Friday, March 9, 2012

Another Novel Excerpt


Lara and Miles stepped into the many-leveled media complex hidden at a little-traveled edge of the university campus, near a freeway overpass. Lara clutched his arm as if pulling him inside. Both of them wore coats—she’d made him wear his many-buttoned velvet overcoat, the best article of clothing he owned. Miles was handsome, but hadn’t learned how to highlight his looks.

From outside, the Global Cafe was a concrete block Normandy-style bunker. Fortress Europe, layers of upright rectangles rising at its center like an Aztec temple. No hint given about what was being defended, or who was being sacrificed.

The interior was vaster, more colorful, than the exterior suggested. They moved up carpeted stairs.

“I’ll be able to broadcast my radio show here,” Lara said.

The Global Cafe wasn’t simply a concert venue, or a radio station, but a complete multimedia center, focus of the best talents academia could provide. It included a television studio and a small publishing house. Like everything in a university, the expense was covered not just by ridiculously high tuition; not just by tax-deductible alumni donations and endowments, city, state, and federal funding, but also corporate sponsorship. This included joint projects. The Global Cafe thus represented a confluence of many kinds of media, new and old, but also a conjunction of money and power. The goal: To keep society’s most progressive and enlightened class at the forefront of cultural activity. The belief: If it didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen.

No wonder Miles disliked this place, Lara thought.

“It’s a necessary evil,” Lara told him. “They’ll make your event known—to the world. We’ll ensure coverage on progressive sites across the Internet.”

She pointed out to him various wings. An entire suite of offices engaged in “Development”—ensuring the flow of money from wealthy individuals and from institutions of every sort.

The cafe itself, the concert space at the core of the complex, spread out from the entrance in a black-and-red series of horizontal and vertical lines, including square tables with square glass candleholders on them. Black-and-red squares flanked the elevated square stage.

There was no ceiling as such, but a rising array of black techno devices; lights, cameras, microphones. All sound, all lighting, all illusion was state-of-the-art.

As their eyes adjusted to the lines of the cafe, they noticed a dark-bearded white man Lara’s age standing at the center of the tables, so trim and straight, dressed in a black turtleneck, he could’ve been one of the lines. He wore narrow eyeglasses. His short hair was modestly spiked with gel.

“This is Eliot,” Lara said with breathless eyes.

“Hello, Miles,” Eliot said.

Miles casually removed his right hand from an overcoat pocket and shook the man’s outstretched hand. Eliot had the smug demeanor characteristic of his class. Particularly here, where he was director.

“Impressive,” Miles remarked, his eyes glancing about himself for effect.

They sat in square red-and-black chairs at the very back, Lara between the two men. She leaned toward Eliot and they whispered. Miles rejected the sudden notion that Eliot was a version of himself, albeit a somewhat older, more comfortable version, not as tall. How well did Lara know him? Miles wished to have nothing in common with the man.

Lights shifted on the stage, a variety of sizes and brightnesses.

“That’s good,” Eliot decided, his voice carrying well to an unseen technician.

The room had perfect acoustics. A single sharp spotlight shone on the platform. They were there for what wasn’t presented as, but was in fact, an audition for the young man with the battered trumpet. Miles had made the Kid’s appearance a condition of his agreement to hold the victory party here. His way of maintaining some control over the thing. The Kid stepped out, dressed in Sunday church clothes. Lights focused down upon him.

The body of the cafe took on a subdued hue, hushed red, as if an audience sat at the tables. The carpeting shimmered. Everything gleamed, spotless.

The young man recognized Miles. This relaxed him. He nodded to his patron then brought out the battered trumpet from a cloth sack.

The Kid said hello, his voice amplified by an unseen microphone. His nervousness turned into confidence as his fingers touched the trumpet’s valves, the archaic instrument becoming one with him.

“I call this, ‘Unaccompanied Mania.’”

All nervousness vanished as soon as he began to play. The Kid lost himself in the mood of his music, ignoring the cold atmosphere around him. He’d entered a white world. The trumpet was his touchstone to himself and his art. The sounds he created projected sudden warmth into the regulated order of the room.

The notes came jagged, cutting, placed together in unfamiliar ways. Miles watched with some tension. Was the Kid any good? To an authority like Eliot he’d seem crude. To Miles, the very crudeness, enhanced by new motifs—instinctive motifs—made the sound genuine.

The Kid’s music was experimental by its very nature and source, coming from his own experience, from his uber-tough urban world. While the Kid listened assiduously to the ancient jazz masters who played at the club—he heard from themselves their journeys and methods—the Kid was from a different generation, and carried other influences. He’d added new kinds of syncopation, new insights to this art. Touches from his life, his soul. The music’s very unfamiliarity, the seeming chaos, at moments its naked amateurishness, attracted Miles. The music was unjaded and fresh. The notes progressed in unpredictable lines, a narrative with an unknown outcome.

Would the unfamiliarity of the sound throw Eliot—that it was outside his experience? Unpredictability was what jazz was about!

The Kid finished abruptly and stood, proud of himself.

“Not bad,” Eliot leaned forward and said to Miles, looking in his eyes to exhibit sincerity.

Eliot exchanged looks with Lara, while Miles went up to speak with the young musician, congratulating him. The two gossiped behind him. He wondered how the smug authority assessed Miles Milbank.

“The Kid had to leave for his job,” Miles explained when he walked back to what appeared to be old friends, cozy in the shadows. “Works near campus, not far from here. Washing dishes.”

Had they been in school together?

“Good, that’s good,” Eliot said, he and Lara standing up from their conversation.

“Do you like this place?” Lara asked Miles with direct eyes—his own audition?

Miles leaned back, hands in pockets, and took it in.

“I could get into it,” he said.

Miles was more part of this refined world than they realized. He’d grown up with this crowd. If he didn’t quite know the language, he remembered the intonations and the walk.

A sense of confinement came over Miles. The cafe’s perfect lines felt like prison bars. He’d made the required appearance. He became anxious to leave Lara to her friend and escape. Likely the same feeling the Kid had.

As they stepped from the illusory spell of the performance space into the sunlit lobby, Eliot introduced Miles and Lara to a musician of his own, Julian Scott, also a trumpet player. Julian was a sophomore at the university, a precocious music student with a clean white face and an easy smile.

“The Department’s star pupil,” Eliot described him as. “Julian can play anything. He has them all down, from louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to Dizzy Gillespie and Maynard Ferguson, sound for sound, exactly like the recordings. He can duplicate anyone.”

Unembarrassed, the student rattled off several aspects of the various artists, describing the different jazz eras. Julian had an oblong head with strong chin, golden wavy hair and green eyes. The eyes expressed well-nurtured confidence.

Eliot explained that Julian had access here to video performances from across the planet at the flick of a switch. He heard the performances on the best audio equipment known to man. Julian’s own performances were computer analyzed, broken down note-by-note, so that when he did Beiderbecke, the computer ensured Julian played in the Beiderbecke manner, but better.

Miles silently asked, How do you define talent? He was certain that Julian was technically as proficient as those he mimicked. Probably moreso. He’d absorbed every lesson. Was that enough?

“Have to go,” Julian said. “A recording session down the hall. Good to meet you.”

He nodded with perfect manners and sauntered off.

“We can’t contain Julian,” Eliot explained. “His intelligence is off-the-boards. He likes to engage in long conversations in which he quotes word-for-word his professors’ lectures. For that matter, the recent texts. Lately he’s been reciting passages from the latest John Adams book. Er, the composer, not the president,” Eliot smirked.

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