The Rhythm War by Debb Bouch

Joe had trained for this. Practised this moment over and over. Now it was time to walk the walk. The moves should flow without conscious thought but momentarily he was so caught up in the enormity of his challenge that he felt awkward, clumsy even. He shook off those feelings of inadequacy and strutted to the middle of the arena, taking up a fighting stance. Someone once told him that skill was only part of what made you truly great. You had to refuse to acknowledge your own mortality and to be arrogant enough to know that you were the best.

A heartbeat later, Mark, the old alpha male, strolled out with insouciant ease, eyeballing his opponent. This was about more than the moment. This young pretender was challenging Mark for the leadership. There would be no quarter given.

The rest of the band were gathered loosely around the edge of the space feigning a lack of interest as they gazed out to the watchers beyond. They carried on playing, providing a soundtrack to this epic duel. The two protagonists squared up to each other like a pair of rutting rhinos. The watchers found themselves holding their breath as the music built to a crescendo, ratcheting up the tense mood, note by aching, clashing, note.

Joe got the first lick in. He spun a web of dexterity built on the foundation of all that practice, then milked it for all it was worth before tossing a hook to Mark.

Smiling to himself, Mark picked up it and ran with it, embellishing it along the way. His relaxed stance betrayed no tension, no stress. He could have been watching TV for all the emotion he displayed. The stillness of his body, apart from his dancing fingers, demonstrated his mastery. He was not even slightly out of breath but he sensed that now was the time to move into the next phase. As he completed the form, he looked briefly at Joe. Was he ready for the next round? Yes he was! Mark could see the beads of sweat starting to form in his adversary’s hairline. Good, Joe was feeling the pressure! Soon that sweat would start to course down his face getting into his eyes. His fingers would start to slip as his hands, already sweaty, started to move faster. Joe would begin to make mistakes. “His biggest mistake was going up against me” thought Mark contemptuously.

On his next sally, Joe played about with the extremes of range. He pushed himself, reaching heights and depths that were new to him, but Mark mirrored him without apparent discomfort, then pushed him further. Although their weapons were different, each had its merits when wielded by an expert.

They started to circle each other looking for weaknesses. They were testing each other out, seeing what patterns might develop. Both were working hard now laying down a barrage of sound as they played simultaneously, breaking into each other’s rhythms to tear the heart out of whatever the other was trying to develop and to close down openings as they appeared. For a few moments the watchers could see and hear that for the combatants, nothing and no one else existed. They were well and truly in the groove.

Now Mark teased Joe with an apparently simple set of riffs. Joe mentally groaned as he heard how cleverly each riff referenced a separate spiritual but played each in the style of a different former master. He countered with a fluid series of his own developed from township rhythms.

Slyly, Mark lowered his volume. The watchers were mesmerised and craned forward to better see and hear all that was transpiring. Now he had them in the palm of his hand. He’d even managed to mesmerise Joe. If he could somehow transfer all that audience focus and energy into a strike against Joe, that would end it. Using all his years of expertise, he crafted the riff to end all riffs and blasted it out going from whisper quiet to air raid siren loud in an instant. Bebop scales and arpeggios dripped off his fingers unguided by conscious thought. As his monster riff slowed, it segued into a dreamier, simpler melody with plenty of breathing space.

Joe seized his moment, crashing in on an off beat with a raucous high end blast. He was never going to be able to come up with anything like Mark’s riff and you could see he knew it, but if he had been able to disrupt Mark’s flow, he might have gotten away with it. All he needed to do was to keep punching out the blue notes and Mark would have to resolve them or have the whole edifice he had constructed come crashing around his ears. But Joe had allowed himself to become distracted and now awareness of his imminent defeat permeated his being. He began to droop and lost the beat completely. Slipping to his knees, he rested as Mark played on, apparently oblivious to the plight of his opponent.

To be fair, the drummer and the rest of the band had entirely ceased to play, reasoning that if their soloists wanted to duel on their saxophones then they could damn well find their own beat.

As Joe lay on the floor, his heart thudding, his breath coming in quick pants, his alto saxophone cradled loosely against his chest, these words echoed in his head, “Our weapons were our instruments…”*

8 thoughts on “The Rhythm War by Debb Bouch

  1. I was half expecting a duel of guitars but you made it work with the mystery (and a different instrument). Nice.

  2. Thanks Amber, Joey. Until your comment Joey, it had never occurred to me that it was anything but saxes. I reread it and yes it could work for guitars too! Aint life weird? Blinds us to anything other than what’s in our heads and then someone else comes along and reads it completely differently. And that’s why we need other folk to read our work.

    1. Haha, it can be like that for music as well. For any given piece, we tend to listen to the instruments we studied or are familiar with.

  3. I was written so tightly that I even lost the point that it wasn’t an actual physical duel. You captured both the arrogance of a new master and the wisdom of an old monk. Loved it.

    1. Thank you. I was trying to hide the fact that it wasn’t physical until near the end but somehow the musical references wouldn’t be constrained and I think I gave the game away far earlier than I would have liked to!

  4. Funnily enough what most caught my attention here is the use of commas, particular adjectives, and the length of the sentences – which includes short ones too; that altogether gave a great rhythm to it, a musical touch, almost like having a symphony – where the musical notes are transcribed into words, in fact I caught myself re-reading it and paying more attention to the comma stops, it adds an amusing little touch to the flow of the story and fits in with theme you presented here.

  5. Thanks Maurice. I try to incorporate a variety of sentence lengths but often overuse commas, so it’s good to know they worked this time.

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