Maestro Keys — Chapters 28 & 29
A classical conductor has manifold responsibilities. He (or, increasingly, she) must know every player’s part. He must coordinate those parts so the piece has aesthetic coherence. He must assure the sound generated by each section is balanced lest, for instance, the horns drown out the strings. And he must serve as the orchestra’s and audience’s visual focus, shaping the music with his movements.
Arnold banished thoughts of that last responsibility. If he confronted them he’d be too scared to take the stage. He wasn’t particularly graceful. Whenever he and Linda danced he inevitably went the wrong way or stepped on her feet (which were crammed into flimsy shoes that didn’t protect them). He flounced and gestured on his podium in the study, but that was private. The world did not have to know how ungainly he was, or that while conducting fast sections he sometimes farted.
So he concentrated on the basics. The first thing a conductor has to do is keep the beat. Classical music may be the only place where the verb to beat carries wholly positive connotations. If the conductor doesn’t tell the players how to move forward — if he doesn’t beat time — they may fall out of sync and into cacophony.
Deciding on tempos drew Arnold into a perennial controversy: how much liberty may a conductor take with the composer’s instructions? No one was going to condemn him if his allegros were slower than Toscanini’s. It was understood that those broad Italian terms were open to the conductor’s interpretation. But what about when composers, in addition to Italian tempo markings, gave specific metronome speeds? In Lieutenant Kije Prokofiev did just that.
There were three schools of thought. The first believed the conductor was obliged to be faithful to the original sound of the music, no matter how peculiarly it might strike modern ears. To purists that meant playing the piece not only at the tempo specified, but with period instruments in a contemporary milieu. The second, to which most conductors belonged, agreed that the primary allegiance should be to what was in the score, but if circumstance precluded honoring the composer’s intentions, the conductor was free to make judicious changes. The third, which originated in the late nineteenth century, when egomaniacs like Richard Wagner rearranged pieces to suit their own tastes, held that the conductor had the right to change anything he wished.
Temperamentally and artistically Arnold fell in with the middle group. He bought a metronome, set it to the markings Prokofiev specified, and hummed in time with the ticking arm. Were the tempi right for him? More or less. They felt right enough that he wouldn’t have been comfortable deviating from the composer’s wishes.
Unfortunately he couldn’t carry a metronome onstage. Which meant unless he wanted to wing it (heaven forfend!), he had to memorize the tempi. But they were paces, not poems; how was he to internalize such airy things? This was where Arnold most acutely felt his lack of musicianship. If he could think in music as naturally as he thought in legalese, the tempi would flow from him like breath.
Lieutenant Kije also pushed Arnold beyond the limits of his ability to convey time signatures. He long ago mastered basic four-four time. It was the same motion as crossing yourself, only more exaggerated. The three-four beat was also easy: starting at your head, you drew a right-angle triangle with your baton. For the two-four beat you brought the baton straight down and made a little loop to the right — a reverse J — before bringing it back up. Lieutenant Kije had several spots where a four-four beat was interrupted by a single measure in two-four, fillips from the composer to make sure the conductor was paying attention. Arnold spent a week marking up the two-four ambushes and practicing them so he literally wouldn’t miss a beat.
The third movement, “Kije’s Wedding,” presented a more perplexing problem: it was written in two-two time. (And when the principal theme was reprised in the last movement, the two-two recurred.) How was Arnold to beat that? He had an impulse to call the Symphony president, but she wouldn’t know. Besides, he’d already called her this week and could tell she was losing patience. He needed to speak to another musician. But Arnold didn’t know another musician, so he decided he would beat the two-two the same as the two-four and hope the orchestra understood.
No doubt about it, that third movement of Lieutenant Kije was the bear. When conducting it in his study he had to turn the pages of the score like a speed reader. Complicating matters, starting with the ninth bar much of the movement was syncopated. Arnold struggled against the natural inclination to downbeat on the second rather than the first beat of each measure. He solved the problem by noticing that the tuba played in regular time. So long as he focused on the tuba’s blatting he could beat the syncopated sections correctly.
After beating, the next duty a conductor has to master is telling idle musicians when to start playing. Orchestra veterans, especially those with solo parts, usually don’t need cues because they’ve played the piece often enough to remember their entrances. But young musicians and those with long rests between parts might need or appreciate a prompt. Arnold didn’t know how familiar with Kije his musicians were, but he did know from a prior call to the Symphony president that the piece hadn’t been programmed for at least five years. So rather than assume they knew it, he decided to cue them. If that insulted the old pros, he’d apologize and stop cuing — once they proved they really did know their entrances.
Ha. Could he actually be that imperious? He had always been in awe of musicians. To be a lawyer or doctor or engineer required brains and dedication. But to be a musician, especially a classical musician, required brains, dedication, and talent. He looked upon the Yo-Yo Mas and Joshua Bells of the world as God’s truly chosen people. They had the gift. From time to time Arnold wished he could make a Faustian bargain and trade whatever advantages he had for just a sliver of that gift. It might leave him poor and alone, but he’d have a better shot at happiness than he did as a lawyer.
So no, he couldn’t be that imperious. Humility required he strive instead to be competent.
His admiration for conductors grew now that he knew their job from the inside. He had one piece to conduct and plenty of time to prepare for it yet was overwhelmed and full of self-doubt. The music directors of major orchestras conducted at least fifteen programs annually (usually three pieces in each), jetted off to guest-conduct upwards of another six programs, then went to the studio to record. How many hours of music did they have to master each year? Whipping out his phone calculator, Arnold estimated at least thirty — ninety times his single night’s workload. And they had minimal time to prepare and rehearse. That they succeeded so brilliantly said more for humanity’s potential than all the technical marvels Silicon Valley produced.
As often as he felt his bumbling would dishonor the profession, Arnold never seriously considered backing out after that first night. Every life had its pivotal moment, when for good or ill destiny spoke and the world changed forever: a birth, a death, a singling out of one kind or another. For many people the moment came early, and it took years for them to fully come to terms with how it changed them. But for a blessed few the moment didn’t come until mid-life or later, after they’d gained the wisdom to take it in stride. If they were doubly blessed and the moment was a good one, it carried them to a contented old age, which was as much as anyone could ask.
After marrying Linda and having their son, Arnold’s life had moved in a mostly horizontal line. There was a blip when he landed the job at BK&S, but that was a decade ago and the high quickly faded. Now, after a prolonged drought, there would be another uptick. And he would ride that moment with the City Symphony for all it was worth, allegro vivace.
That was RK Dizazztr on stage. Really. Playing to this sea of waving arms and upraised phones. With Ramesh beside him. They were in sync tonight and absolutely crushing it.
It was so much easier to imagine Dilligas when he was high. And when he was high at a concert it became impossible to tell which was real, what he saw in his head or what he saw with his eyes. He preferred what he saw in his head. So that was reality.
It would have been perfect except Ramesh kept annoying him between songs. When Ramesh had too much molly he yammered like a churchgoer speaking in tongues. Halfway through whatever he was failing to communicate he laughed like a girl and slurred that he was so wasted. The clown was only here to dance — he didn’t know a single one of the bands — and he’d stumbled into Rudy two or three times already, the smell of his body spray becoming inescapable as sweat matted his hair. Rudy tried to ignore him, but Ramesh went right on runnin’ his mouth like a faucet and bustin’ his goofy moves.
Thank God when the music started again. Rudy could return to peak reality, carried on mind-blowing hooks that were his. At the end of songs he raised clenched fists. Yesss! Such righteous beats! Such dope improvisations! Despite dragging Ramesh the whole way. We made that sound, but I’m the one who made it happen. I’m the fucking goddamn genius.
All he needed for complete nirvana was a woman on each arm.
But while pretending not to hear Ramesh’s blabbering during breaks, he knew himself for what he was: not a genius elevating the masses through the power of sound, but an anxious worshiper desperate for salvation, a Ramesh with self-control. And in that moment he hated himself. Hated himself for being average. For being jealous. For being lazy. For being talentless. For being weak instead of strong. For being a soft white suburban kid instead of a tough dark-skinned man of the streets. For being a cipher instead of a star. For being Rodolfo Keys instead of RK Dizazztr.
“What’s the matter with you, bro?” Ramesh poked. He was shouting. “You gonna hurl?”
Rudy answered with his eyes, a hard, unblinking mean mug from which poured all his loathing.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? You want more weed?”
He nodded. He wanted more weed. And whatever it was mixed with — fentanyl for all he cared.
There was a girl a row in front of them and three seats to the right with the silkiest dark hair and firmest little ass he ever saw. She was short but her figure was perfect and she knew it, flaunting it in painted-on jeans and a leotard top. Just looking at her gave him a hard-on. He wanted to hump her while she danced. But she was with the tall guy standing next to her and he looked swole enough to win a cage match.
Fuck. His whole life would be like this, wanting wanting wanting without ever having. He’d wind up doing with this girl what he did with all the others: rubbing one out to her as soon as he got home. A day later her image would fade and he’d have to find a new face to focus his lust on, at Pornhub if he didn’t see one in real life. Either that or go back to his old standby, Nadine.
Nadine. She utterly annihilated him. All summer he thought about her. This year he would ask her out. Even if his voice broke while he asked, even if she was surrounded by girlfriends who laughed at the sight of him, he would do it. And then he saw her during registration week — holding hands with an Asian guy. Not one of those stocky, muscular Asian guys, but one of the slender, geeky ones, the ones who became research scientists and engineers.
If he’d asked her out last spring she never would have looked at someone else. But he hadn’t had the nerve. And so he didn’t get her. She might yet break up and be free again. But no, Asian guys were nice, polite, family-oriented, gentle. Everything girls like Nadine wanted. She’d probably marry him, have his kids, and stay with him ‘til death did them part.
She’d have never gone for Rudy anyway. He had nothing to offer, certainly not compared to her engineer, who looked like the type to send mushy cards on birthdays and chocolates and flowers on Valentine’s Day.
He wanted so much to be one of those performers onstage. It wouldn’t solve all his problems, he knew that. But the greatness in him at last would be validated, and everything would flow from there. He’d find someone better than Nadine — someone who would make her jealous that she missed out on him. He’d have a career, with a crew of lawyers and accountants and gofers to take care of his hassles. And his life would have meaning. But he also knew that outside his head his chance of that was nil, so by the time the concert ended he was deep in Game and Lil Wayne mode: take me away like I overdosed on cocaine, take me away like a bullet from Kurt Cobain —
Ramesh’s voice pierced through the reverie. Evidently Ramesh had been talking to him for some time without him knowing. “Aw, man, remind me never to go to a concert with you again. You are such a total buzzkill. You’re even worse when you’re high than when you’re sober.” Then he giggled.
The night was well advanced when they filed out of the arena. In the parking lot Ramesh dropped the car key and floundered after it on all fours, calling “Here keysie keysie!” and then pointing at Rudy and cracking himself up by going “there you are!” Just as Rudy decided to help, Ramesh located the key by shining his phone flashlight on the asphalt. Okay, now where the fuck is the car? After wandering another ten minutes they sighted it. Ramesh started it up okay, but then pulled out of the parking space without turning on the lights. Then he bumped into the parked car behind them. He laughed, declaring he was so wasted.
Rudy had enough. “Let me drive,” he said.
“I’m all right.”
“No you’re not. Let me drive or I’m walking home.”
Ramesh looked at him. “You’re right, bro. I’m too fucked up to drive. But so are you. You smoked more weed than me. It’s my dad’s car. If you wreck it he’ll kill me.”
“I’m fine. Let me drive.”
“Caucasian fire drill!”
They scrambled out of the car to switch sides. As Rudy adjusted the driver’s seat and rear-view mirror, he realized they needn’t have hurried. Hundreds of cars ahead of them were funneling so slowly through the gates at the end of the lot they barely moved. Maybe he was still too high to drive, judging by how imperative it had felt to rush around the car.
All right then, he’d go into DUI mode. Whenever he had to drive under the influence he pretended he was an old man who could barely see beyond the dashboard — like Arnold. He stopped at every light, every stop sign, every little thing out of the ordinary. Plus he drove below the speed limit. It always worked. He’d never been pulled over when he was wasted. His passengers hated it, but they didn’t hate being delivered safe and sound to wherever they were going. Which proved that if you were careful you were less of a threat on the road high than most people were straight.
His first test came after he threaded the car (an awesome black Porsche two-seater; why didn’t his dad drive one of these?) through the gate and headed for the freeway. Traffic sped up. Vehicles veered from lane to lane. “Compton made my grandmother pray for good, it never made her happy but a new Mercedes could,” Rudy chanted as he responded with the skill of a NASCAR driver to the jockeying around him. Not that Ramesh got the reference or appreciated his command of the road; he was nattering on about how disappointing it was that live songs didn’t sound like recordings.
You idiot, how do you think a band stays fresh? he wanted to scold, but he had to keep his mind on traffic and another matter of consequence: where they were going. If he went home first, Ramesh would have to drive himself home, which defeated the purpose of Rudy’s driving. So he’d have to go to Ramesh’s house first. But then how would he get home? Call Arnie and Linda to pick him up? He hadn’t done that since sophomore year of high school.
Ramesh lived in the hills above Oakland, so if Rudy was taking Ramesh home first they’d have to get off soon. He flashed the turn signal (something he didn’t ordinarily do) before moving into the exit lane. He’d park at Ramesh’s, then walk down the hill and take BART to the El Cerrito station. It was risky walking through that part of Oakland late at night, but he had to start sometime if he wanted to be a man of the streets. It was like that quote he’d read by Nietzsche: that which does not kill me makes me stronger.
You hear that, Nadine? That which does not kill me makes me stronger. Which means you only made me stronger, bitch! Here I thought when you graduated from high school your classmates voted you most likely to stay sweet. But you blew me off, you slut! You fucking blew me off! It’s like, I put my heart and soul into this band for years, bared my most personal feelings in front of thousands of strangers night after night, just so I could give you everything. The house by Yosemite, the designer clothes, the walk-in closet for your shoes, our two little daughters. I was so good to you. I really loved you. In the words of the immortal Chance, I used to pass you the smokes, you used to laugh at my jokes. But you had to throw it all away. Ruin our family. For a fucking nerd who doesn’t have a shred of art. You goddamn fucking slut.
You know what that means, don’t you? It means I’m gonna have to slap you down, bitch. Don’t tell me no. It’s time for the juke jam of your nightmares. Take off that dress. We’re gonna do it one last time. My way. Just so you remember what a real man’s like.
What the fuck you want, asshole? he shot another hate stare at Ramesh. Too late he saw why Ramesh was backing frantically into his seat and holding his arms up: a stop sign at the corner. Well fuck that. It hadn’t turned red yet. He’d just speed up and shoot through before anybody even —
Something jerked them forward and down — his chin almost smacked into the steering wheel. He jammed on the brakes and the back of the car shuddered violently rightward. They did half a donut before stopping.
“What the fuck?” he sputtered, switching off the ignition and jumping out of the car.
Then he saw a vision that would haunt him all his days.
She’d been thrown across the intersection to a curbside swatch of grass. She looked even older than his parents, maybe sixty or seventy. She was unconscious, and her limbs extended from her torso at Picasso-like angles. Ten feet further her dog, trickling blood from its mouth, lay lifeless on the sidewalk.
“Oh my God, Ramesh, look what we did!” he cried.
“We? You were fucking driving!” his supposedly best friend answered.
“What are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know. Get out of here. Yeah. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go!”
“We can’t just go.”
“We have to! Come on. Let’s run. Run!”
Rudy couldn’t. He moved the dog off the sidewalk by its hind legs so no one would have to step around it. Then he sat by the woman, head in his hands, before pulling out his phone, dialing 911, and waiting for the rest of his life.
© 2023 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.