Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On the Second Floor: Chapter VI

Day Four

The next morning, which began at half-past noon, found me playing my guitar whilst reclining on the couch, thinking half about my music, and half about myself, wondering just what they had to do with each other, now that everything had changed. Dayus had yet to show himself again, and I was basically on my own, so I thought I might be productive and take the time to perfect my so-called art (if it could so be called). I left the case open in the middle of the floor and switched on my amplifier.

The instrument was horribly out of tune, much as it always was when I neglected it; but I told myself that the strings had been warped by the magnetic fields from the aliens' tractor beam. Sighing, I rolled off the couch again to look for my tuner. I found it by the stereo, under some magazines and catalogs I never ordered.

Fortunately, the bottom four strings were not far gone, requiring only minimal adjustment, but strings one and two were out by a couple steps each. I twisted them with as much precision as my clumsy fingers could manage, and ran through the scale to make sure everything was well. I spent about ten minutes fingering chords and strumming slowly, gently, occasionally taking a break for an awkward, plunking melody line.

Boredom got the better of me, and I stood up and turned on the “distortion” switch. Summoning the almighty power chord, I brought my arm around for an epic windmill stroke; “Today,” I said, “for the first time, man will rock out – in deep space!” I swung, and struck my fingertips on the bottom edge of the guitar for a flat, echoing, dissonant thunk.

Embarrassing, I thought, but who was to know? I cranked up the volume, took an appropriately macho stance, and tore through a blistering (it gave me blisters) chords; wailing and roaring, occasionally losing, then reestablishing my meter. And of course, there was the awkward, trembling solo.

It was fairly loud, and it wasn't until I came down from the final crashing turnaround that I overheard the turning gears of the giant elevator. I looked out the window, and saw the tower sinking into the ground, growing less remarkable by the minute.

“He's probably coming to tell me to turn it down,” I said, chuckling to myself. I was done playing loudly anyway; I turned off the distortion, and lay back down on the couch, to play my little chords and stare at the ceiling. My fingers had loosened a bit, and my melodies were smoother, less haphazardly constructed. For a moment, I thought they even mattered, like I could enact significance with them; like my notes could last beyond vibrations in the air, as if they were anything more. In my mind they were shapes, the shapes of my wildest desires and my modest hopes. I couldn't see them, but I thought perhaps I could.

Soon, a knock at the door. I shouted, “come in!” and he did, bringing with him all of his usual accessories.

“So nice of you to join me,” I said, deliberately withholding eye contact while I charted the bumpy surface of the wall.

“Good afternoon,” he said, taking his usual seat, “I apologize for my absence yesterday. There was a navigational error which required my complete attention to correct.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, strumming aimlessly now, unable to perceive my precious shapes. I paused for a moment, to look him in the eye. “We are getting there, aren't we?”

“Of course. Corrections of this kind are not infrequent, and we have easily recovered lost time.”

“Good,” I said, and I returned to the task of strumming. I looked up again, “I'd hate to think your mighty space ship was lost at sea.”

“You're speaking metaphorically?”

“Precisely.” His Mr. Spock act was beginning to grate.

I was playing a very simple chord progression, D to A to G, taking a little more care in my rhythm; I suppose that was the effect of having an audience. For a while, Dayus closed his eyes and listened silently, though I still harbored suspicions as to whether he ever listened to me at all. I wondered what sort of music there was on his world. Whatever there was, did it follow the rules of our music, or entirely different ones? I imagined that, if only because of the nomenclature, he'd find my talk of scales and keys bewildering; but the real question was whether “scales” and “keys” had any practical equivalents. There's the mystery; what sounds would I hear from his world, what would I find familiar? I wandered off and I lost my place, so for a moment I had to stop.

His eyes were open again. “Tell me about your instrument,” he said. He hadn't seemed this intrigued since the time I'd vomited in his face.

“It's a guitar,” I said, and I punctuated my explanation with a few choice chords. “I change the pitches of these strings by pressing down with my fingers. Then this cable,” I wiggled the cable for emphasis, “carries a signal to this box,” I indicated the amplifier, “and it produces the appropriate sound.”

“That's a fairly complicated method for producing music.”

“Well yeah, but we take our music very seriously.” Trying to explain it better, I got up to fetch my acoustic guitar from my bedroom. “See, here's a more old-fashioned model. This one uses the empty space in the body to make the sound of the strings louder.” I strummed a few strums by way of example. "Wait. Shit. This one's out of tune. One second." I fumbled for my tuner, and fixed the small imbalance while he waited.

“I see,” he said, “then this model is obsolete?”

“Well, not obsolete,” I said, clutching the fretboard defensively. “It just makes a different sound.” I played the same progression again, to demonstrate.

“Why does that matter?”

Great, I thought. I really should have paid more attention in music class. Dayus waited for my response, ridiculous recording device at the ready, it seemed. I thought very carefully about my answer.

“Music isn't just about making the right sounds. It's about putting different sounds together, and...taking into account all the aspects of sound. See, there's so many more instruments to use than these; we've got some that make noise by vibrating air in tubes, or tapping two surfaces together, or vibrating strings like these,” I played a short melody, “and we play several of them at once, and combine their sounds, for an even better sound.”

Dayus looked as inscrutable as ever, I couldn't tell if he was impressed or not; then it occurred to me that I had missed his point. How was well and good, but why go to the trouble? Could he understand the beauty inherent in the effort? I figured my best bet was to show him what I meant by “combining sounds.” I sat down on the floor, cross legged, and made up a song with two chords. I made up some words and sang them:

“I sing to say what I can say,/That's why I'm here, to sing this way,/To sing the words I couldn't say,”

I found it difficult to sing and play guitar at once, so I stopped at just one verse. But as lame as I was, Dayus seemed to be interested in the effect.

“Do you see what I mean about combining sounds?”

“Yes.” What an awful answer.

I'd already stretched the limits of my own musical competence, so I waffled. “Let me put on a recording.” He nodded, and I wished he was more talkative. I turned around and flipped through my CD books, looking for the right album to make my point for me. I settled on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“You'll like this one, it's really good,” I said. Dayus nodded silently, flipping a switch on his device; I guess it had a million modes. I started the machine and let the music speak for itself.

And then we sat there, quiet, for forty minutes, listening together. As the music played I watched him for his reaction, but as usual, his face was mostly blank. It figures, I thought. But someone should be enjoying the music; I lay back on the couch and concentrated on the exquisite bass lines.

As the final crashing piano of A Day in the Life began to fade, I picked up the remote and turned off the stereo, to spare him the meaningless gibberish tucked into the CD's last ten seconds. “That's the album,” I said, hoping I could spur a comment.

“Tell me, Jonah, why do humans make music like this?”

“I don't understand the question.” Well, I did. But I wanted more to work with.

“Why,” he elaborated, “make the effort to produce such complicated music? What value does it hold for you?”

Perhaps I had stumbled on a critical difference between our species; perhaps he was only messing with me. I was growing ever more tired of his games, so I played it straight.

“I guess, because we love it.” Too platitudinous. “I mean, everyone wants to make something better than himself, so he can make himself better.” Too stupid.

Dayus rose to leave. “I'm going to study these recordings further, when I have the time,” he said. As he opened the door, he added, “your playing was very beautiful.”

What was I supposed to make of that? I sat down on the couch and watched his customary ascent, remembering how I'd forgotten how angry I was. But a compliment; that was something valuable, wasn't it? Even if he didn't know what he was talking about. I picked up my guitar and played again.

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