I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews
Dawn in Manhattan. In the first, tentative light, a black prostitute is walking back to her room after a night’s work. Hair in a mess, bags under her eyes; the cold transfigures her drunkenness into a stunned lucidity, a crumpled isolation from the world. She didn’t venture beyond her usual neighborhood, so she only has to walk a few blocks. Her pace is slow; she could be going backwards; at the slightest deviation time could dissolve into space. What she really wants is sleep, but she’s not even conscious of that any more. The streets are almost deserted; the few people who usually go out at this time (or have no indoors to go out of) know her by sight, so they don’t examine her violet high-heeled shoes, her tight skirt with its long split, or her eyes, which wouldn’t return their glassy or tender gazes anyway. It’s a narrow street, with a number for a name, and the buildings are old. Then there’s a stretch where they’re more modern, but in worse repair: stores, fire escapes dangling from sheer facades. Further on, past the corner, is the place where she sleeps till late, in a rented room that she shares with two children, her brothers. But first, something happens: five or six guys who’ve been up all night have formed a semi-circle on the sidewalk, in front of a store window. The woman wonders what they could be looking at that has turned them into figures from a photograph. The group is absolutely still; not even the smoke of a cigarette rising. She walks in their direction, watching them, and, as if they were a fixture to which she could attach the thread that is holding her up, her step becomes somewhat lighter. It takes her a few moments to understand what is going on. The men are in front of a disused store. Behind the dirty window, in the dimness, dusty boxes and debris. But there is also a cat, and, facing it, back to the window, a rat. Both animals are staring at each other without moving; the hunt has come to an end, and the quarry has nowhere to run. Sublimely unhurried, the cat tenses its every nerve. The spectators are not simply statues now but beings of stone: planets, the elemental cold of the universe … The prostitute taps the window with her purse, the cat is distracted for a fraction of a second, and that is enough for the rat to escape. The men emerge from their reverie, look at the black accomplice with disgust; a drunk spits on her, two others follow her as she walks away … and before the darkness has vanished altogether, an act of violence will take place.
One story is followed by another. Vertigo. Retrospective vertigo. There’s an excess of continuity. Narrative traction cannot be suspended, even by inserting endings. Vertigo creates anxiety. Anxiety paralyses … and saves us from the danger that would justify vertigo: approaching the edge, for example the edge of the chasm that separates an ending from a continuation. Immobility is art in the artist, while all the events treated in the artwork take place on the other side of the glass. Night comes to an end, so does day: there’s something awkward in the work in progress. The opposite twilights drop like tokens into slots of ice. The eyes of statues closing when they open and opening when they close. Peace in war. And yet there’s a movement that’s out of control, and all too real; it makes others anxious and provides the model for our own anxieties. Art figures it as Endless Revolving Growth, and it gives rise to libraries, theaters, museums and whole universes of fantasy. It may stop, but if it does, an enormous number of remnants are left. After a while, the remnants begin to revolve and breed. Multiplication multiplies itself … But, as we know, there is only “the one life.” From which it follows that an artist’s biography is hard to distinguish from the trials of its writing: it’s not simply a matter of representing representation (anyone could do that) but of creating unbearable situations in thought. That’s why biographies are usually so long: nothing is ever enough to appease the mobile impulses of immobility. The stories try desperately to coalesce, they wrap themselves in pearly teleological scruples, the wind ignites them, they fall into the void … But maybe no one cares.
And why should anyone care? Biographies are the lives of others. Children read the illustrated biographies of famous musicians, who are always child prodigies, possessed by a mysterious genius. They understand the music of the birds and fall asleep to the murmur of streams. The obstacles that stand in the way of their careers are not placed there by reality but by the story’s didactic design. These lives are strikingly similar to those of the saints: persecution and martyrdom are the instruments of triumph. Because all the saints have succeeded. And not only the saints and the child prodigies: all the subjects of biographies have succeeded; they have won the competition. Of the numberless people who have lived, History saves only the winners, even when it is inspired by a humanitarian moralism. Because of their essential banality and their immutable conventions, these life stories don’t remain in the memory for long (they end up blurring into one another), but that doesn’t prevent them from distorting it, inserting definitive, iridescent slides that go from point A to point B, and then from B to C, and when the lights go out, the points are illuminated; they are the beautiful souls who have risen to heaven to make up constellations and horoscopes. How could we regard those books with anything but suspicion, especially since they were and are the fundamental nourishment of our past and future puerilities? “Before” there is the future success; “after,” its delicious rewards, all the more delicious for having been the object of remarkably punctual prophecies.
Let us examine a particular case, to refine the demonstration. For example, one of the great musicians of our time, whose existence is unquestionable. Cecil Taylor. Born into jazz, he remained faithful to its outward forms: the clubs and bars and festivals at which he performed, the instrumental groups he put together, even the odd vague (or inexplicable) declaration of an influence (Lenny Tristano, Dave Brubeck). But his originality transcended musical categories. His thing was jazz, but any other kind of music too, broken down into its individual atoms and reassembled, like one of those celibate machines that produced the dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century. According to the legend, Cecil made the first atonal jazz recording, in 1956, two weeks before Sun Ra independently arrived at the same result. (Or was it the other way around?) They didn’t know each other, nor did they know Ornette Coleman, who was doing similar work on the other side of the country. Which goes to show that beyond the genius or inspiration of those three individuals (and Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy and who knows how many others), causation was operating at some higher level.
That level is History, and History has an important role to play, because it allows us to interrupt the infinite series that are generated by the art of thinking. This is how interruption loses its false prestige and its insufferable preponderance. It becomes frivolous, redundant and trivial, like a muffled cough at a funeral. But its very insignificance gives birth to Necessity, which makes the rule of History manifest. Interruption is necessary, though it may be a momentary necessity, and the moment itself is necessary too, and often sufficient, which is why we say that a moment is “all it takes.”
In the end, biographies are literature. And what counts in literature is detail, atmosphere, and the right balance between the two. The exact detail, which makes things visible, and an evocative, overall atmosphere, without which the details would be a disjointed inventory. Atmosphere allows the author to work with forces freed of function, and with movements in a space that is independent of location, a space that finally abolishes the difference between the writer and the written: the great manifold tunnel in broad daylight … Atmosphere is the three-dimensional condition of regionalism, and the medium of music. Music doesn’t interrupt time. On the contrary.
1956. In New York City, there lived a man named Cecil Taylor, a black musician, not yet thirty years old, a technically innovative pianist, a composer and improviser steeped in the century’s popular and highbrow traditions. Except for half a dozen musicians and friends, no one knew or could understand what he was doing. How could they have understood? It lay beyond the scope of the predictable. In his hands the piano was instantly transformed into a free compositional method. The so-called “tone clusters” that he employed in his evanescent writing had already been used by the composer Henry Cowell, but Cecil took the procedure further, complicating the harmonies, systematizing the atonal sound current into tonal flows, producing unprecedented results. The speed of it, the interplay of different mechanisms, the insistence, the built-in resistances, the repetitions, the series, everything, in short, that contributed to the turn away from traditional harmonic structure erected majestic, airy ruins, on the far side of any recognizable melody or rhythm.
He lived in a modest, sublet apartment, on the lower East Side of Manhattan. The place was rife with black mice, and there was a floating population of cockroaches. Doors ajar, the routine promiscuity of an old apartment building with its narrow stairs and its radios playing. That was the kind of atmosphere. He slept there through the morning and part of the afternoon, and went out at dusk. He worked in a bar that was part of the scene. He’d already made a record (Jazz Advance) for a small independent label, which hadn’t distributed it. A date to play in the bar, which for various reasons hadn’t worked out, had given him the idea of asking for work, and he’d been there for a few months, washing dishes. He was waiting for offers to play in places that had a piano. Given the number of night spots with live music in the city at the time, and the constant turnover of famous and unknown performers, opportunities were bound to come up. It was a time of renewal; there was a hunger for novelty.
He knew, of course, that because of the demanding and radical nature of his art, he could forget about being suddenly or even gradually discovered, his reputation spreading like ripples when a stone falls into a pond. He wasn’t that naïve. But he was perfectly justified in hoping that sooner or later his talent would be acclaimed. (There’s a truth here, and an error: it’s true that now he is celebrated all around the world, and those of us who have listened to his records for years, gaping in admiration, would be the last to question that; but it’s also fairly easy (almost too easy, in fact) to demonstrate that there’s an error in the reasoning. It could, of course, be objected that such a demonstration is no more than a flight of literary fancy. Which is true, but then it’s also true that stories, once they’re imagined, acquire a kind of necessity. A strange and rare kind, whose strangeness has an influence, in turn, on the imagined story. The story of the prostitute who distracted the cat wasn’t necessary in itself, which doesn’t mean that the virtual series of all stories is unnecessary as a whole. The story of Cecil Taylor calls for the illustrative mode of the fable; the details are interchangeable, and atmosphere would seem to be out of place. But how can we hear music except in an atmosphere, since the sounds are transmitted by air?)
The bar in which his first performance finally took place (it wasn’t strictly speaking the first, because there’d been one already, but Cecil chose not talk about it) was a dive where music was secondary, a background to waiting and drug deals. But drugs, and waiting too (they went together), were so intimately related to time that the artist felt he should be able to arouse some interest; all he knew for sure was that he wouldn’t cause a scandal, which was a pity in a way, because a scandal is an intensification of interest, but it wasn’t in his gentle, contemplative nature; and in a place like that, where people were risking everything, they would hardly be shocked by one more disruption of the dominant key. He prepared himself by imagining indifference as a plane and interest as a point: the plane could cover the world like a paper shade, but interest was punctual and real like a pair of neighbors wishing each other good day. He readied himself for the inherent incongruence of the higher geometries. The unpredictable clientele could provide him with a modicum of attention: no one knows what grows by night (he would be playing after midnight, the following day, in fact), and when tomorrow appears today, it never goes totally unnoticed. Except for this time. To his astonishment, this time turned out to be precisely “never.” Invisible ridicule melting into inaudible giggles. It was like that all through the set, and the proprietor cancelled his date the following night, although he hadn’t paid for it. Cecil didn’t talk to him about his music, of course. He couldn’t see the point. He just went back to his room.
Two months later, his erratic work routine (he’d gone from washing dishes to working at a dry cleaner’s) was enlivened once again when he agreed to perform in a bar, just one night this time, in the middle of the week. It was like the previous bar, though maybe slightly worse, with the same kind of clientele; there was even a chance that some of those who’d been present the other night would hear him again. That’s what he got to thinking (what a dreamer!), misled by his own repetitions. His music reached the ears of fifteen or so drunks, and maybe those of one or two women dressed in silk: small, black, beautiful ears, each adorned with a golden bud. There was no applause, someone laughed stupidly (at something else, no doubt), and the owner of the bar didn’t even bother to say good night to him. Why would he? There are times like that, when music meets with no response. He made himself an idle promise to come back to the bar some other time (he’d been there before), to put himself in the situation, or rather the position, of someone listening to music and knowing that it’s music, so that he could imagine what it would be like: the consummate pianist intuiting each note as he plays it, the slow succession of melodies, the reason for the atmosphere. But he never did; it wasn’t worth the trouble. He considered himself unimaginative, unable even to imagine the reality surrounding him. After a week, the mental image of this latest failure blended with that of the previous one, which left him feeling somewhat bewildered. Could it have been a repetition? There was no reason why it should have been that simple, but sometimes simplification works in tandem with complication.
One autumn afternoon he was walking home, mentally humming something that he would translate into sounds as soon as he sat down at the piano (he paid by the hour for the use of a Steinway upright in a music school, after the lessons), when he ran into an ex-classmate from the New England Conservatory. As soon as he saw and recognized him, the music in his head fell silent. The reality of that individual—son of Norwegian immigrants, big nose, little ears—contaminated the street, the cars, even Cecil himself with empirical details. They started chatting; they hadn’t seen each other for eight years. Neither had betrayed his calling as an avant-garde musician: the Norwegian was making ends meet by giving lessons to children; his constructivist pieces for chamber orchestra hadn’t been performed, even privately; he was still playing the cello; and he had spoken with Stravinsky. Cecil let him talk, nodding sympathetically, though he made fun of Stravinsky in private. He paid more attention when the cellist said, in conclusion, that the career of the innovative musician was difficult because, as opposed to the conventional musician, who had only to please an audience, the innovator had to create a new one from scratch, like someone taking a red blood cell and shaping it with patience and love until it’s nice and round, then doing the same with another, and attaching it to the first, and so on until he has made a heart, and then all the other organs and bones and muscles and skin and hair, leaving the delicate tunnel of the ear with its anvils and miniature hammers till last … That was how he might produce the first listener for his music, the origin of his audience, and he would have to repeat the operation hundreds and thousands of times if he wanted to be recognized as a name in the history of music, with the same care every time, because if he got a single cell wrong, a fatal domino effect would bring the whole thing crashing down … The metaphor struck his drowsy interlocutor as suggestive, if a little extreme, and provoked a vague reply. The constructivist was impressed by Cecil’s sibylline presence, his whispering, his woolen cap. Had he made something of his life, instead of being a nonentity, he would have recorded the meeting in his memoirs, many years later.
A year earlier, Cecil had done some arrangements for the famous jazzman Johnny Hodges, who, in return, had offered him a contract for five nights at a hotel, playing piano in his band (which didn’t usually include a piano). The first four nights he didn’t even touch the instrument. The only one who noticed the silence was the trombone player, Lawrence Brown, who, before the start of the fifth performance, smiled at him and said: Hey, Cecil, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that piano has eighty-eight keys. How about you hit one?
The story came up late one night, at a table in the Five Spot, and though it wasn’t exactly proof of his credentials, and had to be explained, the upshot was an offer to play there one night during the week, as support for an avant-garde group. It was a heaven-sent opportunity, and he treated it as such. He gave up his job at the dry cleaner’s, bought a piano with a providential loan, and practiced almost non-stop, only breaking off to reply to his neighbors’ complaints with polite explanations. He had moved from the run-down tenement on the Lower East Side to a poky room on Bleeker Street.
The cream of the jazz world went to the Five Spot, so he would have an audience of connoisseurs. He convinced himself that the jolt of his playing could transform that audience and produce the applause that he had been denied till then. The theory of cumulative units that his ex-classmate had propounded was precisely that: a theory, an abstraction, nothing more. In reality, there was something magic about an audience, like a genie appearing from a lamp.
The night in question arrived; he climbed onto the stage, sat at the piano, and began. The amplifier died almost straight away—a technical fault, supposedly. It didn’t matter to him. But his performance was cut short by condescending applause. When he looked up, disconcerted, he saw the avant-garde musicians coming forward with their instruments and their simian smiles. He went to sit at a table where there were some people he knew; they were talking about something else. One took hold of his elbow and, leaning toward him, slowly shook his head. Laughing cheerfully, another came out with a supposedly apt remark: “It’s OK, it’s over now.” And that was all; they stopped talking to listen to the next number.
Someone came up to him and said: “I’m a poor black autodidact, but I have a right to express my opinion, and in my opinion what you do isn’t music.” Cecil just nodded and shrugged, as if to say, What can you do? But the self-proclaimed autodidact wasn’t content to leave it at that. “Don’t you want to know the reasons for my opinion? Are you so vain, do you really think being an artist makes you so superior that you don’t care what a fellow human being thinks?” “I’m sorry, I didn’t ask because I didn’t realize there were any reasons, but if there are, I’d be interested to hear them.” A satisfied smile from the autodidact, as if he had scored a point. He explained: “It’s very simple: music is a whole made up of parts that are also musical. If the part isn’t musical, the whole isn’t either.”
The argument didn’t seem irrefutable, but it wasn’t the time or the place to go into it. And there was a more general problem too. Cecil kept thinking about this experience over the following days, as he went distractedly about his business; he replayed what had happened step by step and tried to find an explanation. He thought perhaps the explanation would occur to him once he’d forgotten what had happened, but in the meantime he couldn’t help remembering. He mentally reconstructed the club, the movements of his fingers on the keyboard, the words and reactions of the others … and the reconstruction was accompanied by a slight sense of incredulity, the feeling inevitably provoked by whatever has, in fact, occurred.
Like a naughty child caught in the act, he confessed that he’d been hoping for a response from the musicians. The way he played might have sounded strange. Hyperharmonic piano percussion, spatial intentions translated into time, sound sculpture … (there are always plenty of formulae to account for an extraordinary phenomenon), and someone who wasn’t working in the field could well have been disconcerted. But the professional musicians who went to the Five Spot to keep up to date were aware of Schönberg and Varèse, and they used formulae themselves, all the time! The only explanation he could come up with, borrowing an argument from the crazy autodidact who had accosted him (maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all), was that “musicians are part of music”: because they couldn’t get outside it, they couldn’t offer any explicit recognition.
Actually, he wasn’t so sure that any of the musicians he thought he’d noticed had really been there because he was very short-sighted and wore dark glasses, which, combined with the subdued lighting, made it just about impossible to see. He promised himself, as he usually did, to come back later and assess the situation more objectively. He usually failed to keep those promises, and this time, preoccupied by other things, he let several weeks go by. He took a job as a night watchman at a supermarket and then as a cleaner in a bank, and both changes obliged him to rearrange his routine and his habits. Finally he went back to the Five Spot, to hear a singer he passionately admired, and was surprised to find a job offer waiting for him.
It turned out that a rich lady who lived on Fifth Avenue was hiring pianists for her bohemian dinner parties, and recruiting them from the Five Spot, as a kind of guarantee of quality. He never found out if they did it on purpose, to him or to her. In any case she was paying a hundred dollars, up front. Cecil prepared some lyrical improvisations (he recorded his ideas in a little notebook, using a personal system of dots). He walked in the park until the sun went down, in a state of mind hovering between “What do I care?” and a detached optimism. Squirrels were running about in the trees, as if the law of gravity had not yet come into effect. The sky suddenly turned an intense turquoise, the breeze died away, and there was a silence in which a plane could be heard flying over the city. He crossed the street and told the doorman who he was.
He entered the penthouse through the servants’ quarters, where he spent the best part of an hour drinking coffee with the staff. Finally, a valet dressed in black came to tell him it was time, then took him across the salon to the piano, a full-size grand, already open. He barely glanced at the guests, who were drinking and chatting, light years away from any conceivable music. He looked down at the keyboard and peered at the strings, shining like gold. It was a first-class piano, and seemed to be brand new.
He played a note with his left hand, a deep B flat, which reverberated with slow submarine convulsions … And that was all, because the lady of the house was standing beside him, closing the lid over the keys with a movement so smooth and effective it seemed to have been rehearsed.
“We’ll do without your company for today,” she said, looking around the salon. There was applause and laughter, but only from the guests who happened to be nearby. The room was very large.
Cecil was still perplexed hours later, talking it over with his lover. How could a single note possibly have such an effect? But had it been just a single note? He honestly couldn’t remember. He could have sworn it had been just the one, but perhaps within the dream of that note, he had played one or several of his famous “tone clusters,” or launched into some scales, or put his hands into the entrails of the piano.
No matter what exactly had happened, he should have expected some such reaction, from snobs like that with no knowledge of music. But he might have expected the opposite too, because his music, unable to break through their shell of ignorance, could have spread over its surface like vaseline and facilitated a superficial penetration.
Time went by, but brought no changes. That winter there were a number of notable opportunities. A bar with a bad reputation took him on for a week to provide some late night variety (he was to start at 2 AM). The bad reputation was due to the dealing done in the back room. The owner, who was also the dealer, was Irish; he went to see Cecil personally and explained what he wanted: real, innovative music, not just wallpaper. Cecil asked if he’d heard about his playing. He didn’t quite dare ask if he’d actually heard him play. The Irishman nodded without elaborating and offered him twenty dollars a night.
The place was seedy. The clientele was made up of black drug addicts, and a significant number of old ladies with resigned expressions, waiting in the corners. Two cobwebby pianos were standing guard at the back of the room. No one was paying any attention to the banjo trio and its messy chords. Paradoxically, there was a good ambience, a certain excitement in the air, almost like a prior music.
He sat down at one of the pianos … He wasn’t sure which one, he wasn’t there long enough to be sure, because he’d only played a pair of chords or bursts of notes when the owner of the bar tapped him on the shoulder and, with a worried look on his face, told him to wrap it up. Cecil took his hands off the keys and the downward pressure on his shoulder became an upward-pulling grip that lifted him to his feet. One of the old black ladies had appeared on the other side of him, and, as if she’d been waiting for a sign, slid into his place on the stool and began to play “Body and Soul.”
The Irishman showed him the way out, still looking worried. The speechless pianist was wondering what there could possibly be in his music to worry a man who dealt every day with the dangerous suppliers and buyers of hard drugs. The dealer held out a ten-dollar bill but, just as Cecil was about to take it, pulled his hand away.
“You weren’t playing some kind of joke, were you?”
There was a menacing gleam in his squint eyes. Cecil wondered whether there had really been two pianos. That character had been dealing in danger so long, he had absorbed it and become danger in person. He would have weighed 200 pounds, more than twice as much as the pianist, who didn’t wait around for further denigration.
Cecil was a kind of sprite, always stylish in spite of his limited means, wearing velvet and white leather, and pointed shoes that complemented his compact, muscular physique. He didn’t exercise, but the way he played the piano engaged every moveable molecule in his body. Sweating had become second nature to him. He could lose as much as ten pounds in an afternoon of improvising at his old piano. Extraordinarily absent-minded, whimsical and volatile, when he sat down and crossed his legs (in his loose pants, immaculate shirt and knitted waistcoat) he was as ornamental as a bibelot. His continual changes of address protected him; they were the little genie’s suspended dwelling, and there he slept on a bed of chrysanthemums, under the shade of a droplet-laden spider web.
That night he walked the deep streets of the island’s south, thinking. There was something odd: the attitude of the voluminous Irish heroin dealer was not substantially different from that of the lady who lived on Fifth Avenue, except that she didn’t seem worried, though perhaps she was just hiding it. And yet the two individuals were not at all alike. Except in that one respect. Could it be that the propensity to interrupt him was the common denominator of the human race? And he discovered something more in the Irishman’s final words, something he began to reconstruct from the memories of all his ill-fated performances. People always asked him if he was doing it as a joke. Some people, of course, the rich lady for example, didn’t deign to ask, but their behavior presupposed the question. And he wondered why the question applied to him, but not to others. For example, he would never have asked the lady, or the Irishman, if they did what they did (whatever it was) seriously or as a joke. There was something inherent in his work that raised the question.
Another rich lady, Mrs. Vanderbilt, figured in a famous anecdote, mentioned in virtually all the psychology books written around that time. She once decided to liven up a dinner party with some violin music. She asked who the best violinist in the world was. Why would she settle for second best? Fritz Kreisler, she was told. She called him on the telephone. I don’t give private concerts, he said: my fee is too high. That’s not a problem, replied Mrs. Vanderbilt: How much? Ten thousand dollars. All right. I’ll expect you tonight. But there is just one thing, Mr. Kreisler: you will dine in the kitchen with the servants, and you must not mix with my guests. In that case, he said, I’ll have to alter my fee. That’s not a problem, how much? Two thousand dollars, replied the violinist.
The behaviorists loved that story, and they would go on loving it all their lives, telling it to each other tirelessly and transcribing it in their books and articles. But what about hisanecdote, the one about Cecil Taylor? Would anyone love that? Would anyone tell it? Anecdotes had to succeed too—didn’t they?—for someone to repeat them.
That summer, along with a horde of other musicians, he was invited to participate in the Newport festival, at which a couple of afternoons would be given over to the presentation of new artists. Cecil thought about it: his music, which was essentially new, would be confronting in that festive, seaside atmosphere. All the same, it was a change from the smoke and chatter of bars: he’d be performing for jazz fans, who’d paid for their tickets and come to listen and judge. And yet, although he prepared for the event with his customary dedication, when the day came, his performance was an absolute fiasco. No one interrupted him this time, but the listening was interrupted: the audience walked out, which didn’t stop the critics and journalists among them having an opinion. Not even an opinion about him; they used it as a pretext to settle scores with the organizers, who were so lacking in judgment that they’d invited people who didn’t even play jazz, or any kind of music. The closest thing to criticism came from the Down Beat journalist. Without mentioning Cecil by name, and adopting an ironic tone, he trotted out a version of the Cretan liar paradox: If someone were to hammer a piano with his fists and say, “I am making music …” Music, thought Cecil as he read, can’t be paradoxical, because of its non-linguistic nature, and yet what is happening to me is a paradox. How can that be?
He couldn’t come up with an answer, then or ever. Over the following months he performed in half a dozen bars, always a different place because the result was always the same, and he received two invitations, which reopened the wound of anticipation, one from a university and the other from the organizers of a series of avant-garde events at the Cooper Union. He took up the first with some hope, which turned out to be misplaced (within a few minutes, the room was empty; the professor who had issued the invitation came up with complicated excuses and hated him ever after), but at least it served to provoke a reflection, which might have been misplaced as well, not that Cecil cared any more: an educated audience was equivalent in every respect to an uneducated one. They were the same, in fact, except that they were looking in opposite directions, facing away from each other. The pivot on which their seats turned was the hoary old tale of the emperor’s new clothes. For one group the obscene and shameful thing was nakedness; for the other, it was clothes.
His experience at the Cooper Union was even less gratifying. They used a blackout as a pretext to stop him half way through; there was vigorous booing, and from what he heard later, his performance left the audience wondering about the limits of music, and whether he had meant it as a joke.
Cecil gave up another of his temporary jobs, and with some money he’d saved, spent the winter months studying and composing. In spring, a contract came up for a couple of dates, in a bar in Brooklyn, where they laughed in his face and threw him out. As he was traveling home in the train, the rocking movement and the stations sliding by put him in a meditative frame of mind. It struck him that the logic of his predicament was in fact perfectly clear, and he wondered why he hadn’t seen it before: in all those edifying tales about pianos and violins, there was always a musician whose talent wasn’t recognized at first, but in the end it was. That was where the mistake lay, in the transition from failure to triumph, as if they were two points, A and B, joined by a line. In fact failure is infinite, because it’s infinitely divisible, unlike success.
Let’s suppose, said Cecil in the empty carriage at three in the morning, that in order to be recognized I have to perform for an audience whose coefficient of sensitivity and intelligence has a certain threshold value, x. And let’s say I start off performing for an audience with a coefficient of x/100, then I’ll have to “go through” an audience whose coefficient is x/50, then one with a coefficient of x/25 … and so on. There was no need to reinvent Zeno’s famous argument: it was all too obvious.
Six months later he was hired to play in a dive frequented by French tourists: existentialists, who came to the city of jazz in search of powerful emotions. He arrived at midnight, as agreed, and they took him straight to the piano. Sitting on the stool, he stretched his hands out toward the keys, and launched into a series of chords … There were a couple of unemphatic bursts of laughter. With a cheerful look on his face, the master of ceremonies was waving him off the stage. Had they already decided that it was a joke? No, they were actually quite indignant. To ease the tension, an older pianist took his place immediately. No one said a word to Cecil; still, he hoped they’d pay him a part of the promised sum (as they always did) and he stayed there watching and listening to the pianist. He could hear the influence of Ellington and Bud Powell … The guy wasn’t bad. A conventional musician, he thought, is always dealing with music in its most general form, as if leaving the particular for later, waiting for the right moment. And they did pay him: twenty dollars, on the condition that he would never show his face there again.
César Aira has published more than eighty books. The Musical Brain & Other Stories, his first collection of short fiction to appear in English, is forthcoming this March from New Directions.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.