The Classical (A short story)

Erik’s grandparents gave him those records.  Beethoven and Chopin… Bach and Brahms and Strauss and Wagner (although he never really liked Wagner much).  He had hundreds and hundreds of symphonies written by the greatest classical composers and performed by the very best orchestras.  All of them were there, piled into a glorious pyramid of gasoline-soaked cardboard boxes on the beach of Lake Michigan.  And there he stood, match in hand, ready to put it all out of existence.

And by “put it all out of existence” I mean it ALL. These were the very last copies of any classical music left in the world.  Unbelievable as that may sound, it was the truth.  At one point, classical music represented the greatest possible joy, beauty, and skill for human beings to obtain.  But over the course of just a few hundred years, the popular opinion on this matter had completely reversed itself.

It is hard to tell exactly how or why this occurred, but in the end, it was hardly a peaceful transition.  The unanimous opinion on this matter was forced upon society by the passing of a law, and a mass hunt conducted by the State destroyed every last record even while there was still a significant underground of musicians, artists, and collectors who tried keeping the spirit alive.

The only reason Erik’s collection survived was that it was locked up in his grandparents’ basement, and they were only simple people living out in the countryside.  Nobody suspected them to hold such a hoard of illegal music. But that was forever ago. Only the old and grey remembered such a time, and as a rule they never spoke of it.  True, they didn’t have much of a choice by law, but even if they did, the vast majority had even forgotten their capacity to choose. Indeed, what took thousands of years of an unbroken legacy of skill, wisdom, and deep love to build, took less than a century to destroy completely. The way a man kept in the darkness too long is blinded by daylight, so too were people in response to the profound beauty of such music.

Such was the music that was officially determined to be a representation of social inequality, and thusly were children instructed in schools. This was, in fact, the instruction that Erik received growing up.  His grandparents were, perhaps, the last generation preceding this destruction of history and tradition.

Perhaps unluckily for Erik, he was raised by his grandparents who instilled these ancient and outdated notions in his mind. He learned from them and from this traditional culture that skillful and sophisticated expression was a glorious gift.  But whether it was a gift from God, or nature, or some other historical spirit, he could not say; he only knew it was pure glory in his heart.

“Representation of inequality?” Erik said to his grandparents the first day he learned so in class, “But no two people are equal. Don’t we want the best to be their best so that we can at least admire them?”

“For some, resentment outweighs pride,”  his grandfather told him.

Erik never quite understood what he meant by that, but he kept on listening to the music in spite of what he learned in school. It was too good to turn against; he needed it the way a man in the desert needs water. It was like a powerful drug that could make him a 500-foot colossus of pride, or a thin puddle of tears.

Whatever the effect was, it always moved him. Erik knew he would never be skilled enough to make or play anything so beautifully, yet he loved it anyway. It inspired him to strive for the unattainable, to work and to try things that others wouldn’t dream of. It made him feel exceptional.

But now, as he stands ready to burn the last collection of classical music in the world, Erik is an adult of 24 years. He is just about to start working as a professor at the State university and he has been thoroughly educated to understand (or at least, try to understand) that this pride he got from the music was unwieldy. His colleagues called it arrogant, pious, self-righteous shaming of anyone not skilled enough to perform or create.

“This need to separate ourselves artificially, to distinguish ourselves with painfully formulaic designs…THIS is the height of humanity’s narcissism.  We’ve moved past such unoriginal attempts to elevate ourselves above other animals,” said Geutaye Lyenn, the world-famous actor/abstract painter/slam poet/philosopher (and Erik’s new boss at the University), to thunderous applause at the commencement speech of Erik’s graduation ceremony.  And from that point, he had no hope in rehabilitating his peers.  Even though the list of government-censored items grew every year for as long as he could remember, Erik still had some distant star of a hope that once he had the authority of professorship, he would be able to revive some of the old culture.  But during that speech, the star glimmered and then faded away, leaving Erik in the dark.

Why was he even hiding those records anymore? he wondered. What purpose or value could they serve? He couldn’t even listen to them the way he wanted–that is, loud and through large speakers–for fear of being heard and reported for what was now technically considered “hate speech” and “the creation of an unsafe zone without the requisite trigger warning permits” according to federal law.

He was starting a new job, a new life, and he had to assimilate.  Living in two different worlds, holding on to these old ideals, was just too alienating. Forgetting was the easiest way, he thought. Forgetting was best.

So there he was, standing in front of this library of records, this treasure of history, with a match in hand.  Without hesitation, he struck and tossed it. The flames shot up with a woosh and within seconds, all the stacks were blazing.  For all the times Erik cried thinking about the twilight of this music, for all the pain it caused him to see it fading from the world, he felt nothing at this sight of the extinction of his last archives.  He stood and watched until his eyes were dry from the flames, and then he walked back to his new home on campus.

 

As Erik slept that night, he dreamt that he was the one on fire.

 

.

.

 

Months went by and Erik settled into his new professorship as best he could.  The destruction of the music left a void within him that he filled with work and seminars and reading and entertainment, and the longer time went on, the easier it became.

But every now and again, he would hear something that reminded him.  A few notes of a bird chirping (those still had not been outlawed, at least) was all it took to put Für Elise into his head for the rest of the afternoon–a torturous experience that was cured by a night of hard drinking and a bad hangover the next morning.  Sometimes he would even wake up with tunes inexplicably stuck in his head, but these came less and less as months went by, and he was thankful for it. Forgetting was the only way he saw to fit in and be accepted by his peers, and Erik needed this success. All the work he had done in becoming a professor, all of the effort he put in would be wasted if he didn’t learn to let go.  His whole livelihood depended on this work.  Not only that, but Erik knew, deep down, that his friends would never look at him the same if they knew he still held to such backward ideas.  He had to stop living in the past, he told himself.

But as the years went by, Erik slowly and unconsciously drifted back to the music.  He simply could not escape it; he was rooted in it, and any direction he grew was based upon it.  This time though, he became an outspoken critic of the art.  He was so good at criticizing it, in fact, that he became a famous lecturer on it.  Liberal arts students travelled from all over the world just to hear him whistle a line from Moonlight Sonata or the Cello Suite No.1 (since he was the last man alive to remember such melodies), and then proceed to tear it apart as regressive and ablistic, a long-dead symbol of cultural bigotry.  

 

“Classical music is the auditory equivalent of a swastika,” was one of Erik’s most famous and popularly quoted statements. Erik’s polemics against classical music, combined with his memory of the music itself, made him something of a celebrity in the academic world.  He was seen as a genius, a true man of history.  Other academics and researchers in the field came from far and wide to interview him or collaborate with him or just to sit in on one of his lectures.  But one day, a visitor came in with some peculiar information.

The visitor was a man from the rural countryside of England. The man walked into Erik’s office, golf cap in hand, and told him the last thing that he ever wanted to hear.

The man said, “Mr. Professor, I been drivin’ through Somerset wit’ me ham radio on, and every now and again, I’ll pick up a right strong signal at 700 AM of the most beau’iful classical music!”

Needless to say, Erik went pale as a ghost.  His heart managed to somehow sink to his stomach and pound in his chest, all at the same time. It was unbelievable, it was impossible, it was terrifying.

“You’re out of your mind!” Erik couldn’t hide his agitation. “I’m sorry, old man, but that’s absolutely impossible.  Just five years from now will mark the 100-year anniversary of when the very last archives of classical music were publicly destroyed.  You must’ve been hallucinating!”

“I can prove it to you,” was all the man from Somerset said.

And then he began to whistle out a rough attempt at Chopin’s Nocturne op. 9 no. 2. and it was like the rubbing of glass to Erik’s ears.  He didn’t even like his own whistling anymore, let alone the whistling of this yokel from England. But then he knew that the man’s story was true.  

“My God, stop that terrible noise!” Erik was so anxious that he yelled at the poor man, “Have you told anybody else about this?”

“No, sir. I’m a trucker…kind of a loner, if you like.  And I’m preh-y certain that nobody else should know about this too, seein’ as it was playin’ on the radio n’ all,” the man replied.

And it was true, nobody used old-fashioned radios anymore.  The entire globe was turned into a wifi-signalling device not long after classical music was destroyed, so nobody needed radio.  And over time, radios and everything that came with them were destroyed, forgotten, and collected as scrap metal to the point where nobody owned or even knew how to use radios. And even if they did, nobody in their right minds would keep them on, because there would be nothing out there on the waves to receive!

Yet this man was driving through Somerset, scanning with his radio.

How? What? Why in God’s name were you using a radio?” Erik stammered.

“I found it in a truck that me grandpap left to me in his will,” said the man, smiling. “People call me crazy for keeping it on, but the static always kinda reminded me of bein’ a kid with him again.  I never heard nothin’ playin’ before and never expected to!”

The hairs on Erik’s neck stood on end.  He hadn’t thought of his own grandparents in years.

“But why come to me with this information? Why not your local authorities?”

“Well, professor, I know you’re the leading authority on the wrongs of classical music and all, but I thought it was just beautiful. As beautiful as all the green of England. And while you may ‘ave yer way wit’ it, I would rather you take care o’ it than gettin’ the State involved.  They’ll make a right mess of it, oh I know it! They make a right mess of everything they touch, and I thought that you might have a more…gentler way of managing it, if you get my meaning, sir.”

Erik was stunned.  Manage it? How could he manage it? What was he supposed to do? If it was revealed that he went out on a wild goose chase for classical music without notifying the proper authorities on the matter, it might cost him his job, or worse.  He felt nauseous.

Yet somehow, he heard a voice say, “Can you take me there?”

And in just a few days, he was driving through Somerset with a ham radio set to 700 AM.

 

.

.

 

Insisting that he go alone, the trucker gave him directions to where the signal had been strongest. Driving the country roads, Erik felt stifled by the trees and dizzier with every dip and every turn of the road. The static of the radio was grating at his patience, and he was very seriously considering turning it off and going home.  He kept telling himself, “This is impossible, there’s absolutely no way. You’ve been tricked, Erik.  Fooled by a country bumpkin. This is all some kind of hoax, it must be.”

But, slowly at first and then almost all at once, dazzling music burst from the static.  It was exactly the song the trucker tried to whistle that day he came into Erik’s office, Chopin’s Nocturne op. 9 no. 2.  The notes struck Erik like a lightning storm.  He was immediately overwhelmed by the sweetness of the piano, it broke him to pieces, and he fell into an almost catatonic trance that sent him back to a world that he kept hidden behind many thick walls within his mind.  He was a child again, being taught to play piano by his grandmother for the very first time. The feeling he got when he finally played the song right was indescribable.  It was glorious, and Erik dissolved into a warm silver glow.

When Erik woke up, he was on his back in a ditch.  Light flickered through the green leaves, and for a moment he didn’t know which way was up. The car was wrecked, but all in all, he was fine and so was the ham radio.  All Erik could remember was that he heard music—his dream was lost and forgotten. He decided then and there that he knew exactly what he had to do. He had to find the source of this classical music and destroy it once and for all. He understood his purpose: this torture, this oppression, this reminder of rank and inequality was too much for him now; it had to be annihilated.

So, Erik grabbed the radio and followed the signal, only turning on the sound in short bursts so as to not hear too much of it all at once and “have a reaction” again (as he termed it in his mind). The signal led him through a beech tree forest.  Even as he walked beneath daylight, the wood was dark and gloomy to him.  Around every trunk was a hidden threat, and every rustle of leaves or crack of a twig made him flinch.  The chirping of the birds put so many unwanted melodies into his head, Erik thought he would go insane.  Frantically, he started to run, paying no mind to the direction, yet the signal grew stronger and stronger.

Finally, he came to a clearing and all was muted like some invisible dampening fog had just settled upon the world. There before Erik was Brympton d’Evercy, the most beautiful country house in England. Another lightning bolt hit Erik. This was the moment of truth. He turned up the volume on his radio, staggered like a drunk man to the front door of the house, and knocked hard.

 

Suddenly, the music cut from the radio and Erik could hear shuffling through the static.  The sound of feet, quick and light, could just barely be discerned, and Erik only caught a flash of white before the brightest blue eyes were peeking at him through a window near the door.

She was just a young woman, he thought. Only 24 at the oldest, the age when Erik first became a professor.  He was 30 now, not exactly ancient, but he was incredibly surprised that a woman so young would be responsible for this act of extreme intolerance. He was also stunned by how beautiful she was.  It made him stop and stare like a fool. For a moment, he forgot what he was there for.

“Miss, I am Professor Erik and…” he began saying, but the woman cut him off. “I know who you are! You’re terrible! How dare you come here to my house.”

“Miss, I…” Erik tried to say, but she interrupted again.

“I think I know exactly what you’re here for! Go away and don’t come back!”

And with that, she vanished as quickly as she had appeared.

A moment later, the music started again on Erik’s radio. This enraged him so much that he kicked open the door and stormed into the house, determined to smash every last record she had out of existence. He was as panicked as a drowning man who, feeling himself sinking to certain death, flails out and pulls down even his rescuer. There was no way that he would let her get away with this. Erik flew from room to room like a maniac, looking for the transmitter and the record player and the collection of music that simply had to be exterminated.  

The music got louder and louder as Erik became more and more desperate, until he froze before the door of the room that certainly held the source of this music.  Erik’s mouth was dry and his head was spinning as he slowly reached a shaky hand toward the doorknob. He couldn’t live with this…nobody could live with this.  She was playing Chopin again.  Doesn’t she understand that nobody likes this music anymore? That it is unacceptable? That nobody will accept you if you value this tradition? These records must be destroyed, she’ll understand some day, Erik thought as he finally burst through the door

But then, before his eyes was the most beautiful woman in a long white dress, sitting at the bench of a grand piano, playing the Nocturne perfectly without even a single sheet of music. She knew it all by heart.

Erik fell to his knees and wept.

.

.

She stopped playing and turned to him.  “Why are you here?” She asked in a trembling voice.

“Just to hear you play,” Erik said, regaining composure. He stood up and fixed himself a bit, strangely calm.  “You play beautifully.  I’m sorry, I’ll be on my way now. Could you just… play one for me as I leave?”

“Sure.” She answered in an even tone, but on the inside she was quite terrified by this bizarre situation.  Nevertheless, the woman began to play a song that Erik had never heard before. It took him flying over a vast silver-blue sea until he came upon white shores and a wide green land with mountains beyond.  This was her song, she must have written it, Erik thought.  Thank God for her music.

Then Erik walked out of the Brympton House and back into the beech forest while tying a certain knot in a bedsheet that he took from a guest room on his way out.  He despised thievery, but under those circumstances he really didn’t feel like he had much of a choice.

Five years later, they tore down Brympton D’Evercy and re-named the woods in Erik’s memory.

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