Cadenza! - Short Story by Jon Clair



n. 1. Music An imitative composition in which themes are related successively, harmonically, melodically in all the voices, to form the subject, from which the countersubject forms an interwoven accompaniment to balance the piece.

2. Psychiatry fugue state: a) A state of altered consciousness under which a person experiences a dissociative break in identity, and perceives some threat.
b) The state of mind achieved by gifted musicians attaining a high state of attention and focus to their art.

  • * *

Her delicate fingers waver above the correct notes; hold back just at the perfectly timed moment. She presses her fingers against the cold, ivory key an instance too late; the tempo is ruined. ‘Not as though it was ever there to begin with,’ she thinks. Refocussing, she flutters her fingertips above the key bed once more. She pecks at the keys, and is observably content with her rhythm and flow.

This never used to be such an involved piece for her; fugues used to come naturally, simply flower out of her fingertips and blossom into subject and countersubject, exposition and episode. Her fingers would travel across the board and the music would melt together like butter and sugar.

She poises herself and strikes the keys mindfully and assuredly. As her eyes strain to follow the music, she attempts to block out the chatter of the children on the floor behind her. They coo and giggle, not listening to their mother’s laborious music, but instead captivated by the bright and shiny toys.

As she nears the end of the second exposition, she falters and chokes. Slamming her palms against the keys, she haphazardly crushes sound from the piano. Striking the keyboard a second and third time, an explosion of discordant notes fills the room. The children fall silent as they turn to look at her. She shoots them a contemptuous glance evoked by the piece and they both begin to cry.

The few tears quickly grow into fits of howling and screaming. As she picks them up to take them to bed (they must be overtired), she realises that what once was overwhelming applause and cheering has been replaced by a couple of shrieking children. Instead of standing ovations, she is screamed at and rather than throwing rose petals, they whine at her feet.

From their bedroom, she returns to her piano stool and surveys the room. Even though it’s no less quiet than just a few minutes ago, it does, however, seem a great deal emptier. The floor is littered with food, toys and a scattering of rubbish. Old newspapers and stale bread; this has become her life. She spins herself around, and loses herself, staring straight through Bach’s The Art of the Fugue.

Her mind travels back to her university days, to the London Conservatorium of Music. The entrant examiner yawned as she sat on stage, furiously and feverishly playing her piece, what she considered to be perfectly. He had uninterestedly scribbled something down, yet she had still been accepted.

After her first day of uni, she went with a newfound friend to a start of term party. It was just like any other students’ party: noise, loud music, drinking, thumping base –headaches. She had only gone to meet people. She was, after all, new in the big city.

She wandered through the smoke-filled rooms, examining the people. They were too crass, and too drunk. They wore fashionable clothes, which made hers looks like rags. The girls wore make-up and high heels, and the guys clustered around their cars in packs, as though preparing for the hunt.

She sought salvation in a lounge room, away from the centre of things. One or two of the other quieter people tried to strike up conversation, but she had neither the patience nor the capacity to be sociable. Bored and overwhelmed, she looked around the room for some escape from the pervading sense of suffocation.

There. In the corner; a small, upright piano was hidden in plain sight. She sat down and lifted its cumbersome lid, and shuffled through the loose sheet music before deciding upon The Art of the Fugue, by Bach. Pressing firmly on the keys, she could hardly hear the music: her chords were drowned out by the thumping beat and pumping base of the insufferable gathering.

Pressing harder again, and listening more intently, she endeavoured onwards. She mustered herself against the stereo, and focused on her piece. Her eyes became dreamy and her shoulders relaxed, as she was lost among the spiralling chords and the crushing crescendos.

She was entrapped, completely absorbed by the music as it worked its magic. The subject sang to her, and the countersubject sang back. Note against note, the counterpoint fell upon her– the music, heavy with her enthusiasm, zeal and raw talent, encompassed her entire being.

She cadenced to a stop, her grip releasing the last note from her clutches. It fluttered to the floor and echoed off the walls. And then there was silence.

Only once she had lifted her fingers from the keyboard, did she re-enter the room. There It was impossible for her to tell for just how long she’d been playing. As the music washed from her ears, a disconcerting feeling came over.

It was silent.

She turned around, slowly, unsure of what to expect. There, gathered into that tiny room, stood the entire party. Someone had switched off the stereo, and nobody felt the need to turn it back on. They stood there and stared in admiration, in awe of this new girl. One person began to clap, slowly but confidently. A few more joined in, then a few more, and eventually all else was drowned out by their applause as she tried to hide a tiny smile.

  • * *

“Waaaah!�? A cry from the youngest tears her from reverie. She smooths back her hair, and pulls her chin down to her chest. Everything aches; her muscles, her mind, her veins, her heart. A sense of futility begins to creep in, to sneak up on her.

Before apathy and cynicism can sink in too far, she rallies herself up again. She shuts her eyes, closing them tightly. Reclaiming her hearing from the little banshees, she trails her fingers along the sleek and lustrous surface of the key bed. She begins.

The sense of foreboding that usually accompanied the beginning of this piece was no where to be found. She completes the first section flawlessly, and by the second has descended through the music. The staves float around her, spiralling through the air. As the rhythm dances across the keys, she leans deeper and deeper into the piano. Further and further in she leans, as though willing herself to be one with the music. She strikes the crotchets heavily and pinches the quavers out lightly.

The end nears– the unfinished end. Her mind races as she struggles to envision a way in which close the most famous of the incomplete pieces. She nearly chokes again as the staff runs empty on the page. However, someone else takes over. Someone who has been sitting within her, sitting dormant all this time. The virtuoso leans forward and takes the reins. A flow of improvised melody and harmony erupts from the piano. Succumbing to the music, she truly learns the meaning of cadenza. Time loses all meaning, dirty kitchens no longer matter. Everything seems heavenly.

As the final chord resonate from the crown of her head down to the soles of her feet, she exhales a heavy breath and opens her eyes. Blinding lights greet her, and a vaguely familiar, yet estranged feeling overcomes her. It’s silent; her children have fallen peacefully and thankfully to sleep. Inspiration inhabits her heart again, released to flow through her veins once more.

Jon Clair

This short story has been written in creative response to the poem “Suburban Sonnet" by Gwen Harwood, and due credit for her work should be given where appropriate.

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