Glorious Orkester for the Advancement of Humankind.
We didn't look like much. We had garlic breath and receding hairlines. We were fluent in the language of budgetary woes. We performed in a concert hall like a shoebox crossed with an oven, and we sometimes got paid in beer.
We were undignified. See also: ignominious, unprepossessing, asthmatic, spasmodic, and disagreeable. We fought over who would give music lessons to the town's few mumbling and wooden-eared children. We cursed in our most eloquent dialects about our concert wear. We were from the most backward parts of our country, and we did not necessarily have poetic sensibilities. We were the Orkester Ljutmera: forty strings, eighteen woodwinds, sundry brass and percussion, and me, the principal cellist.
We had our moments, though. On our less belligerent days, Gregorius would even admit as much. When you got us on stage together, we sometimes fit like gears and cogs. We sometimes played like we were sharing the same brain.
We had a muscular, sinewy sound. With concertinas we were singleminded and prismatic. With symphonies we employed both depth and breadth. Our tones and timbres were well balanced, subtle, and refreshing. We crescendoed like we were twice our size. The Orkester Ljutmera was the only orchestra for three hundred miles that could reliably get you on the edge of your seat, and even the state-our raging, dysfunctional state--was starting to notice.
It was May, the beginning of another performance season. No one knew what was happening around us. Was it rubber bullets, smoke bombs, propaganda campaigns? Were people being detained or tortured? Were there, as rumored, secret resistance movements organizing in the mountains? These days, even the best-case scenario seemed to be shit out of luck.
Lately, Gregorius had been responding to external pressures with increasingly complex symphonies. We couldn't tell if he was trying to take our mind off things or just preparing us for challenges ahead.
When I'd asked, he'd shaken a newspaper in my face and shouted, Katya, not everything revolves around you.
We had a real hellish lineup this year, some legendarily difficult pieces like Mathis Der Maler and Mozart's No. 40. We had a little bit of Schoenberg, a little bit of Webern, a little bit of all those atonal fucks. We had Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Miraculous Mandarin, which made us feel neither miraculous nor, most days, orchestral.
Our first day of rehearsal, the principal clarinetist came in excited. He'd found an unopened box of reeds, and he wouldn't answer Gregorius's questions about where they came from. The trombones had started taking apart the euphonium player's chair.
You assholes! Gregorius would shout. Don't you know you're the cellos of the brass section? Act with a little dignity!
Which, seeing as who the actual cello section was, didn't help much.
We managed to warm up without incident, and then we started in on the Bartok. It sounded like something caught in a thresher. The trumpets came in three bars too late. The violins were just making up the notes. The goddamn violas couldn't get anything right.
I started counting aloud from my seat. I wasn't big on hiding my frustrations. In ray opinion, if you weren't good enough to stay on tempo, you weren't good enough to not get your feelings hurt.
Gregorius stopped and restarted us. A few of the violins had the good graces to keep their instruments in their laps. The trumpets made their entrance in time. The principal clarinet maundered on. The sound began to approach something like a concerto.
Then a viola missed her cue. Another toppled unharmonically after her. It was like the fucking lemmings all over the cliff. I flung my bow at them and stormed offstage.
Don't just go to the bar, Katya, Gregorius shouted.
I wasn't going to, I screamed back, and then I went anyway.
The political situation in our country was what Gregorius called less than ideal. The majority party had changed so many times that no one knew who was on top anymore. Some of the bureaucrats were being paid in bus passes. No one had been granted an exit visa in years. In the capital city, the conservatives were ordering prostitutes, the moderates were hiding in their offices, and the radicals were setting off rockets in Constitution Square.
Everyone was in a near-constant state of aggression. Neighbors threw stones through windows. Shopkeepers had fistfights with customers. Restaurants had begun adding broken-plate surcharges to their menus. You couldn't trust your butcher, or your brother, or your priest.
I give it six months, the oboist told me in private. A year, tops. What he saw coming next, he didn't say.
Orkester Ljutmera was no different. If you made a list of the things you weren't supposed to hear on our recordings, it would go something like this:
Radana calling her second chair a shit-for-brains.
The bass player snapping off his neighbor's tuning pegs.
Jadran toppling over a row of stands.
A percussionist weeping quietly backstage.
When Gregorius came along and found us, it was not love but mutual need at first sight. He was a conductor without an orchestra. (He'd been fired from his last band for asking whether they might be better off just leaving the instruments in their cases.) We were always running late slash falling out of bar windows slash being chased by waiters into the Koncertna Dvorana over unpaid bills. Our previous conductors had all left in tears.
The truth was, we all felt a little inauthentic. We all felt a little guilty for not being soldiers or guerrillas or ambulance drivers. And we took it out on each other in whatever ways we could.
Gregorius rescued us, bless his sweaty, balding head. He found us audiences and publicity. He introduced some semblance of order. He didn't look like much, but he was scrappy and determined. On his better days, he led us in genuinely coherent and thoughtful music making. On his worse, he used a combination of bribery, cajoling, and outright threats. He excused our worst behavior, the kinds of things we couldn't even forgive ourselves.
You see, Gregorius said reasonably, things came up. Who could have predicted that the shoe thrown by the second bassoon would have split the timpani head in a way that rendered it unusable in Hoist's Jupiter movement? Who could have anticipated that Jadran's prank on the accordionist would have backfired so destructively?
In other words, he was our father figure, our teacher, and our redeemer. In other words, how could we not take advantage?
Lately, we'd all been trying not to notice that people were jumping ship. Nothing was said when someone stopped showing up for rehearsals. We took over the missing parts without discussion, switching instruments mid-measure to try to cover the gaps in the score. Like a rash, the number of empty chairs continued to spread.
At least it's not a mutiny, the third violin said hopefully. He was optimistic that the second chair would be gone within the season and he would finally move up. The thing he kept forgetting was that our country might be gone within the season.
When I pointed that out, the third violin said, Even revolutions need buglers.
The politics problem had led to a cash flow problem. The markets were dropping every month, and people's salaries were going along for the ride. Every month Orkester Ljutmera sold fewer and fewer tickets. On days when we weren't rehearsing, the Koncertna Dvorana turned back into a gymnasium. It had gotten so we all associated the smell of dirty socks with tuning.
Two decades ago, the last political overthrow had ensured that most of us would go through life as orphans. The French horn had spent time in jail for protests. The contrabassoon had had half the skin on her arm burned off in an explosion. Having nowhere else compelling to go, the majority of us lived together in a little run-down hostel on the edge of Ljutmera. There were holes in the wall and hair in the sink.
The paupers' palace, we called it.
Unlike the others, I had only one roommate. I had a corner room and an adjacent broom closet for practicing. The door had no knob and the closet smelled of industrial cleaner, but it was still a perk. For the Orkester Ljutmera, it was downright glamorous.
I was the star performer, the soloist par excellence. By all accounts, I was the reason the orchestra still sold tickets. People came from six towns over just to hear my Saint Saens.
In the past, my onstage performances had been described in various ways. Inspired. Tremendous. Intense. A critic of national importance described my Bach prelude as rapturous. My talent was one of the few things Gregorius and I were agreed on. In a drunker moment, some comparisons to Jacqueline du Pre had been tossed around.
When interviewed--which was not very often, since foreign reporters never visited and local ones had learned to stay away-I told the papers that I loved playing cello but I even more loved being better at it than everyone else.
If you weren't constantly trying to best people, I said, then what the hell were you doing here?
My whole life, I'd had an overarching sense of fuck-you toward the world. The Katya Underappreciation Society, Gregorius liked to call it. Drunk, I said things like crack my chest open and return my heart to Warsaw. I made vast proclamations about the state of contemporary music. On tour, back when we still had the money to travel, I would race through the hotel halls, colliding with bellhops and sending stacks of room service plates shattering down.
I once broke my foot kicking a cinderblock backstage. I once shared a bottle of slivovitz with a one-armed insurgent while the rest of the orchestra waited for me to show up on opening night.
This was not to mention a certain style of behavior that was condescendingly referred to as daddy issues. This was not to mention the rumors that I'd slept with one of our old conductors on his second week in town. The others liked to remind me about the thing with the touring pianist under the touring piano. I liked to tell them to screw a donkey.
The last major fuckup--a year and a half ago in April--had culminated in a clinical day of speculums and sharp, scraping pains. I remembered drinking sour cherry liquor throughout the whole procedure. The father, who could have been one of several men, was not involved.
All of which is to say, I was not known for my prudence.
One of the things I liked best was to practice drunk. Around the fifth or sixth drink, I could turn off the twin metronome and tuning fork that sounded continuously in my brain. I could reach a yellow and smoky realm that was otherwise only achievable in dreams, a place where everything seemed lovely--even Radana's clarinet solos, even Orkester Ljutmera.
I was not interested in being a cliche, but nor was I interested in self-improvement. Drinking and music kept me from having to deal with my problems. Anyone could have told you that.
I could have told you that. A blind third-grader could have taken a pretty accurate stab at my problems.
I was the best, and everyone knew it, and I was stuck here in this shithole, and everyone knew that, too. And that was where things were.
According to Gregorius, our rehearsals were going as well as could be hoped. The Bartok had improved to the point of bearability. The Mahler had been scrapped for a more pleasant Shostakovich. To everyone's relief, there was talk of adding some polkas to our summer program.
According to me, everything was shit. One of our percussionists, the weepy one, had quit overnight. When Jadran went to find him in the hostel, all that was left in his dresser was a note.
I'm sorry, it said. I'd rather be dead in the army than alive in the drum section.
But the worse thing--and there was always a worse thing--was that my cello was broken. I'd discovered it last night in the hostel, and my swearing woke up half the brass section. It was just a crack, just a small, longitudinal whisper of a fracture, but it ran up the neck in a dangerous way, and I knew it would grow. If I caught the fucker who'd broken it, I'd kill them with my bare hands.
I had a nasty suspicion that the fucker who'd broken it was the same fucker staring back at me from the mirror.
It was a morning rehearsal, and I had a hangover. The sound of the piccolo was making me grim about the mouth. The little shiver of broken wood was staring at me from the back of my cello.
All of which was to say, my mood was not excellent.
All of which was to say, I had reasons for acting the way I did.
When I got home that evening, I found Gregorius sitting on my bunk. He had his when-are-you-going-to-learn look on his face, so I knew what was coming.
Katya, he said. Sit.
This season, he said, leveling a finger at me, will make or break us. You know this. I know this. Why is it so hard for you to cooperate?
The audiences like our volatility, I said. It makes us seem relatable.
I thought by pointing out my colleagues' failings I might distract him from my own, more egregious fuckups, the skipped rehearsal being only the first one that came to mind.
An orchestra is like a marriage, Gregorius said. It's about accepting other people's limitations. It's an exercise in constant compromise.
Then how come I'm the only one compromising, I asked. How come I'm the one living with everyone else's imperfections.
He sighed. It struck me that I couldn't remember a time when he wasn't sighing every five minutes.
Do you want to send this entire thing down the shitter? he asked. Do you want to be out of a job?
I scowled. He politely reminded me of our obligation to sell tickets. I gently reminded him of his obligation to our well-being. He pointed out, in that reasonable tone of his, a few facts about the incompatibility of alcoholism and classical performance, and then we both pointed out in furious but generally agreeing tones that the orchestra would fold without me.
On his way out the door, he took one last shot.
You're a leader, Katya, when you want to be, he said. The old Katya wouldn't need to be told that.
The old Katya, I said, was marginally less frustrated.
I could tell you about the room they held the auditions in. I could play for you my pieces: the Debussy La Mer, the Hadyn cadenza. I could tell you about everything down to the smell of the national opera house in the country where I would have, could have, lived.
Or I could back up one week and tell you about being in rehearsal on the cloudy afternoon my family and neighbors were shot in the street outside my house.
Same old luck. Same sad story.
Listen to the way I played Mendelssohn. Look at how good I was at five, eight, eighteen, twenty-three years old. Look at how much potential I'd had.
Imagine what I could have done.
Once, in earlier years, a state minister had explained his theory of our country on national television.
We do what we do to test the boundaries of the state's love for us, he said. We are trying to provoke it into anger. We want to see how far its devotion really extends.
His gray and sagging face regarded us solemnly from the screen. We are all in need of constant reassurance, he said.
The evening of our dress rehearsal, we set out as a group for the Koncertna Dvorana. I'd been drinking since noon, and the whole day had gone watery and smeared at the edges. The city felt itchy, anxious. The sky had a strange green cast.
Maybe there'll be a tornado, a trumpet player said. He sounded hopeful.
We struggled our instrument cases through the streets. The closer to the center of town we got, the more the itchy feeling grew. We turned onto the main street, rounded the corner to the town square, and found ourselves in the middle of a riot.
What, is the circus in town? Radana asked.
People were holding up signs, but none of them seemed to be saying the same thing. Someone had a megaphone, but we couldn't tell what he was shouting. The people in the crowd--eighty or ninety of them, at least--were all carrying on at different tempos. It's to support the state, said one of the flutes.
It's to disband the state, said one of the trumpets.
We stood there not knowing what to do. Someone suggested we go the long way around. Someone else suggested we join in.
Me, I was thinking about what Cregorius had said about being a leader. That is to say, I was approaching the idea sort of slantwise through a boozy haze. Leaders, I recalled, were the people who got stood against walls and shot at the end of revolutions.
Then again, if that was the worst thing this rotten country did to you, you were getting off easy.
Which is how I ended up with my cello between my knees, playing our country's national anthem.
At first, the crowd couldn't hear me over their own noise. A few of them turned around, then just kept on marching. One of them asked if I'd been sent by the police.
But then Jadran got out his trombone. The flutes and oboes began assembling their instruments. One by one, they picked up the thread of the melody and joined in. The entire square filled with the sounds of our playing.
There was a mode that every professional musician knew, a mode where you heard and registered every little chirp and scratch. The sounds became tiny picks turning even tinier tumblers and hidden mechanisms in your ears, and then you could play indefinitely, no conductor, no speaking, just swept along by the music. Briefly, just for the duration of that song, we existed in that space together.
We finished the anthem. There was silence in the square. For an uncomfortable minute, we stood with our instruments still raised, waiting for the riot to turn on us.
Then: thunderous applause.
We launched into a jaunty folk dance. The crowd roared. A few members slunk off, presumably to tell Gregorius what we were up to, but we let them go.
Acoustically speaking, it wasn't ideal. The sound was swallowed by the open air, or else it bounced weirdly off the sides of the buildings in the square. We were lacking the right instruments, and no one was quite in tune with anyone else.
But we had professional-capacity lungs. We had boundless stamina in the fuck-you department. If there was one thing we had abundant preparation for, it was performing in the midst of chaos.
A few of us overturned a fruit cart and climbed on top. Someone was pretending to conduct with the handle of a pitchfork. We weren't a people known for our forbearance, and we'd had all we were going to take. We played everything we knew--anthems, waltzes, concertos, commercial jingles--and the protestors sang along. This was the night we made ourselves heard.
One shop window was smashed in, then another. It got harder and harder to hear. We weren't always playing the same song as our neighbor, but that only delighted the crowd more. Their roaring blended with our music into a lovely, sweaty cacophony. At one point someone brought out smoked sausage. Wine was constantly being passed around. Near midnight, they switched to brandy.
We roared on into the night. The idea of the dress rehearsal had collapsed, like a word said over and over till it lost its meaning. Old men put on their war medals and screamed at the statues. Birds and children fled from our music.
Up on top of the fruit cart, I felt serene. Subaquatic. The brandy had made everything very peaceful, and I had a sensation like soft wool had been plunged into my ears. It felt like submerging my head in the bath when someone was screaming in the next room.
I thought I saw Gregorius in the crowd. I waved to him. Beside the fruit cart, someone was vomiting all over the drums. Someone else had an antique musket and was trying to make it fire into the air. We were a wild hurting people, and we would not be made silent.
I made lovely sliding sieve noises.
I made embryonic strawberry noises. I made happy future noises, happy future noises, happy future noises.
When your cello was on the verge of breaking, an instrument repairer once told me, you could do one of three things:
You could try to strengthen it, reinforcing the weak part until it held.
You could sit back and do nothing, hope it wouldn't break at all, and you'd save yourself the effort.
Or you could try to break it all the way so that next time you'd know exactly how to put it back together.
Years ago, we'd thought an orchestra would be safe for us. We'd thought we could have joy, prosperity, a stable family, the camaraderie of community, the thrill of sport. We thought we could be sages and creators, performers of lasting beauty.
What we got instead were petty disputes, bills, broken reeds, and sweaty socks.
Which is to say, I once caught myself thinking I would have sewn little roses on her shoes. I would have played her Debussy and Brahms.
Which is to say, I always expected to feel different, but I kept waking up the same old asshole.
Probably I would have been as bad a mother as I was a bandmate. Probably I would have been gifted only in teaching lessons of unalloyed despair.
Sometimes things on the verge of breaking didn't behave as expected. Sometimes, instead of falling apart themselves, they broke you.
I woke up with a headache and the smell of body hair in my nose. It was afternoon, and the room spun. A man's arm was draped across me, pinning me and my hangover to the bed. I felt like I'd been running damage control on myself for a thousand years.
Back at the hostel, I drew a bath and slid in. I was just starting to get my head sorted out when someone started pounding on the door.
What is it, Gregorius? I said when I opened the door. He was fiddling with his hands.
I just got a letter, he said. From the state.
Look, I broke in. Yesterday wasn't my fault. Ask the others, they all joined in. He nodded absently. He looked like he'd had even less sleep than I had.
They want to sponsor us, he said. They want us to become an official government orchestra.
Oh, I said. Good for them, I guess. Will they buy me a new cello? He acted like he didn't hear me.
They want to give us uniforms, he said. He looked miserable. They want to approve our programs.
But is there money? I asked. I was failing to see the problem. He threw his hands up.
Who knows? he said. Who can tell anymore?
What I didn't see then was that Gregorius had just realized what the rest of us were too self-involved to see. He'd sat up and taken a good long look around and seen what purposes a state-sponsored orchestra might be used for. He'd imagined what thorough, clever consequences there might be for defectors. While the rest of us were marching around like circus animals, he'd come to the conclusion that this new interest might be far, far worse than the old indifference.
What are you going to do? I asked him. A helpless look shot across his face.
I can't say yes, he said. I can't say no. Maybe I should let you lot decide. Put it to a vote. That way, when they come for me in six months, I'll be able to say you're still fighting it out.
I tried to imagine how the Orkester Ljutmera would react. Even if it was good news, we wouldn't take it well. We'd gripe, and we'd bellyache, and at a certain point we'd look around and realize we were all alone.
I knew. I'd been there before. We'd be like divers who just realized they've left the last tank of oxygen on deck.
We'll have to be careful. Gregorius was saying. No matter what we do, they'll have our eyes on us now.
Even then, I don't think I understood what he was trying to say. I was thinking about my cello, or the riot, or the Schoenberg we were supposed to play that evening. I was thinking, I could really use a drink.
This rotten fucking country Gregorius said sadly.
I was hearing cellos play, unbroken and lovely. I was hearing how, cutting through our unmitigated disasters of personal lives, we had played bravely, lushly, gloriously.
And everything I heard was fragile and finite.
And if you closed your eves, you could pretend there was nothing more to it.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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