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Dionysus‘ Laughter

by L.H. Oldie

Gods laugh seldom and their laughter
is of little joy to the mortals.
Frasimed of Melkh

The final chord rolled through the hall and faded. Complete silence lasted for a moment, then it turned into applause, which was neither an ovation nor rare scornful claps; the audience simply performed its duties thoroughly. After all, they came here to listen to the music and they had paid for it, and not the applause. Jon Orfie banged closed the grand-piano lid, leaned back and closed his eyes. He rested that way for a few seconds, forgetting about the whole world, then he again noticed the noise of the belated clapping hands, scraps of conversations, shuffles of the feet – the audience was rushing towards the exits. Weary, Jon stood up and went to the dressing room. Malcolm Cate was already there. Conductor, concertmaster, artistic director, last instance of all discussions – Cate was all that.

“You were not bad today, Orfi,” he said.

“Thank you.” Jon threw off his tailcoat and started working on the buttons of his stiff white shirt.

“You’re welcome. Anyway, this piece should be removed from your repertoire by the end of next week, otherwise we lose our audience. Besides, I read what you gave me last week.” Cate shook sheet music covered with scribbles at Jon. “Interesting. I would even say extremely interesting. But it’s not for us. We are a symphony orchestra and this is far closer to rock. To sympho-rock. We’d need different instruments, and the style is far too strange for the general public. But, once again, the piece itself is most interesting. Do dare, Orfi…

“Someone has to be the first,” entreated Jon. “Someone who is willing to digress from the norm. After all, rock, jazz, sympho – they’re only conventions.”

“Certainly. But I don’t like adventures. The audience expects the conventions you mentioned; they’re stronger than ferroconcrete, and I don’t want to break my head against those expectations.

“But you said-”

“I know I did. And I will repeat it again: the piece itself is interesting. Try contacting some rock band, although I doubt that your style will blend with anything those ruffians put out. Whatever you decide to do, Orfi, remember this tailcoat will be waiting for you, in case you reconsider.”

“Thank you, Cate.” Jon absentmindedly leafed through the sheet music then put it into a briefcase. “I’ll try my luck.”

The rain outside was tedious and fine. Wet roads mirrored the glow of advertisements and automobiles. Music played somewhere, while people were walking through the streets despite the rain. The nightlife of the city was just beginning to wake.

Perhaps Cate is right, thought Jon, as his feet carried him through the dampness and crowd. I should put in a part for a bass-guitar, replace the grand piano with an electric organ, and leave some space for an acoustic keyboard too, shift the rhythm a little bit… but then the themes for the cello and flute will disappear. Wait. Why should they? The flute can remain. Jon started going through a list of well-known performers in his mind, but realised none of them suited his ideas – some because of their hard styles, others because of their shocking vocals. Again, there were those who played their own pieces exclusively, and performers who were simply too famous to accept his proposition.

Suddenly Jon recalled a guitarist, Charles Berckom, whom he knew personally, who’d been left out in the cold after his band broke up. Charlie must have acquaintances. He could help gather true musicians, find some money, instruments, equipment, advertising, a hall to rent. Jon felt confident he could foot the first few bills with his savings, but then … well, they won’t be playing for free, anyhow.

“Would you like to purchase something, sir?” Jon realised he was standing at the entrance to the most expensive London audio equipment store, which belonged to the Dionysus group. One of the salesmen stood smoking in the doorway, while beyond him towered shelves of sparkling nickel, metallic plastics, and the lights of various indicators and sensors blinked in silence. Everywhere Jon’s eyes landed was the Dionysus emblem: a smiling youth with curly hair, dressed in a tabby pelt. Dionysus: equipment worthy of gods. They sold recordplayers with the ability to choose the right song for its owner’s current mood, equalizers that varied the sound of any recording in any register, taking into account the individual tastes of every listener. They had self-tuning instruments which detected the performer’s state of mind and his hidden yearnings, speakers that estimated a halls acoustics and could make adjustments to the tiniest approximations. Jon often thought that the next generation of Dionysus products will be able to completely exclude humans from the creative process, and all the musician would be in the end is an emotional add-on, incapable of even selecting the next song on a disc.

“Would you like to purchase something, sir? The salesman repeated his pitch sluggishly as he extinguished his cigarette.

“I would, indeed.” Jon bowed like a jester, throwing up his hands. “But I can’t. At the moment, I can’t.”

***

The first thing he did after returning home was call Charles Berckom and arrange a meeting. Much later, as he was falling asleep, Orfi saw sparkling shelves and a smiling youth wearing a tabby pelt.

***

When Jon entered the cafe, Charlie was already waiting at a corner table with three obvious longhaired rock-‘n-rollers. All of them looked twenty-five years old, at most.

“Hey, Orfi!” yelled Charlie. “Over here. This is Benny Byte, drummer – I told you about him yesterday – and Nick Fletcher, bass. Guys, this is the boss, Jon Orfi. He’ll be on keyboards.”

Benny and Nick shook Jon’s hand with some embarrassment. They definitely looked uncomfortable, which didn’t quite tally with their hardcore appearance. Byte didn’t even drink anything alcoholic, which was an inexhaustible source of humour for Berckom.

“The vocalist couldn’t come, but I already talked to him,” stated Charles.

“Vocalist?” Orfi was completely dumbstruck.

Yeah, our vocalist. Purely instrumental stuff isn’t popular anymore. Celebrities can play whatever they like, but we still depend on the night’s takings. And we don’t have any of that at the moment.

“I can understand that,” replied Jon hesitantly. “But I thought we’d concentrate on purely instrumental pieces.”

“The ones you composed?” Jon turned red as Berckom laughed out loud. “Come on, Orfi, don’t get confused! You’re a great keyboarder, and you seem to be a quite skilled composer, but this is rock ‘n roll. We’ll start with some cooler popular stuff, then we can go on to yours. Hell, it might even work. Besides, our vocalist plays the flute; he’s definitely our man. Graduated from some music college, but something went wrong.” The other three were silently exchanging glances, and seemed to prefer staying uninvolved in the conversation. Charlie continued, “All of us have instruments, and as far as I remember you even have a small organ?”

“It’s still there,” said Jon. “But, I’m thinking we’ll need a grand-piano, too.”

“No prob! I already leased a hall in Southampton.”

“How much?”

“A trifle! Fifty pounds a week.”

Jon’s heart missed a beat, but he tried not to show it.

“So, what else?” he asked, clearing his throat.

“Well… equipment, a synth‘ and some other bits. Five thousand should be enough.”

Orfi sighed with relief. He had that kind of money, for now. He might even have some left over. He gave Charlie the nod. “Great. Then tomorrow morning. Say, ten o’clock.

Charlie turned to the silent musicians, “You heard the boss, tomorrow at ten – the usual place. Don’t be late.

Nick and Benny nodded together, said their goodbyes, and were off. Orfie watched Benny bump against a chair, as he took out a pair of cheap glasses with round rims, and put them on his long nose.

Jon turned to his friend. “Charlie, why did you call me boss?”

“For the impression. I told them that you’re financing us.”

“I see,” Jon felt a sudden sense of doom well up in his heart.

***

The hall was empty and cold. Half the lights were burnt out. A cold draught seeped through cracks. Dust, wrappers and cigarette butts were collected on the floor and in all the corners. Nevertheless, the scene looked inviting, with the guys already setting up their equipment. They tore themselves away from what they were busy with to help Jon push in his organ.

A sombre-looking figure was huddled in one far corner, trying to hide his face behind a newspaper. He had on a shabby leather coat with plenty of zippers, threadbare jeans, and wide-brimmed hat. It was difficult to guess David Tews’ age, but their vocalist’s flute-case looked pretty much like its owner. He nodded once to Orfi, then returned to his newspaper.

Tuning the instruments took about two hours. After that, Jon passed sheets of music to the other musicians, and took his seat at the organ. There was also a grand piano standing near the wall, but Orfi decided to leave it for later. A shining new synthesiser, which Charlie bought the day before, stood near the Steinway.

“This is it?” asked Charlie, looking through the sheet music. “It won’t take more than twenty minutes. And there are no vocals on here.”

“You want everything right-away?”

“Of course!” Charlie shook the sheets of music at Jon, the way Cate had done. “I brought some of my old stuff, too, and it has lyrics.”

“All right, we’ll do yours, but we’ll start with mine. You were the one calling me boss, now bear it. I’ve got so many ideas I want to try. OK, let’s hit it!”

Jon struck a chord. The sound was good. He began playing the prelude, and after a few bars, the drummer joined in. The guitar slid in almost imperceptibly – Charlie really had class. The bassist was a bit late with his contribution, but he managed to make up for it. David lifted his eyes from the newspaper and listened with interest. A few minutes later, he took out his flute, and carefully assembled it.

When the thrum died away, everyone stayed quiet for some time. Then Charlie put aside his guitar, went over to Jon, and thoughtfully pressed a key with one finger. When the sound died down, he pressed it once more.

“It’s the real thing,” he declared. “I don’t know if anyone will understand it, but this is real music.”

***

They rehearsed for two months. Jon got more and more demanding, driving his colleagues mad by making them play pieces over and over again. It exhausted everyone, including him. On occasion, Jon would try joining in with the grand piano, but the acoustic instrument didn’t fit in with the electric sound, although Tews’ flute floated through the pauses. It sounded rough, somewhat cracked, but exceptionally expressive. Charlie wasn’t too happy with that though: the traditional flute messing with the charge of his electrical guitar. Finally, the moment came when the music wasn’t breaking up any more, and they felt ready to appear on stage.

A week before their first concert they brought the state of the hall into relative order. His eye always on the best deal, Charlie managed to get the rent reduced to forty-three pounds a week for the band doing that. Then he also found an artist friend willing to design posters for the band’s first gig. In next to no time the adverts appeared all over Southampton, even in Soho and Camden in London.

Jon couldn’t sleep the night before the concert. At nine in the morning, he leaped out of bed and rushed to the concert hall, though the premiere was only scheduled for eight o’ clock that evening. He paced up and down the length of the venue, in between the chairs, smoking nervously – a first in many years. Finally, he sat down in the first row and fell asleep.

They sat in a small room behind the stage, waiting for the audience to arrive. Fifteen minutes were left before the show was scheduled to start, and the place was only half-full.

“Don’t worry, it’ll fill up,” Charlie kept saying. “Remember, it’s our first time – it’s not that bad. When they realise what we’re about we’ll sell out tomorrow.”

The hall went on filling up. Only a third of the chairs stood open when they finally walked out on stage. David approached the microphone and announced the first piece. The moment Jon made himself comfortable behind his organ, he launched into the song’s intro. He lost track of the hall, the dazzling lights, his fellow band members. He didn’t even hear David begin to sing – he just played. Jon Orfie played better than he ever thought possible. And it wasn’t just him – the whole band was giving its best. Charlie’s expressive music, sombre, yet saturated with rough rhythms, impressed the audience, forced them to listen without a thought of anything else. After the last of Charlie’s songs the hall exploded with applause. It was more than the band ever expected. After a brief intermission, Tews came up and grabbed the microphone to announce Jon Orfi’s newest composition. Jon eased into the music effortlessly, surrounding himself and the audience with melodies that alternated between swells and ebbs, rising high and dipping low. Finally he finished on the highest note, which remained frozen in the air for several minutes before it, too, died. Silence.

Hands clapped here and there, the sound quickly dying down. Then Tews announced the last piece. Jon started playing again, but his high spirits had died with that last, unappreciated note. Something felt wrong. His band felt it, too. When they finished, the hall was dead quiet. Almost half their audience had left after the first of Jon’s pieces, and the remaining bunch was already hurrying towards the exit. No one applauded their last song.

Charlie approached Jon and put a hand on his shoulder.

“They just didn’t understand it, Orfi,” he said quietly. “But they will, they will. One day we’ll play in the Prince Albert Hall and not in this barn.”

***

They played the same program one more week. Every time there was fewer and fewer people, most of them leaving after the first of Jon’s compositions. He began to play as though possessed, frenzied – consumed by a need to take his revenge on an audience that didn’t want to listen to him.

***

When the concerts were finally over, the five of them got together in their old bar to discuss their next move.

“We can’t go on like this,” said Charlie. “Our takings are just enough to cover the rent.”

“Money!” Bennie frowned. “Who needs it? We’ll live through it all, somehow. But we have to change our repertoire.”

“Listen, Jon,” Charlie leaned forward, and stared at his friend with earnest eyes. “Let’s try writing together. I’ll be the fool that your wise and ponderous work needs so much. It should work. What do you say?”

Jon, thoughtfully looking through a Dionysus booklet, raised his head.

“Sure,” he said indifferently. “All right.”

***

In the beginning everything went wrong. Jon and Charlie argued constantly, without moving forward a single step. Bennie became the one to always reconcile them. It happened one late evening, when he arrived unexpectedly at Jon’s in the middle of an argument. He sat down calmly in an open armchair, and listened to his band mates raging at each other, occasionally chipping in with some insignificant remark. Somehow the dispute got settled by itself, just by him being there. From that day on, Bennie was constantly sitting in that armchair, always straightening out the glasses perched on his nose.

Two weeks later, Jon withdrew the last of his money to pay for their latest playbills and the rent.

Hardly anyone came. At the back of the hall, five friends took their seats and clapped. The echo in the hall sounded miserable. Charlie tested a chord, Bennie let rip, and the concert began. Jon played technically correct, but without much inspiration. At the back of his mind he was thinking up an alternative to this mess: while they played Charlie’s songs, they could also-

Something was wrong with the way the band was playing. The audience didn’t seem to notice, but Jon caught the dissonance the moment it appeared. It took him a second before he realised what it was. Bennie was playing to a slightly different beat, and everyone else was trying to adjust to him. In a few seconds the character of the music had changed significantly. The rhythm became choking, pulsing with some unpleasant tension. Nick was forced to squeeze more out of his bass, while Jon struggled with the theme. As they wrapped up the piece there was an unpleasant salty taste on his lips, and his fingers trembled – had it all gone wrong for the last time? Was this it?

When the last note died a sudden thunderous applause hammered down on the band. All of them looked up in surprise. They had never heard anything like it, but they were too exhausted to show their appreciation and happiness.

“We’ll be sold out tomorrow,” Jon caught Charlie whispering. He needn’t have whispered, though; the audience wasn’t listening, it was too busy applauding.

When the last of the audience disappeared, Jon shoved Bennie against a speaker.

“You remember that beat, don’t you?” The pianist’s left eyelid was trembling.

“Why?” croaked Bennie.

“Why! The audience went mad with it.”

“I didn’t change it on purpose,” admitted Bennie. “I broke my glasses with one drumstick. I was so goddamned nervous that I broke my glasses, I…” Bennie glanced apologetically at his band mates. “Sorry, guys, I hurried things on a bit – my leg was so jumpy.”

***

“Would you like to purchase something, sir?”

“Yes,” Jon answered, signing a check. Their takings had been unbelievable. “I’d like a full Dionysus concert set. Instruments from this list, all the latest models.” He stuck out his tongue at the stunned salesman.

The following rehearsal went like a dream. The equipment was set up and tuned in five minutes. Everything was taken into account: the hall’s humidity, resonance of the walls, convexity of the ceiling, characteristics of each instrument, distance from the stage to the chairs. The band’s instruments responded to the slightest touch; they memorized the physiology of their performers, and so the sound could change with the heartbeats of every musician or with the vocalist’s breathing. Jon couldn’t stop fawning over his new keyboard, while Charlie petted his guitar as if it was his soul mate. Bennie and Nick almost cried with happiness when they first tested their instruments. Tews was the only one who refused to put away his trusty flute.

***

“Praise Dionysus!” Jon exclaimed a few weeks later, after receiving yet another official invitation. “What were you saying, Charlie?”

“The Prince Albert Hall?” asked Charlie.

“Exactly.” Jon smiled as Charlie whooped and generally made a fool of himself. He ended up kneeling before an amplifier, raising hands to the logo of the youth in the tabby pelt.

“Evoe, Dionysus!” howled Charlie in ecstasy. “Let your hand rest on the crowns of these poor musicians.”

“Rich musicians.” Bennie pushed a new set of glasses up his nose.

Jon winked as he stroked the keys on his synthesizer in response. Exulted chords broke out in the dark hall.

Tews instinctively chased the notes with a sullen tune from his old flute. Something wild seemed to rush across the stage. “Don’t laugh about gods, Orfi.” Tews looked very serious. “They prefer to have the last laugh.”

***

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the microphone touched Orfi’s lips. “Today’s concert will indeed be unusual. Today, for the very first time, we’ll perform my symphony ‘Euredice’. Silence please!”

Jon took his place before his organ, and only then understood that the hall was strangely filled only with women. There were the old and young, pretty and ugly, thin and fat; a smell of cosmetics hung in the air, jewellery glittered, and clothes rustled. The air was charged with a sense of hysteria.

He put his hands on the keyboard and took a deep breath. The organ’s indicator panel showed Jon’s physical parameters: pulse, blood pressure, temperature, biochemistry. The organ was tuning itself up. Similar statistics blinked on the panels of the other band members’ panels, except for Tews, all of the instruments even measuring the audience’s condition. Silence ceased and turned to sound as the first notes escaped Jon’s fingers. The chords rose to penetrate every rift and every fissure in the hall, filling up the emptiness. When his solo reached its climax, the pulses of percussions and the rhythms of the guitars joined in. There was a silver ringing as of icicles whistling in the autumn wind, a sound of a lonely pedestrian’s steps in the dead of night, children’s laughter and pain, the tender whispers of lovers, and the howling of falling bombs – a sad melody of eternal wanderers. This music had it all.

Only Tews‘ flute kept silent. Then the rhythm changed. A troubled note joined into the heavenly pulse, and abruptly it was as if some kind of sickness had infected the symphony. Jon heard a cry behind him, and turned to see Bennie, pale as a sheet. His hands were raised, a look of horror on his face. It took a moment before Orfi realised what was happening: there were percussions without anyone playing the drums. Bennie’s hands were off the panels, but the rhythm didn’t disappear. Moreover, it grew more powerful. The audience stirred uncomfortably. Animal moans welled up in the gallery. The tension in the hall rose several notches. Charlie seemed one with his guitar. His eyes were closed, spittle flecking his lips, as the strings he plucked growled. Fletcher looked even worse as his bass howled at a crowd that had started to sway and dance and churn.

The women, with their glittering rings and painted faces, scarlet nails, rushed forward in ecstasy. Jon stood up, enthralled, and listened to his symphony being played out by the Dionysus machines. When the outburst reached its own crescendo, and the furious flock was about to charge the stage, David Tews ran up to the proscenium and put his old flute to his lips. Human breath and notes rose up to clash with Dionysus’ frenzied music. The clash sounded like a frantic swimmer trying to catch his breath, and break the surface of water and reach for life.

Jon broke free from his trance, and rushed towards the grand-piano standing in the wings. He desperately prayed to the heavens that he might join with Tews’ flute and break the spell, before the berserk women could reach them and tear them apart.

And in the gallery, sitting quietly with his legs crossed, was a curly-haired youth in a tabby pelt, smiling at the unfolding chaos.

Copyright © 1991 by Dimitry Gromov & Oleg Ladyzhensky
Translated by Elena Drozd-Koroleva

L.H. Oldie is the united penname of Oleg S. Ladyzhensky and Dmitry E. Gromov.

Oleg S. Ladyzhensky was born in 1963 in Kharkov (Ukraine, former USSR), entered the Kharkov Culture Institute in 1980 (the department of Theatre Producers) and graduated in 1984. He worked as a theatre producer from 1984 to 1999 and brought more than ten productions to the stage. Presently, his main occupations is writer. He writes fantasy and science fiction stories and novels in co-authorship with his friend Dmitry E. Gromov since 1990.

Dmitry E. Gromov was born in 1963 Simferopol (Ukraine) and lives in Kharkov today. In 1980 he entered the Kharkov Polytechnical Institute and graduated in 1986. Afterwards, he worked as a chemist-engineer in Scientific-Research Institute of Main Chemistry (Kharkov). From 1992 to 1994 he has worked as an editor. He has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1976, from 1990 in co-authorship with his friend Oleg Ladyzhensky.

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