issue twenty-three

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(2000 words)
Hall Jameson
Death by Piano
The day Gregory met Domenico Scarlatti his life changed; it began, and it ended.

It happened on the anniversary of his birth, October 26: a birthdate he was proud of, because he shared it with Domenico -- minus a few hundred years, of course.

Not wanting to sit in his sallow apartment, forcing notes and scratching out measures, Gregory ventured to Longfellow Square for coffee and fresh fruit. Oranges. Pears. Kumquats, if they were available. Anything to distract him from the tangled mess of sounds whirling around his head.

Scarlatti sat on a cracked park bench near the pumpkin stand. The composer wore jeans and a black Nirvana tee shirt. His feet were bare, but very clean. His hair was a silver-cotton style of eighteenth-century classical hip, pulled back and secured with a velvet tie. Despite his dress, Gregory recognized him immediately, and was overjoyed to see him.


       Hollywood did not make movies about Domenico Scarlatti. They reserved film for the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, names from piano bench storage, or early grade instruction books. Gregory admired the prolific nature of Scarlatti, something, he believed, that terrified many modern musicians.

Scarlatti sat motionless on the bench, as if he were meditating, or dead.
Gregory laughed.

He was dead. Of course!

Gregory paid the vendor for apricots and cranberries, and headed for Scarlatti, worried he may disappear. He had many questions, questions prompted by his insistent dream of the grand piano.

The remnants of that morning's dream had left him feeling scattered and bare, and mildly disoriented. Because of this, the presence of Scarlatti was not surprising, and given Gregory's gnawing dread of his upcoming recital, the composer's appearance was timely and welcome.
For months, the dream had repeated: On the morning following his master recital, a grand piano was delivered. Gregory stood on the sidewalk beneath the suspended piano, looking up at the stunning instrument, as the movers used pulleys and intricate lengths of knotted rope to hoist it to his third-floor apartment. Gregory delighted in watching the instrument ascend, until one of the ropes snapped with a loud crack, causing the piano to tilt precipitously. Gregory remained underneath even as the second rope let go. The third rope released with a smart whip-crack. The piano plummeted toward him. Gregory jumped awake with a shriek.

"Should I play the recital tonight?" he asked Scarlatti, taking a seat on the bench. "That is why you are here, isn't it? To help me decide."
"Whether or not I am truly here remains to be seen." Scarlatti stroked his chin. "Of course you should play. What a ridiculous question, child! One you shouldn't need to ask."

"I am not a child. I am thirty-three. Today."

"You are a child to me. I am 325 years old. Today." Scarlatti studied the pumpkin stand. "So, what gives you pause? A pianist should always want to perform. It is what we do. If we don't play our music for others, there is no music. It does not exist merely for our ears. Why would you not want to share your sounds and make them real?"
"Because, I might learn the truth."

"The truth? But that is what all musicians seek. Perhaps you have already discovered your truth, and that is what frightens you."

"I've discovered nothing. That's the problem. I don't know if I'm a musician." Gregory stared ahead vacantly. "Or something else..."

"Something else," Scarlatti mused. "Interesting." He paused. "But, who truly decides what you are? Isn't that up to you? There is work involved, yes, but it is simple work. You must convince others what you are, by what you play."

"Simple? That's easy for you to say. Tonight, I am playing a selection of your work, so what does that make me?"

"A coward with excellent taste, but still a coward." Scarlatti shook his head. "You should play your own work. I'm sure you have drafted many fine pieces."

Excited, Gregory leaned forward. "Have you heard my work? What did you think?"

"That is not for me to say." Scarlatti's forehead creased.

"Not for you to say? But you are Domenico Scarlatti! You wrote 555 sonatas. That's astonishing!"

"Oh? I thought it was more," Scarlatti's lips moved, as if counting. He shrugged and continued. "No, not astonishing. It was what I needed to do. I couldn't stop. But, who I am has nothing to do with who you are. Why must you make things so complicated, Gregory? Haven't you been listening?"

"Yes, of course!" Gregory hammered his thighs with his fists. "I've been listening carefully. I've been listening for years, but my own voice does not exist. I can't find it among all the other sounds." He slouched. "I'm hopeless."

Scarlatti sighed. "Perhaps you are right, perhaps you are hopeless. A musician who doesn't know how to listen -- I've never run across such a thing."
"I know how to listen -- things just get muddy."

"Prove it. Stop hiding behind the notes of others. No matter how brilliantly you play them, they will never belong to you," Scarlatti said, as he peeked into the bag next to Gregory's feet. "Are those apricots? May I have one? I do so enjoy their sweetness and simplicity. It soothes the palate."

Gregory frowned as the composer devoured an apricot, slurping the juices noisily. Sounds suddenly flooded his senses. Herring gulls squealed as they fought over a scrap of fried dough near the pumpkins. A jackhammer chattered in the distance. Laughter erupted from a nearby booth, as a vendor joked with a customer.

Damn Scarlatti! Gregory knew how to listen! His difficulty lay not in listening, but in paring the sounds down.
The composer, enamored by his apricot, sucked on the pit happily, as if he and the apricot were the only two things in the world. He plucked the pit from his mouth and examined it. "Wonderful," he murmured. "Perfect." He tossed it over his shoulder.

Gregory scowled, wondering how he could find pleasure in something so simple. He plucked an apricot from the sack and bit into it. Closing his eyes, he savored the fragrant fruit, the honeyed flesh dissolving on his tongue, the sweet juice saturating his mouth. He opened his eyes to find Scarlatti watching him. 


       A hush fell over the auditorium as Gregory approached the Steinway at center stage, the only sound, the echo of his footfalls. A smattering of applause, a series of shushes, then silence.

He settled in at the piano, nodding to Scarlatti, who leaned against the curve of the grand's body, dressed in black trousers and a burgundy smoker's jacket. He wore white Converse low-tops.

Gregory's fingers struck a spray of familiar notes, the opening measure from Scarlatti's well-known Fugue in G-Minor, a piece written for the harpsichord, but, nonetheless, lovely on the piano. He sensed the composer frowning, but Gregory ignored him and continued to play. He saw the notes in his mind, fat dots with black-slash tails, joined in places, hollowed out in others. Not his notes, but they were exquisite, and he played them perfectly.

He stared at Scarlatti, challenging him, but the composer refused to meet his eyes. Instead, he pursed his lips and studied his nails.

Gregory let the final notes of the piece resonate, before lifting his fingers from the keys. The room was silent, except for a single nervous cough. Gregory sensed the crowd wanting more.

He held his fingers inches from the keys, waggled them slightly, eyes on Scarlatti, willing him to look. Instead, Scarlatti yawned and closed his eyes, leaning back into the curve of the piano as if preparing to take an upright nap.

Perfect! Gregory thought, as he flung his hands above his head and slammed his fingers down on the piano, finding the opening chord of his piece -- not Scarlatti's -- his piece. His notes.

Gregory's fingers floated over the keys, striking hearty chords, transitioning to smooth cascades and trills, mellowing to a gentle calm. Gregory did not take his eyes from Scarlatti. The composer now stared back with sharp, wet eyes, the thin line of his mouth quivering. When Gregory hit the last chord, Scarlatti released a guttural shout, his ponytail working loose from the velvet bow.
Sweat poured down Gregory's face as he stood and bowed. He waved a hand back towards Scarlatti. The crowd assumed he was paying tribute to the piano, and cheered.

Scarlatti took a bow. Then Gregory took another. Roses, tossed upon the stage, scattered about his feet. He picked one up and held it to his nose, closed his eyes, and for a moment, everything disappeared, except for the rose, just as it had with the apricot. He opened his eyes and he was alone on stage. His senses flooded with the sounds of applause, whistles, and cheers. He took a final bow, and marched from the stage.

Scarlatti waited for him behind the curtain. "You were listening after all." He smiled.
"Yes, but that may be my last performance. I was scheduled to play your work -- the critics won't be happy."

"Not happy? That is excellent news. First and foremost, you should upset the critics." He nodded with a wry smile on his thin lips. "They should not be coddled. Besides, you did play my composition. I was playing. You were playing. Then you did something wonderful. I must admit, you caught me off guard, and I am not an easy man to surprise. I have heard most sounds, but tonight, I heard something new. Well done, Gregory. The audience adored it as well."

"The audience? What do they know about music?" Gregory snipped.

"They know everything, because you have enlightened them. They are the most important part of your work!" Scarlatti exclaimed.

"But, the critics, they were expecting something else. They'll be hard on me."

"Haven't you been listening to me? It is not for them to decide. You should not give them what they expect."

"I don't know about that. I feel like I've failed. I made the wrong choice. I've lost my mind. Momentarily, at least."

"No! You created something exquisite! How can you think you've lost your mind?"

"Easily. I'm talking to a dead composer, for one."

"I talk to them all the time. It doesn't mean you're mad, dear Gregory, it means you're an artist. For your own sake, and for the sake of all those who listen, let's hope you remain mad for a very long time."


       The following morning, Gregory stood off to the side, as he had in the dream, watching the movers hoist the grand piano up to his third level apartment. In combination with his upright, it would take up most of the living room, but it was the most beautiful creature.

Last night, he had learned the truth about himself, but even after the voracious approval from the audience, he worried. Did he have any music left in him? Was this morning the finale?

The movers, absorbed in their work, did not notice Gregory as he stepped beneath the ascending piano. He looked up at the marvelous instrument as he had in his dream, waiting.

He sensed someone standing next to him. Scarlatti. He held the entertainment section of the daily news.

"'Curious, yet Brilliant Mayhem at the Grandview Theatre,'" Scarlatti read. "You've confused the critics. Excellent work!"

Gregory opened his mouth to respond, and heard the first gunshot-snap of the rope breaking.        

He looked at Scarlatti in horror.

"You know what to do," Scarlatti said. "You've been listening."

The second rope cracked fire.

Gregory stepped back as the third rope snapped, but he was too late. The piano slipped, with him standing in its shadow. He looked up and spread his arms to embrace it. He had his answer.

The piano fell an inch or two, before the stout safety chain caught it, and the movers guided it inside, into his living room.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Hall Jameson. All rights reserved.