A loud long scrape on the first violin opened the string quartet as written by a new composer called Teeming, spelt as in heavy rain, and nobody, according to the programme, seemed to know his or her Christian name. Alive or dead. Or what orientations the composer had enjoyed or suffered or was still enjoying or suffering. No backstory, no forward one, either.
Just the NOW story, when my neighbour in the audience whispered in my ear that the composer was said to be present. Incognito, no doubt, and, while the string quartet continued, I scanned whomever I could around me to identify the likeliest candidate.
I also looked quizzically at the stranger next to me who had had the effrontery to whisper something to me during the progress of a classical music concert, an event that was usually kept sacrosanct, respectful, dignified, with the minimum of coughing and other bodily noises, no talking or walking around as audiences once used to do in distant centuries … and of course NO applause between movements: premature applause being a dreadful modern habit because only at the end of any segmented work being played was applause appropriate.
By now the viola was the instrument at the forefront of the story, an unusual prominence for this instrument, with the two violins and cello taking a backseat. I had an impression of improvisation and discordancy. Atonality, some call it. I often say the more times you listen to such a piece the more it becomes engrained in your mind, and, if you persevere, becomes almost meaningful. But with a new work at a live concert such as this you could only have one bite at the cherry.
It was then appropriate that I noticed the printed programme showed this work had four movements. Nothing untoward in that part of this story. Most string quartets have four movements, unless, for example, the composer was like Shostakovich in his 15th string quartet where I recalled he had used 7 or 8 movements, each one an adagio. No, what really struck me in the programme was that each movement had a name. The first, to which I am now listening, is entitled Cherry Pie. The second, as yet unheard, Black Coffee, the third, Milk Shake, and the last, Blueberry Muffin. Sounded like the constituents of a snack treat for two people in some out-of-the-way cafe in Middle America.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that I cannot relate the movement of strident music to which I am listening to a cherry pie. Unless there is some subtle link that I am missing? An arch of themes hidden within the apparent noise? I can see sweat on the viola-player’s brow as he struggles with the friction between bow and string. I turn to my neighbour suspecting that he is in fact Teeming the composer himself who is enacting some ludicrous hoax masquerading as art. I am normally quite accepting of experimental music, but now even I doubt the value of what I am listening to.
I stopped writing briefly. Had I said there was no backstory or forward story relating to the unknown Teeming, only a NOW one? That made no sense as I tried to write all this down about that very person sitting somewhere in the audience of that music concert where his or her music is being played. It seems a bit over-careful, even in these politically correct days of the social justice warriors, to keep writing his or her, man or woman etc., so I decided then – decide now as I write this – to refer to Teeming henceforward as a man, in tune with the accepted custom of more amenable, less scrutinising times. Furthermore, I must note down here that there has just been delivered to my desk this snack: Blueberry Muffin and Milk Shake. A remarkable coincidence.
I never know what snacks are coming each morning. It can be any permutation of several things. The woman who brings them is quite unpredictable, and I have been thinking for some time now about getting rid of her. For example, this morning she is about an hour late and sporting audio earplugs with an abrasive noise in an unseemly beat coming from them into my study. I shrug and get back to what I am writing, only taking a few mouthfuls and sips from what she has brought me.
Meanwhile, I was back as part of the audience listening to the vigorously bowed strings of a quartet made up of two men and two women. The second movement had by now started after the audience’s coughing break between the first two movements. I looked back down at the programme to see that the titles of the movements were now in a different order but otherwise the same titles. But it didn’t seem to matter as the music itself did not seem to have changed after the coughing break. Also, I must make it clear that I was disgusted when a smattering of claps had burst out after the end of the first movement, but they were quickly stifled when those men and women owning the clapping hands realised what fools they were making of themselves. And so it went on, movement by movement, with my increasing irritation at both the music and the audience around me.
If Teeming were here, I had mixed feelings about him – sympathy for the lack of proper appreciation of his music and annoyance that he should have composed it in the first place. Most of my sympathy, however, I reserved for the string quartet players themselves, but how could I be sure they were playing the music properly in any event?
I could see they were following notes of music, written down on staves, as they quickly thumbed over each page during the progression of the so-called music. And I saw now that they had by now reached the end of the second movement. They sat back looking relieved, at least temporarily, in their chairs amid renewed and increased coughing, this time a noise even more stridently insistent than the music they had just finished playing. Thank God, no misplaced clapping this time, though.
I push the plate of crumbled remains of blueberry muffin away from me, taking a final sip of the tepid milkshake, one with very little flavour. I imagine the four players sharing a snack at the end of the concert in a cafe on the way home. Or did they divide into pairs in two different cafes? Perhaps that is what I shall now write about, by thankfully leapfrogging the last two movements of the string quartet in the process. I now have my own earplugs inserted in my ears and you might hear what is leaking from them into the room, if you listen carefully enough. Sounds like teeming rain, you say?
Meanwhile, the performance of the composition reached its end. I turned round to see if the composer would dare take a bow, thus revealing himself at last. But there was no clapping at all, I suddenly noticed. The whole audience was in fact made up of sexless faces above identical coats, all staring at me, now moving nearer along silently hissing grooves.