Allen Varney, Writer and Game Designer

Fiction

Chance Music

by Allen Varney

Miles Tiner passed the draft score of his Eclogue Experimentale No. 1 to his office mate, Anthony Rival. Miles tried to calm himself and frame the question delicately, but finally asked flat out, ""Is this your doing?"

Lowering the Friday afternoon (November 30, 1962) New York Gazette and glancing sidelong at the manuscript, Anthony lifted one eyebrow. "Nastiest thing youíve ever said."

"Meaning, the little prank in the second movement, Funerale."

Sighing, forte, Anthony set aside the Gazette. The front page had news of U Thantís election as Secretary-General of the United Nations. Neither the Gazette nor any paper had reason to mark the 77th anniversary of the premiere of Jules Massenetís Le Cid. With 187 singing parts, ten set changes, and a spectacular second-act ballet, the opera seized and inflamed Parisian hearts. People had fights over tickets, one man suffered a heart attack but still tried to keep his place in line, and singer Jean de Reske, a Pole, became overnight an honorary Frenchman. Massenetís music completely changed de Reskeís life that night, 77 years before. November 30, 1885.

Anthony leafed through Milesís score. "I see in the paper that Macyís department store is installing speakers in the elevators. Theyíll play music to customers riding elevators. Ghastly idea, donít you think?"

Miles, lecturer but not yet Composer-in-Residence at Upper Manhattan Music Academy, took the high ground. "Not at all. Itís an ideal environment to present challenging music to people who are otherwise unoccupied and completely attentive. Just as John Cage intended with pieces like 4´33", this elevator music could awaken an oblivious populace and presage a revolution in society."

"Cageís four minutes and 33 seconds of dead silence wonít awaken anyone, unless the person in the next seat gets tired of his snoring and shakes him." Anthony, lecturer and Milesís competitor for next yearís Composer-in-Residence fellowship, paged through the score distastefully. "Divertimento--Funerale--what am I looking at here? Itís pure jumble."

"Just composed these pages based on the printout from Clopperís program, and in the second movement--"

"I wonder if Ďcomposedí is the right word," Anthony said. "Youíre really just transcribing the notes the computing machine spits out, correct? ĎAssembled,í perhaps. Where is this Ďlittle prankí?"

Miles pointed. Anthony laughed. "Itís a chromatic scale! Did you intend that?"

"No. Thus the question to you," Miles said coolly. "In the aleatoric method used here, the odds of 12 quarter notes lining up do-re-mi-fa-sol are thousands against. Itís a perfect tone row." Here Miles alluded to Anthonyís serial compositions using Schoenbergís twelve-tone method, which repeated no note before using the other 11 notes of the chromatic scale.

"Not my doing, I assure you. If it were, Iíd boast of it. Anything to show the absurdity of your silly chance music. If you surrender control of your composition to a machine, you have to expect accidents like this. Do you intend this assemblage for the Modern Music concert?"

"Yes." Miles and Anthony both had premieres scheduled for the upcoming concert, as did two other Academy composers.

"You may not have heard--Rosenblatt just accepted a fellowship at Brandeis. And you knew Chitwoodís going to England to get married. That leaves us."

Miles pondered this with a decrescendo hmmm. "Intriguing."

Each year the Upper Manhattan Music Academy, New Yorkís youngest private music conservatory (est. 1952), staged over 50 concerts, recitals, and master classes. Most were perfunctory affairs, but the annual Modern Music faculty concert had prestige, mainly because attendance was mandatory. A successful premiere meant enhanced status with the Academyís dean, Spencer Gooselaw. And Dean Gooselaw would choose next yearís Composer-in-Residence.

"The plum is ours to lose, Miles. Itís my serialism versus your John-Cage dice-rolling I-Ching gimmick-music. Gooselawís desperate to get attention and funding for conservatory. He hopes your aleatoric stuff, which he otherwise has no patience for, might attract notice. I suggest we make Dean Gooselawís decision easier. I offer a wager. Whichever of us makes a greater splash at the concert will become Composer-in-Residence for 1963."

Though never a gambler, Miles betrayed interest. "Thatís not assured. Dean Gooselaw decides the fellowship."

"Itís assured if the loser sacrifices his own career." Anthony showed Miles a letter. The stationery read Commercial Music Recordings Inc. "An acquaintance at this production house has approached me. His company did the Maxwell House coffee percolator theme--they named it ĎPercolabligato.í Now heís paying $200 for a 60-second television jingle about hot dogs.

"I submit, Miles, that the loser of our bet must write a candidate jingle in good faith, submit it under his own name, and--here is the key--tell Dean Gooselaw. Boast about it, in fact, in the sincerest terms."

Miles drew a sonorous breath. Suicide! Oh, one could hold onto a lecturing position, but even the highest academic reputation would perish beyond retrieval. "Thatís not a wager, itís a--a tontine. Russian roulette!"

Anthonyís blue eyes glowed with fervor. "Do you stand by your music?"

Miles glared, then gulped. "How would the bet be decided? By whichever piece gets more applause at the concert?"

Anthony considered. "It seems they all get standing ovations, donít they?"

For both composers this subject was touchy and unpleasant. Every new performance of serious contemporary music brought the audience to its feet, as though listeners tried to outdo each other in enthusiasm. But atonal, pantonal, microtonal, aleatoric, or concrete--Darmstadt School or Second Viennese--the piece inevitably fell to oblivion after the next cocktail party. Concertgoers loved Bach and Mendelssohn; they only respected modern music, from a hundred miles away. The situation held for all serious composers from Boulez and Stockhausen in Europe to Walter Piston and Elliot Carter in America, and even John Cage himself out in Colorado, if that counted as America. They all won grants, fellowships, awards, and recordings--everything but an audience. Milton Babbitt had loftily dismissed lay audiences as unimportant in a 1958 essay, "Who Cares If You Listen?" But Miles and Anthony hadnít yet attained such detachment.

Anthonyís gaze fell to the Gazette. "The dean has inveigled Reginald Hornbuckle to write up the concert. The winner could be whomever he praises more highly."

"Hornbuckle praises everything. Every music critic praises everything. Thatís what critics are for."

"Yes, but he doesnít always praise at the same length. He writes a lot more about the pieces he really likes. And heís married to the Gazetteís publisher, Lydia Hornbuckle, so his reviews never get cut. Yes, Miles, length is the key. The victim of Hornbuckleís shorter review writes the hot-dog jingle. Hence the longer review wins the fellowship. Thatís the bet."

"But thatís really only trusting Hornbuckle instead of Dean Gooselaw."

"Is that a problem?"

Miles thought. Gooselaw would decide based on a hundred administrative reasons--publicity, politics, class schedules. Hornbuckle would judge the quality of the work alone. In a world indifferent to serious music, suddenly a whole career would ride on one concert. Feeling his heart race, Miles realized his little life had been dry and quiet. Now he felt like a Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring at its 1913 premiere had provoked a fistfight. Back then people cared about good music!

"No, no problem. Agreed." Miles chuckled nervously. "Never imagined trusting a career to such a fellow. The hair parted in the middle, those licks of hair on each side, the English spectacles--heís not only accepted being named Reginald Hornbuckle, heís positively embraced his Reginald-Hornbuckleness. One would think someone with his taste in suits would--"

"Hel-lo, Mr. Hornbuckle," Anthony said. Miles whipped around to see, in the office doorway, staring with a vacant smile, Reginald Hornbuckle. "-- would hand out his tailorís business cards and spread good fashion sense," Miles finished.

Hornbuckle fidgeted with the toggles of his green plaid duffle coat. "Donít mind me, I was just in the neighborhood and puttering up to see Spencer. Heard my name."

"Yes. Just passing the news--the great news--that youíre reviewing the Modern Music concert."

"Indeed, Iím busy-busy. A modern art show just now, Lincoln Center tonight with Lydia, and soon Iíll hear you talented young men set the course for music of the future. I understand that you, Miles, have figured a way to use a computer to create random music. How impressive--though intimidating to us mere mortals, haha! Iíll be hard put to come up with something intelligent to say."

Anthony cleared his throat. Moving to hide the manuscript score and its embarrassing tone row, Miles said, "A modern art show?"

Hornbuckle offered a forced grin, revealing a Terry-Thomas gap in his front teeth. "Yesss... Students at the Manhattan Art Institute down the avenue. ĎStreet Scene,í they called it. The exhibit consisted of--how to put this?--garbage. Street garbage, carefully collected and placed on 200 paper plates on 200 pillars. Happily the plates were all under glass, or the stench would--well, thank God for small favors. Now I must putter on back and decide how to tell our morning readers about--garbage." He darted an imploring glance at Miles and Anthony.

Improvisation had helped Miles throughout his academic career. "Well, think of snowflakes. No two are alike. These art students have shown the same is true of our societyís refuse. John Cageís experiments in chance and silence demonstrate that music can be found anywhere. This exhibit shows that one can find art wherever one sets foot."

For one demisemiquaver instant Hornbuckleís eyes widened, but he recovered. "Yes, of course," he said. "I had planned that much for my piece." He and Miles exchanged a look of helpless complicity, but both glanced away before the other would be forced to recognize it.

"You know, Miles," Hornbuckle continued, "you would make a good critic--and you too, Anthony, no doubt," he added generously. "Iím impressed that so many modern composers are also shrewd critics. A benefit of sound university training. If only Beethoven and Wagner had had decent academic backgrounds. With some cogent program notes they could have forestalled a lot of controversy over their music. Serious concert music is much healthier today without all that controversy. Well, I must drop off some tickets to Spencer. Ta ta!"

As Hornbuckle puttered down the hallway, Anthony scowled. "Where does the criticism leave off, Miles, and the nonsense begin?"

Miles picked up his score. "How can you ask that? Itís crucial to remain true to the integrity of the work." He stared at the incredible chromatic scale. "Have to see Clopper about this."

"Give my regards to High Priest Grady."

*****

Miles found Grady Clopper, guardian and gatekeeper, wheeling a cart of spent vacuum tubes out of the Academyís computer room. A stout crewcut man in his forties, Clopper wore the unvarying uniform of the data specialist: short-sleeved white shirt with buttondown collar, organization-man necktie, black slacks, black belt, black shoes, white socks.

Through the door Miles glimpsed an elevated floor and a line of giant tape reels; he heard the loud ostinato air conditioner and percussive teletypes. "Hello, Mr. Clopper. Has it taken over the world yet?"

"Thatís a common misconception about computing devices," Clopper said. He quickly closed the access door, through which only he and other Digital Equipment Corporation employees might pass. Brushing a few punched chads from his arm, he continued, "Computers can only do what people command them to do. And if someone commanded one to take over the world, we could always pull the plug!"

Computer engineer humor. Miles laughed dutifully. Through great effort he had curried favor with this soulless engineer. He did not know--Grady Clopper himself did not know--that Clopper was a distant collateral descendant, through his Italian great-grandmother, of Niccolo Paganini. In the 1820s the violinist had all Europe at his feet, mesmerized by his incomparable skill, scandalized by legends that he had sold his soul to the devil, enthralled with the new social role he defined: the virtuoso. Liszt, Berlioz, and a dozen other composers modelled their careers on Paganini, and his legend burned across generations--though not quite far enough to reach Clopper, who listened to nothing but Rat Pack singers, the Four Lads, and Ethel Merman.

The Upper Manhattan Academy leased Clopper, his technicians, and DECís huge, chugging PDP-1 by means of an extravagant bequest from a wealthy matron. Over Dean Gooselawís strong objections she had specifically earmarked funds for "adventurous musical research." The few hundred computers in New York City all served banks, major universities and laboratories, or the government--all but this monster, which currently held grade records for the schoolís 80 students. So far only Miles had dared any adventurous musical research.

"Iím glad you came by, Mr. Tiner." Clopper handed Miles a stack of sheet-fold paper from the cart. "Thatís the new run of notes, just finished."

Miles looked at the printout.

10   TIME 4/4
20 BAR 1
30 C QUARTER
40 F-SHARP QUARTER MEZZOFORTE
50 TIE (4) FORTE
60 G EIGHTH
70 F EIGHTH
80 E-FLAT EIGHTH
90 Cí EIGHTH
100 END TIE
110 BAR 2
120 B-FLAT WHOLE PIANO

--and so on for hundreds of lines. Miles felt relieved to see no pattern. The scale must have been a fluke. "Thank you. It looks like the, uh, system--?"

"Program."

"-- program is working out. Some transcription tonight, and then--uhh--"

Paging through the printout, mentally sounding it out here and there, Miles had stumbled on some unusually long runs of sixteenth notes. He hummed their group. "Thatís odd, this stretch is all in B. Itís--wait. Wait!"

Miles flung his manuscript score onto the cart and grabbed a pencil. On the blank pages at the end of the manuscript he scribbled notes furiously.

Clopper said, "Uh, Mr. Tiner, I need to get some replacement tubes. Letís find you a table so you can--"

"Wait!" Miles stared at the notes. "Dum dum dum-dumty-dum, DUM-dumtydumtydum--" He turned a piercing glare on Clopper. "Who put Dvorák in here?"

"I, uh, I donít quite--"

"Eight bars of this Eclogue Experimentale No. 1 are occupied by the principal theme from the third movement of Antonin Dvorákís Cello Concerto in b minor! Published in eighteen-ninety-whenever! Why is your machine plagiarizing Dvorák, Mr. Clopper?"

"Uh--is eight bars a lot? Because with random numbers you can get occasional stretches where--"

"Over three dozen notes in exact sequence. What are the chances, Mr. Clopper?"

"I--I donít understand. I wrote the program myself. You went over every line with me. I punched the cards--I ran it fresh, today, with no one else in the room the whole time--Look, are you sure itís really Vorjok?"

"Antonin Dvorák. Czech composer. Itís the most famous cello concerto ever written. And this, after a scale that appeared earlier--well, never mind. Could some stray music perhaps be recorded somewhere in your computer? On one of those tapes?"

Milesís question seemed to strengthen Clopperís spine. He drew himself up, as if recalling that he, not some academic, was, in all matters concerning the DEC PDP-1, in charge.

"Our tapes are not audio tapes," Clopper said, as if speaking to a child. "They store data. My program includes no outside data calls. As I told you when I wrote it, my program generates random numbers based on thermal variations in a heat sensor attached to the computer casing. Based on each random number, my program reads one value from the short lookup tables you provided--and from nowhere else."

Miles knew that his tables included only single tones, not melodic lines. He had developed them for an early aleatoric composition based on the vibrations of a compass needle. Frustrated, he waved the printout. "Then where is this melody coming from? Either youíre committing some prank to make this piece a joke, or that machine is breaking down."

The accusation of personal villainy left Clopper unaffected. But at the insinuation that the DEC PDP-1 had broken, he set his jaw. "True randomness is a hard problem. Iíve noticed some functions that start with widely varying inputs, but still converge on some common range of solutions, like they were magnetically attracted. Numbers in computers sometimes seem to obey their own laws."

Miles felt bewildered, suspicious, hostile, and propelled by fateís icy hand toward the writing of hot-dog jingles.

But he wasnít defeated yet. He still had his coffee-shop method.

Leaving Clopper without a goodbye, Miles hurried to the stairs. He turned a corner and nearly collided with Dean Spencer Gooselaw.

"Miles. Ah. Miles. Your lucky day." The old manís trembling hand fumbled at one pocket of his baggy tweed jacket. "Umm. So, ah--Anthony tells me you had a bit of an upset in your aleatoric piece?"

"Just a little data error." Miles folded and pocketed the score. "All taken care of."

"Ah. Good. Well, by chance youíre the first person Iíve met since Reginald Hornbuckle dropped these off." His cold, arthritic hand pressed two concert tickets into Milesís palm. "He had a couple of spares for the Philharmonic tonight at Lincoln Center. Barbirolliís conducting. I have another engagement, so you get lucky."

Miles stared at the tickets. Dean Gooselaw had never before given him a thing. "What are they playing?"

"A Haydn symphony, then a new piece by Darius Milhaud. Iíll look forward to hearing all about it. Oh, and the Dvorák Cello Concerto."

*****

Crossing Eighth Avenue toward Delicious Coffee Shop, Miles wondered if he could get away with the title Coffee Shop Etude. After all, Bach wrote a Coffee Cantata. Charmingly and delightfully mundane, or just mundane?

Before 1955 the coffee shop had been a music store, and Miles unknowingly passed over the exact spot where, almost to the day 25 years before, the Andrews Sisters had stopped traffic. The store had an external speaker to broadcast tunes. A new Decca B-side, "Bei Mir Bist du Schon," drew a crowd so large it overflowed the sidewalk. Couples danced in the street, drivers stopped to listen, and people clamored to hear the record again. "Bei Mir" eventually went platinum, selling the first million of the Andrews Sistersí 190 million records. December, 1937.

Miles took a booth in sight of the door and glanced at a menu. "A cup of coffee," he told the waitress. "Of--uh--what is this? ĎCapussinoí?"

"Itís new, from Italy, but youíre saying it wrong. Cappuccino. That C-C is pronounced C-H."

"Apologies," Miles enunciated crisply. "Please bring one cup, O-N-E-space-C-U-P."

"R-I-T-E," she replied, and left. With his wristwatch Miles began timing the entries and exits of coffee shop customers. For each interval from the doorís closing to its next opening he consulted his note tables. He needed three intervals to determine a note: tone, duration, dynamic. On a fresh sheet of Boosey & Hawkes score paper he wrote a few notes as a trial run. He wasnít at all sure traffic would suffice to generate an extended piece.

The waitress brought the coffee, then noticed him staring in shock at the score. She peered over his shoulder. "Duh, duh, duhduhduhduh--hey, thatís Dvorák, ainít it? I love him."

Miles clutched the table. "Itís not Dvorák! Itís impossible that this is Dvorák!"

"Okay, okay, sorry. Hereís your check, right?" She turned to go.

Miles imagined an icy hand at the womanís back. "Wait. Apologies. You just arrived at--an upsetting moment." He looked at her, the first time (so far as he recalled) heíd ever really looked at a waitress. She was short, muscular, with fine black hair in a page-boy cut and lovely brown eyes.

"Do you mind saying," (he glanced at her nametag) "--Sandra, how you recognized this as Dvorák?"

"I played flute in the orchestra in high school. We played the Cello Concerto once. Itís my favorite."

Miles drummed his fingers on the table. He recalled a point heíd made to Anthony while defending aleatoric work:

"The chance aspect is completely irrelevant, musically speaking. The composer is composing not with notes, but with rules and choices. What is left to chance doesnít matter to the compositional vision. The freedom and fluency one aspires to cultivate are only possible when one abandons egotism and consistently accepts a chance-determined result."

He held up a concert ticket. "Want to hear the Philharmonic?"

*****

Her shift ended late, and she had to feed her cat in her Greenwich Village apartment. She would miss the first half of the concert, the Haydn and Milhaud, so Miles skipped it too. Dean Gooselawís hopes notwithstanding, Miles was relieved to miss the Ouverture Philharmonique. He had no patience for anything by Milhaud since the man discovered Harlem jazz. That was one good reason to miss out.

And, of course, he was also scared.

Dvorák meant nothing to him, so far as he recalled. The Cello Concerto, like all Dvorák, was pleasant but not historically significant. Miles suspected that the icy hand pushing him had no interest in the concerto as such, but instead in something happening at tonightís performance. It might or might not involve the waitress. Whatever it was, he felt sure he wouldnít like it.

He met the waitress--Sandra, that was her name--at intermission on the pavilion. Under a heavy frock coat she wore a simple black dress, inexpensive but reasonably tasteful, and white gloves. They moved inside and checked their coats and hats. She walked among the elite with perfect aplomb.

Seeing Reginald Hornbuckle and his wife, Lydia, Miles tried to calm his nerves. Something would happen here...

"Ah, Miles," Reginald said affably. After introductions all around--it turned out Sandraís last name was Muselli--Reginald looked up. "So what do we think of this place?" Lincoln Center had opened a few months earlier, but it remained a standard opening gambit. "I expect someday weíll be hearing your work here, Miles, and a great success it will be--at least if your reviewers are smarter than I, and can think how to elucidate it."

Miles sensed the moment was wrong to explain his aleatoric experiments. "The bar for success is pretty high. Remember Auberís opera Masaniello, in Belgium around--when was it? 1830?"

Lydia Hornbuckle smiled. "August 15, 1830." Tall, striking, with steely eyes and gray hair swept up like Katharine Hepburn, the Gazette publisher wore an ultramarine gown, mink wrap, and profuse jewelry. "We heard the story on a tour of Brussels last year. Remember, Reggie? The Theatre Royal de la Monnaie."

"Whatís the story?" Sandra asked.

"Belgium was actually part of Holland then, under Dutch rule--" Miles began.

Lydia took over. "--And this Auber opera, about a revolution in Naples, apparently excited the audience so much that after a duet called ĎSacred Love of the Fatherland,í they stormed out of the opera house and rioted in the streets. Fights broke out all over the city against the Dutch, it escalated into a revolution, and after a four-day battle the Dutch withdrew and Belgium became its own country. You do have a lot to live up to, Mr. Tiner. But thatís opera, you know--it gets at us the way concert music seldom does, certainly any more. Performers, you know, the human dimension. Serious music could do better returning to the performers, isnít that right, Reggie?"

Reginald picked up smoothly. "You take this Dvorák concerto tonight. The original cello soloist, I blank on the name, added a cadenza in the last movement, and Dvorák hit the roof. He wanted the whole movement intact, just as he wrote it--the memorial to his niece, you know."

"Sister-in-law," Miles said, and instantly regretted it.

"Not niece?"

"Well, the way one usually hears the story--actually, itís probably just a faulty memory. Never mind."

Sandra and Lydia said together, "What story?"

Reginald and Miles glanced at each other in a delicate quick contest, like invisible rock-paper-scissors. "Well, as one usually hears it," Miles said, "In his early thirties Dvorák fell in love with his young pupil Josefina Chermakova. But she refused him, and later married a nobleman, so Dvorak married Josefinaís sister instead. Years later, Dvorák was writing the Concerto when he received word that Josefina was very ill. Her favorite song of his was called ĎLeave me alone,í from the Opus 82 collection. Dvorák introduced an altered version of that song into the concertoís second movement. Josefina died before the concerto was published, so Dvorák revised the third-movement finale to include a reference to the same song in the coda, as a eulogy to her."

"A musical epitaph," Reginald added as his seal of approval. "I may mention that story in my review."

"Because, as we know, space is no object," Lydia said drily.

Reginald rapidly changed the subject. "So, weíve embarked on a round of musical anecdotes. What about you, Sandra, surely you have a tale to tell?"

Sandra looked troubled. "Well, that does remind me of something odd that happened today--"

The chimes sounded intermissionís end. Reginald checked his watch. "Ah, bad luck. I hope we shall hear it another time."

Miles breathed easier as the concerto developed without incident. He meditated on the strange determinism of his aleatoric music. Finding no answers, he fell into gloom.

In the second movement, as the elegiac melody sounded, he glanced at Sandra and saw with surprise that she was quietly weeping. The music or the anecdote, or both together, had affected her deeply.

Miles ruminated darkly about matters he had shut away: how melody still touched the heart; how his own music, his universityís music, all modern arid scholiastic multiplication-table music had consciously, perversely "liberated" music from melody. Abandoned the heart. Yet inspiring emotion, even in unsophisticated folk--was that unworthy? He asked himself what his experiments had accomplished. To his surprise he wondered what Sandra would think.

At the third-movement coda--the sweet, hesitant descending scale in flutes--he looked again. Teardrops trickled down her high, beautifully sculpted cheek.

*****

She asked him to walk her home instead of taking the subway. Two and a half miles to Greenwich Village in a chill November breeze, and it was already 10:30. He felt pleased. No: excited.

As they walked, she asked about the Academy and music schools and orchestras and conductors. ("Why didnít Barbirolli tap the podium like in the movies?" "Real conductors never do that.") He asked about the coffee shop and cappuccino and Italy and her family. She asked about his aleatoric music experiments. He told her, though not about their recent turn, yet his words felt hollow. "Itís music that expresses itself simply by the fact of its vibrations. People listen, not in reference to a fixed ideal performance, but each time to how it happens to be this time. Music without beginning, middle, or end, music like weather. It transports the listener into this moment."

"Yeah, but why does this moment always sound ugly?" she asked. "My high school teacher played us some modern music, and it was all just weird."

"Well--not to argue, but historically, tonal music is the weird music. Only Western society creates tonal music, and that only in the last few centuries. People are made tonal by society, and thereís trouble ahead for society. The Negro race riot in Atlanta a few years ago was just the beginning, and there could be atomic war any day. A revolutionary time needs revolutionary music. Thatís the motive for this current experimental work--to induce preconceptual, intuitive insights, like a Zen koan, and foster a larger, even revolutionary mindset."

"Uh-huh. Do you talk this way all the time?"

"When the mood strikes."

"I mean without ever once using the word ĎIí or Ďmeí or Ďmyself.í"

He stumbled and hit his knee on a mailbox. She clutched his arm. "You all right?"

"Fine, fine..." He looked into her eyes. Something in him melted like ice. "Iím fine," Miles said.

She kept to his arm as they walked. His coat sleeve and the skin beneath warmed to her touch. He felt fine. Fate, or something, had brought him this far; why not further? He thought she might be available. And if not tonight--well, could this waitress, this high school orchestra-playing, ainít-saying hourly worker, be his destiny? The idea seemed as ludicrous yet arresting as a skydive.

Sandra seemed graceful and intelligent, if unlettered--and being lettered was perhaps no great recommendation. Her emotional heart could be his touchstone, his inspiration. Strong, arresting work would bring a tenured position. In return he could expose her to more sophisticated culture. With developed taste and informed judgements she could handle any faculty dinner or grant committee. A secure income, political savvy, press coverage (for Hornbuckle seemed to like her)--that equaled commissions. Residencies. Europe! They could all follow, do-re-mi.

As they passed Christopher Street she took his hand. "Almost there. So, Mister Composer, you think you could write me a song?"

"Not that kind--Iím not that kind of composer, Iím afraid."

"A symphony. No, an opera!" She struck a pose. "Reeeally, daahling, opera gets right up amongst us, the human dimension, returned to the performers."

Now he was entirely smitten. "Iím willing to take the risk."

"What risk?"

"You have no idea. When John Cage conscientiously wrote a sad piece, one called The Perilous Night, people hearing it laughed. One critic said it sounded like a woodpecker in a church belfry."

Instead of laughing, she grew thoughtful. "Doesnít that say more about Cage than about music? A guy who doesnít know how to write sad music is a better composer than Dvorák?"

For all his earlier disquiet, this made Miles bridle. "Cage is pushing back the frontiers of musical research."

"Scientists do research. Musicians write music. Iíd love to think heís experimenting because he already mastered everybodyís style and now heís looking for new challenges. But I bet he couldnít write a good sonata at gunpoint."

"I couldnít write anything at gunpoint, except maybe a ransom note." He decided they should get this out in the open early. "Really, do we need more sonatas? Haydn wrote hundreds, hundreds of years ago. People asking for sonatas really just want happy tunes, like Gershwin or Copland, something a teamster can whistle."

She stared, crestfallen. "Listen to you. You talk about revolution, but youíre a complete snob." Then, bitterly: "Kind of undermines you with us lower-class nobodies."

They reached the stoop of her apartment building. Sensing only sullen hostility, Miles abandoned his fantasies. But after fantasy there rose curiosity. He asked, "The concerto tonight made you sad, Sandra. Why?"

She laughed, sort of. "I wonder if youíll think Iím crazy." A pause. "After you left the coffee shop today, I kept hearing that melody. That Dvorák song he put in the concerto. Five, six times, all afternoon--not in my head, but in the world, put together like a jigsaw from ordinary sounds. Car horns. The cash register bell. Once I saw the notes in some water stains on the counter. The way you reacted when I asked if your music was Dvorák... I need to ask. Did you have the same experience?"

A silent moment. Not silence--traffic noise, people walking, The Jack Paar Program on an apartment TV. He nodded.

"That tune took me back," she continued. "My high school music class, remember? I was real sweet on a boy in class, Greg. And Greg, had he flipped for me, believe you me! He played solo when we did the Cello Concerto, and I played flute. One day just before graduation he took me to the malt shop and tried to get me to run away with him to Florida. I said, whatís in Florida, and Greg said, weíll grow oranges." She laughed. "Oranges! Please! It was just too far out of left field. Iím afraid I kind of broke his heart. He went off on his own, and--actually, on the way to Tallahassee he--" She began to cry. "Actually, he died in a car wreck. That was out of left field too. I remember sitting in our school room after the funeral and listening to the Concerto."

Her voice went ragged. "Something decided to throw you into my life. Or maybe me into yours. I donít know why--Iím not exactly sure I like it yet--but I want to think itís intentional, not just random. Iím willing to work with restrictions, right? Thatís the most practical way to get anywhere. I know Iím not the dream date for a modern music composer at Lincoln Center. But if youíre okay working with restrictions too--it can maybe turn out fine. You think so?"

Another long moment of city sounds. He stepped forward. They kissed.

In the heat of her embrace, Miles heard, from the nearest apartment window, a blaring commercial: Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat / Rice-A-Roni, the flavor canít be beat / One pan, no boiling, cooking ease/ A flavor that is sure to please / Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat!

Sandra rolled her eyes. "Great. I guess thatíll be our song, huh?" She smiled nervously. "Not romantic, but kind of catchy."

Miles faltered. He gasped. In one instant of revulsion he imagined his true future with Sandra: writing insipid jingles for rice and deodorant and dishwashing liquid --and hot dogs -- playing them on a badly-tuned upright piano for a gladhanding backstabbing boss and a halfwit tone-deaf client in some two-bit Eastside ad agency, then fighting through rush-hour train station mobs to reach some sterile ticky-tacky off-white saltbox with aluminum siding near some light-commercial Chamber-of-Commerce concrete-asphalt supermarket parking lot in some smug, tedious, humdrum, lowbrow middle-íMerican sing-along-with-Mitch provincial isolationist whitebread booboisie burb in New Jersey. Maybe even--(no) (yes!)--maybe even kids!

Shaking with true dread, Miles stepped back from the abyss. From her. "Have to, I mean, I, I have to--I remember I need to see Hornbuckle about a, a thing. His review. Sorry. Itís been great. Goodbye."

Speechless, she waved. Heíd reached the corner when she called after him. "Wait!" She ran up. "Iíll give you my number. You know. In case." She fumbled in her purse and brought out a pad of restaurant checks. In the glow of a streetlight, with shaking hands but a brave face, she wrote a phone number, tore off the check, and handed it over like coffee to go. He took it wordlessly and ran for the train.

In turmoil Miles headed back to his office. Thinking constantly of her remark--"Iím willing to work with restrictions, right?"--he worked far into the night, first creating entirely new note tables filled with microtones, sprung rhythms, dissonant intervals, and dynamic changes that even Cage would think outlandish; then devising a random number system of Talmudic complexity, involving trickles of water down a window pane, cross-indexed with one-letter variables chosen blindly from a bag of Scrabble tiles, then processed through a sequence of 27 formulae selected from a sophomore textbook on algebra. Miles timed the water droplets, drew from the bag, and ground through every formula, only to despair as his system generated 16 note-perfect bars, in barbershop harmony, of "It Had to Be You," written in 1924 by Isham Jones with lyrics by Gus Kahn, and popularized in the 1944 musical film Show Business.

In a rage Miles spilled Scrabble tiles across his desk, stamped on the algebra book, and tried to pick up a chair to throw through the window. He slipped, fell with the chair on top of him, and lay in pain until the anger subsided. Crawling to his feet, he moved to brush the letter tiles into the bag--then stopped. He stared at a line of tiles:

MILES TNER

After long thought he found paper, wrote down the letters, and put all the tiles back in the bag. Thinking of Anthonyís remark--"Youíre really just transcribing the notes the computing machine spits out, correct?"--he pulled a tile from the bag, wrote down the letter, and put back the tile. Then he did it again, many times.

*****

He was still in the office in the late morning, when Anthony arrived.

Unkempt, unshowered, surrounded by crumpled papers, Miles mumbled and hummed urgently. Anthony watched him in astonishment. "Whatís going on?"

"Sometimes I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener," Miles said, pressing a score into Anthonyís hands. "On reflection, I think thatís what Iíd truly like to be. Like it? I generated it."

"What are you--oh. The hot-dog jingle. Youíre conceding already?"

"No." Miles snatched back the score. "Whyíre you in on a Saturday?"

"You called me in, Miles. Donít you remember?"

"Oh. Right. It had to be you, no one but you. Except also Dean Gooselaw and Reggie Hucklebuck--Hornbuckle."

"What, here? When?" Anthony peered out the window. "Never mind, they just walked up." He sized up Miles. "I think Iíd better prepare them for--whatever." Grinning, he ran out.

A few minutes later he returned with the Dean and Hornbuckle. Greetings all around, then Miles herded them to a rehearsal room with a grand piano. Dean Gooselaw asked, "What do you have to show us, Miles?"

"This." Miles plopped a score on the music stand and gestured to the Dean to sit. Gooselaw looked at the score and started. "What on Earth--?"

Anthony chuckled. "It relates to a business opportunity I passed along to Miles--"

Gooselaw interrupted, "Miles, what are all these thick black bars?"

Anthony made a "guh" sound and looked at the score. Over the notes of the jingle Miles had drawn thick black lines of varying breadths. Short bars topped each staff like stretches of Morse code.

"The performer selects the notes of this piece, either beforehand or spontaneously during the performance," Miles said sleepily. "For each bar, the performer may select one note. The barís height represents the permissible range of notes from which the performer may select, and the breadth represents the permissible range of durations. The bars across the top represent intervals when the performer may choose to change the dynamic, which otherwise remains constant between intervals."

"Audacious," said Anthony, who had recovered. "I admire the gumption required to base a new method on a commercial jingle for weiners."

Hornbuckle laughed. "Really, Miles?"

Miles spoke more firmly. "This piece reclaim music from the crass ends of our advertising-dominated society, and from the ad industryís dominating instrument: the composer. By increasing the performerís intellectual and inventive contribution to its practical maximum, I give this music back to the performer, and thereby to the public."

To Hornbuckle he added, "I took inspiration, Mr. Hornbuckle, from none other than your wife. Let me also note that that this composition permits the performer to play in the fifth, or Lydian, church mode; therefore I ask permission to call this piece Lydia, after the muse who inspired it."

"Really. You donít say." Hornbuckle betrayed no reaction. "Well, do give this piece a try, Spencer."

The old man started picking out notes, tinkatank, his shaking fingers lending tremolo. "Rather like doing an acrostic puzzle," he said. "Haha."

It was a godawful caterwaul. Hornbuckle listened impassively, Anthony with an impatient glare, and Miles with sinking heart, as he remembered how heíd hoped to touch people with his music. "Where does the criticism leave off, Miles, and the nonsense begin?"

At last it was through. In a solemn, even suspicious tone Hornbuckle asked, "Have you invited any other critic to hear this?"

Dean Gooselaw spoke for Miles. "No, no, this is an exclusive for you and the Gazette."

Hornbuckle perked up. He said, "Marvelous. Congratulations, Miles. Commercialism, chance techniques, performer-centered--thereís a lot to talk about there. You know, for all that Spencer chose the notes on the spot, that piece sounded just like the most artfully arranged serialism. Donít you think, Anthony?"

"Itís about Oscar Meyer wieners!"

"Yes, of course," Dean Gooselaw broke in, picking up on Hornbuckleís enthusiasm. "And yet in the performerís hands it is transfigured. That is a point you can make about aleatory procedures, Reginald. Thereís still control, because youíve asked the right questions. If you havenít asked the right questions, then youíre probably going to miss!"

"Miles," said the reviewer, "Lydia and I have been discussing the upcoming profiles for the Sunday arts magazine. Multiple pages, in color. Would you be interested?"

Anthony sagged visibly. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he muttered. "I have to see a man about a dog." He left. Hornbuckle followed, and then the Dean, after a broad hint at his decision for next yearís Composer-in-Residence.

*****

Minutes later, Miles sat alone in his office. Ashamed and distraught, he looked over the transcript of Scrabble tiles heíd pulled out overnight:

MILES TNER
Composer teacher associate dean of Upper Manhattan Music Academy Experimented early with indeterminism but quickly abandoned it as technique lost vogue
Later explored musical techniques of interest to scholars earning academic status divorced from popular guidance and the prevailing cultural temper
B Iden Payne fellowship John Cage Memorial Award served on Pulitzer Music Prize award committee XXXX
Symphony cello concerto many piano and chamber works
Two recordings on Nonesuch out of print

He sighed, diminuendo. "Well, if thatís what there is."

He fished Sandraís phone number from his pocket and crumpled it. The wastebasket rang with a cadence chord.


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