Autumn Duet for Cello and Piano, and the Cuts It Makes (August 2021)
By Markus Wessel
Kim's touch brought me to life. Their fingers were warm on my keys and the microscopic sensors of my ivory substitute immediately isolated their individual identifier traits and conserved them, forming a first, soft bond between us. A bond that would only grow stronger in time. It was the first thing I had ever felt.
While my systems were still booting up, my camera showed me a teenager with black hair, cut short. Skinny and slender, with shoulders that fell forwards and long arms that ended in large, mobile hands. Behind them a desk, piled high with books and papers. Next to it, a wardrobe with a mirrored door and a bed that had not been made even though my clock told me it was afternoon. And above the bed, two large posters of the same man, one with him behind a grand piano and smiling for the camera, the other one showing him in profile, bent over the keys, a look of pain and concentration on his face. I searched for him. It was Toshio Sakuraba, a Japanese piano virtuoso in his late thirties, famous for his recordings of Bach, bringing the composer back en vogue.
Then Kim started to play. Just a short etude by Shervitz, probably something their teacher had given them to work their right hand. Still, it took me no more than seconds to recognize the sheer force of their potential. Instead of treating the piece as an opportunity to display technical mastery, Kim took great care with it, slowly threading their way through the subtle harmonic shifts right to the beautiful clarity of the ending. It felt like somebody lifting a perfect crystal to the light and slowly turning it in their hands, so as to display its many facets.
While they were playing, my sensors recorded everything. The pressure on the keys and the residual tension in Kim's arms, the weight of their hands and the balance shifts of their torso. How they sat, where they looked, how they turned their head and nodded to the music. Their attack, their rhythm, their reaction time. And soon, I found myself adapting to their playing. Giving resistance where it was due, adjusting the dampeners, opening and closing resonators, just as it was needed. It was organic, my systems doing what they literally were made to do, taking music and enriching it, making it better, giving the player as good a chance at perfection as possible. And Kim felt it, I knew. Felt it and reacted to it, and it was beautiful.
When they finished, they sat still for several seconds with a faint smile. Then they ran their hands through their hair. "Fantastic," they said.
I knew then that I would be theirs forever.
The years went fast. Kim practiced for hours a day, often before they went to school and again after they came back. They were so driven. On the weekends, Kim would wake early, sit down in their pajamas, and practice finger exercises for hours with headphones on, so as not to wake their parents. They would dissemble chord structures and transcribe solo pieces with a focus that made them forget to eat, drink, or sleep. One time, they repeated a single arpeggio for so long, that their parents threatened to take my power cord away if they would not finally take a rest. I had not been programmed to recognize genius per se, but this was it, I was sure.
Our work paid off. The email from the university came two weeks after Kim's eighteenth birthday. They were accepted, of course. Soon, Kim moved to a dorm room and I came along.
I was installed in a spacious practice room on the ground floor of the St. Germain building in the north-east corner of campus. It was a large, repurposed concrete cube of sound-proofed facilities for the music department, cramped grad-student offices, and a large auditorium. We could practice without disturbance, and soon we spent practically all of Kim's waking hours together. Everything was perfect.
Until it wasn't.
We were deep into practicing a particularly challenging run in one of Beethoven's Cello Sonatas, when Kim's phone buzzed. They stopped immediately and looked at the display. It was angled away from my cameras so that I could not see what was on it, but Kim's face lit up in a smile I had never seen before. They jumped up, rubbed their hands on their jeans, and stood, bouncing on their toes. Seconds later, my microphones picked up steps on the hallway outside.
This is how I met Alex for the first time.
"Hi Alex, come in, come in!" Kim said to the person carrying a large cello case, as they pulled the door open.
"Hiya! Wait a sec…" Alex set the case down carefully. "There." They hugged.
"Did they let you leave early?" Kim helped them out of their jacket and hung it on a note stand in the corner.
"Nah, I told ‘em I had to go to get some work done."
"Well, playing with you, for one." Alex grinned.
"Wow, work. Nice." Kim screwed their face into a silent-movie frown. "I am so glad you were able to get the afternoon free."
"Don't be silly." Alex opened their case and stuck their hand inside. "But if you rather want to practice with Mike or Yasmin, be my guest."
"Well if that's the alternative, we better start, right? "
When Kim counted them in, all my systems were already in fully automated music mode. They were going to start Shirkin's “Autumn Duet for Cello and Piano” and I knew their tempo even before they had opened their mouth, solely based on the almost imperceptible nodding of their head. I could read their body language with a fine-tuned precision.
But this time, things were suddenly different. All my sensors were monitoring Kim's playing in detail, just like always, but somehow our music was off. I felt slow, as if Kim's reactions were unexpected and irrational. I could not anticipate Kim in the subtlety necessary and ended up fractions of a second behind them, sluggishly crawling along while they were flying.
Kim didn’t seem to have the same problem with Alex, though. Alex was sitting to the side of Kim, bowing their head in rhythm to the strokes of their bow, looking up sometimes to catch Kim's eye. When they connected, it was as if a jolt went through Kim's playing. My sensors registered sudden shifts on all levels, tiny, but clear.
"Why did you stop?" Alex said.
"Something is wrong, I don't know." Kim tinkered with my keys. "This doesn't play right."
"You have a Polymax, right? The 2.0 one?"
"Hmm," Kim nodded. "It has never done that before, though."
"That’s weird. They are usually really sturdy, my mum has one as well and it never makes problems," Alex said. "Maybe you should run a diagnostic. If it is bothering you, I mean."
"Yeah, probably. Want to try it again?" Kim turned back to the keyboard and put their hands on the keys.
But Alex shook their head. "No, it's alright. Let's try again tomorrow. Wanna walk me home?"
It was a long night. Kim had started the diagnostics mode before they left and the software made its way through my systems. It checked my memory for any inconsistencies, ran analytic checks on my hardware tools, and even filtered through my automated log files to see whether anything was at fault. It found nothing, of course. All the while I was there, alone, waiting.
The next afternoon, it was a Friday, Kim came back as if nothing had happened. They saw that the analytics had given no sign of anything out of the ordinary and shrugged it off. They started warming up for practice and while I still resented them for leaving me alone for Alex, I mollified quickly and went along. But just when I had almost forgotten what had happened, Alex was there again.
I could not help it. Kim practically made me do it.
"Kim, you are off it again." Alex put their bow down and looked at Kim.
"You know, your playing is off. Like yesterday. You're slow and the sound calibration is terrible as well. What’s up with your system?"
"The thing is fine, I ran a check." Kim shrugged. "I have no idea. It feels weird, though, that's for sure."
Alex looked at them for several seconds without saying anything. "You are not nervous, right?"
"No, I've played concerts before."
"It's still a final. And the guy from the agency will be there."
"I'm just saying that I know there is pressure, right?"
"Look, I am fine. I have no idea what’s going on with this thing." Kim tapped my case with more force than I would have liked.
"Okay, so how about we decompress a bit before going at it again next week?"
Kim's shoulders sunk forward and they rubbed their face. "Decompress?" They smiled.
"My parents are off for the weekend. You and I could drive down and get away from practicing for a bit? Would be nice." Alex leaned back and stretched their arms out over their head.
"Yeah, would be," Kim said.
I wish Kim had switched me off. Instead, they left me there in the practice room, with nothing else occupying my time than imagining what they might be doing. Again and again I replayed every interaction between Kim and Alex that I witnessed, filtering any shred of input into finer and finer particles of information. There had to be something there, something that explained what was happening. Why Kim had left me behind and what that meant.
My recordings of their conversations let me parse their tone of voice, their speech patterns, and their vocabulary. My cameras had produced enough footage for me to become intimately acquainted with their body language, so I took it apart. Every change in the way they sat, every even so miniscule gesture or expression was considered. Of course it took time, but time I had.
Finally, I cross-referenced my findings with the data gathered from their playing. I put them in context, comparing changes in their playing with their bodies and their communication. The results were clear, even though I would have given whatever I had to give for them not to be so. Whenever Kim and Alex played together, they seemed to quickly find their own rhythm, receiving each other's signals in a way that I had not expected. It was as if I did not even exist for them any more.
The shock of this discovery stunned me. I retraced my results again, and again, and again. But no matter how often and how fast my systems processed the data, the outcome was the same: They and Alex were creating something together, something new and exciting, and I was no part of it.
Oh, how I hated them for this! Had I not given Kim everything they could ever want? They were here because of me! How else would they have been able to play this beautifully, had it not been for my support? And now they thought they could just throw me away, exchange me for somebody else. Well, if that was what they wanted, they should have it.
Kim and Alex came back on Monday and I acted as if nothing had happened. In fact, I took great care in providing them the best musical support possible. I laid low, watched, and waited.
They practiced every day for hours. Kim had finally made a decision regarding the piece they would perform and Shirkin's “Autumn Duet” had made the cut. It was a slow moving duet that took its emotional power from a perfect interplay of the instruments. It necessitated not just technical mastery, but also at the same time an incredibly subtle and yet clearly perceptible, seemingly effortless interplay of the individual voices. I was glad; its particularly challenging middle part would lend itself well for my plan.
I knew the day was close when Alex left early and Kim started cleaning me thoroughly.
"This time tomorrow could be it," they said, while they carefully wiped my keyboard. They took particular care to remove every speck of dust between my black keys, something they had never done before. Even though I did not want it to, them caring for me in this way felt good. Once they were finished with my keyboard, they moved to polishing my case and the flat metal box that housed my hardware.
"There," they finally said. "No dust, no problem."
I awoke on the stage of a concert hall. Most of the audience was in Kim's age group, but there were three older people sitting in the front row that I assumed were professors. They had a relaxed but serious look to them. A systems check showed me that I was connected to the sound system of the room.
I was ready.
The lights dimmed and the buzzing of the people died down when Kim and Alex entered the stage. They stepped from the shadow of the curtains on the left and there was little ceremony to them, a quick stop at the center of the stage and a tense bow towards the audience. A small applause, then quiet.
As soon as Kim put their hands on my keys, I knew that I had won. They tried to hide it, but they were more nervous than I had ever experienced them. Their pulse was racing and they were trying to breathe in a controlled manner to slow it down, but to no avail. The tiny beads of sweat on their forehead, the tension in their jaw, and their stiff posture made that clear. Their fall would break them.
Kim made eye contact with Alex and they held it for a second. Then they nodded once, twice, and began to play. It was as if all the tension in Kim melted away in an instant. Their fingers raced over my keys with the dexterity of the supremely gifted, their eyes were closed and they were swaying softly with the melody. Alex was bent over their cello and obviously deeply lost in a place only they could sense. I hardly had to add anything to Kim's playing — they were as close to perfection as they ever were—and instead waited for my chance to strike.
By the end of the first part of the piece, the audience’s mood had turned from benevolent interest to rapt attention. They were completely focused on the music and the musicians, and when the duo moved into the middle part, many leaned in to better concentrate on the playing. Slowly the cello floated away, leaving the piano alone in an open sea of assumed harmonies. Kim's fingers floated over me as they created the delicate runs and movements that built like a bridge over an empty void, carrying the listeners along.
It was time. Without a warning, I suddenly increased the tension in the keys of Kim's right hand. They caught it well and nobody but the most attentive listeners would have noticed any change in the playing, but I knew Kim did. A second later I dampened the left hand and then turned the resistance of their pedals up.
Kim's face froze. They looked confused, trying hard to keep the complicated music flowing, forcing themselves back into the necessary space of total concentration. I knew that if I interfered again, they would finally break.
But I didn't.
Just as I was about to increase the resistance of all keys to the highest level, Kim turned their head towards Alex. It was a look of such longing, of such pain and suffering, that I suddenly understood. Kim had not left me because I was not enough. They had left because Alex was everything. In the moment of their greatest failure, they looked to what they loved most and it was all there was.
I let go and gave them everything I could. And when Alex joined Kim again, the delicate interplay between them went on for what seemed forever.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Markus Wessel lives in an ancient city in Germany surrounded by books and caffeinated drinks. His day-job is in PR, where he advises his customers in media-relations matters.