March 22, 2021

Episode 7: DANSE MACABRE/IT'S AN ANGEL, CONWAY

Episode 7: DANSE MACABRE/IT'S AN ANGEL, CONWAY

The office receives a grisly letter from the early 20th century about an experimental composer. Conway muses about his past and present.

(CWs: blood, body horror, knuckles cracking, death)


The office receives a grisly letter from the early 20th century about an experimental composer. Conway muses about his past and present.

(CWs: blood, body horror, knuckles cracking, death)

Music:

Purcell - Rondeau From Abdelazer

Vivaldi - Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor

Saint-Saëns - Danse macabre, Op. 40

Purcell - Rondeau From Abdelazer

Vivaldi - Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor

Saint-Saëns - Danse macabre, Op. 40

TRANSCRIPT:

CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public. 

Now this is an old one. I feel like if I’m not careful opening this, the whole thing’s gonna tear. Dead Letter 312. A letter addressed to a Mr. Markos. I’m not entirely sure how it made it into our backlog, given it’s about 100 years old, but there appears to be no address for this Mr. Markos. The letter reads as follows. 

EDGAR, NARRATOR: "Malicious. Obscene. Substandard. Most disagreeable and indigestible. The proverbial Dickensian crumb of cheese splattered on the stage by an ill-tempered mind, one assuredly perverted by rhythm and reason hitherto unknown to polite society. A complete aesthetic and moral failure for Monsieur Edgar, and a black spot on all contemporary English works. Perhaps Edgar should have retained his study of internal medicine, whereby he could make messes of the human form as he sees fit, sans audience." 

These “kind words” and more you levied at my first premiere in Paris one year ago, Monsieur Markos. Certainly your confidant Madame Stein has long ago heard the tale of my ballet’s misfortune and ensured all the other aesthetes gathered in her gilded salon from Apollinaire to Matisse know my shame.

I can imagine you poring over this text now, after my second premiere, in a frenzied allegro--perhaps accompanied by the horns of bobbies--seeking any news of your daughter’s health, any drop of comfort for your troubled heart. Though my frame shudders with mirth at the mere thought, that revelation must come in due course, monsieur. First I should like to give you a thorough recounting of the creation of my latest, and final, piece.

One evening the 25th of October, 1915. Deep in the trench of a gas-laden graveyard, a medic stood just outside the range of an artillery shell detonation. Three other medics within the radius were torn apart and died instantly, along with several soldiers a touch more slowly, leaving just this lone medic as the frantically bandaging witness. It was in these trenches that the medic saw the true barbarity of our race, the needless suffering we undergo and inflict for the benefit of our supposed betters. We, merely the chess pieces of our modern gods callously tossed off the board for a coin. He saw the very threshold of what man’s body can endure, and what Herr Freud might call the collective psyche of a nation can withstand--or bury. You, Monsieur, championed this war in your paper of record and seem determined to bury its atrocities. 

At the time of my release from service, a friend apprised me of the goings-on at a salon in Zurich, of Mr. Hugo Ball and his associates at the Cabaret Voltaire. I was divinely inspired by their destruction and reconfiguration of the old modes into new ones, of the unseen grotesque discovered. The absurdity of our modern condition, in the twisted forms in a Braque, or a Duchamp, were not so dissimilar to the horrors of the Great War, to the bodies out of joint and out of space strewn across Europe. I spent the majority of my cached income to bring these radical new movements to the orchestra, to replicate the impossible bodies in dance, and to never let us forget what they have done to us, and what you and yours encouraged; the grinding of our bodies into dust in the gears of imperial war and industry.

As for Stein and all: I hadn’t the slightest interest in their approval in any case. However, since my premiere, your words had rattled around my mind like a sharp stone in my shoe. I thought I’d be rid of it only to be sorely reminded of its presence by a prick in the heel. I did not seek your approval, yet your critique soured me on my own work. I was driven to rework the piece entirely, to transmogrify it into a ballet that would test the very limits of the form itself. The fruits of this labor you were witness to this very night. 

I began the process many months ago. I would spend hours in my parlor with my mandolin, plucking out atonal melodies and discordant passages derived from sources both holy and profane. Dominant sevenths with no tonic, tritones without resolution. I found these enlightening, but not fully to my taste. There was a rhythmic certainty to even the most foul tonal combinations. My purpose then became to create rhythmic oddities. I tried playing in time with my metronome with the right hand and freely with the left, ensuring the notes were never fully in sync. This produced a most curious push and pull, a feeling of always being off balance and many missed notes. Yes, something akin to this might do well. Throughout the period of composition, I would snatch pieces of unrelated sound, the babbling of a river, the whistle of a shopkeep, and turn them into notes for my tone poem. The piece’s vacillations and rhythmic intricacies would demand top-tier performers.

I scoured the city for musicians who could perform my work. After numerous failures and a handful of misunderstandings, I hired two of the finest players in our county and filled the rest of the cast with novices. With my orchestra assembled and my score as completed as necessary, it then came time to select my ballerina.

I met the prospective mademoiselle for tea one hazy morning. Her demeanor was most agreeable, and we got on fabulously. I had little money left, but my enthusiasm for the work convinced her to join our motley group. I found in her initial routines that she wasn’t one of the many children of artistic figureheads given praise simply for a name, devoid of their progenitor’s talent: quite the opposite, in fact. I found her skill astounding regardless of her parentage, and she held none of the contempt or pretense so often found in the offspring of great men.

I gathered them all together the following day for our first rehearsal. The mademoiselle moved beautifully to the arhythmic flow, but the musicians left something to be desired. The performers all played off tempo and off-key, but not in the intended manner. I tried to reign in the chaos, but the novices grew frustrated with my demands, leading to a swath of musicians walking out of my studio. I was left with only a violinist and pianist. The capital was gone, so this would have to do. 

Oh, what accidents lady fortune brings us from time to time which illuminate the importance of a thing overlooked. With merely the two musicians and the mademoiselle--a truly sparse arrangement--the work came alive. The keys and strings battled and tangled, swaying in and out of time, leaving empty space in which the dancer could play her part. I watched her gyrations with keen interest, an interest I must admit grew beyond the professional. She was the fairest collaborator I had ever known. Not only could she aptly perform the steps I laid out, she absolutely understood them. The only apprehension she had was when I occasioned the rehearsals always to cease before the finale. Separately I worked with the players so that they may know their score, but never the mademoiselle. This, I told her, would shroud the final movements in mystery, even from the performers.

Before we were ready to perform, however, it was inevitable that the finale be practiced. I took the mademoiselle through the steps slowly, half-tempo and half-intensity: I showed her the proper angles and bends, and she showed me her exquisite techniques. She found the choreography most unnatural and quite difficult even at such a speed, which I admit now is the intent, and I instructed that she not under any circumstances perform it at its full force before the premiere. To do so carelessly could be fatal: an imprecise leap, stumbled stretch, or ill-guided fold may land one in the grave rather than the headlines.

Watching the Mademoiselle move recalled for me the impressive feats of which man’s body is capable with the proper care and training. My medical studies gave me a superior mechanical knowledge of man’s carriage, and I am also schooled in dance, yet her capabilities outstripped my own. As we practiced day by day, I was smitten first with her dance, then with the woman herself, though it was an affection that was largely kept hidden lest it destroy the very thing we on which we worked. I know not whether she felt the same, but it hardly matters; the yearning of a love unrequited is a literary gift all its own.

After some weeks of rehearsal and revision, the piece was ready to be consumed by the public. 

We were given a small space in a local hall. We began sending out invitations. Yours, Monsieur Markos, I trust found you well. And whom else should you find advertised on the bill that evening but one of the finest dancers in our fair city, Mademoiselle Alice Markos? Is it not fitting that the daughter of the preeminent critic and writer of our time should perform in the next historic ballet?

Now that you have been made privy of the history of this piece, Monsieur, I would like to briefly prognosticate its future. It is the very morning of the premiere as I am writing, and if you and the  piping peelers would be so kind as to indulge my fantasy, I shall tell you how the performance no doubt went. 

You entered the concert hall, dressed in your black finery and hat, cane in hand. You sat near the rear of the theater, the better to disguise your presence from myself lest I mistake your appearance here for serious interest in my little farce. The house went quiet. Two performers hardly make an opera, you thought!

Then the music began, a series of jerky, stilted lines, seemingly in constant struggle to be held together. Your daughter took to the stage next, dressed in naught but red bandages, a black cloth over her eyes. Her movements came quickly and suddenly, as if she herself wasn’t aware of her next step. Murmurs arose from the audience, displeasure and confusion mingling. The mademoiselle’s gestures were all raised knees, thrown elbows, more akin to the vicious maneuvers of illicit prize fighters than dance. Her arms swung side to side, twisting her torso, dark hair flailing in the light. She dropped to the stage floor curling and writhing her limbs violently as if on fire. Several patrons scoffed and rose to leave, others chuckled nervously or began booing. The dancer crawled across the open space, pulled by some malicious invisible presence. The music paused as the ballerina spun on knees and elbows, gesticulating outward with such force, the only remaining sound on stage being the scuffling and squeaking of bare flesh on the varnished wood. One arm flung outward toward stage-left as the pounding music swelled once more, then the body followed, jolting that direction and leaving the audience. By this point, the viewers were surely in a feverish excitement of various emotions. I can already hear the shouts and jeers, the pounding of fists on the seats, the gnashing of teeth and covering of eyes. If I may badly misquote the American Williams: Aircrafts slamming joyfully into the earth, youths throwing themselves into the streets to be run over wailing, “Someone has written a ballet!”

But out stepped the dancer in all black, with a white mask obscuring every form and feature. The piano and violin crescendoed toward the finale. The dancer swayed back and forth, farther and farther, until they fell, collapsing faceward to the stage, unmoving. At this point I’m sure you leaned forward, straining to see if your daughter was ill or injured. Then the dancer’s limbs began bending backward, twisting as if under the spell of Mephistopheles himself. Legs and arms folded and cracked like twigs underfoot. The spine stretched and curved. The dancer curled themselves into a knotted ball, then suddenly jerked their head. The dancer was very still, and the audience went quiet until dark red liquid began seeping through the mouth of the white mask, staining in its wake and dripping onto the floor. Blood pooled and dripped down the side of the stage. The audience erupted into a panicked mob, many running for the exits, the others climbing over the chairs to check on the dancer, and you paralyzed with fear, spirit sinking. Then the floor dropped beneath the dancer, the curtains closed, and the composer fled from backstage into the alley.

It’s quite impressive what can be done to the human body with the proper training. Yes, Monsieur Markos, the curtain calls for every one, even your precious daughter. The dance of death unites us all, from the nameless soldier to the illustrious writer, from the lowly Edgar to the mighty Cezanne, and tonight I have made this fatal ballet quite literal.

Though it is not your daughter’s day to die. No, Monsieur, I am no murderer: my beloved Mademoiselle is safe at my studio in my conductor’s garb. Remember I am established in dance, myself, Monsieur, and rehearsed daily with your daughter. She taught me all I needed and more. For the final act of my final piece, I exchanged roles with the ballerina, so that the composer became the dancer vice versa. Make messes of the human form, indeed, monsieur. Now if you would open the door behind this note and check beneath the stage with the enclosed key. You may still find me barely clinging to life among the black kegs if you’re fleet of foot. And bring those constables, I’m sure I’ll have quite a bombshell waiting for you. 

Yours in the Danse Macabre,

Monsieur Edgar

CONWAY: Quite the grisly anecdote, if I say so. There’s no address, and even if there was, I doubt any of the involved parties would still be around to receive it. Its contents have been archived regardless, and there’s nothing in here that warrants storage in our vault, so...I guess I’ll see if our local history museum has any interest in it. 

Heat.

CONWAY: Atomic clocks are the most precise keepers of time that we’ve made so far. They measure the radiation given off by an electron in a cooled cesium atom as it changes energy levels. A second has passed when the device’s oscillator measures 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation.

Light.

I was good friends with her growing up. We played together a lot, shared secrets. She lost her arm when she was 10. Now that’s not just a figure of speech either. She actually lost it; no one knows where it went. We were out in the woods near Springfield climbing in trees, throwing rocks, and whatever else kids with busy parents did at that age. We found a cave, a small hollow spot in a wall of shale. She went in. I was worried about getting in trouble, so I waited outside anxiously.

Decay.

Eventually the oscillator’s measurements will be a little bit off. One second every few million years, or something like that. You know, everything breaks down; entropy gets the best of us all. She came out without her left arm, no pain, no tears. Doctors were surely flummoxed.

There’s really nothing written in stone that says decay has to go that way, though. What happens in that missing second every million years? Hey, have you tried to shove a handful of cereal in your mouth but drop some, then look down in disbelief as the puffed circles form a pyramid on the ground instead of scattering everywhere? You ever make a little sandcastle in the sun only to watch the wind sweep it away, piece by piece, and make it into an even bigger sandcastle a few feet away? Well, I hadn’t either, 'til then. 'Til she lost her arm.

I’ve been with this office for 6 years, but it might as well be a lifetime. Sure, I’d seen some weird stuff before, that’s why I got the job in the first place, but the sheer volume here can’t be a coincidence. They got me sorting through old mail looking for god knows what. I’ve got criteria, I’ve got a list, but it all seems pretty arbitrary if you ask me.

I mean like, “If the letter evokes sad memories of your childhood, it must not be delivered.” Yeah, okay, sure.

“If your nose itches while reading the letter, it may be delivered.”

I just don’t get it sometimes. 

UNKNOWN VOICE ON PHONE: “Jeez that’s neat and all, but what does it have to do with the statue, Conway?”

CONWAY: I’m just trying to figure out what it all means. What it is.

UNKONWN VOICE: “Uhh It’s an angel, Conway.”

CONWAY: Well, yes, but...but why? Why Kenji? What’s the symbolism? What do angels do?

UNKNOWN VOICE: “I don’t know, like guide you up to heaven? Aren’t they the sort of like the go-betweens for god and us?” 

CONWAY: You know, you may be onto something. They’re a connection, right? A bridge between the realms of heaven and earth. They hang around at the boundary between worlds, and they take you somewhere else. Somewhere different.

But where, though? Where...where's Ken--

*DIAL TONE, followed by BUSY SIGNAL*