by Noel Denvir
There’s a path that leads up along the cliffs on the cold Northern Ireland coast where I live. The lack of vegetation and the stark angular landscape remind you very clearly that you are on the outer edge of Europe — even the world.
I often take walks here to clear my head and get away from the recording studio where I work. My head is so full of music, music that I don’t particularly like, because I’m a recording engineer; I just do my job.
I love to compose, but first I have to empty my head of all the musical smog that has built up there after a recording session. It’s good to have time to think over a riff; could it be faster, slower; instrumental or lyrical; guitar-driven or keyboard-led? What about percussion, or not?
Maybe you think I’m some sort of multi-instrumentalist, but I’m not. I can play basic piano; I’m no player. That’s why I ended up as a technician. All composers need an instrument, however basic. My instrument is a wonder of musical history: the electronic synthesizer.
At my disposal are hundreds of instruments. I can plot the notes out like a graph, then press a button and it plays. I have been allowed to create music that has astonished even me. Accidental melodies, pre-set variations, serendipitous mistakes, all penned in and controlled in a musical sequencer.
It was on one of these recuperative walks that I found it, near the cliff’s edge. It looked like a credit card, only thicker, with a small metal ridge at one side. Printed on it were the words, “Memory Card.”
I didn’t need any printed information to know what it was. It belonged to a synthesizer, an older one from before the days of SD cards. The musical equivalent of a floppy disc. You could store about thirty minutes of music or sounds on it. I had such a synthesizer, and the appropriate card back in the studio. Such cards were hard to come by these days. I was happy to pocket it and maybe use it for storing ideas.
I wondered how it got here. I was hoping the owner had not had an accident, because this is a dangerous path. The sloping bank to the left ends in a sheer drop of about a hundred feet to the rocks and sea below. There is no fence, just a sign saying “Dangerous Path.” A statement of the obvious.
Oddly enough there are seldom accidents here, because it is so visibly uninviting, which is why I like it. I wouldn’t mind if the wind, rocks and sea took me away in dramatic fashion one day. I find life... alright, nothing more. My dreams of fame and fortune never came true. Now I’m just an ageing “Neverwas.” The music I compose is dated — sooooo Seventies, man!
I stopped in at the pub on the way back for a refreshing pint — just one, perhaps two — I can’t handle any more these days.
“Out for one of your walks, Jim?” Rory, the barman slid over my drink.
“Oh yes, clear my head.”
“So, how’s the recording industry?”
“Just mixing together the theme tune for a gardening programme.”
I just winced and asked, “Rory, has there been anyone else up on the path recently? I found something there.”
“Well, there was a bloke here a few days ago. That rainy Tuesday morning, but I never saw him again; probably went back to Belfast afterwards.”
“Yeah, he sounded just like you. You’re from the city, aren’t you?”
“Was. Do you think anything happened to him?”
“There were no reports of anyone missing. What did you find?”
“And this is?”
I explained. Rory fully understood about half of it.
“Hey, if you listen to it then maybe it’ll give you an idea of who the person is.”
I forgot all about it until I was sorting out some washing a few days later and the plastic card fell out of a hip pocket. I took it into the studio where the old synthesizer stood. I’ve always liked this old instrument. Big and heavy with a warm sound. When you switch it on there’s a thud from the speakers and a deep breathing background noise which for me gives the sound a more “roomy” feeling.
The sequencer glowed and displayed the number, “1.” I pressed the play button. Sounded a bit like Pink Floyd, quite good actually. I felt I was going to enjoy listening to this. Then the phone rang.
I ALWAYS answer the phone. I will jump out of a bath naked and run across the street to answer the phone. In other words: I’m freelance. The next call could mean a big contract, or even just a contract.
Sort of big. Music for a TV commercial for a new razor blade. I can just see the visual: a razor that looks like a spaceship floating in the void. Science fiction music required.
That kept me busy for about three weeks. I occasionally got the chance to listen to the card tracks. They were bloody good. Maybe I could use some ideas for the razor commercial... No, forget what I said there.
On my next visit to the pub, Rory asked me about the card. “Well, any clues?”
“No, just some riffs and sound mixes. I’ve listened to all nine tracks.”
“That’s an odd number.”
“Yes, indeed, Rory!”
“No, what I mean is, things usually come in sixes or tens or dozens. Like crates of beer.”
Then it occurred to me. “Of course. Track zero.”
“Track zero? Sounds surreal!”
“No, it’s actually track ten, but these old synthesizers only have a single-digit display. And track zero comes before track one, so there’s a tendency to miss it.”
Again, Rory completely understood about half of this. He smiled and whispered, “So now you know what you’ll want to do when you get home tonight!”
I was a bit drunk when I got home; can’t hold it any more. I started tinkering away on the old synthesizer in the early hours — a rather sad habit, I admit. Then I saw the memory card in its slot and so hit the “card” button. Track 1, back to track 0 and...
I listened in shock and disbelief. I recognised it. No, not because it was by Gentle Giant, Genesis or Crimson. It was by me. The first track on this card; track zero, was a riff I had made up about a month ago. My most recent composition.
I thought for a moment that I must be suffering from some sort of amnesia. I checked in my drawer for my own memory card — identical to the other one. There it was. I took out a red ink marker and drew an “X” on it so as not to confuse it with the found card. I then placed it into the card slot, and played track 0. Yes, the riff. It was there. Tracks 1-9, nothing. Not used yet.
I then put the found card in my pocket and stepped out into the icy night air. There’s a path that leads up along the cliffs on the cold Northern Ireland coast where I live. It’s there I stood looking out to sea with the memory card in my hand.
It clears my head to stand here. Clears my imagination to compose new music. I have never copied anyone’s ideas, not even my own.
I reached back and with all my strength threw the card over the edge to the crashing waves below.
Copyright © 2013 by Noel Denvir