A Piece for an Organ Inside of a Clock

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

By Kedrick Rue

 

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Mozart’s Death Mask

When I was a child, I thought that everything in the house came to life the moment I left. That stuffed animal? Of course it did. But that broom, as well. That plate ran off with the spoon. The mice held parties. The rugs inched across the floor, slug-style. How could it be proven that it didn’t happen? It didn’t matter that it was unlikely; what mattered is that it was possible.

As I got a little older, these borders between the animate and the inanimate became even more ill-defined. When was the “moment of death?” Was it when the last spark of consciousness ceased or with the shutting down of the last bodily process? And what was consciousness? Were slime molds conscious? Viruses? Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

In late 1790 Mozart was secretly commissioned to compose a piece of music for the funeral of Field Marshal Gideon von Laudon, an Austrian Generalisimo who had died that summer. 

Later, the piece was rededicated to Count Joseph Deym’s Müllersche Kunstgalerie in Vienna. The piece was played by a mechanical organ inside a small mausoleum, which was a part of the general display of the museum. A wax effigy of the Field Marshal lay encased in a glass coffin, like a sleeping beauty waiting for his kiss, surrounded by statues of mourners.

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Von Laudon Mausoleum

The museum contained other mechanical wonders: a canary automaton, two flute-playing boys made out of wax, and even a “Bedroom of the Graces,” a semi-erotic tableau of a nubile young girl sleeping on a bed, lit by alabaster lamps and watched over by a statue of Venus. The sculptures were not alive, but the people who visited them were. How many of them played the flute? How many of them had live canaries at home?

I can’t help but think about how this mausoleum is now gone, along with the people who visited. The Field Marshal is gone. The Count is gone. Mozart is gone. I can’t help but think about how the reconstruction has vanished, but the music lives on. I imagine the people drifting through, come to see the Baron’s waxen effigy, or the young girl’s nubile form. They are gone now. Memories, ghosts. Imaginings which I call them into being, using the spell of Mozart’s music.

What I think of most, in that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, is the empty room, and the clockwork mechanism, spouting immortal music. Music playing into eternity, for no-one–not even me. I want to eavesdrop on nothing, as nothing creeps across the floor, and nothing caresses the body of the girl in the bed, and nothing peers at the waxen effigy in the mausoleum. I want to listen to it creep, when I am alone in my bed at night, and the clock-chimes of yesteryear drift up the stairs, with the creak of no-one’s step. With the sigh of no-one’s breath. The vacuum inside that mechanism, spouting music for no-one to listen to, until the last star dies.

 

 

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A Piece for an Organ Inside of a Clock

Der Erlkönig–Franz Schubert

By Andrew Fort

Second in an October series of “spooky” songs*

*actual “spooky” content may vary

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I was a strange boy. Coddled and passive aggressive. Slightly effeminate and highly sensitive. Too smart for my own good and too dim to realize how the world worked. Living in a rarefied world of my own imagining, but without any specific talent to justify my otherness.

High school was especially awkward. I was too headstrong to slot myself in with any of the available social groups, and too scornful of superficiality to attempt to stand out much by means of anything resembling a fashion sense. There were lots of questions. Was I gay? Was I straight? Was I Goth? Was I too good for everyone else? Was I clinically diagnosable?

Things didn’t change much in college. I foolishly chose to go to USC, one of the most conservative of private colleges, because offered me a large scholarship, and because they had a Recording Arts program. I looked forward to sharing my wide-ranging musical interests, but my fellow students were only interested in Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I hovered on the edges of conversations for a couple of years, attempting to insert comments about the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir or Hoagy Carmichael, only to be met with annoyed looks. I nursed a hatred of U2, which always blared from the Frattiest of Frat Row houses.

So my college social life was a bust. And my showboating attempts to read Byron in the breakfast commons weren’t winning me any friends, much to my surprise. Hadn’t my teachers always praised my reading skills? Why weren’t my peers doing the same? I spent a lot of time a lone, or with a similarly morose boy named Michael who was drawn to me as if by magnetic force of mutual alienation. But we didn’t have anything in common either, and I had to listen to endless improbable stories of his most likely invented girlfriend, Juliet.

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I thought that maybe all I had to look forward to was a life of conversations involving sports (Go Trojans!) sex (Trojans, ha ha! Get it?) and cars (Dude, there was a crusty, dried up Trojan on the floor of his Camaro!)

Until I encountered Kenton. I say encountered because he was not the type of person you met, as on a level playing field. He was the type of person you encountered, as a woodland sprite or a friendly imp among the frat houses and crusty dried-up Trojans and Camaros. He was totally absorbed by the sparkle within his own skull.

He was clearly gay, but that wasn’t the point, even at a time and place where gayness was a dire sin. And in case it seems that this entry is going to go somewhere it’s not, let me make it clear that even if I had an interest in experimenting at that time, Kenton was definitely not my type. The first time I saw him was in the middle of a blazing California September, and he was dressed in a bubble-gum pink tank top and those ubiquitous Dove nylon shorts, and roller blades with elbow and knee pads. He left the blading gear on through the duration of our German class together.

This was the first time I found myself in really close proximity with someone who was clearly weirder than I. I have to admit I relished it. Here was someone I could complain about with my roommates, with whom I had nothing else to talk about. Can you believe what this freak did? Can you believe what this freak said? Can you believe what this freak wore?

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But ultimately, I protested too much. There must have been a note of admiration in my voice, or maybe my roommates thought I invented Kenton, the way Michael invented a girlfriend. The disbelief never faded, but the joy in talking about it soon did.

Then during one October class with the autumn leaves falling outside, Kenton sang Der Erlkönig, Franz Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem about a father riding through the woods through the woods with his young, deathly ill son clutched to his chest. To an accompaniment of frenetic, thudding triplets, the Erlkönig–a sort of elf-king of the forest tempts the child with promises of fine clothes, riches, and dancing. And the child resists, until ultimately the Erlkönig takes him by force. The father arrives at his home with the child dead in his arms.

Like the child in the song, I felt tempted by these fairy-tale riches. My life, especially at the time, seemed to hang in a dangerous balance between the frenetic thudding of the everyday and the rich world of the imagination.

erlkoenig_schwindKenton sang the song in a pure, high, counter-tenor voice. He seemed to inhabit the world described in the lyrics. I can’t remember if he also sang the father’s parts two octaves lower, as David DQ Lee does in the video below. What I do remember was that his facial expressions were just as intense and, up close in the small classroom, just as unnerving and potentially embarrassing. And I was deeply embarrassed, because Kenton clearly had ten times the talent I did. I remember thinking at the time that he also belonged in the world more than I did. His weirdness added value to the world, where mine just made me feel like an outsider.

So now it’s October again, and the year is dying, and I’m wondering, as I do every year: has my particular weirdness added any value to the world? Or is it just a pose, a distancing mechanism which I use to make myself feel superior? Am I a Conscientious Objector to Mainstream Culture or just a failed part of it?

And I wonder where Kenton is right now, and if he feels as if he belongs in the world, or if the Erlkonig has pulled him away to his shadowy realm.

 

Der Erlkönig–Franz Schubert

Happy Nightmare Baby–Opal

By Lara Shelton

First in an October series of “spooky” songs*

*actual “spooky” content may vary

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It’s been said, sung, and written that Los Angeles is a driving town, but it’s difficult to express to those who’ve never lived there that Angelenos are also a driving people. We move in our sleep, and we dream street signs and strip malls. At the extreme edge of the country, the urge to go west has turned in on itself: there’s nowhere else to go. So everyone drives around in circles.

But it’s hard to hit a moving target. It’s hard to know who you are when you’re caught in traffic, and the guy next to you is honking, and the guy on the other side of you just cut you off.

My family and I had moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1984. It was the summer of the Night Stalker, a man who entered open windows during the oppressive heat of August nights to murder people in cold blood. The palpable fear of the city was unlike anything I had ever encountered. I was fourteen; this fear was my first true impression. Not the flatness, not the strip malls, not the freeways. Los Angeles was a nightmare, but also oddly compelling. Death to a certain species of teenage girl is romantic. Violent death even more so. But it also made a certain sense to never be still. To not sleep. To be ever watchful. To keep moving.

I spent a lot of time during my early twenties driving in circles. Driving in circles became a kind of release, like flight. Sometimes when I didn’t know what else to do I got in my car and drove—often to the beach in the middle of the night. I needed to know that there was something large—something beyond the Industry, something beyond the Night Stalker—waiting out there in the world.

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And I listened to a lot of music while I drove. Happy Nightmare Baby was one of those albums I listened to. Opal was a embryonic version of what later evolved into Mazzy Star. I like Mazzy Star, but I heard Opal first, and I like them better.

Part of the reason was the singer, Kendra Smith.

She was not the greatest singer in the world, if you judge singing by technical ability. She needed to be judged by a different rubric: one which valued atmosphere over ability. One which valued the cerebral over the emotional.

She was in the tradition of the chanteuse, and even more specifically, she was in Nico’s version of the chanteuse: aloof, cold, asexual, and yet oddly compelling. Was the nightmare good or bad?

As a young woman living in Los Angeles, it’s hard to keep it cerebral. That’s not what young women do in Los Angeles. It’s hard to know who you are when you must choose between being either a sex pot or a neurotic. Smart women were rare. Smart women who let on they were smart were even rarer. Which is why Smith was such a beacon of hope for me. In fifteen years she had been in nine bands, leaving her mark on each one. Then, when she was tired of the whole scene, she just disappeared.

Where had she gone? Sometimes I imagined her driving, up the coast to a little ashram or down into Mexico to a seaside town. I imagined her driving a straight line. Escaping the circle.

It’s no coincidence that the video for this song features driving at night, or that the Smith sings about pulling the listener to the bottom of the sea. I want to drown in something big, if it’s Smith doing the drowning. I want to dissolve into the happy nightmare.

Happy Nightmare Baby–Opal