“Classic music is th’ kind that we keep thinkin’ll turn into a tune.”
– Frank McKinney
March 30, 2012
“Tell me about music,” Prisco said.
“Tell you about music?” Reagan took a sip from his glass of club soda, listening to the buzz of the other patrons around them. He glanced at his watch to confirm that he had a few minutes before the quartet had to start their second set. “You might as well ask me to explain the origin of the universe.”
“The cosmos began with a bang approximately thirteen point seven billion years ago, as you measure time. A fraction of a moment later, the universe was a formless soup of the most elementary particles, quarks and leptons.”
“Quark was a character in the television series Deep Space Nine. He was a Ferengi. I don’t even know what a lepton is.”
“A lepton is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. The best known of all leptons is the electron that governs nearly all of chemistry as it is found in atoms. It ties directly to all chemical properties.”
“Okay. You know, sometimes you really do sound like Mr. Spock.”
“Another fictitious character.”
“Only one of the most beloved sci-fi characters of our generation – you never watched Star Trek growing up in the sixties?”
“I did. But I found the special effects lacking, the storylines trite. Not to mention I found Captain Kirk an arrogant womanizer. What did women see in him?”
“Does it matter, Prisco? It was science fiction. I was seven. I had no interest in whether Kirk and Yeoman Rand were getting it on, or whether he scored with Yvonne Craig as the green-skinned Orion woman. It was only after I reached puberty that she became hot. All I cared about was going where no man had gone before. As for the special effects, sure they’ve come light years since then, but they were state of the art back then. What was important was what they made happen inside my head, how they stimulated my imagination, and gave me hope for the future, that man might one day put aside his differences, see beyond race and culture, to live in harmony. Besides, as far as violence and sex are concerned, we’ve been desensitized in this country. There was a time when we couldn’t see Rob and Laura Petrie in the same bed together.”
“Who are they?” Prisco took a sip of his ginger ale.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show? A sitcom in the early sixties.”
“My parents did not get a television until 1967.”
“It never occurred to me to ask my parents where their son Richie came from, since his parents slept in separate beds.”
“I assume the way all children come into the world.”
“He wasn’t really their son, Prisco. He, too, was an actor. But TV back then was much simpler, and far less suggestive and graphic. When the bad guy got shot on Gunsmoke, we never saw any blood. He merely doubled over and died with a groan. Today we see all manner of soft porn in prime time, as well as autopsies in all their gruesome detail.”
“Do you think that has contributed to the decay of your society?”
Again Reagan thought Prisco sounded as if he were of another species, an outside observer gathering data on a dissertation of the fall of mankind.
“I’m convinced of it,” Reagan said.
“And you accept it.”
“What can I do to change it?” Reagan shrugged. “Adam and Eve chose knowledge. By doing so, they opened Pandora’s Box. You expect me, a nobody from Northville, to not only close the lid, but get everything back inside the box?”
Prisco shook his head. “Of course not.” Then he continued with his diatribe on the origin of the cosmos – he was good at that, finding his way back to his original subject.
“The universe expanded and cooled, and layers of structure developed – neutrons and protons, atomic nuclei, atoms, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and super-clusters. The part of the universe that can be observed is composed of a hundred billion galaxies, each containing a hundred billion stars, and a number of planets at least equal in number. The universe continued, and continues to expand, at an accelerating pace, driven by dark energy, a form of energy whose gravitational force repels rather than attracts.”
“Okay, Prisco,” Reagan said. “You would know that, and thanks for the science lesson. But what caused the Big Bang?”
Prisco thought a moment. “It was not an explosion. It did not occur inside a laboratory. Assuming that neither time nor space existed before the bang, then we can conclude only that there was no cause.”
“Assuming? That’s not like you, Prisco, to make assumptions.”
“What could exist previous to that moment of creation?”
“That, I think, is for far greater minds than mine to determine.”
“The solution, the reason for creation, must therefore exist outside time and space.”
“If I said, ‘yes,’ you would then ask from where does God come.” Prisco never ended a sentence with a preposition.
“Hasn’t he always existed?” Reagan took a swallow from his glass of club soda.
“To consider that presents a conundrum – a situation related to causality no easier to explain than a universe born from nothing. A creator that has always existed is a being that, itself, or himself or herself, exists without a cause.”
“Perhaps that’s where faith comes in. Yet if God were to ever ask me what I thought Man’s greatest achievement was, I’d have to say, ‘Our ability to achieve new and more efficient ways of killing each other, the innocents especially.’ That we can kill so easily, without conscience, has led us to shirk our responsibility to the global community.”
Prisco raised his eyebrows. “The question is one of biology, or more pointedly, evolution. A century ago, your people couldn’t comprehend that the Milky Way was only one galaxy in a sea of galaxies numbering one hundred billion. Two centuries ago, you couldn’t imagine the stars were more distant than thirteen thousand light years. Five hundred years ago, you believed your planet was stationary to your sun. Around 300 BC, Aristotle went against the belief of a flat planet to put forth the notion that it was instead spherical-shaped.”
Reagan smiled. For as long as he’d known Prisco, which wasn’t long at all – not by age of the universe standards, or by standards of the average life expectancy of the average man – only a few months, Prisco always set himself apart from the rest of humanity, referring to his fellow men and women as “your people.” Reagan assumed it was nothing more than elitist behavior, despite the fact that Prisco sounded rather Spock-ish in his naiveté. But Spock was a fictional character from a fictional planet, figments of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination.
“The truth of the cosmos,” Prisco continued, “it would seem, is always beyond what can be conceived.”
“Well, then, it’s only a matter of time before we learn the truth.”
“Hardly likely,” Prisco said. “With your proclivity for making war, your growing population, and the rate at which you use up your planet’s resources, you will become extinct before you learn the answer. However, to respond to your statement, the mind is finite. Its comprehension is limited. Suffice it to say that some questions will always be beyond understanding.”
“Oh,” Reagan said.
“That is the fate of all civilizations – to perish before they can achieve total understanding.”
“And you know this, how? Wait, don’t tell me – it would seem, to you, to be ‘logical.’”
“It is logical.”
“Do you at least have a theory about the origin of the universe?”
“As is the case with all theories, there comes a time when it must be put to the test, outside the laboratory. I know only that the answer, whatever it may be, will be strange, and likely beyond my experience.”
“On the other hand, maybe it’ll be so simple a child could understand it.”
“Highly unlikely,” Prisco said.
“Will all be made known to us after we die?”
“The essence of who we are never really dies. It merely transmutates into something else.”
“Greater is subjective.”
“Something spiritual then?”
Prisco ignored Reagan’s question: “You will see beyond the virtual reality of your corporeal existence. Yet it, too, will be limited.”
“And you know this how?”
“I –” Prisco thought better of his response. “That is beyond my knowledge and understanding.”
“What about your experience?” Reagan attempted to bait the hook he knew Prisco to be. At times Prisco seemed adolescent beyond … well, beyond the great beyond. But Reagan also found him to be wise beyond human measure. Beyond this virtual reality.
Prisco only steered the discussion elsewhere, leaving Reagan to wonder if he were perhaps incapable of telling an untruth, only able to withhold it, a sort of Star Trek prime directive, Starfleet’s General Order number one, which dictates no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations that have not yet achieved warp technology, and therefore are unaware of the existence of other worlds in galaxies far, far away. Reagan knew that he was mixing pop culture icons, but withholding a truth, to Reagan, was the same as telling an untruth.
Reagan glanced at his watch; his break was nearly over.
“Tell me about music,” Prisco asked again.
Reagan sighed. “Music is a strange thing. I would almost say it is a miracle. For it stands halfway between thought and phenomenon, between spirit and matter.”
“You quote Heinrich Heine, a nineteenth century German poet.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yet you quoted him.”
Reagan laughed, and played to Prisco: “We humans are like that. We often know things without knowing how we know, or from whence we got the knowledge.”
“Doesn’t that infringe upon copyright laws?”
Reagan grinned. “Only if we use such knowledge for gain – usually monetary. I know the quote, read it somewhere. But who wrote it is unimportant to me.”
“Why is it unimportant to me? I don’t know. I’m a wealth of knowledge of worthless trivia. The human condition maybe? I liked the quote, even if I can’t remember where I read it, and so I committed it to memory. Someone else may read it, find it unimportant to them, and so they will immediately forget both it and the man who wrote it.”
Prisco seemed to find that incomprehensible; Reagan continued.
“You want to know about music. I learned in my youth that music is mathematical, a statement I won’t pretend to understand, even though I play bass guitar in a jazz quartet.”
“Mathematics is the basis of sound,” Prisco said. “The musical aspects of sound exhibit a remarkable array of numerical properties. Nature itself is mathematical. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece studied the expression of musical scales in terms of numerical ratios, particularly those of small integers. They believed that all nature consists of harmony arising out of numbers.”
“You don’t say?”
“I did say.” One of those many moments Prisco betrayed his ingenuousness.
Reagan laughed. “I know nothing about Pythagoreans.”
“Yet you are of this planet.”
“That has nothing to do with my knowledge of the ancients. I love music. That I do doesn’t mean I have a desire to understand it in terms of ratios and numbers. In fact, if I understood music at that level, I’d likely be unable to play.”
“I’ve known a few mathematicians in my time, and computer geeks and IT types. Most are introverts, lacking much in the way of social skills.”
“As are many artists,” Prisco said. “Introverts lacking communal dexterity.”
“True. But geeks are outcasts. Musicians are cool, hep.”
“An earlier version of ‘hip,’” Reagan said. “It got its start in the early days of jazz. If you got jazz, you were downtown, man; groovy, mod, now, trendy, turned-on, and with it.”
Prisco thought a moment before saying, “Au courant.”
“Yeah, that,” Reagan said, making a mental note to look up the term. “Back in Monk’s day, devotees referred to him as Theonliest, which was a play on his first name, Thelonious. To them, no one else existed in jazz. He was the onliest.”
Prisco only nodded and asked his question again: “Why would you be unable to play if your understanding of music included its mathematical aspects?”
“I knew a computer geek who played a musical instrument – guitar. He dug music – that is, he grooved on the blues.”
“He thought it was groovy?”
“Right. By day, Larry works for EDS, implementing computer hardware and software for clients. Extremely proficient at what he does. A few months ago, when I was considering adding a guitarist to Imbroglio, Larry auditioned for us.”
“He didn’t play well?” Prisco said.
“He played very well. That was the problem.”
Prisco looked confused.
“He was very precise. Played the notes as they were written. But we’re a jazz quartet, Pris. Jazz is about improvisation. Music is as much about playing the notes in the right key as it is about feeling the music, and putting feeling into the notes. In jazz, one must play not only what’s there, but what’s not there.”
Prisco only shook his head.
“Think about an author reading from his or her own book. He or she might write beautiful prose, lyrical. But if they stand there and read it in a dull monotone, with no inflection – no feeling – the end result will only bore the listener.”
Prisco sipped from his glass of ginger ale; Reagan continued:
“I dig music. It’s a universal language. It transcends gender, race and culture. It inspires. It can soothe the savage breast, incite a people to revolt. It can bring two lonely hearts together.”
“But how does it do those things?”
Reagan shrugged. “I don’t know. Is the how really so important?”
“To exist is to seek understanding.”
Reagan shrugged again. “All creatures, great and small, have emotions. Somehow, music manages to touch those emotions, and it’s capable of amplifying them. Even my father, who disliked rock and roll in general, recognized quality musicianship. I came home one Saturday, after playing baseball, to find him listening to Chic Corea’s “Return to Forever,” which I’d bought the week before. I’d listened to it that morning, and had left it on my turntable. Although “Return to Forever” was more jazz-based than Corea’s later jazz-rock fusion albums, Dad told me he really enjoyed Chick’s keyboard playing, as well as Joe Farrell’s soprano sax. They touched Dad, and amplified his love of music.” Reagan smiled, and added: “Maybe our connection to music goes back to our time spent in the womb – the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat. The rhythm of love. Beyond that, I can only say that some things, like what existed before existence, are beyond understanding.”
Reagan saw his band mates taking the stage, so he finished his glass of club soda and told Prisco he’d see him after the final set.
As Reagan hoisted his bass, he looked out at the sparse Wednesday night crowd. LIVE had recently acquired new ownership and changed its name from Goodnite Gracie. On the corner of Huron and 1st Street in Ann Arbor, the weekly lineup included a live music showcase each Wednesday night, a Thursday grad night, a live music happy hour on Friday evenings, and a DJ on Friday and Saturday nights. Reagan much preferred his Saturday night gigs at Gotham City, just down 1st Street a couple blocks. The crowds were larger and far livelier, no doubt because of the weekend. But a gig was a gig, and he needed the money.
A few moments later, the Reagan Imbroglio Quartet – composed of keyboards, bass, drums and alto sax – launched into an instrumental jazz-rock fusion rendition of “Dixie Chicken.” From the Lowell George era of Little Feat, so named for the size of the feet of the band’s founding father, “Dixie Chicken” was the showcase piece of their live performances. George had once played with Frank Zappa; but their creativity clashed, and Zappa eventually told George that he needed to get his own band. “Dixie Chicken” was the tune after which Dixie Chicks had taken their name.
The piece lasted nearly twenty minutes, and allowed each band member to take extended improvisational rides. Near the end of the piece, Reagan heard the final verse in his head:
“Well, it’s been a year since she ran away – guess that guitar player sure could play. She always liked to sing along – she’s always handy with a song. Then one night in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel, I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well. And as he handed me a drink, he began to hum a song. And all the boys there at the bar began to sing along … If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee Lamb. And we can walk together down in Dixieland … down in Dixieland.”
In Reagan’s life, it had been fifteen years since she ran away.