• 2005-12-13

    early music By Jeffrey Eugenides




    As soon as he came in the front door, Rodney went straight to the music room. That was what he called it, wryly but not without some hope: the music room. It was a small, dogleg-shaped fourth bedroom that had been created when the building was cut up into apartments. It qualified as a music room because it contained his clavichord.

    There it stood on the unswept floor: Rodney’s clavichord. It was apple-green with gold trim and bore a scene of geometric gardens on the inside of its lifted lid. Modelled on the Bodechtel clavichords built in the seventeen-nineties, Rodney’s had come from the Early Music Store, in Edinburgh, three years ago. Still, resting there majestically in the dim light—it was winter in Chicago—the clavichord looked as though it had been waiting for Rodney to play it not only for the nine and a half hours since he’d left for work but for a couple of centuries at least.

    You didn’t need that big a room for a clavichord. A clavichord wasn’t a piano. Spinets, virginals, fortepianos, clavichords, and even harpsichords were relatively small instruments. The eighteenth-century musicians who’d played them were small. Rodney was big, however—six feet three. He sat down gently on the narrow bench. Carefully he slid his knees under the keyboard. With closed eyes he began to play from memory a Sweelinck prelude.

    Early music is rational, mathematical, a little bit stiff, and so was Rodney. He’d been that way long before he’d ever seen a clavichord or written an (unfinished) doctoral dissertation on temperament systems during the German Reformation. But Rodney’s immersion in the work of Bach père et fils had only fortified his native inclinations. The other piece of furniture in the music room was a small teak desk. In its drawers and pigeonholes were the super-organized files Rodney kept: health-insurance records; alphabetized appliance manuals along with warranties; the twins’ immunization histories, birth certificates, and Social Security cards; plus three years’ worth of monthly budgets stipulating household expenses down to the maximum allowed for heating (Rodney kept the apartment a bracing fifty-eight degrees). A little cold weather was good for you. Cold weather was like Bach: it sorted the mind. On top of the desk was this month’s folder, marked “FEB ’05.” It contained three credit-card statements with horrendous running balances and the ongoing correspondence from the collection agency that was dunning Rodney for defaulting on his monthly payments to the Early Music Store.

    His back was straight as he played; his face twitched. Behind closed eyelids, his eyeballs fluttered in time with the quick notes.

    And then the door swung open and Imogene, who was six, shouted in her longshoreman’s voice:

    “Daddy! Dinner!”

    Having completed this task, she slammed the door shut again. Rodney stopped. Looking at his watch, he saw that he’d been playing—practicing—for exactly four minutes.

    The house Rodney grew up in had been neat and tidy. They used to do that in those days. They used to houseclean. They, of course, meant she: a mother. All those years of vacuumed carpets and spick-and-span kitchens, of shirts that miraculously picked themselves up off the floor only to reappear freshly laundered in the dresser drawer—the whole functioning efficiency that used to be a house was no more. Women had given all that up when they went to work.

    Or even when they didn’t. Rebecca, Rodney’s wife, didn’t work outside the home. She worked in the apartment, in a back bedroom. She didn’t call it a bedroom. She called it an office. Rodney had a music room in which he played little music. Rebecca had an office in which she did little business. But she was in there a lot, all day, while Rodney was at work at a real office in the city.

    As he came out of the sanctuary of the music room, Rodney stepped around the cardboard boxes and rolls of bubble wrap and stray toys crowding the hall. He turned sideways to squeeze by the squad of winter coats hanging on the wall above crusty boots and single mittens. Moving into the living room, he stepped on something that felt like a mitten. But it wasn’t. It was a stuffed mouse. Sighing, Rodney picked it up. A little bigger than a real mouse, this particular mouse was baby blue in color and wore a black beret. It appeared to have a cleft palate.

    “You’re supposed to be cute,” Rodney said to the mouse. “Exert yourself.”

    The mice were what Rebecca did. They were part of a line called Mice ’n’ Warmª, which included, at present, four “characters”: Modernist Mouse, Boho Mouse, Surfer-Realist Mouse, and Flower-Power Mouse. Each artistic rodent was filled with aromatic pellets and was irresistibly squeezable. The selling point (still mainly theoreti-cal) was that you could put these mice in the microwave and they would come out muffin-warm and smelling like potpourri.

    Rodney carried the mouse in cupped hands, like an injured thing, into the kitchen.

    “Escapee,” he said, by way of greeting.

    Rebecca looked up from the sink, where she was straining pasta, and frowned. “Throw that in the trash,” she said. “It’s a reject.”

    From the twins at the table came a cry of alarm. They didn’t like the mice to meet untimely ends. Springing up, they rushed their father with clutching hands.

    Rodney held Boho Mouse higher.

    Immy, who had Rebecca’s sharp chin along with her clear-eyed determination, climbed up on a chair. Tallulah, always the more instinctive and feral of the two, just grabbed Rodney’s arm and started walking up his leg.

    While this assault was under way, Rodney said to Rebecca, “Let me guess. It’s the mouth.”

    “It’s the mouth,” Rebecca said. “And the smell. Smell it.”

    In order to do so, Rodney had to turn and pop the mouse into the microwave, hitting the warm-up button.

    After twenty seconds, he took the warm mouse out and held it to his nose.

    “It’s not that bad,” he said. “But I see what you mean. A little more armpit than would be ideal.”

    “It’s supposed to be musk.”

    “On the other hand,” said Rodney, “B.O. is perfect for a bohemian.”

    “I’ve got five kilos of musk-scented pellets,” moaned Rebecca, “which are now useless.”

    Rodney crossed the kitchen and stepped on the trash-can pedal, raising the lid. He tossed the mouse in and let the trash can close. It felt good to toss the mouse. He wanted to do it again.

    It had probably not been a wise move to buy the clavichord. For one thing, it cost a small fortune. And they didn’t have a fortune of any size to spend. Also, Rodney had stopped playing professionally ten years earlier. After the twins were born, he’d stopped playing altogether. To drive all the way down to Hyde Park from Logan Square, and then to drive around and around looking for a place to park (Hyde Park, went the joke, you can’t hide and you can’t park), and then to unpeel his U. of Chicago I.D. from his wallet, holding a thumb over the ridiculously out-of-date photo while waving it at the security guard, in order to gain admittance to practice room 113, where for an hour, on the battered but not untuneful university clavichord, Rodney would work through a few bourrées and roundelays, just to keep a hand in—all that became too difficult after the kids were born. Back in the days when Rodney and Rebecca had both been pursuing Ph.D.s (back when they were childless and super-focussed and surviving on yogurt and brewer’s yeast), Rodney had spent three or four hours a day playing the department clavichord. The harpsichord next door had been in great demand. But the clavichord was always free. This was because it was a pedal clavichord, that rare beast, and no one liked to play it. It was a speculative replica of an early-eighteenth-century clavichord, and the pedal unit (which some lead-footed student had stomped on pretty thoroughly) was a little funky. But Rodney got used to it, and from then on the clavichord was like Rodney’s own personal instrument, until he dropped out of the program and became a father and took a job on the North Side giving piano lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

    The thing about early music was: nobody knew quite what it sounded like. Disputes about how to tune a harpsichord or clavichord constituted a good part of the discipline. The question was “How had Bach tuned his harpsichord?” And nobody knew. People argued about what Johann Sebastian had meant by “wohltemperirt.”They tuned their instruments in a historically likely manner and studied the hand-drawn schematics on the title pages of various of Bach’s compositions.

    Rodney had intended to settle this question in his dissertation. He was going to figure out, once and for all, exactly how Bach had tuned his harpsichord, how his music had sounded at the time, and, therefore, how it should be played now. To do this, he would have to go to Germany. He would have to go, in fact, to East Germany (Leipzig) in order to examine the actual harpsichord on which Bach himself had composed and onto whose keyboard (so it was rumored) the Master had written his preferred markings. In the fall of 1987, with the help of a doctoral grant—and with Rebecca on a Stiftung at the Freie Universität—Rodney had set off for West Berlin. They lived in a two-room sublet near Savignyplatz featuring a sit-down shower and a toilet with a shelf. The leaseholder was a guy named Frank, from Montana, who’d come to Berlin to build sets for experimental theatre. A married professor had also used the place to entertain his girlfriends. In the flannel-sheeted bed where Rebecca and Rodney had sex, they encountered miscellaneous pubic hairs. The professor’s shaving equipment remained in the tiny, malodorous bathroom. On the toilet shelf their feces landed high and dry, ready for inspection. It would have been unbearable if they hadn’t been twenty-six and poor and in love. Rodney and Rebecca washed the sheets and hung them out to dry on the balcony. They got used to the dinky tub. They continued to complain about, and be entirely grossed out by, the shelf.

    West Berlin wasn’t what Rodney had expected. It was nothing like early music. West Berlin was completely irrational and unmathematical, not stiff but loose. It was full of war widows, draft dodgers, squatters, anarchists. Rodney didn’t like the cigarette smoke. The beer made him feel bloated. So he escaped, going as often as he could to the Philharmonie or the Deutsche Oper.

    Rebecca had fared better. She’d become friendly with the people in the Wohngemeinschaft one floor above them. Wearing soft-soled Maoist shoes or ankle bracelets or ironic monocles, the six young Germans pooled their money, swapped partners, and held deep-throated conversations about Kantian ethics as it applied to traffic disputes. Every few months, one or another of them disappeared to Tunisia or India or returned to Hamburg to enter the family export business. At Rebecca’s urging, Rodney politely attended their parties, but he always felt too scrubbed in their company, too apolitical, too blithely American.

    In October, when he went to the East German Embassy to pick up his academic visa, Rodney was told that his request had been denied. The minor diplomat who relayed this news wasn’t an East Bloc functionary but a kind-looking, balding, nervous man, who seemed genuinely sorry. He himself was from Leipzig, he said, and as a child had attended the Thomaskirche, where Bach had been the director of choir and music. Rodney appealed to the American Embassy, but they were powerless to help. He made a frantic call to his adviser, Professor Breskin, back in Chicago, who was going through a divorce and was less than compassionate. In a sardonic voice he’d said, “Got any other dissertation ideas?”

    The lindens along the Ku’damm lost their leaves. In Rodney’s opinion, the leaves had never turned orange enough, red enough, to die. But this was how autumn was handled in Prussia. Winter, too, never quite got to be winter: rain, gray skies, scant snow—just a dampness that worked its way into Rodney’s bones as he walked from church concert to church concert. He had six months left in Berlin and no idea how to fill them.

    And then, in early spring, a wonderful thing had happened. Lisa Turner, the cultural attaché at the American Consulate, invited Rodney to tour Germany, playing Bach, as part of a Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft Programm. For a month and a half, Rodney travelled through mostly small towns in Swabia, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Bavaria, putting on concerts in local halls. He stayed in dollhouse-size hotel rooms full of dollhouse knickknacks; he slept on single beds under wonderfully soft duvets. Lisa Turner accompanied him, seeing to Rodney’s every need and taking particular care of his travelling companion. This wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca had stayed in Berlin to write the first draft of her thesis. Rodney’s companion was a clavichord, made by Hass in 1761 and, then and now, the single most beautiful, expressive, and finicky clavichord Rodney’s trembling, delighted hands had ever touched.

    Rodney wasn’t famous. But the Hass clavichord was. In Munich, three separate newspaper photographers had shown up before the concert at the Rathaus to take a picture of the clavichord. Rodney stood behind it, a mere retainer.

    That the audiences who came to see Rodney weren’t large, that the universally retired members of these audiences were permanently stone-faced from years and years of faithfully enduring high culture, that fifteen minutes into a piece by Schiedemann a third of the audience would be asleep, their mouths open as though singing along or sustaining one long complaint—none of that bothered Rodney. He was getting paid, which had never happened before. The halls that Lisa Turner optimistically rented were two- or three-hundred-seat places. With twenty-five or sixteen or (in Heidelberg) three people in attendance, Rodney had the feeling that he was alone, playing for himself. He tried to hear the notes the Master had played more than two hundred years earlier, to catch them on the wind of the moment and reproduce them. It was like bringing Bach back to life and going back in time simultaneously. This was what Rodney thought about as he played in those cavernous, echoing halls.

    The Hass clavichord wasn’t as thrilled as Rodney. The clavichord complained a lot. It didn’t want to go back to 1761. It had done its work and wanted to rest, to retire, like the audience. The tangents broke and had to be repaired. A new key went dead every night.

    Still, the early music rang out, prim and lurching and undeniably antique, and Rodney, its medium, like a man on a flying horse, maintained his balance on the stool. The keyboard rose and fell, thumped, and the music whirled on.

    When he returned to Berlin in late May, Rodney found he had less enthusiasm for strict musicology. He wasn’t sure anymore if he even wanted to be an academic. Instead of getting a Ph.D., he toyed with the idea of enrolling at the Royal Academy of Music, in London, and pursuing a performing career.

    West Berlin, meanwhile, had been undoing and remaking Rebecca. In that walled, subsidized half-city, no one seemed to have a job. The comrades in the Wohngemeinschaft spent their time nurturing the sad orange trees on their concrete balcony. Volunteering at the Schwarzfahrer Theatre, Rebecca played electrified accompaniment, half Kraftwerk, half Kurt Weill, for the antic, anti-nuclear goings on onstage. Up late at night, sleeping ever later in the morning, she made little progress on her examination of Johann Georg Sulzer’s “Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste” as it related to theoretical concepts of musical listening in eighteenth-century Germany. To be specific, while Rodney was away Rebecca had managed to write five pages.

    They had a wonderful year in Berlin, Rodney and Rebecca. But their doctoral research led them to the inescapable conclusion that they didn’t want to be doctors of anything.

    They moved back to Chicago and drifted. Rodney joined an early-keyboard group that gave intermittent concerts. Rebecca took up painting. They moved to Bucktown and, a year later, to Logan Square. They lived on next to nothing. They lived like Boho Mouse.

    Rodney’s fortieth birthday found him with the flu. He got out of bed with a fever of a hundred and three, called the school to cancel his lessons, then got back into bed.

    In the afternoon, Rebecca and the girls brought in a weird-looking birthday cake. Through gummed-up eyelids, Rodney saw the lemon sponge cake of the soundboard, the marzipan of the keys, and the chocolate slab of the lid supported by a peppermint stick.

    Rebecca’s gift was a plane ticket to Edinburgh and a down payment made out to the Early Music Store. “Do it,” she said. “Just do it. You need it. We’ll work it out. The mice are starting to sell.”

    That was three years ago. Now they were gathered around the gimpy-legged secondhand kitchen table, and Rebecca warned Rodney, “Don’t answer the phone.”

    The twins were eating their usual naked pasta. The grownups, those gourmands, pasta with sauce.

    “They called six times today.”

    “Who called?” asked Immy.

    “Nobody,” said Rebecca.

    “The woman?” Rodney asked. “Darlene?”

    “No. Somebody new. A man.”

    That didn’t sound good. Darlene was almost family at this point. Considering all the letters she had sent, in ever bolder typefaces, and all the phone calls she’d made, politely asking for money, then demanding money, and finally making threats—considering the persistent entitlement, Darlene was like an alcoholic sister or a cousin with a gambling addiction. Except that in this case she held the moral high ground. Darlene wasn’t the one who owed twenty-seven thousand dollars compounding at an interest rate of eighteen per cent.

    Darlene, when she called, called from within the call-center honeycomb: in the background you could hear the buzz of numberless other worker bees. The job was to collect pollen. In that effort, they were beating their wings and, if need be, raising their stingers. Because he was a musician, Rodney heard all this acutely. Sometimes he drifted off and forgot all about the angry bee that was after him.

    Darlene had ways of regaining his attention. Unlike a trolling telemarketer, she didn’t make mistakes. She didn’t mispronounce Rodney’s name or mess up his address: she knew these by heart. Since it was easier to resist a stranger, the first time Darlene had called she’d introduced herself. She’d stated her mission and made it clear that she wasn’t going away until she achieved it.