While the theatregoers are ushered to their seats the new maestro prepares a concert that nobody will ever forget.
A Haunting Story About Music
Music For the Soul
By Debb Bouch
For The Marius De Zayus Award
The players take the stage in an orderly line, moving to their places with practised ease. A lone oboe sounds out the tuning note for each section of players. Eventually, the note sounds in unison, tuned to perfection. The players rise to their feet as their leader walks on, the audience taking this as their cue to applaud. The tall greying man bows to the audience before taking his place at the head of the violins. The orchestra is ready and waiting.
The audience hums with anticipation. A sense of fevered excitement grips the occupants of the stalls while on the balcony, crowds lean precariously over the edge, looking down towards the rostrum. Tonight the new maestro will take the baton for the first time.
Rumours have been flooding this small university town since the last maestro left under a cloud, hurling imprecations against a group full of impossible dreamers and troublemakers.
“The new maestro won’t stand any nonsense,” the local critic writes. “It’s make or break time for the orchestra. They need a firm hand to bring them back into line.”
But the players know what they want and they have chosen their maestro accordingly, and paid the price demanded. The new maestro shares their ambitions and will shape their music properly. With their hard work and his genius, they will take their rightful place on the world stage.
A moment’s hush, then a storm of frenzied clapping breaks over the auditorium as the slender figure strides out and takes up the baton, bowing swiftly. The audience have time to notice the wild long hair and nothing more before the maestro spins to face the players. He taps once, twice, then raises both arms aloft. The baton is a white twig growing from the black jacketed form, hovering in the air of expectation. A hush descends; a silence so profound that as the moment stretches, the suspense is agonising.
The maestro’s arms sweep down and three contrabassoons answer the command with a thunderous growl. Other bass instruments join in, their warmer tones lifting the velvet black and charcoal of the opening notes, adding rich browns and purples, ripe for decoration with lighter, more delicate colours. Still the maestro indulges the basses. The audience feel the music in their bones and the fabric of the concert hall itself, gently vibrates.
After some moments of this bombardment, one or two of the audience dare to raise their heads from cover. They notice that the colours they imagined are taking form and beginning to fill the auditorium, painting the walls, stalls and gallery, staining the avid faces in the crowd. Those who have seen tell others who were still under the impression that this was a regular concert. The resulting flurry of whispers and fidgeting in the auditorium are enough to disturb the maestro. He turns to face them and this time they all see. He has no face.
This is a sophisticated audience, who are well aware of the current fad for spectres and ghosts to guest as conductors especially when a well loved maestro has died at the height of their fame. But this is no ordinary guest conductor. The faceless maestro is Alfred Stieglitz, engineer, photographer, artist. But never until now, musician.
Now they begin to understand the fascination with colour. He couldn’t use colour as he wanted in his photographs, having to make do with chiaroscuro effects as he painted with light. His artists in his galleries, even his own wife, worked with colour but his own medium was not sufficiently advanced to allow him to achieve what he wanted. So he has returned to paint with music, hoping to achieve in death what he could not achieve in life. The audience quieten, content to let him have his way.
The maestro sways and bends with the music, the willowy body making impossible shapes, inhuman shapes. The wild hair flicks from one side to the other and is impatiently dashed aside. The tone poem he creates sucks the audience in as they see and feel the music transmute into visual art. Sophisticated concert goers they may be, but they have never experienced anything as visceral as this.
Now the maestro allows free rein to the higher instruments whose players have been patiently waiting since the start of the piece. First the tenors – trombones and cellos, bringing reds and oranges, and the occasional flicker of gold as the cymbals clash. The alto voices of the massed rows of violas and second violins, bolstered by clarinets, spread good feelings and rose pink and lilac tonality. A brash flare of trumpets, harbinger of the maelstrom to come, blasts yellow and white across the concert hall, waking those patrons who have been rash enough to doze. First violins add vitality and liveliness in a wash of white and pale green.
A lone flute flirts with an oboe, greens and turquoises blending and frothing, spume above the jagged rocks of the bass tones. More flutes join, unrolling flowery meadows to sooth and smooth the picture. Trumpets again, muted now, dusty sunbeams spiralling down to earth and here and there, odd percussive noises – glockenspiel sprinkling floating dandelion seed parasols, and the rattling of leaves in the breeze as the tambourine and snare drum play their patterns. Relaxed in their appreciation of the pastoral scene created, the audience settles down for a pleasant interlude.
Loud and shrill, a piccolo stitches a row of lime green triangles across the meadows of the audience’s imagination. The audience cannot be allowed to lazily acquire this musical experience. They must work hard at it just as the players are working hard to provide it.
The music takes a rougher turn. Angular shapes intrude and their colours no longer blend. Cubes of deep crimson and scarlet bounce off shields of violet and pale yellow as the brass players advance, screaming out their notes at fortissimo trying to overwhelm the strings. Jagged black and gold lightening bolts strike the shields as the bass drum and cymbals weigh in on the side of the brass.
But they have not factored in the sheer number of string players who maintain their shield with a swelling susurration from frantic bowing. The brass retreat in the face of this adamantine resolve, and the audience hear their sound diminishing. The strings have a triumphant moment and the auditorium becomes almost unbearably light and bright before the brass regroup and attack again, this time with the help of the low woodwinds. Bassoons and contrabassoons, bass and alto clarinets march on the strings menacing them with ever descending scales. The deep notes hang in the air, copper, bronze and pewter welded into a vast sphere that threatens to roll right over the strings, crushing them utterly.
But now the strings have brought in reserves and the high woodwinds provide all the backup they need. The brass and their allies give way, playing more and more quietly before vanishing pianissimo beneath a swelling, sighing sea of emotion from the victorious strings. Soft white clouds streaked with pink and silver tears float high above the audience.
The sound dies away. The colours fade to black. The maestro takes his bow to silence. There is no applause. Stieglitz has created the ultimate synesthetic experience. Neither the players nor the audience will ever experience its like again, for they are the price, the sacrifice of souls that have been offered up as payment to release the maestro from the afterlife.