In which Neal Bryan's dream of playing in the New York Philharmonic turns out to be nothing like what he ever expected.
New York: New York City, January 1988 & April 2006
By the end of the day, Neal had serious doubts as to whether anyone would want to come and hear the work. He had procured a ticket for Thursday’s performance, as promised, but planned to tell Claire she should not feel compelled to use it.
Exhausted, and mindful of the snow that had begun to fall, he grabbed a taxi, gave his address to the driver, and sank gratefully into the back seat, closing his eyes. His ears were still ringing. Messiaen’s symphony was easily the single loudest piece of music he had ever been involved in playing. Could one even call it music? More like cacophony, if anyone asked him.
Once delivered to his front door, he made his way up the steps, and then up the main staircase, laboriously. Claire was waiting in the open doorway of the apartment and quickly relieved him of his instrument case and briefcase and brought them to his music room. He was still struggling with his coat when she returned, so she helped him with that, too, and hung it on the rack just inside the door, and took his arm to guide him to the living room. “Come sit, hon, and I’ll bring you supper.”
“I’m too exhausted to eat.”
“Maybe right now you are, but you’re sure to be hungry later.”
“If so, then I’ll worry about it later. Right now, I just want to sit down and put my feet up, and listen to some nice, orderly Bach. Please put on the Brandenburgs for me, if you don’t mind.”
That request raised Claire’s eyebrows. Neal did like Bach, but it was rarely his preferred relaxation music. For that, he usually chose Vaughan Williams or Delius. “Why Bach?” she asked, as Neal sank down on the couch, pulled his feet up, and rolled on to his side, curling himself into a ball, and drawing his favorite afghan over himself.
“I need his order and organization, and also, if you could bring me my headache pills - ”
“You’re starting one?”
“Yes, and I think I can stop it if I just get the medication into me within the next few minutes.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t listen to any music at all right now.”
“No, I need to hear something, but - the Brandenburgs might be too busy for me. Let me have the Goldberg Variations: the old Glenn Gould recording, not the newer one.”
“All right.” Claire brought him the pills and a glass of milk, and a warmed flaxseed pillow to put over his eyes and forehead. After he had settled, she found the record and turned on the stereo.
Neal sighed with relief. “That’s better,” he murmured. “Thank you.”
“Anything else I can do?”
“Not really. I just have to ride this one out.”
“And if you still have a headache in the morning?”
“I’ll work through it. I don’t have a choice about that.”
“Maybe earplugs would help.”
“I could try that, I suppose, but I don’t know how well it would work. This piece varies in the extreme, volume-wise. Some bits are really soft and delicate, and rather pretty, and then it goes all loud and chaotic. Maybe it will grow on me, but for now, I find it terribly unsettling.”
“Rest, then, and listen to your Bach. You’ll feel better soon.”
“I hope so.”
But after only half an hour, he realized even Bach was too much for his scrambled brain to bear, and told Claire he was going to bed.
“Do you think sleep will really help?” she asked, concerned.
“I think so, but just in case that’s not quite enough, I’ll put on an eye mask and a pressure bandage. That usually does the trick.” He tried to sound optimistic for Claire’s sake, though he really believed it was too late. Visual disturbances had begun, all but blinding him in one eye, while random lights flashed and danced before the other. He groped his way to the bedroom and undressed, then slipped beneath the covers. Luckily, though he hadn’t the strength or energy to remember the mask or the bandage, sleep took him quickly. His last thought was that if sleep was coming to him so easily, it was a good sign.
Some hours later, he woke again, to one of those rare, blinding, throbbing headaches that had him whimpering in pain. Not wanting to disturb Claire and the baby, he rolled out of bed, intending to go crash on the couch in the living room, but the pain was so bad, he couldn’t even stand up, much less walk. He lay on the floor for a time, dizzy and nauseated, praying he wouldn’t vomit, then slowly crawled out to the living room and dragged himself on to the couch. Too late, he remembered that his meds were in the bathroom. Without another dose, the headache would never leave him. In any case, he believed he didn’t just need another dose. He needed one of the big guns - the codeine the doctor had prescribed for dire emergencies - if he was to stand a chance against breaking the pain cycle. “Claire?” he called, weakly.
She heard him, and appeared at his side almost instantly. “Neal, what’s wrong?”
“I need another pill, and some codeine. Please.”
Claire ran and got the pills, and helped him sit up long enough to wash them down with a mouthful of water, then let him lie back on the pillow.
He moaned, incapable of speech.
“Neal, I think you ought to go to the hospital,” Claire said, her voice edged with panic.
“No!” he managed to reply. “It’s only - a headache. Let me - sleep it off.”
“Are you sure?”
“All right. I’ll check on you again in an hour or so.”
“Thanks.” He pressed his hands to either side of his head and squeezed hard, and wondered, not for the first time, if he might have a brain tumor. His last CT scan, two months before, had been clear, but never, ever had he suffered a headache as severe as this! Something could easily have changed. He would have to consult with the doctor again soon. In the meantime - oh, he would not wish even a fraction of this pain on his worst enemy!
Fortunately, the codeine rendered him unconscious before he could figure out how to cut off his own head and throw it out the window, or finish planning his funeral. He settled gratefully into the velvet blackness of opiate-induced oblivion.
Jackhammers:dozens of them, all drilling away inside his skull. If they managed to break through the bone, would it relieve the unbearable pressure within?
Neal tried to open his eyes, but they felt big as bowling balls and throbbed horribly, and his eyelids were too heavy to raise. He wrapped his arms tight around his head and moaned, wondering how in hell he would work the next day. And work he must, or risk never being offered another Philharmonic job again.
Oh, God. How? He couldn’t even see to read the fucking music!
He lowered his arms and rolled his head from side to side in a vain attempt to ease the stiffness in his neck, but that only brought a wave of nausea and even more intense pain. “Oh, Jesus, help me!” he groaned.
But Jesus didn’t answer, and the pain continued, excruciating and constant.
Cool fingers touched his forehead and firmly massaged the spot between and slightly above his eyebrows: his third eye. Then a hand slipped in behind his head and curved around it, supporting it and taking the weight off his aching neck. Though the relief this brought was small, it was relief, and he sighed gratefully. “Claire?”
In answer, he heard a soft, low chuckle, then a voice. “Right, Babe. She’s asleep. Let her stay that way. She needs it.”
The hands continued their work, and Neal relaxed.
“Got yourself awfully worked up, haven’t you?”
“Because it’s awful. Utterly cacophonous! And I have to see it through, like it or not, or back out and ruin my reputation. Maybe playing in this thing would have been great for you, but it isn’t for me. I - ” Neal paused, then fiercely spoke the ultimate blasphemy. “I hate it! It’s nothing but a lot of fucking noise!”
The hands were massaging his face now, loosening the tension in every muscle, thumbs pressing and releasing around the bony edges of his eye sockets.
"It seems that way now, ’cause you don’t understand it yet. Stick with it, Babe. When you’ve played it through from start to finish in performance, you’ll get it. Trust me.”
“I don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing this through to the end if I can’t shake this fucking skull-splitter.”
“You’ll be fine in the morning. Trust me.”
“I wish I could believe that, but in all the years I’ve been having migraines, I’ve never had one anything like this. God, if I could only die to be free of it!”
“Be careful what you wish for,” the voice cautioned.
“I’m not wishing for anything, one way or another, but I’m probably dying by slow degrees, anyway. It’s probably a brain tumor.”
“Wow, you’re still an awful hypochondriac sometimes, aren’t you?”
“If your head felt like mine did, you might be a hypochondriac, too.”
“Actually, Babe, my last headache was way worse than the one you’ve got now, but at least having your brain explode inside your head is fast. Only a few minutes of pain, then nothing at all while you wait for your ride home. Believe me, you’re not dying, and you don’t have a brain tumor. What you do have is a shit-ton of pent-up stress. Let it go, and work with the music. And remember what Messiaen said? ‘It’s a love song, Monsieur Bryan. A love song!’”
He mimicked Messiaen’s voice so perfectly, Neal actually laughed, and some of the pain left him. “Then it’s a pretty fucking kinky love song.”
“Not really. Wait. You’ll see.”
Soft lips pressed against Neal’s third eye, and the tip of a tongue lightly flicked over it. The pain receded further.
“Trust me, Babe.”
The lips moved against his forehead as the spirit spoke to him, but the voice sounded distant.
And at last, Neal sank into deep, painless sleep.
In the morning when he woke, it was as if he’d never had a headache of any kind in the first place. Claire was astounded. “Honestly, sometimes I think codeine must be a miracle drug.”
“Indeed,” Neal answered, though he knew full well it was not the codeine that had saved him. He touched his forehead, where his third eye still tingled, and sent a silent thank you to Lorin for his kind ministrations. Whether it was dream, or reality, or just plain old hallucination, he did believe something had ministered to him, and done it well. Without some sort of spiritual intervention, he would still be writhing on the couch, or on the way to the E.R. in the back of an ambulance, if Claire had anything to say about it.
The next rehearsal sessions went more easily, though Neal could not honestly say that he liked the piece any better. What Messiaen himself had to say about it when he chose to speak was certainly interesting, but Neal found his insistence on the unwieldy symphony being a love song ridiculous at best, and damned annoying at worst.
Finding himself near the composer during a coffee break one afternoon, he was soon engaged in conversation, and wondering how in hell was the most tactful way to answer a question like, “And how do you feel about the piece today?”
He chose his words carefully, not wanting to offend the man. “Well, Monsieur, you keep saying it’s a love song, but somehow I’m not getting that.”
Messiaen nodded sagely. “As a whole, perhaps, but with the movements taken out of context, not so much. Wait, Monsieur Bryan. All in good time.”
“Oui, Monsieur,” he agreed politely, then beat a hasty retreat.
It was easy to avoid the composer after that. The closer it came to concert time, the more preoccupied he and Mehta were with the finishing touches, and there was no time for casual conversation.
The day of the first performance dawned cold, dreary, and snowy. Luckily, Aidan had gone with his grandmother the night before, along with a whopping great supply of frozen breast milk in bottles. Claire would continue to pump in the child’s absence, to keep herself comfortable, and build up the reserves again.
Despite the horrible weather and the poor condition of the sidewalks, Neal decided they should walk to Lincoln Center. He was too anxious to wait for a taxi, and needed to burn off some excess energy before settling in to perform, so they left early and made their way slowly, arm in arm, and arrived at the hall without incident. They kissed in the lobby and parted without a word. It was bad luck to wish a performer good luck, but Claire also believed it would be even worse luck to offer Neal the standard ‘break a leg’ when, with a simple misstep, he could easily do just that.
They went their separate ways: Claire to her seat, and Neal to his place in the heart of the orchestra. The notes were securely under his fingers now, and he was ready to put forth the most musical performance humanly possible in the midst of such cacophony. Something was different tonight, though. The atmosphere felt charged, and there was an aura of excitement he had not perceived during any of the rehearsals. As the music began, despite his long-sleeved shirt and tuxedo jacket, Neal could feel his arms prickling with gooseflesh, and tiny hairs rising on the back of his neck. Then he felt the firm touch of a hand on his shoulder, though no one was physically close enough to do that, and knew he was not alone. He shivered, and then the music seized him and swept him along with the sheer power of its current. Now was the moment. Would he simply allow himself to be carried thus, or would he join with it, strike out, and swim for all he was worth?
Neal was a born survivor, and passivity was not an option he would ever consider. He leapt in, and at first the music threatened to engulf and obliterate, but he got his head above water fast, and matched his own strength to the fearsome river of sound, and melded with it, and felt himself becoming a far greater force than he had ever known he could be.
“Yeah! You’ve got this, Babe!”
The voice was distant, but Neal heard it just the same, and it gave him the extra push he needed to break through the last barrier and become one with everything he could hear going on around him. As the intensity built up, movement after movement, he thought, fleetingly, that if spontaneous combustion was indeed possible, and not just a myth, then Turangalila had great potential to be the catalyst. The movements of the symphony seemed a never-ending build-up to an orgasmic climax; if one ever reached that point and let go, what then?
It was during the fifth movement, Joie du Sang des Étoiles, when the timpani began to menace the piano solo, swiftly overtaking it as the “stone monolith” theme thundered in and drowned out everything else, when Neal felt as if his heart had cracked right down the middle and split in two. Something, and he was forever after powerless to describe exactly what that something was, burst forth from the shattered pieces of his heart and soared skyward as he himself remained grounded, dutifully playing his part, though tears streamed down his cheeks and he could scarcely feel the English horn in his hands. In his mind, he could hear Lorin’s voice repeating a line from the Rimbaud Illumination they had always loved and often quoted to one another: Son corps! Le dégagement rêvé, le brisement de la grâce croisée de violence nouvelle!
Neal’s sharp mind instantly translated it, though the English words never matched the French ones for eloquence or beauty of sound: His body! The dreamed-of redemption, the shattering of grace meeting with new violence!
And he was suddenly in Lorin’s arms again, overtaken, engulfed, and gloriously ravished, every grain of his being flowing down like sand through an hour glass, until there was nothing left of himself but the splintered remains of his heart, his tears, and the music wrapping itself around him, as if to console him for the physcial loss of his lover.
It seemed to last forever, though really, only a few minutes passed, and Neal was back to himself by the start of the next movement. Nothing in the remainder of the symphony affected him as that fifth movement had, though the last movement, with its overwhelmingly never-ending ending, brought the tears back to his eyes, and a glimmer of the memory of pain to his heart. When it was over, and bows had been taken, and the composer acknowledged, Neal could feel his emotional tension continuing to build, and held it back as long as he could. The very moment he could see his way clear to flee, he did, and quickly found what he hoped was a secluded place backstage, and dissolved in tears.
By some miracle, despite the sexual intensity of the entire experience, there had been no physical response, only a spiritual one. Still, that was agonzing enough, just as it was, and Neal wept quietly, not wishing to draw attention to himself, and prayed for the storm of emotion to pass.
A hand descended on his shoulder, but the touch was unfamiliar: not Lorin’s. Neal put his glasses back on hastily, and looked up into a nonetheless familiar face. “Monsieur?"
Olivier Messiaen smiled and said nothing, just patted Neal’s shoulder gently. No words were necessary, but Neal felt compelled to speak.
“Monsieur, if I may presume?”
“It’s all clear to me now, though I confess it took some time for me to understand. You were right; in proper chronology, and in context, taken as a whole, it makes perfect sense. This has been a great honor, Monsieur, and I thank you."
Messiaen’s smile broadened. “No, it is I who must thank you, Monsieur Bryan. It is good to know when one’s work so profoundly touches another.” He patted Neal’s shoulder again, then wandered away.
Neal wept harder, and hid his face in his hands, and it was in this state that Claire found him a little while later, trying desperately to get hold of himself, and failing miserably. He felt her hand on his shoulder and looked up. “Claire, I - ”
She put her arms around him, and held him close, and he hid his face against her warm, soft breast and sobbed.
“Oh, Neal,” she murmured, as she stroked his head. “All that noise! It was awful enough in the audience, but for you, in the thick of it - ! I can’t even begin to imagine how your poor head must feel right now! Let’s go home so you can take your meds, and get settled in bed.”
That, he realized now, was the fatal moment: the very beginning of their end. He had passed through an epiphany in the course of that perfomance, and she had not detected even a glimmer of it, and failed to understand why he felt so broken up, straddling the fence between stratospheric elation and utter devastation. He had glimpsed eternity, and reached out to grasp it, and watched helplessly as it melted away before he could even touch it. What else could he have done but weep for that loss?
And Claire had hated the music, and simply thought he was in the throes of another migraine, and said every wrong thing it was possible to say.
Neal, by then inconsolable, had wept even harder. He had not only lost those precious, epiphanal moments; he had lost his wife and child and the future he had hoped for as well.
He had known all of that at the time, but denied it. He had not wanted to believe she could be so oblivious.
Now, alone and safe in the apartment, he confronted it, and the tears returned with a vengeance, twenty years too late.
Jehan St. Marc
© 4 November 2014