The Return of Arturo
by Kenneth Nichols
part 1 of 2
The return of Arturo was big news. After all, in the world of classical music, it’s a rare performer who deserves the pretension of being recognized by a single name.
Arturo began as a precocious young genius. He played Carnegie Hall at twelve, impressing even the most difficult-to-please critics with his technical virtuosity on the violin. Before he was old enough to drive, Arturo was sought after by every orchestra in the world, boasting a repertoire from all periods, even debuting his own concerto completely improvised in front of an orchestra part he had never heard. No snob, he played on film scores, with Broadway shows, even on the singles of pop stars, earning an audience none had accomplished since Caruso’s at the advent of recorded sound.
In order to make a return, of course, Arturo had to go away. No embarrassment triggered his hibernation; no scandal necessitated his going away. He simply played his last date — a performance of Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major with the Syracuse Symphony, and then went away.
There were reports in the appropriate niche publications. Opera News Magazine uncharacteristically printed grainy paparazzi photographs. These were taken with a telephoto lens, and could conceivably have depicted Arturo lounging on a beach in South America. There were also rumors that he was composing with native folk musicians.
Adding to the speculation were the rumors of injury. Every Arturo fan knew about the career-threatening carpal tunnel with which he had been cursed at seventeen. A patient of his stature received the best possible care. Thanks to a particularly clever nanorobotic surgeon, the tendons in the fingers of Arturo’s left hand were repaired better than new and virtually undetectably to any inexpert physician. Had the condition returned? Had some other part of Arturo’s finely honed music machine of a body let him down?
Alas, none of this was the truth. Arturo was indeed globe-hopping, but was noticed only by a few appreciative fans. He enjoyed the benefits of his fame, seeing the greatest sights of the world, exploring the different cultures along the way, all without the pressures of dashing to his next performance, or his next studio date.
He made friends on every continent, but none were as important as the woman who became his best friend and partner. Arturo met Niamh while in Ireland. On that day, he toured the Aran Islands, took in the stark limestone beauty of the Burren, and contemplated the Cliffs of Moher. Niamh worked in that site’s one capitulation to capitalism: a tasteful gift shop inside a small castle beside the plunge. He went in for postcards and came out with an invitation to dinner.
Niamh hadn’t known who he was, but she would get a pretty good idea in time, thanks to all the curious looks shot their way. Their date was set for a local pub. Despite getting lost twice on the tiny, meandering Irish roads, Arturo was on time. He didn’t know why she had such an effect on him when he saw her in the pub. She had worked hard to prepare herself, as women do. It was done in front of a large mirror, as she hummed an old Irish air her mother had taught her. Her voluminous curly red hair was tamed in a bunched ponytail, leaving the full creaminess of her face to the candlelight. She smiled when she saw him. “Arturo,” she said. “You made it.”
“Of course,” he replied. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
That night, Arturo and Niamh spoke and laughed and learned that their hands, when clasped tightly, fit together flawlessly. The pub was filled with other happy people brimmed with love of life and others. There was an old man who sat at a remote table and played his fiddle all night. He wasn’t paid, unless one counted the endless stream of Guinness pints that found their way over. Perhaps he’d had too many, or maybe he was too old for the hour, but nonetheless, the music stopped. He was asleep, fiddle still at his chin. A great lament whooped from those assembled.
Happily sighing at his responsibility, Arturo simply took the fiddle and bow from the old man’s hands and began to play. Niamh’s heart swelled with pride for her taste in having chosen him. He played for three hours, every kind of song he could remember. He stopped only when the last patron left, leaving the two lovebirds alone with a sympathetic bartender. This is when they had their first kiss. Usually, Niamh tried to keep her eyes open during such special moments, but the touch was so electric, so incendiary, that she had to yield to the passion between the two and experience it only with her lips.
Always a gentleman, Arturo walked her to her door at the end of the night, kissed her again and let her have her first date modesty. Fortunately, their second date was the next day. It lasted through the evening, and the next. He learned Niamh was a good breakfast cook.
It was only after this that Arturo realized there had been a reason for his hiatus, after all. Though never confessed through his performances, Arturo’s creative well was running dry. He had always challenged himself with diverse projects, but there was still something missing. It turned out to be Niamh.
Meeting her was the beginning of the return of Arturo.
A born entertainer, Arturo contrived the scene himself. At a small but respected university, a young upstart virtuoso violinist played a critical recital. Arturo would not normally step on a debut, surely overshadowing her. However, the attention she would receive afterward was more than compensation.
After she received her final applause and left the stage, the audience began to leave. Without warning or acknowledgement, Arturo stepped center stage. He put his bow to the strings, and began the low, languid strains of his new composition. After everyone noticed, cheered and resumed their seats, the piece accelerated into a fanfare so fleet and melismatic that the critics would later wonder how human hands could move so accurately so fast.
Arturo debuted another piece. His opening act accompanied him, playing the counterpoint. The audience’s standing ovation was refreshing, but as he caught Niamh’s eye, standing just offstage, her applause was the most meaningful.
The return of Arturo was complete.
The very next day, Arturo made the requisite phone calls: agent, manager, record label executives. They all made small talk, whooped at the news about Niamh, but only his agent suggested a meeting.
Angie was a squat woman with features that only seemed to come together when she was excited about a new project. Fortunately, this was often. As Arturo took his seat at the restaurant, Angie shifted her napkin about and sipped her ice water just a little too long. “It’s so nice to see you again,” she finally said.
Arturo happily folded his napkin into his lap. “It’s nice to be back,” he said. “I’m sure you heard all the news. I had a nice little vacation and found an amazing woman. I’m refreshed and ready to resume my normal schedule.”
“Well, Arturo,” she said. “A couple things have changed. Have you kept up with the music world? You were gone for a long time.”
Arturo rolled his eyes. “What kind of sabbatical would it have been if I had kept up with everything?”
Angie sighed. “It seems that musical instruments as we know them will soon be obsolete.” She knew Arturo wouldn’t instantly understand, so she took the device from her purse. It was rectangular, about the size of a wallet, and a pleasing creamy off-white. “This is a Mindpod. I guess all I can do is demonstrate for you. What would you say was your finest performance?”
Arturo thought. “When I was accompanied by 20,000 voices at the concert for the fiftieth anniversary of the September Eleventh attacks in New York.”
“I liked that too,” she said. “Now listen.” She tapped a button on the device and cleared her throat from force of habit. Arturo heard himself play, finding no discrepancy in the performance, despite his intense scrutiny. However, at the proper entrance, there weren’t 20,000 voices, only one. One that sounded suspiciously familiar. Though cracking and weak, the alto part was sung earnestly. “Who is that? Is this a bootleg?”
“No,” Angie said. “That’s me. The Mindpod plays what I’m thinking. Believe me, I don’t understand the science, but it somehow hears the electrical impulses in your brain, and translates it into what we recognize as sound.”
Arturo’s countenance fell. He feared for everything. “What does this mean?”
“I think it will be interesting to find out. You’re actually one of the first to see it in action. The buzz and speculation are amazing, especially among young people. As you can imagine, they’re really trying to keep it quiet until launch.”
“Interesting?” Arturo still hadn’t touched his drink. “If anyone at all can play — compose anything at all, what will that do to real musicians?”
“The same question was asked when they invented the phonograph. Music survived, and evolved.”
“Bottom line. I have a lot of buzz around me, and I’d like to start booking concerts, and arranging all the other activities I love.”
Angie winced. “Okay, I do have to warn you that the whole classical world is slowing down. People want to see what will happen in light of the ‘wondrous new developments’ they’re all expecting. They’re afraid that if people can play whatever they want regardless of talent or experience, they won’t want to see people like you anymore.”
Arturo cocked an eyebrow. “How do you know so much? How do you have one of those... things so soon?”
“I know a lot of people, Arturo. I have a friend at their company who wanted to impress me, so he’s been telling me all sorts of secrets.”
“A hot date perhaps?”
“Did he tell you who is the best with this thing so far?”
She switched off the Mindpod and put it back in her bag. “I guess it’s not really a matter of skill, but he did tell me there’s one engineer who somehow sounds better than the rest.”
Arturo slapped the table. “I want to do a concert with him. Show the world that real music, played by a real human, will always sound better.”
“I don’t know, Arturo...”
“Angie, it’s great publicity for them, and better for me when I win.”
“So it’s a contest?”
“Indeed,” Arturo said. “Man versus machine.”
As expected, the people at Mindpod Technologies warmed to the idea. Not only would it put the Mindpod into a lot of people’s consciousnesses (literally), but holding a concert was a cheaper proposal than simply buying advertising for months across every medium.
The ground rules were quickly agreed upon. Arturo and the Mindpod engineer would each improvise a chamber piece on the spot. The engineer would be responsible for all parts: two violins, a viola, and a cello. Arturo’s challenge was suitably different. A recognized expert in music theory (to remain a secret beforehand) would compose a piece for the latter three instruments, to be played by human musicians, and Arturo would have to improvise the lead violin part. This piece would be remarkably difficult, with changes in dynamics, keys and tone absolutely counterintuitive.
Three respected music professors would be blindfolded before the musicians took the stage, and come to a consensus in secret: Which was the better piece of music, and most professionally performed?
Thanks to the publicity, everyone would be a winner. Mindpod Technologies stock would soar to the heavens. Arturo, if he could grasp the concept, would be busier than ever, securing human superiority forever. (Or until the next great bit of technology came along.)
Niamh couldn’t help but be concerned about Arturo. She expected the stress of the impending challenge would somewhat change his behavior. She had not anticipated that he would be at it twenty hours a day, stealing brief naps, otherwise pausing only long enough to tend to his bleeding fingers and eat the meals she made him.
Copyright © 2007 by Kenneth Nichols