high volume) and those observed at high doses (above 100 minutes, often administered via headphones or at concerts). Again, these dose ranges are calculated for classic metal. Low-to-moderate doses of speed metal range from 2 to 20 minutes, while the effects associated with high doses can occur at 30 minutes or even less. Death metal and grindcore derivatives such as Napalm Death, which contain several HC groups and few or no PR chains, are even more potent, and doses have to be lowered even further. According to one recent study (Benton, 2006), a single minute of Deicide was enough to kill white bunny rabbits and other animals associated with childlike innocence and goodness (hence the unfortunate moniker “Bunnycide” which the band has carried ever since). “Designer” compounds are qualitatively less predictable, as the synergies between HH, HC and PR groups on the compressed rock ring are still poorly understood, and the mildly inhibitory effect of PR on HC groups requires further investigation. Generally speaking, however, “softer” designer derivatives mitigate the more deleterious effects of “meth metal” by inhibiting the function of the HC group, whether by frontal-lobe reactivitation or by promoting reuptake of NE from the synaptic cleft (DeGarmo, 1989; Keenan, 1996).

At normal aural doses, metal induces an increase in blood pressure, and a variety of other responses that are predictable from drugs that mobilize NE and thus induce the fight/fright/flight response (increased blood sugar, increased blood flow to musculature, decreased blood flow to internal organs, dilation of pupils, increased rate of respiration, and so on). In the CNS, metal is a potent stimulant, producing both EEG and behavioral signs of increased alertness and excitement. Characteristically, wakefulness, a reduced sense of fatigue, mood elevation, increased motor and speech activity, euphoria, and feelings of power and task-worthiness occur. Task performance may improve, although dexterity may not, as evidenced by increased errors that can result from the irritability and nervousness that occur. When short-duration, high-intensity energy output is desired, such as in athletic competition, performance may be enhanced despite the fact that fine motor skills may be reduced.

These responses continue for up to 30 minutes after ingestion has ceased, with predictably cumulative effects for longer ingestion durations. At this point, most users will experience a rebound feeling of lethargy, satiety, and well-being, as after successful copulation, sometimes lasting up to 12 hours. Prolonged use of low doses of metal or single use of a high dose is characteristically followed by this relaxed, soporific, careless state, customarily referred to as metal-induced satiety (MIS).

At moderate doses (5 to 50 minutes), effects include stimulation of respiration, production of a slight tremor, restlessness, increased motor activity, insomnia, and agitation. Blurred vision and cardiac palpitations may also occur. In addition, metal prevents fatigue, suppresses appetite, and promotes wakefulness.

During chronic uses of metal at high doses (100 minutes or more), a different pattern of physiological effects is observed, in part because such high doses are usually administered through headphones or at outdoor rock festivals, at volumes intended to saturate the auditory system and maximize the rates of neuronal activity—all of which abet the suppression of impulse control and activate the subject’s “lizard brain,” with particular, unrelenting excitation of the vermis, the locus of feelings of hatred and aggression in the brain (hence the epithet vermis odium, or “hate worm,” for metal among the drug’s more literate addicts). Doses in the range of a few hundred minutes to several days have been reported. During prolonged, high-dose “sprees,” an individual experiences a manic megalomania—the so-called “berserker state”—induced by radical changes in brain chemistry, chronic lack of sleep, and high levels of distortion. Users are put at risk of injury and even death from the irrational, violent behavior that follows the ingestion of high doses. High-level earphone delivery provides a “rush,” described by users as being extremely pleasurable and very similar to a violent sexual orgasm. In addition, MIS is at once more intense and more extended than at lower doses. These pleasurable effects, however, are offset by the more toxic ones. After the sedative-hypnotic period wears off, the subject will still appear lethargic, but also anxious and intensely hungry. Food, counseling, and Neil Diamond may be helpful in this withdrawal period. Otherwise the user may turn to more injections of metal, thus initiating a new spree. In the words of Araya et al. (1994), the “chemical rush” of metal may “leave [behind] a suicidal hole.”

Psychological Effects

The psychological effects of metal differ widely, depending upon the dose administered. At low-to-moderate doses, an individual typically experiences increased alertness, wakefulness, elevation of mood, mild euphoria, possible freedom from boredom, and increased energy. Occasionally, aggression, hallucinations, and psychosis may occur, but usually only at higher doses.

High-dose “berserker” use induces a pattern of psychosis characterized by confused, disorganized behavior, compulsive repetition of meaningless acts (maniacal laughter, headbanging, violent bodily contact with others, making the “evil eye”), violent thoughts and urges (to dismember, eviscerate, defenestrate, etc.), sadistic megalomania, impatience with the weak and helpless, delusions of imperviousness to pain and bodily immortality, gross paranoia, apocalyptic hallucinations, a Manichean worldview, and mild irritability. Individuals who inject high-potency death, black, and grindcore derivatives on a regular basis often attempt to antagonize high-dose toxic symptoms by adding an analgesic or other CNS depressant (e.g., Pink Floyd; Led Zeppelin III, side 2). Such a concoction is called a “speedball.” Chronic metal users also usually consume large amounts of these CNS depressants.

Interestingly, MIS may be accentuated by the use of these depressants, and the euphoria produced by sedative-hypnotic rebound may be more intense, with users falling toward the hypnotic-anaesthetic range of the sedative continuum. Post-berserker “deep MIS” is characterized by a marked decrease in anxiety and aggression, feelings of peace on earth and goodwill toward men, renewed ability to deal with annoying people, and repetition of stock phrases like “it’s all good” and “no worries.” An increased ability to concentrate on minor tasks is only hampered by lethargy and overall feeling of a need to sleep. This is sometimes accompanied by a giddy feeling of having survived mortal danger, similar to that survivors of natural catastrophes or terrorist attacks feel, but without concominant feelings of guilt.

Reinitiation of metal use generally follows the end of deep MIS, initiating a new cycle.

Side Effects and Toxicity

The side effects induced by low doses of metal are usually extensions of the drug’s behavioral actions. These side effects are usually tolerable and decrease within a few days as tolerance develops. Metal can cause heart palpitations. Sweating, dry mouth, nausea and vomiting may also occur.

The side effects of prolonged use of high doses are more serious. Psychosis and abnormal mental conditions, general mental dimness, muscular fatigue, a negative outlook on life, infections resulting from neglected hygiene and a variety of other consequences occur because of the drug itself and because of poor eating habits, lack of sleep, and the use of unsterile listening equipment.

Most high-dose users show progressive social, personal, and occupational deterioration, and their course is often characterized by intermittent periods of hospitalization for episodes of toxic psychosis, often directly after attending a “show” or similar event where high-potency, prolonged use is collectively reinforced.

Fatalities directly attributable to metal are rare, but humorous. Individuals with no tolerance have survived three-day black metal festivals—in Norway, of all places—and even larger doses are tolerated by chronic users. The slogan “metal kills” does not refer to a direct result of a single dose but, rather, to the deteriorating mental and physical condition and the destructive behavior induced by prolonged high-dose metal sprees. Only rarely does a high-dose use of metal result in the lethal rupture of blood vessels or twiglike snapping of the brain stem as a result of prolonged, excessively forceful headbanging, or a “breaking wheel” or self-eviscerating accident in the mosh pit.


Metal dependence is twofold: psychological and physiological. Psychological dependence is described as a compulsion to listen to the music repeatedly for its enjoyable effects. The “berserker” state that sometimes follows even moderate doses of metal, and the “rush” that may be induced by high-volume use, can lead to a compulsion for misuse. MIS may be itself habit-forming, although it cannot be regarded in isolation from the drug’s other effects.

Withdrawal from metal produces a period of rebound passivity and exhaustion, prolonged inactivity, and EEG changes characteristic of sleep. This may be followed by severe emotional depression, often brought on by feelings of abandonment, sometimes expressed verbally by the addict as having been forsaken by metal. Once MIS has worn off, the patient generally returns to his previous level of anxiety, leading to an ever-deepening cycle of anxiety, metal aggression, and rebound satiety.


Tolerance to the many effects of metal develops at different rates and to different degrees. The habitual user is able to increase the dose considerably and/or resort to more potent derivatives in order to attain a desired effect as his or her tolerance to the central effect builds.

Medical uses

Since the discovery in the late 1980s that MIS can moderate mood and anxiety disorders, particularly OVD, research has been directed toward developing a safe, non-toxic treatment derivative. Challenges are myriad, and include: the extremely addictive nature of metal; the drug’s widespread availability outside a clinical setting; the relatively short duration of MIS; and the rapid development of tolerance, necessitating new ingestions of metal at ever-higher doses and more frequent intervals.

Artificial forms of metal, such as mixing amphetamine derivatives like Benzedrine or Dexedrine with grunge, or combining Bad Company with selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), as well as low-potency dilutions of true metal, such as injecting grindcore with L-tryptophan, or adding a POP group or boy band (BB) subgroup to the metal molecule (e.g., My Chemical Romance), have thus far failed to produce either a weakened berserker state followed by extended MIS, or—grail of grails—to isolate the MIS period itself for subjects suffering from OVD. It is thus widely believed that the intensity and duration of the MIS period is directly proportional to the intensity of the CNS effects of metal and the duration of the ingestion period (Figure 1.2). Except in rare instances, low-volume exposure has proven ineffective (Halford, 1993).

Some evidence exists that, when low-potency, low-toxicity derivatives were administered to children with a genetic propensity for developing OVD, they acted as a gateway to true metal addiction, and that said addiction developed earlier than in untreated subjects (Portnoy et al., 2011). This seems likely given the rapid development of tolerance, especially among younger listeners. Regrettably, these compounds have become wildly popular among pre-adolescents, and are so cheaply and easily produced (and hence so profitable) that they are now available over the counter in most shopping malls and suburban convenience stores.

Results from short-term, high-dose “metal blasts” have shown more promise. Occulta and Apollyon (2002) showed that periods of MIS double the normal duration could be induced in patients suffering from OVD after a series of 30-second exposures to Amon Amarth.

If POP and BB  have failed utterly to treat anxiety and mood disorders like OVD in adults, this is likely due to the fact that children have as-yet underdeveloped senses of hatred, vengeance, betrayal, anger, and bitterness needed to appreciate true metal. In sum, while it may be true that music therapy has helped people to overcome a broad range of psychological problems, we are a long way from understanding how to use metal for this purpose. One must continue to strive for non-chemical alternatives to curb the propensity for violent behavior.

Metal and Public Safety

Given the pharmacological profile of metal that has been presented, what conclusions can be drawn about its social impact and continuing legal status?

While metal clearly has public health consequences, whether its production and consumption needs to be regulated, curtailed, or even criminalized, as some have argued, remains an open question. Certainly, metal culture has been demonized to the point that all recreational users are stereotyped as devil-worshipping baby-killers, and the music itself as a weapon of mass destruction against America’s youth. Consider, for example, the story of one young man, who, after 67 straight hours of listening to Pig Destroyer, was reported to have spontaneously combusted. In another, a Cannibal Corpse fan on a two-day grindcore binge began (according to his similarly inebriated girlfriend) bleeding from his eyes before collapsing; a brain autopsy later showed the cerebrum had been cooked into a hard paste which had to be chiseled off the inside of the skull. Stories of spontaneously aborted fetuses, massive cerebral hemorrhages, and literally exploding cardiac tissue have also made their way into the tabloid press. While they might be intended to warn users away from the drug, these sensationalized portraits of hardcore abuse at once attract new users (by the aura of glamorized danger) and serve as fodder for those groups lobbying for all metal’s criminalization.

On the other side is the phenomenal rise of metal rights groups in most major cities around the world, which advocate for the use of metal in its unadulterated, natural, “homegrown” form. These groups tend to paint a utopian picture, with metal in a role similar to that played by LSD for the “flower children.” Unlike acid, however, metal is understood as a conduit for channeling and dissipating “negative energy.” (“The releasing of anger,” remarks Phil Anselmo, a sort of tattooed Timothy Leary, “can better any medicine under the sun.”) The original sin, according to these groups, was the turning over of metal to vast record conglomerates, who make false metal for profit. The metal lobby has worked to have metal protected under the same laws that allow some Native American tribes to use drugs such as peyote in religious rituals, and “medical metal” has become something of a buzzword in the Bible Belt states, where religious fanatics are pursuing an aggressive ballot-initiative strategy to criminalize metal.

Of course, metal is neither a panacea nor a doomsday device. It is, rather, a faithful reflection of our aggressive, anxious times, where young people and adults alike consume drugs like metal to escape day-to-day problems, deal with assholes, and generally get by.

Correlations between metal and violent crime have generally been overstated. Even in a concert context, the controlled environment and relatively short duration of berserker effects post-ingestion, combined with the rapid onset of MIS, prevent violence from going beyond overturning and burning a few automobiles in the parking lot, a couple of fistfights, and a beer bottle broken over somebody’s head. Users are generally too stupified by the high-dose effects of the drug to plan antisocial behavior—as is to be expected, given the total inhibition of frontal lobe activity (the so-called “metal lobotomy,” the lack of EEG activity suggesting a cerebral “dead zone”). Rather, aggression is largely expended in the aforementioned behaviors, and the most dangerous effects seem to be confined to crowds in the grip of metal frenzy, and to the contusions, lacerations, head trauma, and acute spine and joint pain the high-dose user experiences as MIS begins to wear off, colloquially referred to as a bangover.

It is moreover unclear to what extent the other drugs often consumed simultaneously with metal are responsible for other violent acts for which metal bears the brunt of the blame. In short, neither informed current professional opinion nor empirical research has produced systematic evidence to support the thesis that metal, by itself, either invariably or generally leads to or causes violent crime. Instead, the evidence suggests that social and cultural variables account for the apparent statistical correlation between metal use and crime or delinquency.

The greatest danger to public safety today probably involves driving a car while in a state of acute metal intoxication. Feelings of invincibility, together with impacts on motor coordination and the visual impairment that results from headbanging, even with both hands on the wheel, can lead to excessive speed, erratic driving, extra miles, and poor choices.

While the public continues to debate the criminalization or regulation of metal, various harm-reduction approaches could be tried and evaluated. Safer modes of dispensing metal would go a long way toward curbing the more deleterious effects of the drug, as would federally-enforced volume limits. Albums could be made shorter, and listening equipment programmed with dissonance and dynamic compression sensors to filter total metal output. Perhaps the most conservative course of action would be for society to oppose widespread listening to metal, while at the same time refraining from punishing or demonizing those who choose this genre of music to listen to. Youth should be counseled, to borrow the words of Headlock, to “Tak[e their] hate and spend it wisely.”


Many passages in this post are embellished plagiarisms of passages from A Primer of Drug Action, by Robert M. Julien, M.D. (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1988). Thanks to Dr. Julien for writing such an engaging textbook, filled with so many fabulous words.


 Part Two of the Sehnsucht Trilogy

I met him at one of the city’s high-end jazz clubs, at the second set of a two-set evening, at a small round table pushed so close to the stage I could have touched the claw foot of the piano bench, the bell of the horn waiting on its stand. My usual table was further back, against the piano-side wall, under the big black-and-white photo of Charlie Haden. But it was Friday night, and the name on the bill—the crossover hit, the Grammy nomination—was the sort that grabs people who don’t usually go out for jazz. It was here or the bar; and the bar, all the way in the rear, beset by the noises of glass and ice and money changing hands, was out of the question. So I opened my book and, with the empty eye of the horn staring back at me, waited for the waitresses to finish running tabs and rushing out the stragglers, so they could begin to accommodate the new patrons, some of whom were still waiting outside in a line that stretched halfway down the block.

The hostess sat him across from me. He’d brought a book, too, used it as a shield, just like I did. Until, that is, our waitress mixed up our drink orders—his was a Shirley Temple, of all things—set them down in front of us, and moved on before either of us could say a word. Poor thing, she looked no end of harried. We had one of those I-think-this-belongs-to-you moments, like around the baggage carousel at an airport. If one of us—I can’t remember who—hadn’t made a comment about the decline in service, we never would have known each other for regulars. From there it was an easy step to the pandemonium of the evening, and then to the club’s recent mismanagement at the expense of the musicians and fans alike, the regrettable tendency to cut sets short on weekends to squeeze in a third—we both expressed surprise at the absence of a third set this evening—despite the great people who came through, who made it necessary to brave what he called “the feedlot.” I made some comment to the effect that at least the décor hadn’t changed—I was going to point to that Haden photo, probably taken in the late sixties—but he said, almost under his breath, “Well, not much.”

Just then the house lights dimmed, and the stage brightened, and the five musicians filed down what was left of the aisle—even some of the two-tops had three and four people around them—to a raucous welcome.

When the lights came up an hour later there was a long moment of silence, each of us, perhaps, waiting for the other to speak. At least, that was how it felt to me: like I needed to say something that would impress him; and this would mean, in part, not being overly impressed by the music. Maybe as a result, I found myself with nothing to say, and almost no recollection of what I had heard. For all I knew he regretted beginning the conversation in the first place, and was suffering the same pangs I was. But then neither of us had opened our books.

When at last he opened his mouth, it wasn’t to ask my opinion, but to offer his. He began by saying that he had followed this saxophonist’s slow rise over the years through other, smaller venues, and commented on the other eras of his career, and his fine work as a sideman. Eventually he wended his way back to a measured criticism of the evening’s performance, which, impressive though it had been, had lost some of the introspection and lyricism which had brought the player to prominence in the first place.

How could I hope to compete with that? It was all I could do to confess that I had enjoyed the set anyway, and go on to offer my own measured excuse on behalf of the artist: he might have been pandering to the crowd. If my friend noticed that I was pandering—by bringing the conversation back to the safe ground on which we had bonded, the way the common indignation of slogans leads one to become immediate comrades with the nearest marchers at a protest—he gave no indication. And if the arrogance with which I dismissed the audience was a bit too easy, I think he knew it as well as I did; and this led us to attack the subject with a self-conscious relish, and at a volume a little louder than was necessary. We looked back on a time when the club had been in danger of closing, before Lincoln Center had made jazz safe for the elite, fusion had burned itself out, the crossovers that invited the musical rabble into the temple had become commonplace, and venues like this had depended on the loyalty of connoisseurs like us, on whom, we agreed, it was now turning its back. Never mind that I only knew about these things from reading: it gave me an insider’s satisfaction, siding with him in this way, about a city where, ten years on, I still felt like a bit of an exile. When I tried to bring the level down a bit, by suggesting it might have been nice to have something to look at besides the musicians’ shoes, he seemed to take it as a signal that conversation was over, and started trying to flag down a waitress.

We shook hands under the awning outside, traded email addresses. And then, perhaps because it had begun to rain lightly, he offered me a ride home. I declined at first, but when he persisted, asking me where I lived, and then arguing that uptown would hardly take him out of his way to Queens, I remembered the Shirley Temple and agreed.

His minivan was parked near Washington Square. As we climbed Eighth Avenue, chatting about music, I began to form a clearer impression of my driver. He loved to talk, and he was one of those people with a head for stats, just applied to jazz instead of, say, baseball. He seemed to have seen everybody at one time or another, every legend who hadn’t died unreasonably young, and to have a story and an opinion about all of them. He called his favorite players “monsters”—a term I would come to adopt—and, when he was recalling a set that particularly impressed him, he would say the band had “played their butts off.” Our tastes turned out to be pretty similar, though I admit his forays into swing and boogie-woogie left me cold, while I tended to be more forgiving of the avant-garde, which he dismissed as “cerebral dissonance,” or, in a few cases, out-and-out charlatanry. It wasn’t his age; he couldn’t have been more than ten years older than me, and besides, a fair percentage of the crowd at avant-garde shows tended to be the full-bearded flotsam of the sixties. No, it was something else. The Shirley Temple. The lack of swearing, which, once I noticed it, made me conscious of my own bad mouth. The radio, tuned to BGO, the volume so low it barely registered. The minivan, of all things. And the way he drove! We could’ve taken the parkway, but here we were, on the avenues, and I don’t think we ever broke thirty. He would stop at yellow lights, braking heavily, as if we were narrowly avoiding a collision, wait for them to turn red. I was surprised a taxi didn’t rear-end us. I started to wonder how well he could see. And I decided that either he was actually quite a bit older than he appeared, or he was affecting great age, the way a boy might pretend to have a limp, because he believes it makes him look dignified in the eyes of his fellows.

The reflections of streetlights scattered on the wet pavement as we crawled our way uptown. At one point we made thirty-five greens in a row. I hadn’t realized I was counting until we had passed ten. At twenty-five I mentioned it to him, interrupting a monologue about Miles’s time with Bird. We counted the last ten aloud together, breaking into cheers when the yellow appeared at number thirty-six, and high-fiving after the car had skidded to a halt. Had he run that yellow, I thought, we would have made a couple more. Then again, we had caught up twice to a gypsy cab that was going much faster than we were, floating past it through newly-turned greens. Maybe there was a method here, a rhythm about the City that he understood, but which an outsider, who saw only the City’s frenetic pace, could never apprehend.

Anyway, whether because it was goodwill rather than disdain which had momentarily united us, or because, for the moment, it had been something other than music that caught our attention—whatever the reason, it was a kind of breakthrough. As he swung the car around to drop me off in front of my Morningside brownstone, I almost asked him what he was doing the following night. Instead, we shook hands warmly and promised to stay in touch. It was only as he was driving away that I noticed the Massachusetts license plate, and realized just how little he had told me about himself.


He was a native of Queens, but had lived for more than a decade in Boston. Whenever the opportunity presented itself—maybe eight or nine times a year—he drove down to the City and spent the weekend with his sister, who still lived in the old neighborhood, and took advantage to go out and hear as much live music as he could.

He told me this by way of apology, perhaps, as we sat side by side late one Friday evening at a familiar venue only a few blocks from the one where we had met, though a good deal more downscale: a basement shaped like a boxcar, with mirrors behind the bandstand and a bar with four stools at the other end. After almost two months and a few unanswered emails, I figured he had gone the way of most club acquaintances. And then, the previous night, a message had appeared, with nothing more than the name of the venue and time of the set, together with a link. I never responded; I didn’t make up my mind to go until late the following day. But he was there, waiting for me when I arrived, wildly flagging me down from the row of chairs closest to the stage, removing his jacket from the seat next to his, and making a point of telling me how the waitress had been throwing him dirty looks for the last half hour. It seemed like a natural segue from my tardiness to his two-month silence—or would have been, had he not suggested I get a drink, the set might start at any minute. It ended up taking me so long to find the waitress in the thick of the crowd that, by the time I sat down again, and managed to mumble something about not knowing he was an out-of-towner, I felt like I was being petty. Instead, I asked him what the jazz scene in Boston was like—to which he replied, without hesitation, “It isn’t New York.” And then a moment later, more cryptically: “They’re a little too smart for their own good.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate, and he didn’t offer, either about Boston, or Queens, or his sister, whom I imagined as a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Bunker, and wondered, idly, if she was married.

Once the music started, I found myself wondering at my own peevishness, and at my initial reticence about coming. It wasn’t that I’d been upset with him for not staying in touch—actually, I’d been pleasantly surprised by his message. It was that music was something I was accustomed to experiencing alone. Having him along, I thought, would be like wedging something between the music and me, as though I were being forced to listen through a screen, or from another room. Like the last time, I would be anxious about whether he liked what I did, or what was worse, have to account for my tastes. And yet here I was again, closer than I would have chosen to be, and with a much louder band than the last time. I could feel my ears callous with every blacksmith whack on the snare, every burst from the trumpet, every squeal of the alto. At such close range, the music bordered on disintegrating into a chaos of noise, the way blown-up newsprint looks like nothing but scattered pixels.

I looked for my friend in the mirrors behind the bandstand. They were intended to help those at the rear of the club see the musicians, and maybe this explains why I had such a hard time finding him, even though I found myself right away. But then he looked so different, there in the mirror—different but familiar: leaning forward with his eyes tightly shut, an almost pained expression on his face, head turned to one side, rocking slightly in time. Maybe it was his hearing, not his vision, that was going—maybe he was paying the price for sitting up front all these years, however many of them there were. Maybe it was all going, and this was the secret to the strange aura of his age. Only the longer I looked—and I looked for a long time, hardly anxious he might open his eyes and catch me—the older he seemed, until a shriveled, haggard old man I no longer recognized occupied the chair next to me. It was enough to make me close my own eyes, abandon myself to the music’s stormy harbor.

When the set was over we applauded along with everybody else, and then lapsed into the same silence as last time. Maybe he was waiting for me to talk, wary of monopolizing the conversation. But I couldn’t; I hadn’t yet found the distance necessary to formulate my experience in language. More than that, it was the same insecurity I had felt last time: I wasn’t qualified to speak. After all, though I was familiar with the leader, I had neither heard nor seen him with his working quintet before this evening. I was sure I had enjoyed it too much. There was nothing I could find to pick at. If I started gushing, I would only reveal my own ignorance, and my friend would recoil, and never invite me to go see music with him again.

After the silence had prolonged itself uncomfortably, and neither of us was getting up to use the bathroom, I made a meek little comment about how young all the other players were, or at least looked.

It turned out to be the opening he was waiting for. He started by lavishing praise on the bassist, remarking on how many melodically gifted and technically impressive “fiddle players” seemed to be coming out of music schools these days. About the leader, who was only slightly older than the rest of the band, he claimed that he was in rare form. Had I heard the latest album? I dropped my eyes and confessed I hadn’t. And he said—I’ll never forget this—“I envy you.” Envied me, apparently, for still having the opportunity to hear it for the first time.

He went on like this—about how comfortable the trumpeter seemed to be playing his own compositions, and how refreshing it was to find that he had the same flair for composing and arranging as for improvising, and so on—until I actually did have to use the bathroom. But then it was hard to find a pause to excuse myself. Watching the musicians pack their gear, my friend droning on, I started to wonder if they were listening to him, too. I’d forgotten how close we were to the bandstand, this though I was still half-deaf. Maybe I shouldn’t have resisted the urge to plug my ears. I had feared it would make me look like an old man.

And then I did something unusual, for me: I interrupted him. I actually talked louder and louder until he relented, just as he had done to me. It was only to suggest we get another round, and stay for the beginning of the open jam, which was supposed to start at twelve-thirty, but would likely start closer to one, it being almost twelve-thirty already. The suggestion itself was unusual. I disliked these Friday-night crushes, when the club was too dark to read in and everybody had to shout to make themselves heard. I wasn’t here to pick up girls, or make new friends, or rub shoulders with important people. I was here for the music.

At least, that was what I told myself. Some nights I would stay sitting at my table after the set was over, book closed, stirring the melted ice with one of those little red straws. Or I would sit down on the church steps halfway between the subway and home, and watch the groups of people just on their way out to the clubs. Back and forth, work to set to apartment, set to apartment to work. Every time I came home, the apartment was as empty as before. The next morning, my cubicle would be waiting for me, even emptier. Lying in bed, I would imagine my most recent outing as a pebble, carefully selected from a wide plain of such pebbles, and dropped into a container that resembled an aquarium. When the aquarium was almost full, just as I was about to add the last pebble, I would stop and asked myself: Why was I filling this aquarium with pebbles? All along it had seemed so important, but somehow I had never stopped to ask myself why. It’s not like I was the crow in the fable, trying to get a drink of water. The aquarium was empty but for the pebbles I put in it.

Tonight, though—tonight I felt energized. As if the music, the thrill of having it so close, had jounced me up to some higher state; and now, in the midst of falling, I glowed. And maybe he felt like I was trying to get rid of him, avoid riding home with him. It was true I’d taken him for an early bird, what with the Shirley Temples and the minivan. But no moreso than I was. In any case, he agreed without hesitation. I watched him for what must have been a very long time; he was talking again and didn’t seem to notice. He glowed, too; there was no trace of that face it had taken me so long to recognize in the mirror, the face that had aged before my eyes. I had a vague recollection of seeing it again, in the mirror, deep into that jam session. By that time he had bought another round, and a round after that, so that, when I got out of the van in front of my building a few hours later, I felt like I was stepping off a merry-go-round; and the only thing I remember thinking was that I’d left my damn book at the bar, before realizing, as I was trying to make my room stop spinning and just fall asleep, that I’d never brought one.


It always happened the same way: a couple of months of silence, then an email: tomorrow, name, venue, time. I wasn’t expected to respond, just follow instructions, wherever they took me. It was odd how much I trusted him, given how little I knew about him. As much as I trusted my few close friends, holdovers from college or high school, whom I saw a couple of times a year if I was lucky—or unlucky, as they were always loud family affairs where I ended up spending most of the time with their kids. And then he would always already be there, wherever “there” was, and no matter how early I thought I was, would flag me down like I was some long-lost friend descending from an ocean liner after a thirty-year absence. I guess you could say he never stood me up, though really the reverse is true. I did think about not going sometimes. Those emails, though: they might have looked like simple announcements, but I treated them like transmissions from my destiny.

I said I followed those emails wherever they took me, and in truth they took me further and further out, first into the nether reaches of Manhattan, then the boroughs—Brooklyn, usually, but occasionally the Bronx, and once even Staten Island. It didn’t matter how far-flung from the great state of Queens, either, he always gave me a ride home. It did me no good to protest. Riding the train out to the show, and sometimes the bus as well—it never occurred to me to ask him to pick me up, and he never offered—I would find myself wondering how on earth he’d discovered these places. Cafes and dinner clubs, the dining room of the Bohemian society, a plumber’s union hall. If they were actual music venues, they were invariably basements, mirrors for windows, giving the illusion of extra space and twinned people. Some of the more memorable ones looked like they belonged anyplace but the city, boroughs or no. One was a converted carriage house; I swore I could still smell the hay and horseshit. Another had rusty, rough-hewn farm relics—hoe blades, horseshoes—hanging uncanny as severed limbs on the wood-plank walls, and the mirrors were all set in quartered white frames. A third had a single long table running down the middle, where we sat like Germans at a beer hall, and the bartender handed drinks to the people seated at the ends, whose responsibility it was to pass them down. It got to the point that I started to wonder if I’d been fooling myself all along: here I thought I’d moved to the City, but it seemed like if you dug deep enough, it wasn’t so hard to turn up the arrowheads buried with the cobblestone. Just as much as the farm was a mask someone had hung on the forest. You could tell that the moment you walked far enough from the house that it set under the hillside, turning the world into another night; or you stopped working for a day, and just watched.

The musicians were as obscure as the venues, and they grew more obscure the further out from the center we went. Younger, too. I started to feel like we were on the trail of the Fountain of Youth; I kept waiting for him to take me to a high school gymnasium and proclaim that it was “the hottest ticket in town.” Then again, had he taken me to hear a marching band, I’m sure he would have had his reasons.

He must have some network of contacts, I thought. But if so, why didn’t anyone else ever come along—an old high school friend, say? I watched him down those Shirley Temples; he never ordered anything else. Once he held up his glass and said, “Signs of a misspent youth.” There was no other choice: I started to fantasize a dark past for him. Maybe he actually lived in Queens, with his sister. Some lost story by Poe: she was an invalid, there was a weird bond between them, etc. Maybe he didn’t have a sister at all. And then there was the matter of his hearing. We always sat right up front, as close to the music as possible—like I said, he always got there first, and always saved a seat for me. We got so close you could almost see the vibrations, the way raindrops makes a puddle quiver, or a breeze flutters a spiderweb. I remember one summer watching jazz in a park, and every time the pedal of the bass drum kicked, the membrane would flash, because it had distended in such a way as to catch the sun. It only lasted a few minutes; then the sun moved, and maybe the drum, too, from the kick of the pedal. Those nights sitting so close, I started to feel like I was the puddle, the spiderweb, or the skin of the drum: it was my body that had been stretched across a ring of metal, and was being pummeled into spent ecstasy.

But as for him—he had no past, so far as I could tell. About love, about politics—about growing up in New York during that seedy, thrilling time everybody my age wishes they had experienced, if only in a picturesque, arm’s-length sort of way—it was like these things didn’t exist for him. I got the idea, somehow, that he worked with computers. But who didn’t? I worked with computers, if you wanted to put it that way. Asking him anything directly was useless; his answers were always cryptic, if he answered at all. I had no idea, for example, what prevented him from making the trip to the City more often, besides the snail’s pace at which he drove. He didn’t wear a ring; but then I had overheard some of my coworkers talking about how they took theirs off when they were away on business, in case an opportunity presented itself. Once, on a ride home, I asked him where in Queens his sister lived. He told me I wouldn’t know it. And when I persisted: “Out by Throgs Neck. It’s not what it used to be. They should change the name.” And then he launched into some diatribe about the Louis Armstrong museum. I was tempted to ask him if his sister lived there, in the Armstrong museum. But I bit my tongue, and instead looked around the interior of the minivan—it always seemed suspiciously clean for someone routinely making a long-distance drive—for some revealing object or point of entry: The Angry Bird on the dash. The plastic troll hanging by its green hair from the mirror. The Red Socks key chain dangling from the ignition. The plastic Maverick thermos cup between the seats. The radio tuned to BGO, low.

Music, though. Here you couldn’t stop him. He would start with the familiar constellations, then build slowly outwards, ripples on a pond, to musicians of greater and greater obscurity, sidemen’s sidemen, though always just two or three degrees removed from a Miles or Duke. It wasn’t just that he knew so much more than I did, so many more names and titles and tunes. It was that he gave the impression that what he didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing. He seemed to enjoy bursting my bubble. Some of the players I most admired he claimed were imitators of earlier, lesser-known innovators. Once he even looked at me and said, “You know, jazz didn’t start with Bird.” I almost hit him. But it was hard to stay angry with him for long. Man, could he tell stories. You got the impression he’d been there, wherever and whatever it was, whether it had happened in 1920 or yesterday, like some jazz Forrest Gump. Maybe this was why I would always remember him as older than he was; and why I was always surprised to find, after a month or two without seeing him, an unaccountably young man flagging me down from somewhere near the bandstand—a man who, after all, was only a few years older than me.

There was hardly a musician he didn’t claim to have met at one time or another; and the way he would carry on, you’d have thought they’d grown up together. It was partly his habit of calling them by their first names—not just Duke and Miles, Wynton and Branford, but John, Horace, Art, Eric, and Sonny. And if you didn’t know which Sonny he meant, you waited for the context. Asking just elicited a polite stare before rolling on, if he deigned to pause at all.

I knew he hadn’t met half the people he claimed to, and that he was hardly on intimate terms with the rest. I knew, too, that, like me, the vast majority of what he knew must have come out of books, no matter how much he could make it appear otherwise. And yet, I didn’t mind it, at least as much as I maybe should have. I didn’t spend time looking for chinks in his armor, and was vaguely disappointed when I found one. A sax player whom he praised, for example, though he had dismissed the name when I had mentioned it some months earlier: I resisted the urge to call him out. No matter how much of a pedant he turned out to be, there was something endearing about him. I admit, I sort of enjoyed the idea that the name I had mentioned had become part of his repertoire. Maybe I just liked pedants, admired the mountains they raised out of something so insignificant as their insecurity. They had a peculiar majesty I could relate to.

It wasn’t friendship he was looking for. He didn’t invite me out anywhere else, or over to his sister’s place. When I offered him to crash at mine—to give his sister a break, I said—he demured, mumbling something about family obligations. Maybe I was the one looking for friendship, whatever that means. Sharing secrets, I guess. I don’t know why I was setting my expectations above the one thing we did share. Maybe I was looking for something I shouldn’t have expected to find. It’s funny, for a while I had been concerned about possible sexual overtones, probably because he was so opaque about his personal life. And yet here I was, craving something more, anticipating his coming to town, following his emails no matter what dark staircases they took me down, keeping my mouth shut despite thinking him a charlatan, so willing, eager even, to be his sounding board. For that was what he really wanted—not a friend, not a lover, but a cave in which to hear his own echo. And I, mute before him, never called him out. Not once. It was as though I felt the need to protect him. Or myself.

It was a little like he was pure sound, like he was made of all and nothing but the music he had absorbed over the years, and the information and experiences that had accrued around these, of which I was just one more encrustation. As if, were I to poke my finger into him, I’d find him hollow, he himself no more than the cavern for an echo, and the blare of a thousand trumpets would emerge from the hole, like that gag in the cartoons where someone yells into a paper bag. As though, were I to put my ear to his chest, I would hear the roar of a shell rather than the beat of a heart. When he drove off into the night, it wasn’t darkness he disappeared into, but silence, in which he dissolved like sugar in rain.


We went on like this for a couple of years: appearances and disappearances, nights spent in the lap of music, tall tales, rides home I hardly remembered from drink.

And then one night, as we were pulling up in front of my place, he made the offhand suggestion that maybe it was time for me to pick the next set. If it was intended as an admission or an apology, there was a barb in it; because when we went to shake hands, he added, “Don’t disappoint me.”

He must have known that I hadn’t grown up here. In fact, I was certain I’d told him as much: about moving to the city in my mid-twenties, about the way the sudden opportunity to hear so much live music had overpowered me, and about how, after more than a decade here, I still felt like a stranger. But for all I knew he didn’t remember, if he had heard me at all.

I should have resented it. I don’t have the stomach for the one-upmanship which passes for so much of male friendship. And yet, something inside me must have craved it—that, or I was just drunk enough to respond; because before letting go of his hand, I told him that I wouldn’t disappoint him. Then I watched him drive away.

I spent a lot of time over the next few weeks poring over the jazz papers and jazz blogs for a suitably obscure venue, and a suitably obscure artist who nonetheless had some pedigree, trying to pinpoint the time of my friend’s arrival by the calendar of his previous visits. I even went so far as emailing him my picks on the Wednesday before the weekend I expected him to show up. I never got a reply and, maybe as a result, never followed up on my own suggestions. When I finally did get an email, some three weeks later, it wasn’t a reply, or a query, but an announcement, like every other. Only it was cryptic even for him. The subject line read: The Amazing O. The body of the email had an address and a date. There was no venue, and nothing of a name but the epithet, and the apparent redaction.

This was on Wednesday. I wrote him back immediately, a much longer email than was necessary, reminding him that it was my turn—I actually wrote that—and asking whether he had received my previous email, and including a few new possibilities. Again I waited for a reply. I can’t say I really expected one, though I did spend the next two days at work checking relentlessly, and the rest of the time scouring the internet for anything I could find about this O—ridiculous, it sounded like the name of a magician you’d hire for a kid’s birthday party—or the venue, which I could do no more than pinpoint on a map. It was somewhere between the Rockaways and East New York. About this mysterious O, there was nothing—no website, no MySpace page, no videos on YouTube. A Google search turned up a vinyl cleaning product. By today’s standards, O did not exist.

Of course I went. An hour and a half on the train under the river, and then a twenty-block schlepp from the station. He caught me walking—I hadn’t quite reached the address, so far as I could tell—flagged me down from across the street, crossed it himself, skirting puddles. He said, “You’re here”—or maybe it was, “We’re here”—I couldn’t be sure which. A hint of doubt in his voice, as though for the first time he had not expected me to show.

I thought, almost said, Where? It was an old warehouse district, as yet unredeemed by lofts: a puddle-streaked alley of brick and opaque glass, the windows themselves stacked like bricks, the monotony broken only by an occasional corrugated metal loading dock, shut tight like the curtain in an empty theater. The avenues, though slightly wider, presented much the same vista in either direction.

He crossed the street again, and actually started back toward the subway. It was a moment before I followed. The rain had stopped, but the clouds had not lifted, giving to the night a gloomy, oppressive feel that augmented the dour abandonment around us. Odd that he hadn’t sent me the exact address, and after three blocks of silence I was on the point of asking him if we were lost, or if he had changed his mind, when he stopped suddenly in front of a black metal door. I realized that I must have passed it on my way from the subway, though I didn’t remember noticing it.

He pounded five times and waited. There was no noise but the distant hum of some highway.

“Are you sure about this place?”

I had no reason to whisper, but that was the way it came out. Again, it wasn’t that I distrusted him. He was too pure, too single of purpose, his deceptions too transparent and devoid of real malice. In the end, I think I felt a little sorry for him, and this—pity—was the real reason I had been able to follow him into whatever deep, dank hole he pointed me toward, and drink a little more than was prudent, and crawl into his car with the noise of the band still ringing in my ears. No, it wasn’t him I distrusted, but something else, in front of which he stood, with his back to it. Any darkness about him was just the shadow it cast.

I think he was about to answer me when a Hells Angel appeared, or everyone’s idea of a Hells Angel: bald, heavy-set, leather-clad and tattooed. Only this Hells Angel had bifocals pushed far down his nose, and a copy of the Financial Times folded in one hand—I recognized it from the pink pages. Now I wanted to ask what a Hells Angel was doing reading the Financial Times on a rainy night in some godforsaken warehouse in Queens. Only the way he grinned made my question moot. He might have been eating diamonds out of a popcorn bag.

He motioned us forward, and my friend nodded for me to go ahead. I looked back and forth between them and, after another moment’s hesitation, went inside. Here was the Angel’s stool and table, and a staircase leading down. It was as black as the door, glossed by red party lights that fanned out along the walls. A red EXIT sign glowing dimly below seemed to float in an abyss. I grasped for a railing and, finding none, started down, slow as an old man walking into a cold surf, my fingertips grazing the walls on either side. My shoes rang against the stairs—they were metal—and my friend’s joined soon after, syncopated with mine; and then, much louder, the door closing; and then only the crisp echo of our footfall. The whole staircase vibrated slightly with our descent. Soon a second vibration resolved itself: a thudding bass. It got louder the deeper we went, until the stairs started to buzz with it—until, when I had reached the EXIT sign, and the improbable door hanging beneath it—a door that might have been salvaged from a farmhouse, all wide, dark planks rotting at the edges, the wood grown around the nails like flesh around a sliver—that bass thudded like something pounding on the other side, wanting out.

It was much louder inside, though here the sounds of voices competed. Maybe it was the low, domed ceiling that amplified them, raised them to such a hysterical pitch; or the overall size of the space, though this was hard to gauge, riddled as it was with archways that might have receded into any number of alcoves, or communicated with other spaces entirely. It could have been a crypt, except that the gothic touches—the discreetly looming gargoyles, the vasefuls of wilted flowers—were countered by bucolic ones, such as the grapes hanging in bunches from trestles bolted to the ceiling. It was more like a dark bower, or fecund grotto. Although the dim light seemed to be provided by candles set on the tables and along the bar, and the clusters of votives in hardened white-wax cataracts around the archways, this was an illusion, something like the old movie technique where an actor lights a candle, and the lights on the set slowly go up. There were spots in bunches of thorny, blossomless stems throwing barbed shadows onto the low ceiling, and more around the gargoyles. The drinks glowed, too, as though neon bulbs floated inside the fluted glasses that waitresses carried back and forth on small, round trays.

It was only then that I noticed some of the waitresses were topless, and some of the patrons, too. One woman, who was quite short, simply walked around stark naked, like a toddler on the beach. I watched another, whose body looked like a Coke bottle that had been stretched in a glassworks, saunter by, pull a single grape from a bunch, and pop it into her mouth, all without looking around or changing her sullen expression. It was the same air of carefully-prepared apathy that hung over everything and everyone, extending to the easy nudity or the coiffed disorder of hair and clothing, as though the patrons and employees had all turned themselves into objects for some aristocrat’s picturesque garden.

I couldn’t decide whether I was overdressed or underdressed. I felt old; I was sure I was the oldest person in the room, my friend excepted. But no one seemed to have noticed our entrance, or to notice us as we started through the crowd, my friend now leading the way through all that flesh and noise. I had been on the point of turning around and asking him where the hell he had brought me—how it was I had wandered into this Star Trek fantasy of a Roman orgy—and whether the band was in a back room. But I had begun to suspect there was no band. For the first time I noticed the sampled moans on the speakers, around the thumping bass. In the corner of my eye, in the shadows of one of the archways, I thought I saw the rhythmic frenzy of a couple having sex—though when I turned to look there was nothing. I had a vision of all those empty eyes suddenly converging on me, full of rage and desire, and all these beings wandering about with the careless inevitability of celestial bodies all at once descending on me, like Maenads from the hills, and tearing me to pieces. The woman who had plucked the grape: I imagined her doing the same with my still-beating heart. I thought of all my pebbles. Life without them seemed terrifyingly weightless. And yet, I wondered if this wasn’t what I’d been craving all along.

A bead curtain struck me in the face. We were crossing under one of the archways, and a moment later we stood in a tall, narrow chamber, illuminated by a single white orb the size of a goldfish aquarium, suspended from a wire dropped from some murky nowhere above. The light was so weak, and the stairs so narrow, that only the first dozen or so steps were visible; so that, as my friend began his descent, he was slowly consumed by the black pool into which the stairs plunged. It was impossible to tell how much further down they went.

From the way the first stair gave, I guessed it to be made of wood; and this was confirmed once I had descended into total blackness, and the pounding bass was replaced by the sound of my creaking footsteps, and his footsteps somewhere below mine, together with the sound of running water, though I could not tell whether this was above or below. I went slowly, guiding myself by the damp walls; I was afraid of running into him, knocking him into the void. At one point I looked behind me, the way a swimmer might, to reassure himself that the surface isn’t further away than he remembered. A grey trapdoor of light somewhere far above, as though I had slipped into a mineshaft. I had dreamt about places not so different, although in my dreams they were always filled with water. I even took a quick deep breath, as though I expected to have to hold it.

It might have been an old subway station that some developer had finagled from the City. Only I couldn’t help feeling that we had fallen off the map, into some forgotten part of that system. I started to imagine the whole city was honeycombed with spaces like these, the subways just the tip of the iceberg. There was always a level deeper. Just when you thought you had arrived at the foundation of everything, there it was, another staircase. It was a world of staircases built on staircases; and everything that looked solid and eternal, steel and schist, was anchored in rotting planks like the ones we stepped on now, and perched over a void

Quiet knocking somewhere below. The sound echoed in the stairwell, which seemed to have grown narrower in our descent. I paused. The trickling, and, somewhere far above, the bass, barely audible, heard as though from underwater.

A second trapdoor of light appeared, and for a moment I hung suspended on an invisible wire between two lambent squares. A warm, almost rank smell wafted up to me, and carried upon it—a furious horn solo, a heavy swing, a ride cymbal going full tilt.

Jazz. It was the sound of jazz.

The rank smell turned to a heavy perfume, and I rushed toward it.

We were standing at the rear of a big, smoky room, the seeming antithesis of the faux mystery cult one long flight up. There were maybe ten other patrons, each sitting alone at one of the dozen or so tables. The band was a traditional fourpiece, trumpet-led, the piano an upright, which, together with the haze and the root-cellar environs, helped to create the atmosphere of a modern-day speakeasy.

There was one anomaly, or one more, though I didn’t realize it until after we had seated ourselves, for once at a table not nearest to the stage. The trumpet player was a woman. Maybe it was the way she brandished her horn, a sort of jazz Joan of Arc—and, truth be told, that horn, a twisted braid of dented brass, looked like it had been used to beat down a few infidels in its time. She was plain, a little dumpy, her hair cut short, dressed in black slacks and a red blouse open at the collar to expose a big wood-bead hippie necklace. Her ethnicity was anyone’s guess: skin a honey amber, eyes light, nose flat; when she cocked her head between lines, listening for a pick-up, a slight Asian cast fell over her features, then disappeared when she started to blow again, cheeks puffing out into cherry knots, fingers of her big hands dancing over the valves.

My friend’s voice, close to my ear: “The Amazing O,” it said. The voice seemed to emerge from and echo inside my own skull, though it was hardly louder than a whisper. I knew right away that he meant the trumpet, and that the bright, brash sound that had pulled me from the abyss of the stairs into this scourging warmth belonged to the leader of the band.

It was the ace in his sleeve, and he no doubt expected me to be impressed. And I was, to a point. But I couldn’t get over a vague feeling of disappointment. Was I supposed to marvel at the sex of the trumpet player, or the oddness of the space, or the temerity of the voyage? Women in jazz were rare enough, horn players even moreso; but this was a pleasant surprise, not a revelation.

He was looking at me expectantly, so I smiled, and nodded. And then he handed me a drink, and offered a silent toast.

Water. It was water, with a hint of a flavor I couldn’t place, a little sweet, and very cold.

I hadn’t noticed any waitresses. Turning, I saw no bar, at least from what I could tell through the wreaths of smoke that smelled less of cigarettes than a mild incense. It was likely used to hide that other ripe, loamy smell I had caught from the stairs. It would be difficult, I guessed, to keep such a smell out of a bunker like this—who knew what sort of ventilation it had, if any. Bunker didn’t quite capture it; it was more like a burrow, or a termite colony. The walls were the color of wet earth—might have been wet earth, for all I could tell. And then nothing was squared, the ceiling low and curving into the walls, so that the whole place resembled an earthen vault. The tables, all made of rough-hewn wood, scored like the beams of a cabin, were oddly shaped and unevenly spaced, as if they had grown where they stood. As for the solitary patrons, they were old, not just relative to the Lotus-eaters above, but to us, and male, every one of them. They reminded me of the barflies that hung around in the music pubs. Pale, downcast, with grey, thinning hair, they would get up and totter out just as the joint was beginning to fill. I imagined they had gotten trapped down here, maybe years ago. If this was a termite colony, they were the drones; and the being up there on the stage was their queen.

I had been a little distracted, I realized, by the novelty of the female horn player. Now I buckled down and started to listen—to forget the weirdness of the space, and the funny taste of the water, and the chorus of enthralled old men, and my friend’s expectations, and really listen. She was an impressive young player, no doubt about it. She’d taken her solo through a dozen choruses since we’d sat down, and showed no signs of slowing, or the band of reining her in. That said, in a city that seemed to sweat musicians of this caliber, and attracted the rest from all corners of the globe, she was one among many. She had the usual tendency of younger players to overquote or too-closely paraphrase; her style was lumpy with the sounds of older horns, the usual post-bop and contemporary suspects—Hubbard, Peyton, Douglas—though, like the younger Douglas, she wasn’t afraid to play out, sometimes verging into the territory of a Cherry, Bowie, or Ayler. The band was on target, giving her a nice combination of direction and space—but again, I had seen bands as good in far less exotic spaces, surrounded by far less mystery, without any of the cloak-and-dagger stuff of meeting on streetcorners and climbing down manholes. I started to wonder it that wasn’t all it was: a shaggy dog story, with me as the butt of the joke. The proverbial empty coconut shell, into which the duped yokel gazes slackjawed. Or maybe it was a test: he was the one who had come up with the “amazing” epithet, and was waiting for me to call it crap—a garble of post-bop clichés with the occasional Chicago-style “wrong” note thrown in to sound contemporary. And I was on the point of leaning over to ask him if that wasn’t his long-lost sister up there on stage, when I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. All the eagerness had drained out of his expression; I recognized it immediately as that haggard old face I had seen in the mirror two years before. Something about it made me think of the barflies at the other tables, and the thought made the hair on my arms stand up.

So I turned back to the Amazing O, if for no other reason than to stop thinking the thoughts that had begun to creep up on me. There was still no sign of her slowing down or stopping—if anything, she had gotten louder, and the rest of the band with her; and they had picked up the tempo, too, though these things had happened on such a long arc I only realized them in hindsight. Some of her lines were so extended I wondered where she got the breath. I didn’t notice the puffed cheeks and flaring nostrils that would have suggested circular breathing. Besides, with circular breathing there was usually a corresponding drop in volume.

I can’t quite put my finger on when the change started. Time was hard to measure, without the usual beginnings and endings, shared solos, title announcements. No, it was a wall of sound, monumental and anonymous as a cathedral, and just as calculated to subdue. And I don’t know if it was she who found a groove she’d been looking for, or I who found the groove she was already in, or if it was the two of us, working in tandem. Regardless, I started to notice that her lines had a funny aftertaste. Not bad, like something spoiled. Just something I couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t so much her unorthodox approach to phrasing, or even the unexpected enjambments and breaks—those halting, clockwork chromatic runs clipped off on notes most players wouldn’t have dared—as the way the phrases only revealed themselves once they were fully unfolded, and you contemplated them, for the fraction of a second before the next one started, as a totality. They lingered, those phrases, whether in the air or in my mind, as though they had found the natural frequency of either, or both. And then, some time later, who knew how long, I noticed that the bass had started walking less, stumbling more; the drummer mostly gave up on the ride; and O’s artfully-placed wrong notes turned into flurries, set off from each other by long, oddly-shaped drones. But the music didn’t descend into chaos; there was still a center, holding it all together; and that center, I decided, was her. Because her lines, no matter how sinuous or how jagged, seemed to cling to each other according to some broader vision: all those wildly swinging notes flying off in every direction appeared, with some distance, to form a straight line.

At first the change was just an intensely vivid elaboration on my earlier fantasies. For example, that she had gills, or some similar alteration in her biology—it was the only way she could play lines that long. That her horn and her body were fused, so that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began, what was flesh and what brass, or whether she was all some strange new alloy. I realize there’s no way to visualize these things except as monstrous; so how can I even begin to explain that it was beautiful? Maybe by saying it was only an approximation, my mind seeking some visual analog for a phenomenon that was entirely aural.

I know, too, how all this sounds. The funny taste in the water. The mysterious friend to whom I felt an inexplicable attraction. The loneliness, the ennui. Now the strangely ambiguous woman with the horn. Forget the possibility that it was all a hallucination, at least for the moment—there’s nothing less satisfying in a story. The natural conclusion is that I had fallen in love. But this begs the question: In love with what? With the music, or with the woman on the stage? Were they to be distinguished? It was not the woman of an hour before, if it was a woman at all. (An hour? I might as well say a day, or a year. I wouldn’t have been surprised to emerge from this hole into broad daylight, spring flowers. Only I wasn’t thinking of leaving, not yet.) Beautiful it was, the image, yes, of all I desired. I was just surprised at what I desired—at how I had come to desire so many things from which I had once recoiled in terror or disgust. I want to say it was a beauty so transcendent that it rose above all petty differences, enveloping everything and its opposite in a single web of desire. For the music, transform her though it had, had not acted like a fairy godmother’s wand. She was not the princess rising ethereal in a ring of purifying fire. Or not just. She was the spider suffocating its prey in silk, turning and turning it into a gossamar white mummy. She was offal steaming on fallen leaves. She was the river dammed by the bloated bodies of drowned pilgrims, colonies of mushrooms devouring the forest. And then she was the incessant sound of their chewing, the scream caught in the throat the moment the headsman’s ax falls, the eightfold stampede of the spider’s legs as it dashes toward its prey, if we could only be made to hear these things.

But I did. I did.

There was a point after which all such associations and approximations failed me. The more deeply I fell, the less audible the other three instruments became, and the more her presence was magnified, until she loomed before me, solitary and enormous. That star over my head, on which her gaze had so long been fixed, except in those rare moments when she cocked her head to listen, to breathe, her body swaying ever so slightly, something I was sure only I witnessed, I and the horn—it became her as well, at once penetrating and surrounding me. And then it was just she and I, both of us, or neither. Only not just: there was something else, some presence greater than either of us, to whose audience she had admitted me, and to which I, like she, was transparent (it was her transparency that became mine), and which coursed through and around us in a sort of vibrating sea. I might have been a pebble lost in that violently mixing element, or a hundred pebbles, each of them me, yet each unrelated to the next, all small and light enough to float. And even this diffuse me came apart, mingled with everything around, mixed and shaped according to currents of sound that seemed to emanate from nowhere.

In the end, hindsight became impossible; my immersion was so total that the music ceased to unfold in time. At some point I must have shut my eyes, and drawn my knees up to my chest, and curled my body into a tight little ball, although all these things were, like the relative position of my body in space, and the non-passage of time, difficult to ascertain. How can I possibly describe what I heard then, when I can’t even describe what I saw? And then again I only saw what I heard. All I can say is that when I couldn’t take it anymore, I fled—away from that table that was just a table again, empty, and past all those solitary occupants enveloped like desiccated flies in a web, up those stairs, and up again, past the shelter of the bacchanal, and into the bright hard city night. The clouds had lifted, and the streets shimmered, and I fell like a supplicant before the file of streetlights, one happily broken, as the concrete rumbled ever so slightly from a train passing below.


I never saw him again after that night, but her I did—saw her, at least, the way she appeared when I had first arrived. It was almost a year later, and in an entirely different setting. I had tried a few times to go back to that strange subcellar, but could never be sure I had found the right door; and when I believed I had, nobody answered my knock, or went in or out during my hours-long vigil. At the same time, whenever I went out to hear music, I would think I saw her—not the way she had appeared when I first arrived, but as she was, just before I fled. It always happened the same way: my eyes closed, I would hear something that sparked her image; my mouth would suddenly go dry, and my flesh pimple, and my heart start to race. I would open my eyes, and, for just an instant, actually think I saw her. It didn’t need to be the trumpeter—there didn’t even need to be a trumpet. One night it was the drummer. It never lasted for more than a moment. Either she was an illusion, or some greater, more thoroughgoing illusion had interposed itself between she and I. Once it had happened, I found I could no longer interest myself in the music. It was as though it were being played in another room, for other people. I would end up leaving early. This happened enough times that, for a period of several months, I stopped going out, and even stopped listening to music at home, at least with any sort of attention.

And then one evening I went out to a pizza parlor with a few of my coworkers, one of whom I had just started dating, if you could call going out for drinks a few times dating. The last time, I had suggested we go hear music—I had just started listening again with some pleasure, if not the abandon of an earlier time, and mostly at home. She had said she wasn’t a musical person, whatever that meant. Maybe it meant we were already through—if, that is, we had ever really started. Anyway, the place was more than a pizza parlor, it had expanded a few years back into a full-service Italian restaurant, with a wine bar to attract the after-work crowd, and live music on Thursdays and Fridays to keep them there. I was doing my typical one-drink dash, with the usual chorus of disingenuous disapproval when I lay my money on the table and excused myself, promising I would stay later next time, and agreeing that I was lame, all the while watching my ersatz girlfriend out of the corner of my eye. She had sat at the other end of the table and had not looked at me once the whole evening. Still, I couldn’t quite convince myself it was over. I knew I would regret leaving, tonight more than usual, that by the time I was home I would have stopped blaming her and started blaming myself. But regret had never been enough to stop me.

I had just managed to disentangle myself from the good-byes and catcalls and one sloppy hug, and was heading for the door, a little lightheaded, jacket in hand, when I saw her.

It was unmistakably her, her as I had first seen her, her and not-her. It might have been the same band backing her up, for all I could remember of the rest of the musicians. Except that tonight there was a fifth, a singer, who was clearly the main attraction. She—O—followed that singer’s lead like a circus dog, leaping through the smoke rings of her vowels, running up ladders and sliding down chutes, barking whenever the singer snapped her fingers, adding little pirouettes and other flourishes in the margins of her voice. At one point she took a four-bar solo and sat back again. I looked and listened, listened and looked, for something, for anything, that would remind me of that night. This was dinner jazz, part of the general conversation of the unwinding after-workers, who were completely oblivious to the fact that the Amazing O was here, breathing the air they breathed, poised to level the whole place, to raze it to the ground, to transform—and to transform them with her, if they would only give her a moment of their attention. I had imagined that, like me, she would have raged against this, been one great resounding No to everything it represented. And so I couldn’t understand how she could seem so content. She closed her eyes and swung a little while the singer sang, and smiled at the other musicians, who smiled back at her. When she took her solo, a few people at the bar applauded, and she nodded. I applauded, too. I actually counted the number of times my palms met.

And then her gaze lighted on mine.

I can’t really describe how she looked at me, or the feeling that came over me when she did. But I was sure that she recognized me, and that, when she raised her chin ever so slightly, and narrowed her eyes, it was meant as a threat. As though we shared some terrible secret, and this was what she would do if I told. And what was the secret? It was this: that the dumpy little quintet grinding out cheap standards for an indifferent after-work crowd was the real. That the only real thing was the chains holding us to our ugly little lives. That I couldn’t have her. That there was nothing to have but my own wanting.

For a second time I had to look away; and that was when I saw him, or thought I did, in the mirror behind the bar: standing amid the crowd but indifferent to it, focused only on me. He appeared as he had that first time I had seen him in the mirror, and again the last time, in the corner of my eye: haggard, wasted—old—the whole city settled in the flesh of his face, like its map had been impressed there, which was also a map of his past. But there was something else, too, something I hadn’t noticed before: an intense longing, bordering on despair. I was about to turn to him—I had no idea what I would say, except welcome—when the bar erupted into cheers and applause: somebody had scored a touchdown on the TV. It was then, because the noise startled me, because I flinched, that I recognized the face in the mirror was my own.


Part One of the Sehnsucht Trilogy

What a thing is Man, this lauded demi-god! Does he not lack the very powers he has most need of? And if he should soar in joy, or sink in sorrow, is he not halted and returned to his cold, dull consciousness at the very moment he was longing to be lost in the vastness of infinity?



What story does a symphony tell? Perhaps only one. This one.


In the year 1877 I was enrolled in the faculty of medicine at the University of K             . I was a passable student, living as so many of my fellow passable students did, in the garret of one of the city’s less-reputable boarding houses, attending to my studies by day, and spending my evenings engaged in one or another of the vices to which the young men of every generation are susceptible. It was during this, my second year at the university, that a few of my closest comrades and I embarked on the yet-greater dissipation of founding a literary and philosophical society. After an evening at the pub or brothel, we would retire together to one of our Spartan little garret rooms. Drunk, penniless, sexually enervated, we argued about only the loftiest, most venerable subjects—the Just, the Right, the Beautiful—until we could see motes turning in the dirty light from the single small window and the steeple bell tolled morning. And then it was to breakfast, and to our respective classes, where I would spend my mornings nodding off to the smell of ether and arsenates, the Latinate words denoting parts of the anatomy mixing in my dreaming brain with the Just, the Right, and the Beautiful, until the day’s lectures had ended, and I went out—O youth!—to do it all over again.

There were six of us, what we might call the core members, I the only student of medicine … but then I was the only medical student who had joined my more metaphysically-minded peers in decrying the elimination of a philosophy requirement for aspiring natural scientists. My mornings were dedicated to learning the secrets of that marvelous machine called the human body, observing the dignified spectacle of a man discoursing over the flotsam and jetsam of human remains, his hands buried up to the wrists in viscera. My nights, on the other hand, were devoted to arguments over the existence, origin, proper cultivation, and ultimate destination of that yet-finer material, the human soul. Not that I really believed that one day a more powerful microscope would enable us to count angels dancing on the head of a pin. I was a firm adherent of the Helmholtz school, at least insofar as medicine was concerned. Darwin was all the rage in those days—there wasn’t a discipline his thought had left untouched—while among my comrades, shrill cries of “back to Kant!” dominated our debates, with Feuerbach trotted out here and there as a sort of anodyne. I seemed to be welcomed precisely because I questioned things they took for granted. Is man, then, simply a higher form of the lower animals? Is man only a machine? And while my rational mind recoiled from those arguments that began with the most fantastic a priori assumptions and then went on to build elaborate castles in the air, there was something inside me that positively craved this. In fact, I was something of the prime mover and dynamo of the group—to the point that my comrades joked that if “our medical student” were one day to disappear, it was unclear whether our little salon would have the impetus to continue.

We were all incurable romantics. In hindsight, it is hardly surprising that only half of us made it out of our twenties, and only those among us who tethered ourselves most closely to material things: Rolf, who repudiated his studies after just two years, married a jolly, fat wife, and immediately set about fathering an enormous brood—I can still see them following him around in the street like goslings; Werner, who followed in his father’s footsteps, became a watchmaker, though in his case the reason for abandoning his studies was purely financial. According to his frequent letters, he still stays up late into the night, reading metaphysics—the reason, perhaps, why the family business has fallen on hard times: I can just imagine him trying to focus on the minutiae of springs and gears, his eyes bleary from all that reading, ideas dancing before them like motes! He never fails to close a letter with some remark about the “golden years” of our little metaphysical society. I appear to be his confidante in this, and so have stopped bothering to remind him of the three of us who never reached the ripe old age of thirty. Perhaps he would have preferred to end up like Kristof, found swinging from a beam, his toes grazing the floor, all over some prostitute with whom he had apparently fallen in love! No, I refuse to coddle Werner’s nostalgia. But neither will I burst the comfort of the bubble in which he has chosen to live. I imagine it is all he has left.

As for me, I subjected my passions to a colder eye; I sublimated my romantic yearnings for the Beautiful and the Right to the labor of examining diseased kidneys and swollen crania. Swollen crania! We all had a touch of encephalitis in those days—a tendency to mania, and melancholia; a bit of hypochondria—diseases of excess, imbalances of one kind or another that I can give names to today, though no more than names. I spent a number of years teaching as well, always with an eye out for the dreamy-eyed student nodding off, thinking of anything other than the vicissitudes of the flesh. As soon as I had noticed him, I would do what any man of medicine must do when confronted with a fever he is afraid might spread: quarantine and treat the patient, and closely monitor the surrounding population for symptoms, lest the individual case develop into an outbreak. Simply put, I caned it out of the poor sod, and admonished the rest of the class not to make him a role model. Of course, this sort of thing is much less common now. The Liedenschaft that defined my generation has cooled; the students of today by and large regard me with a jaded skepticism. The war, I presume. So much for incurable romanticism.

But then I used to think that nothing was incurable. I have since come to realize that this, too, was a holdover of my idealism; that the opposite is true: nothing is really curable.

The event in question happened while I was still a medical student, during the headiest days of our salon. One afternoon, as we were all marching arm-in-arm toward the nearest pub, likely whistling a melody from Die Meistersinger, we happened upon a broadside still damp from the poster’s brush. It announced that the orchestra of Herr V           would be performing at the Konzerthaus, City of R     in just over two weeks’ time. Fifty years ago, Herr V           was hardly the image of staid musical conservatism he has since so assiduously cultivated. Fifty years ago, Herr V          was the enfant terrible of the art world, notorious for championing new and difficult works, for lewd, ecstatic, and vitriolic outbursts from the podium, and for siring an orchestra of bastards with a bevy of aspiring sopranos. Barely ten years our senior, he was the vanguard of “our” generation … and a personal hero of mine. But it wasn’t just the presence of Herr V         ’s name on the bill, or the announcement that Balcony seating was to be free—“for the glory of Art,” the broadside proclaimed, “and the future of the German Empire”—that prompted us to dance a half-quadrille in his honor. It was the program. For Herr V         , it turned out, had assembled the most massive orchestra Europe had ever seen, in order to fully realize the majestic final symphony of Herr B               .

Dubbed “The Symphony of a Hundred Violins,” the work had been left unpublished at the time of Herr B               ’s death more than a decade earlier. No conductor had yet dared tackle it. The symphony was instead known through a series of piano and chamber reductions prepared by Herr B               ’s acolytes and devotees. These were frequently performed—so frequently, in fact, that the symphony’s principle themes were as well known as any of the most famous arias of Mozart. Performing Herr B               ’s original score, however, was another kettle of fish. For the hundred violins were just the beginning. There was the choir of kettle drums. And the hundred-pound alpine horn—the weight was specified in a footnote in the score. And the company of soldiers, marched in at the beginning of the penultimate movement to perform a variety of quasi-musical functions. The composer had even left behind sketches of how the orchestra and incidental ordnance should be arranged. It resembled a gargantuan church organ, with the musicians in the place of stops. Of course, the exaggerated size of the orchestra was justified—perhaps “excused” would be the preferred term today—by the work’s grandiose theme, which purported to tell the story of Man from his Creation to his future apotheosis.

Attitudes toward such spectacles have cooled over the preceding half century. I am fully aware that the symphony has become little more than an historical curiosity, Herr B               ’s name known only among elite circles of appreciators, as well as through the pilgimmages to holy memory undertaken by men my age. I would be surprised to learn that the symphony had been performed more than a half-dozen times over the last fifty years, this though larger orchestras have become the norm, and the manufacture of musicians has assumed something of the character of the manufacture of munitions during wartime. Many would no doubt laugh at those critics who once hailed Herr B                  as L. von Beethoven’s only legitimate heir … particularly if they were to remember how many of these same critics lambasted Herr B               ’s early works, calling them too discordant, too cacophonous—that is, too harmonically adventurous—for the taste of a public which, according to their own timid convictions, it was their job to represent, rather than help shape. And so it is difficult to communicate to the modern reader the excitement we all felt at the prospect of hearing the symphony for the first time in its entirety, as the composer had intended. If it is a work whose legend has outlasted its popularity, perhaps this was to be expected. Its initial fame, after all, resided largely in its unperformability—in its being, as the composer himself called it, a copestone left to posterity. What Herr B                could never have predicted—what none of us could—was just how brief would be its moment in the sun. We might blame Herr V          for this: for his overweening ambition to perform a work which might exist in its full scope and grandeur only in the listener’s imagination.

How to describe the follies that laid waste our waking hours in the weeks that followed our encounter with that broadside? The symphony came between us and every other intention—our studies as much as our debauchery. Our symposia became orgies of anticipation, as disquisitions on the symbolic or aesthetic import of certain passages and arguments about the composer’s intention—which, we agreed, was to affirm the triumph of Spirit over a materialistic, Darwinian view of Nature—usurped all debate, and then themselves devolved into impromptu a capella performances. We lived the glory of that symphony a thousand times before the concert arrived. Mind you, it was hardly just our salon that reacted in this way. The whole school was abuzz. If one student started to whistle a theme from the symphony, it wasn’t long before a second picked it up, and then a third; the whistle turned into a hum, the hum a song. We drummed the rhythms on the rails of the auditoria, driving our professors to furious distraction. And then there were the notes with bits of the score written on them, which we left in each other’s books and slipped into each other’s shoes and the pockets of each other’s frock coats. We began to vie for the oddest place to leave them, until one mistakenly appeared at the bottom of the rector’s soup bowl. By that time the disruption had become so general that the rector had no choice but to call an assembly, with the purpose of stamping out the demon of romantic inspiration. He spoke at length about the dangers of excess and the beauty of moderation. He praised the Greeks. The Greeks! With our Germanic blood coursing through our veins! Anyway, the decision had already been made: anyone caught humming, whistling, or otherwise reproducing a melody from “The Symphony of One Hundred Violins” would be subject to immediate disciplinary action, up to and including the possibility of expulsion.

Not even such threats could dampen our spirits. We had but little control over our wills; we were as men mesmerized, ventriloquized by a force greater than ourselves. And so collectively, if unconsciously, we called the masters’ bluff: they could not expel all of us. In the end, they must have decided it was better to let the day come and pass, and allow things themselves to return to normal, than to try to fight it. We had won.

As the day of the concert drew near, our society formulated a plan: we would catch the train to R      the evening before, arriving at least twelve hours ahead of the majority of our classmates. Imagine our surprise, then, on finding the station already thronged, echoing with noisy conversation, hazy with the smoke of dozens of pipes. Had one of us told, or let slip, our secret? On seeing that crowd, I remember feeling disappointed. Every devotee probably believes himself more fanatical than the next. It is how he defines his adoration: the figure becomes his and his alone. But my disappointment was soon dispelled: I could not begrudge others for adoring what I did; and once I recognized this, our camaraderie became yet more fantastic. How many others, I wondered, had launched similar “secret” plans, only to confront a station full of brothers, just like us?

It was a joyfully rowdy trip. Arriving at R      just past midnight, we trekked the half-mile to the Konzerthaus singing the opening Allegro in clipped double time, like soldiers marching off to battle. And as the great gloomy mass of that cathedral of art appeared in the distance, what did I see but yet more students crowding the gaslit Kuntzplatz before the gates? I admit, I felt the same twinge of disappointment—and then, once again, a surge of elation. Like the symphony, the concert was bigger than us, bigger than our university. They had come from all over Germany—from Heidelberg, from Leipzig, from Munich—from anywhere there was a university, anywhere art was made, loved, quarreled over. There was even a small group from as far away as Trieste, and one wild-eyed comrade who kept his distance claimed to be from Petersburg—certainly his thick accent suggested someplace exotic. Not for one moment did I sense any real jealousy or resentment between those already arrived and those who would continue arriving, in smaller and larger groups, all night and over the course of the next day. Each made immediate and fast friends with all. Oh, there was competition—intellectual competition, compared to which the debates of our little salon seemed but the bubblings of a tidal pool on the fringes of a sea. The group from Heidelberg claimed that the Symphony had no intrinsic meaning outside of its form—that its meaning was its form, or vice-versa. They were eventually shouted down by the group from Leipzig, who had assembled a detailed narrative around the work’s theme, keyed with the most fantastic exactitude to every passage in the score. They had even prepared a pamphlet for distribution. And when the debates broke up, we sang. And sang. How we sang! Who would not have believed art’s ability to create a Brotherhood of Man, seeing all the students of my generation engaged thus, debating, singing, telling stories, and passing casks of wine back and forth? If there was any dark spot in this brightest of nights, it had not anything to do with us, but rather that, as the morning drew on, and the crowd grew larger, so did the presence and boldness of the police. We cursed their dark, centaur-like figures, watching their horses’ breaths, occasionally launching a snowball or two at them. Anyway, we did not allow them to dampen our spirits any more than the masters had. We were the new generation triumphant; the future was ours.

I will never forget the moment of Herr V         ’s arrival. He stepped out of a carriage, beyond the equine barricade the police had formed between the Konzerthaus gates and the throng in the Kuntzplatz, his long black cape flying, the stitched opening bars of the Ode to Joy rippling across it. Our reaction was immediate: we once again broke out in song. Somehow, we all managed to select the same melody, although neither I nor my closest comrades would remember any instructions being passed around to sing such-and-such melody when the maestro arrived. As for Herr V         , his reaction was just as impromptu, and one for the ages. He paused; his small, square frame stood erect; he handed off his cane; his trim goatee twitched once; and then he began to conduct us with an invisible baton. For at least ten minutes he humored us in this way. Nor did we falter under his sure direction. And when he had brought our performance to a successful close, he turned to our imaginary audience—the edifice of the Konzerthaus—and bowed lengthily. Then he turned back to us, and made a motion as though for all of us to stand. Of course, we were all already standing; but when he turned again to bow, we followed his example, and then burst into applause as he marched off around the corner of the edifice, one fist held triumphantly aloft, cape flying.

This was at five. At six they opened the doors. There was no announcement; a breach simply appeared in the barricade of mounted police, and they sidled their horses so as to make a funnel toward the entrance. Then someone in the crowd imitated a trumpet call; we all recognized it as the climax of the Allegro. How could we not? We had been singing it all night. And perhaps we should not have reacted as we did; but it was indicative of the spirit of the moment that we all lurched forward together. What did they expect from a group of young men in the midst of living what was likely the greatest passion of our lives?

Rolf called out for the six of us to lock arms, and together we were impelled forward by the mass behind us. Our objective was the Balcony, affectionately known as the chicken coop: the space where, for a pittance or, as in this case, for free, students were more than happy to stand pressed shoulder to shoulder, all rank and disheveled, breathing the manly sweat of each other’s excitement, and frowning down on our powdered and perfumed betters. The Konzerthaus was the only place where we assumed our rightful position at the top of the spiritual hierarchy. But then it is said that the sound is better there, too, purified by its journey upwards, by the spirits of the great composers who have performed here: the notes are carried, as it were, on their breaths. Or perhaps it is because the experience is largely purified of vision: unless you happen to be against the railing, you will be staring at the back of somebody’s head, or at the chain of the great chandelier, or at the ornate moldings, or at the names of composers engraved in a band, or at the motes turning in the warm air … or simply closing your eyes and listening.

And yet, something about this performance compelled me to want to see: the sketch brought to life, the risers connected through elaborate networks of step-ladders, the arrangement of the orchestra itself a work of art—and still and all, what with the size of the assembly, the stage so crowded that the musicians practically had to sit in each other’s laps. To witness the miracle of a hundred violins bowed in unison through twenty measures of demisemiquavers. And I, who had always prided myself on my athleticism, began to feel held back—trying to run ahead of the pack, while the chain of my comrades yanked me every direction but forward.

For make no mistake: what a moment before had been the paragon of camaraderie had suddenly degenerated into a war of each against all. And I don’t know, will never know, if it was I who wrenched free of Rolf’s grip, or if Rolf simply decided to let me go, or if the violence of the seething throng simply tore us apart, like we were a chain of paper dolls. Whatever the case, I felt myself pull or pulled free.

We were not too far from the gate, rushing for the foot of the staircase that draped over the marble floor of the lobby like the hem of a gown. Woe to any usher who stood in our path; he was immediately submerged in the tidal wave of people. It was indeed a miracle that no one was trampled to death in the violence of our ascent. I saw one poor fellow who had gained the first landing, knocked to the floor but still crawling, kneed in the face, and his hand ground mercilessly into the carpet under someone’s stumbling heel. I myself clotheslined another, this in the act of using the head of a third as a pivot—in the heat of the moment I had mistaken it for a finial—and took the next flight of stairs three at a time, hoisting myself by whatever limbs happened to be around, the way a hiker will use the trunks of small trees to help propel him up a steep trail.

At the Dress Circle I was forced to hurdle two gentlemen locked shoulder to shoulder, snorting like rams vying for a mate. Two flights from the Balcony, my competition had begun to dwindle—and since the fewer we were, the more certain we were of achieving our objective, we stopped fighting amongst ourselves, and thus further increased our distance from the thrashing mob. At the next landing I couldn’t resist the urge to peer over the railing: a gale-tossed sea of students still struggling for position at the foot of the staircase, clinging to any available body part or article of clothing that might afford them a momentary advantage. It was enough. Laughing wildly, I sprinted the last dozen steps, and was one of the first handful to make the mad dash for the railing—so mad, in fact, that the lot of us almost toppled headlong over it, and into the empty Orchestra seats below.

For a few moments we were alone, a single row spread along the railing, in a hall silent but for the heaving of our breaths, the battles raging on the stairs barely audible. We gazed down upon a crush of unattended instruments and music stands and empty chairs, and on a fantastic network of step-ladders and risers whose fanlike shadows were thrown against the rear wall by lamps affixed to the loges and by the hundred flaming eyes of the great chandelier. The riser on which the alpine horn stood was almost level with the balcony; I could see clearly down into its maw. Although I had been to the Konzerthaus twice before, I felt that I was seeing it for the first time, so complete was the transformation wrought by this elaborate new construction.

We had only a moment to contemplate our surroundings in near-silence. It was like standing in the surf with our backs to a restless ocean, knowing at any moment its capricious violence might break over us. I don’t think anyone had been admitted to the Mezzanine yet, but if so, I can only imagine how terrific the stampede must have sounded, like the Spanish running of bulls. I had to cling to the railing with both hands, pushing back with all my might, as I was pummeled from behind by wave after wave of body upon arriving body, like the floors of a collapsing building, until their sheer weight threatened to cut me in two.

For the following several minutes there was a fair amount of cursing, and not a few scuffles broke out. I was pushed and pulled by people around me jostling for a place, forced to defend my ground with cocked elbows. Slowly, the atmosphere settled. And then all at once it exploded again—but now with the opposite emotion: the entire balcony broke out in cheers. We were inside! Someone patted me roughly on the back, as in congratulations. Turning, I did not know him; I could not even be sure it was he who had done the patting. We smiled beatifically at each other nonetheless, like fellow missionaries. I could not see the door for the sea of faces, all of which looked vaguely familiar, though not one of which I recognized. I experienced a fleeting sensation of despair, a desire to give up the place I had fought for so dearly in order to be with my comrades. It was dispelled by the thought that we were all comrades, brothers; and that, although we were here to enjoy the symphony collectively, the music itself could only be experienced personally, privately.

Meanwhile, the seats below us had begun to fill with the paying patrons, and musicians were milling about the stage. Restless, we occupied our time chanting, and occasionally cracking jokes at the expense of our betters, some of whom scowled up at us and threatened to have us ejected. Such empty threats were the best jokes of all. The slowly coalescing movements of the audience and musicians reminded me of nothing so much as the bacterial colonies I had observed under the microscope—at least, up until a few minutes before seven, when the influx became a torrent, everyone rushing up ladders and down aisles to assume their designated places. The last stragglers in both the orchestra and audience were just settling down when the first violin—first of a hundred!—appeared, and wended his way through a phalanx of bows raised like pikes, played the fatal note that would bring every individual strand of the orchestra together into a powerful unity of purpose.

Just as the last of these tones was fluttering away, the maestro made his entrance. The orchestra rose at his presence. The whole hall seemed to rock with their collective movement, as though audience and orchestra were sitting at opposite ends of a boat. Herr V           had shed his cape, and traded his cane for baton; but in all other respects he was immediately recognizable as the man who had led our performance two hours earlier. Barely five feet tall, square-shouldered, hard as flint, with piercing blue eyes, he cleaved a remarkably straight path to the lip of the stage, where he took three quick bows and then assumed his place on the podium. The applause that greeted him was so thunderous I could barely hear my own hands clapping, and on the balcony we stomped our feet as well, until the whole Konzerthaus seemed threatened with collapse. But Herr V           refused to wait, or to acknowledge us in any way beyond those brief bows. Perhaps the music, the event, history, impelled him too forcefully; and I imagine that, had it not been for the first massive A flat seven chord, seized upon by every musician in the orchestra, with all twenty kettle drums at full roll, we would still be applauding to this day. The sound settled over us like a blanket of iron. It was an object lesson in the power of that orchestra: no matter how loudly we could applaud, with a wave of the baton Herr V         could easily drown us out. Not we, but he, could reduce the walls of the Haus to rubble—or make the whole marble and stone structure peal like a bell—or lift it a few feet off its foundation, and carry it wheresoever he desired. And I, too, would be carried with it, to spin on that lofty merry-go-round with the spirits of the eminent dead hovering around the chain of the chandelier …

After the first few minutes there was a perceptible falling off in my feeling of bliss. The main theme had developed from a lacuna directly following that introductory chord, and for its first few bars I could hear the whole balcony quietly humming along, until we were overtaken by the crescendo, and buried once again under the weighty beauty of the music. My ear, however, was growing accustomed to the hugeness of the sound. Heaven, I thought, must be a place of ever-changing splendor, or perhaps splendor so great it makes every attempt at earthly beauty seem squalid by comparison, our habituation to even the most glorious sensations just a measure of our distance from God. And yet, I counseled myself to be patient. I knew the symphony would carry me to yet-greater heights—would, in fact, carry me through every stage of human life and human civilization: from birth and youth through maturity, adulthood, middle age, and death; and from the Creation to the Fall, the enslavement and exile of the Jews, the measured wisdom of the ancients, the coming of the Redeemer; war, industry, capital, empire, and beyond, into our race’s glorious future; and that, at different moments, I would experience every sensation human beings were privy to: fear, pain, anger, sorrow, longing, exaltation, love … and in some moments, all of these at once. And so I was patient, and abandoned myself utterly to the music, as to some fantastic lover with whom I desired to be joined in apocalyptic copulation.

My symptoms—I can call them nothing else—started as twinges: a heart flutter; a sudden jerk in my veins, as though my blood had lost its viscosity, or hit a circulatory snag. Each faded almost as quickly as it appeared. I took them for what they no doubt were: responses to some of the more glorious passages in the music. The blood-snag, for example, happened near the finale of the “Pastorale” movement, after the symphony had wafted me over winding valleys shaded with the most delightful woods, tumbling streams bubbling with rain, up mountains clad foot to peak with mighty trees, to craggy peaks that plunged directly into the sea (shimmering flutes pounded by a battalion of horns, a lonely oboe now and again punctuating the tumult). Some such corporeal effects were to be expected, I reasoned—and not just expected, but welcomed, as evidence of the power the symphony exerted over every aspect of my being. My eyes did wander occasionally, to the faces on the other side of the balcony, lost in various attitudes of attention; my mind sometimes fled to my studies, my family—my father in particular; he loved music as I did. This was only to be expected; the performance was estimated to last more than four hours, longer than the train-ride of the evening before. On any great voyage, a man must occasionally look behind him, as though to assure himself that he could still glimpse the shores of his home country, fooling himself with clouds, all the time aware that he is at the mercy of the terrifying, relentless, Columbus-like figure bent over the bow, shaking his fist at the gale, swearing that there are unknown shores yet to be discovered.

In fifth movement, however, just as the symphony was beginning to build toward its most famous climax (the so-called Night-Clash of the Armies of the Spirit, or, The Festival of Cymbals), something within me underwent a radical change. I found that I could not draw a full breath. The more I tried, the more my throat constricted. And then my heart intermitted again—stopped—one beat, two—before lurching into motion again. Only it seemed to have lost its rhythm. As if it were searching for the rhythm of the symphony to beat to, and, unable to find it—but at the same time loathe to return to its original rhythm, mine—it remained stranded in a between-place, neither of my body nor of the eternal infinite.

My hands fumbled for the railing, gripped it tightly, just as they had before the concert, when I had defended my bit of ground. Only now it was me I tensed myself against—my heart, heaving in slow, dull, irregular thuds; my heart, no longer mine.

This was when it occurred to me that I was dying.

Dying! Yes, I was dying. In the middle of a throng too enraptured to notice or be in any way moved by my plight. Even if I slipped down to the floor, or doubled over the railing, they would take it as just one more manifestation of euphoria … and an opportunity to get a better view. My death would not be discovered until the concert had ended, my body stiff as a board, my hands still clamped to the railing …

My brain began to run through possible medical explanations for what I was experiencing. I had not eaten anything in almost twenty-four hours, and had drunk copious amounts of wine. Clearly I was dehydrated; and this, in combination with the exhaustion, excitement, and empty stomach, was causing my symptoms. I was faint, that was all; a cup of water and five minutes sitting, and I would be fine. The problem was where I was going to find a drink of water, and where to sit, packed as thickly as we were. I would never even make it to the landing, let alone out of the building. Add to this that I was not convinced of my diagnosis—that is, I could not convince myself I was not dying. Even on the off chance that I was able to find one of my comrades, what possibility did I actually have of convincing him of the gravity of my situation? They would no doubt chalk it up to a temporary effect of the music. I would cry out, saying, “No! No—you fool! Can’t you see? I am dying!” And in the event they could actually hear me, and distract themselves long enough from the music to understand what I was saying, all the while smiling that idiotic beatific smile, they would say, “Yes, yes—we all are! Isn’t it beautiful?

And yet, what if they were right? What if, as I had originally suspected, it was the effect of the music? But if everyone was experiencing the same stimulus, then why weren’t we all experiencing the same symptoms? Why wasn’t everyone, anyone else, looking around them in a mad panic? Everyone I could see seemed immersed in the music, whether resting their elbows on the railing, chins perched on the heels of their hands, or listening with eyes closed.

Was it the case that I had abandoned myself too completely to the music—at the peril of my life? If so, why the fear? Was not my fear a product of my inability to abandon myself entirely to the music’s power, to allow myself to be spiritually eviscerated, my soul elevated to the point that it willed itself to part with my body and remain among the angels?

My hands loosed the railing, closed around my throat. Except it was not my throat my hands closed around, but rather that other, invisible pair of hands that had me in their grip. The reeling questions were replaced by pathetic visions of my earlier life: my father as a young man, smiling from behind the counter of our dry goods store; my sister in swaddling clothes; the lake beside my boyhood home, a rowboat moored among the reeds; a cart full of apples parked beside the stables … Yes, I was dying—of that I was certain. But how I was dying! I was dying the most perfect death possible. Greater than any soldier’s in the deciding battle of a war. Greater than a mother’s for her only child. More perfect than a glutton drowned in chocolate, an adulterer smothered between his mistress’s thighs. I began to imagine my body coming apart in the air, my atoms and its atoms vibrating together; or as a lump of some chemical salt slowly dissolving in the musical liquid into which I had been dropped. To think I might have spent my life dying like the good Protestant I was, frugally wasting away—my mother had died such a death. Or in a stroke of bad luck, like had taken some of my friends, one of whom had stepped in front of a tram on the way to visit his fianceé. I, I alone, had been chosen to die this way. Such a beautiful death was the greatest privilege that could be bestowed on any human being. Even more, this greatest of honors would make a legend of me. A rash of new young Werthers would follow in my footsteps, planning their own elaborate deaths to coincide with the climactic moments of great symphonies. The work had singled me out, decided to make of me its glorious victim; and here I was, the wretch, the hypocrite, desperate to find a way out!

Now, the most perfect death—in a sense the only death possible—would have to occur at the climax of the Symphony, during the Festival of Cymbals. And so I began trying to modulate my death, the way a master composer will a great theme: moving it into new and unexpected key areas, in the quest to suspend the ultimate resolution, my own perfect authentic cadence. I clenched and unclenched my damp hands; I ground my teeth together; I opened my eyes as wide as they would go, squeezed them shut again. The whole time I was thus engaged, my brain was flooded with visions of a hundred deaths, each more grotesque than the last, and yet also more beautiful. In one, the conductor’s baton became a sacrificial knife, the podium an altar; and the whole orchestra were transformed into eagle warriors, gathered round the High Priest of the Sun, eagerly awaiting the appearance of my heart, ripped from my chest, still beating!

In the meantime the ecstatic march toward the Festival of Cymbals had begun: the winds played a busy pianissimo that wound ever-upwards, like ashes in a flue, over a rumble of tympani more felt than heard. The remainder of the orchestra were all in a hush. And then the strings entered—not all at once, but piecemeally, sawing longingly beneath the winds. More entered with each measure, adding figure after figure, and the character of the music altered radically, like the surface of the sea under the first gusts of an arriving tempest. The horns came last, picking up the original sighing melody abandoned by the strings, while the latter grew more and more frantic, and the tympani louder. And then the soldiers, who since their arrival at the beginning of the movement had stood still as toys, began to march in place, resembling nothing so much as dancers of Ireland, or Spain. I glanced down at Herr V         , his left hand slowly rising, as though pushing up the orchestra, the music, the very sky, while the baton in his right stood straight as a lightning rod, ready to pierce that sky, or pointing to somewhere above it.

By this time my legs had begun to tremble and my arms felt too weak to lift. Black dots had appeared before my eyes, which I now closed in order to focus wholly on the music. I thought I could hear the sound of a triangle, as though from a great distance, and took one wobbly step backwards. I felt myself cradled by unfamiliar arms. I was preparing to fall forward, and did not want to go over the railing, and have my death mistaken for a suicide, or an accident. They might say a vessel had burst, and that much would be true: the vessel of my body!

It would happen just as I had hoped—during the Festival of Cymbals! I had been resisting, ever resisting, but now my whole Will was behind it: I surrendered the whole of my being to the infinite; I was sure it had already begun to fill me. The triangle had disappeared; the hoofbeats of Death’s horse emerged from within the sanctum of the tympani. His scythe would fall the moment the cymbals began to crash, shattering my body like a beaker, while my volatile spirit was carried off, Death pulling it up like an awaiting maiden onto His steed …

And then?

And then?

Nothing. I drew a full breath, almost a yawn. My heart pitched and settled. I belched once, loudly, probably from all the air I had swallowed. It was unlikely anybody heard, what with the orchestra at near-full swell. The newspapers the next day would not report “Climactic Moment of Great Symphony Ruined by Loud Belch.” But neither, I now realized, would they read “Romantic Medical Student ‘Carried Off’ by Great Symphony.” I would not be the toast of future artistic circles. Maestros would not make pilgrimmages to sit under my linden trees. My name would not be whispered among aesthetes yet to be born. No, none of this would be mine. I was not dying; I was not dead.

Was I glad to have my life back, gulping down mouthfuls of air? Did I rejoice at the steady beat of my heart? The air smelled musty, the people around me rank. I felt hot, and exhausted, and sick to my stomach. I could barely keep my back straight. I wanted nothing more than a cold drink of water, and to lie down in my bed.

My bed! My wretched, bug-ridden little cot! When a moment before …

The cruelest thing about it was this: the climax hadn’t yet arrived. The crescendo was still building. It would have been one thing to return to normal after that supreme moment. Then I might have said to my friends, “You know, I thought I was dying for a while there, but when the horn sounded at the end of the Festival of Cymbals, I was miraculously restored to life.”

Of course, this was exactly what I would tell them. I could not bring myself to ridicule myself. I could never have said, for example, “It turned out to be just a bad case of indigestion.”

I was seized by a sudden desperation to die. I could still die during the Festival of Cymbals, I decided, if I just focused my whole being upon it. And so I prayed for death. I chanted the word silently to myself: die, die, die. I clenched every muscle in my body, bowel to jaw, as though by doing so I could stamp out all involuntary life processes—respiration, circulation, peristalsis. I pressed my chest against the rail until those black dots reappeared before my eyes, drove my nails into the wood. The pain only served to remind me that I was still alive. Still alive! I would have beat my brains out, let them rain down on my betters—except that would have been too forced, too obvious. A moment later, I was watching the whole spectacle of my desperation as though from across the balcony, and nothing could have looked more ridiculous. What I was attempting now was but a vain parody of that most glorious of deaths

In the end I couldn’t even make myself black out. I stood there heaving, tears welling in my eyes, as the Festival of Cymbals began. And when I threw my head back and screamed, it was not out of rapture, as everyone around me surely presumed, but complete and utter despair. The Festival of Cymbals was no more than a cant name for a cacophony pretending to spiritual exaltation. Of course, I was convinced that it sounded like this only to me: only I had been struck blind to all beauty at the very moment I should have gained Paradise. And at the time I could not decide whether it was I who was the coward, without the fortitude to follow the music—not my heart, not my blood, but my mind—my stupid, bitter, stubborn, jealous, rational little mind; or whether it was the music that had cruelly spurned me at the gates, and with a firm kick in the arse and great sneering laugh thrust back into my body as into a suit of rags, to live the rest of my life in desire, without hope.

What is left to tell? I spent the endless, meditative last movement contemplating whether to throw myself off the balcony. It was Rolf who spotted me slinking along the alleys on my way back to the train, hiding amid the chanting hordes. He must have seen the haunted expression I threw back at him when I heard myself hailed. Reunited with my comrades, I tried as best I could to pretend to exult with them. Of course, they all wanted to know whether and what I had been able to see; Werner had not even made it inside the auditorium. They razzed and prodded me, roared with laughter, waited with immense expectation. I tried to describe for them what I had seen—this, and the experience of thinking I had been dying, until the Festival of Cymbals … the Festival of Cymbals … had rescued me. It was not a lie, exactly. It was an anticipation, a syncopation. Twenty measures. It could be easily overlooked. I hoped they would take the trembling of my voice, my inability to find the appropriate words, as a sign that I was overwhelmed with emotion. But I was sure they saw through my waxen smile. At least Rolf did, and as we neared the station he grew more and more quiet. Whatever Rolf had understood, my own perspective was more terrible: I could not make myself believe that my comrades were telling the truth about their own emotional experiences. In my eyes, we were all impostors.

I left the society, which disbanded shortly after. Neither did it take long for things at the University to return to normal. The masters, it seemed, had been right. I doubled up on my studies, and at the end of my third year surprised everyone by announcing that I would not become a doctor. But I had the soul of a doctor, the masters counseled me. I was born for medicine, my father said. I deeply cared about people. Rubbish! Animated clay, the lot of us. Motorized sacks of bone, blood and sinew. No, my mind was made up: I was going to be a pathologist.

I graduated with honors.

I have spent more than fifty years rummaging through cadavers, every one of them (by definition!) once a living, breathing human being, each with his own memories, and desires, and dreams. I have spent half a century trying to cajole the secret of life from them. Not once have they ever answered back. And so I have come to take their muteness for proof: there is no secret. I still make my query—these days it is really pro forma—and once I have done so, I go on to explain, with the first incisions, that I would have been where they are now, many, many years before, only I had gotten wise, seen it all for a mirage, and decided it was not my time to follow.

Now, however, my body gives me no choice. They—my colleagues, that is; the ones who send me the cadavers—have given me three months to live. Not that they have been able to find anything wrong with me. But given the current state of my health, and the progress of my “disease,” and provided we are unable to find any way to halt its ravages …

No matter: I have been provided with more morphine than I shall ever need. They might have given it to me fifty years ago. A lifetime of pain. A lifetime spent trying to discount the experience of one evening, to chalk it up to some imbalance of mood, or fever; to convince myself that it was a hallucination brought on by an excess of stimuli and heat exhaustion; a harsh lesson intended to cure me of those myths my comrades and I had argued over so passionately. What do I mean, intended? You see the problem, how hard it is to pull idealism up by its root. I have never been able to disbelieve entirely. If I had, I might have lived happily. I might have been a good doctor.

For fifty years I have watched the world decline. They say another war is coming, but it is hardly necessary. Humanity is finished; everybody knows it, the young as well as the old. Among the many techonological advances I witnessed over the course of those decades, the vast majority of them ways to maim and kill with more brutal efficiency, there is one I have grown partial to. It is that little invention called the gramophone. If for many years I listened to no music at all—if I avoided invitations to concerts, and fled the room the moment a colleague broke out in song, or sat down at a piano—if occasionally even the mere mention of music was enough to nauseate me—if I have preferred the silence of the lab and the charnel-house to the supposed murmurings of the spirit—granted all of the above, none of it stopped me from purchasing one of these machines the moment Herr B               ’s great symphony became available. To my knowledge, it has not been recorded again. But then it is something of a miracle that it was recorded at all. And not just because of its present-day obscurity. It spans thirty-six records, each of which must be turned, and then removed to make way for the next. The Festival of Cymbals itself takes up one whole side. It would be difficult to think of a medium less well suited to such a monumental work—or, for that matter, better suited to the anonymous, ephemeral primitivisms I hear blaring from cafés I pass on my nightly walks. That said, it was recently explained to me that, because of the great variety of sounds and dynamics Herr B               ’s symphony employs, it has served as a sort of test-case for what the new technology can or cannot reproduce. Through just such ludicrous contingencies are some of the greatest works of art preserved.

By repeated listenings I have been able to reconstruct the events of the evening I have just related. It appears that each moment’s perception, each hair’s-breadth shade of emotion, had been preserved in a species of cerebral amber, awaiting the sound of the symphony to re-liquefy the resin in which it had been trapped, and restore it to life. It has allowed me to pinpoint the exact moment of my fall, my loss of faith; to scrutinize it, like a bacterium under a microscope. But more—oh, so much more—it has given me hope of restitution. One night, after taking a few extra drops of morphine, I will assume my customary position beside the machine, the horn just inches from my face, so that I can look right down into it, as into the blackest abyss, the Festival of Cymbals on the platter, and, with the disposition of a diver standing on a cliff’s edge, slowly begin to crank the handle. It is not much, this bit of wax Liebestod, this effigy of Spirit, this prosthetic transcendence—turning and replacing records, cranking the handle of a machine. Nothing can ever be replaced, but some things can be substituted.

Extremely Rare Mood Markings

  1. Quasi completamente privo di emozioni  (Almost entirely without feeling)
  2. Ondeggiando, come se gettato dalla cima della Torre Eiffel (Flailing, as though thrown from the top of the Eiffel Tower)
  3. Pieno di errori (Riddled with obvious errors)
  4. Come se i musicisti fossero nemici mortali (As though the musicians were mortal enemies)
  5. Incapace di trovare il proprio accendino (Unable to find one’s cigarette lighter)
  6. Nauseante, come dopo un’ubriacatura (Queasily, as though hungover)
  7. Come un piccione spiaccicato (Like a smushed pigeon)
  8. Dopo venti anni di matrimonio infelice (After twenty years of unhappy marriage)
  9. Come se fosse uno strumento preso in prestito (As though on a borrowed instrument)
  10. Come se una pistola fosse stata puntata sulla testa del pianista (As though a pistol were being held to the pianist’s head)

* As presented by Dr. Hafen Schlawkenbergius at the recent Society for the Study of Incredibly Esoteric Music conference in Organstadt, Iceland. A full transcript of Dr. Schlawkenbergius’s paper will be made available here at some point in the very near future. I would like to acknowledge Dr. Marcella Bencivenni (Assistant Professor of History, Hostos Community College), who assisted with the translations from the original Italian. Grazie.

A Fugue

I am pursued by music.

Snatches of trombone, flute and accordion, the window-rattling thud of the bass on a car stereo, the Moebius loop of an ice cream truck. Bits of melodies and rhythms floating through the air like ticker tape, tumbling down the streets like yesterday’s newspapers and plastic shopping bags. No matter which direction I run, I can never get away.

Yet run I do: down a deserted avenue on a summer night, the echoing footfall of music just paces behind me. For all these sounds coalesce into a figure in my mind, flesh, though not visible.

A subway entrance nearby. I don’t know which line it is—I can’t even tell the color—but all the same I descend the double flight of stairs, and push through the turnstiles just as a wave of music washes by and dopplers off down the avenue above. For the moment I am safe.

Or so I think. I hear music again—the subway platform is not silent—no! The Chinese man with the two-string fiddle perched on his lap like a ventriloquist’s dummy bows away at the mournful tunes of his homeland. He does not see me, but no matter: the music does. The notes fly at me like howling furies.

I shrink against the turnstiles, wondering if I should take my chances on the streets again. Just as I am about to turn, a train roars into the station, pushing back the note-furies with a great gust of noise. I squeeze on between exiting passengers, find a seat just as the doors ding shut, and watch the Chinese fiddler disappear, bowing silently behind thick glass. I don’t know which way the train is going, and for the moment I don’t care—away from the music, that is all that matters.

And then I hear it: Showtime ladies and gentlemen, showtime! What time is it? Showtime! What time is it? SHOWTIME! and the boombox starts playing “White Lines,” or “Billie Jean,” or some other song that was big before these breakdancers were born. I can’t even look—I’m stumbling toward the door at the opposite end of the car, the music pushing me from behind like some beat cop holding me by my collar. They have already started clapping in time; I hear the stamp of feet—the landings of those acrobatic somersaults—just as I plunge out into the tunnel. The door bounces once, latches. And though I know I am not supposed to ride between cars while the train is in motion, I cannot help but stay a time in that warm darkness where all is noise, blissfully random noise.

But soon I begin to notice the rhythm of the wheels against the tracks, the monotonous beat of the city, and my heart starts racing. I step forward into the next car, let the door close behind me. That is when I see the mariachis, approaching me like a school of barracuda: three musicians in black cowboys hats and boots, festooned with spangles, one lugging a bass much larger than he. It is too late; the car is nearly empty; I am their chosen victim. They set up their instruments in a half-circle around me and begin to play, metal nails raking across guitar strings, out-of-tune nasal harmonizing and occasional clipped yodels, all while the bass um-pahs away behind. I am writhing against the door, but they do not see me, staring as they are at a spot directly above my head, like actors in a school play, or tourists looking at a subway map you have inadvertently sat under.

They finish their number just as the train begins grinding to a new halt, say their gracias to no one in particular. When the lead guitarist breaks away to make his rounds, hat in hand, I seize the opportunity to squeak by the other two. The bass player grabs me, but I manage to twist out of his firm grip. If I stay any longer, the breakdancers will block my exit, and I can’t understand why the mariachis themselves aren’t yet heading for the door—surely they can’t all squeeze out of the car together, and I do not want to imagine the war between mariachis and breakdancers which would no doubt ensue if both camps tried to squeeze through the same door at the same time, particularly with that bass in tow.

I am holding myself up by the cruddy wall of the station, gasping for breath, when the doors close and the train lurches off again. And what do I see in each successive car? Musicians. It is an infestation; the whole train is teeming with them. The mariachis, the breakdancers; in the next car, the blind accordionist, a sandwich in a baggie sticking half out of his left coat pocket, who says in his thick Russian accent that our “contributions are greatly appreciated”; the slide guitarist with Ozark beard and lazy eye, the Motown singer who uses his change-cup as a maraca, the trio of teenage conga players—singers and drummers, fiddlers and singers, until the train is going so quickly that they become a blur, and I imagine that there are no actual passengers on the train, only performers.

I am never as safe as I suppose; in this city there is no rest from music, only an eternal fugue. Looking left down the platform, following the red rear lights of the train, what do I see but a smiling kora player straddling his gourd, thumbing absently at the strings, and singing his lilting melodies, cascades of words over a hopalong rhythm? When he sees me, I feel like I’ve been spotted by a sewer-bred alligator. But it is not him, poor man; it is the notes, the notes, flying at me like swarms of poison-tipped darts.

Up the stairs and out into the evening again, I narrowly avoid a troop of Peruvian pan-flutists, decked out in their mantas and humming a Celine Dion tune, heading en masse for the platform. It is a lucky break; I would never have survived their concerted piping. The avenue is still deserted, rainwashed-looking; in the distance I hear steel drums playing a Jewish wedding song. Other tunes rumble by like the muted roar of passing jets. I have somehow ended up across the street from a park—the park? I don’t know; I can no longer tell which borough I am in. But I cross the street anyway, climb over the low stone wall, and then roll down a short hill. The landing is grass, though it is too dark to see where I am. I just know that the music seems slightly more distant than before.

But the park is no safer than the train was, or the streets. After a few minutes walking I no longer know in which direction the avenue lay; the music is once again all around me. I start running in no particular direction, hoping to surprise my pursuer into dumbfounded silence. In time I reach a procession of streetlamps, a hub of footpaths, and soon recognize the mall. It is a veritable gauntlet of music, one which I have no choice but to run: couples making out to Hot 97, petite jazz bands with drum kits that make Ringo Starr look like Tommy Lee, men passing guitars around like joints, a pianist who pushes his upright around on a giant scooter like Jesus with his cross, a lone saxophonist holding his horn so tightly I imagine his whole body would come to pieces were he to let it go, like an old stone wall. As I run each music impinges on the next, as though the mall were a giant radio, and I was running along the length of the dial.

There is a square at the north end of the mall, and in the square a bandshell, where an orchestra plays a symphony by Beethoven to silent auditors gathered along benches like birds on telephone wires, while unrepentant rollerbladers slalom rows of orange cones, their legs moving like cooked spaghetti, to beat-heavy music I can just hear on their headphones over the slow movement of the symphony. To the north is the valley of the lake and fountain, and beyond them a field of Puerto Rican men circled with their drums. I drop onto my belly and hug the ridge, crawling along like a soldier, lifting my head now and again to try to ascertain my direction and whereabouts—only to have the slaps on the quinto ping off my helmetless head.

The ridge ends at a road; beyond is a wooded hill. The music recedes in the thicket. I crawl until I reach another paved footpath, follow that until I happen upon something that feels like a bed of tile, and there roll over onto my back, gasping for air. Later—I don’t know how much; I may have slept—the sound of an approaching marching band stirs me to waking. I lift my head to see the benches around me crowded with figures that appear cut from stone, like the acolytes of some weird night-park cult. That is when I realize I have gone and died in Strawberry Fields; my bier is the “Imagine” circle! The sound of the marching band comes closer, until I can clearly hear their strutting arrangement of “Hey Jude,” snare rolling, a phalanx of horns Dixielanding the melody—a happy Jude, hopping along in one-and-a-half time, a sad song made better, indeed … for everyone but me!

Before reaching me, they have transitioned seamlessly into “Penny Lane.” I grip the tiles like a climber, resolved not to move.

It is something like being passed over by a speeding train, I the proverbial penny on the rail. But I have dug myself in between the crossbeams, lie deathly still as the twirling batons of the axles roar by just inches from the tip of my nose. Only when the band is almost entirely out of earshot do I dare roll back onto my belly and crawl out of the park.

The avenue again, empty. I rise shivering to my feet; the music senses my weakness, closes in, blaring from every open window, every passing automobile, every subway grate and sidewalk crack …

And so the fugue continues. What else can I do? I run as blindly as when I entered the park, legs spent, brain reeling. Now the sonic landscape of the city begins to morph around me. I pass the most fantastic musics, all in a blur. A man plays three clarinets at once, another holds a trombone to either nostril, and a third plays his trumpet with his ass. If individually they achieve sounds awful and brilliant and obscene, there are no words to describe them collectively. I pass drummers who make the city their instrument as much as skateboarders and graffiti-artists do, their bodies covered in wood blocks and zills, abandoning themselves to convulsive orgies in the streets, or running about in clogs heeled with castanets, up and down lightposts and buildings, somersaulting between taxis and pedestrians. I pass mazes of saxophones snaking between colonies of circular breathers, serpents of brass crafting vast networks of sonority that envelop me like the air from subway grates. I pass bagpipes as big as church organs, children jumping up and down on the bellows, while tightrope-walkers high over my head leap from one wire to another, leaving them to hum together in hives of chords, until the whole the city vibrates like the sympathetic strings of a sitar. And not just the humming wires, but all the sounds coalesce into patterns, into irrational rhythms and specious melodies and bottomless harmonies, multiplying, saturating the air, an ever-growing cosmic-orchestral monster.

I am headed toward the water—run in any direction in Manhattan and you are headed toward water. Somehow I do not have to cross any highways or barriers or run out onto any piers: I reach the shore unimpeded, wade out into the river, walking until it is deep enough to swim. I drift out with the current. I know from the width of the river than I am in the Hudson, that the lights across are the lights of New Jersey, a quieter place, a place without music, maybe. I turn over on my back and, ears underwater, stroke calmly toward the middle of the river. I can still hear the muted strains of the strange music, convinced it is only the echo in my ears. Until I raise my head. They are all there: breakdancers and mariachis, orchestra and drummers, accordion and guitar, kora and erhu, Lennonite baton-twirlers, asshornplayers and tightrope-strummers and bellowjumpers and Holy Roller streetdrummers, all assembled on the shore, waving their notes at me like hostile natives do their spears. I put my head back and stroke more vigorously. Some time later, when I lift my head again, I can see only a vague outline on the shore, and more importantly, I can no longer hear them at all.

I look up at the silence of the night, the stars, the only sound my own paddling, a drip if I raise my hand above the surface to stroke or my toe breaks it with a kick. I can see the bridge far away to my left, though the traffic is silent, dots of moving light against the stationary ones threading the cables. I paddle on, wondering what a world without music would sound like.

And then all of a sudden a horn louder than any I have heard in my life; and just as the word hits me—tugboat—I feel the keel against my side, and am swept under.

That’s when I wake up—to the radio!