The King of the Audience


string intro

By the age of five Armand Angel would sometimes sneak into his backyard at dawn with his acoustic guitar. He would softly play pieces by Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani, arousing the birds to chirp along with the dulcet sounds. Young Armand enjoyed the attention adults gave him, even though he didn't know what they meant when they called him a "piano prodigy" or a "virtuoso". Music was so natural. Armand could see what music looked like. Deep notes were circular and dark blue - sort of like rain clouds. High notes were thin and silvery - little needles pricking your aural dimension.

Pre-school days flew by like an allegro. Grammar school presented more enigmas than answers. Mother, why are the other kids so different? Most of them have never even played an instrument. "You're special, Armand, very special," she would tell him, "not everyone is as musically talented as you." But Armand could never understand that, nor did he care to. While children from the neighborhood roller skated and played sports, Armand preferred to stay inside and listen to Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Ravel, or Handel.

High school made him feel more like a pariah. Was he the only one who appreciated exquisite things? How could anyone not love Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud"? And paintings…he often stared into them and wished he could be part of their splendor. The world was too desultory, too trite and imperfect.

Music was Armand's favorite thing. Music was not just something to be adored; it was something to be lived, something to be transcended into. Fellow classmates who toyed with musical instruments sometimes sought Armand's attention. Such "friends" called themselves "musicians". What blasphemers! But regardless, he often grouped with such people to play at parties and dances.

They were all musical idiots. Everyone cheered when Armand played some shallow, familiar rock song on an electric guitar. Such sick noises! Infantile chord progressions laced with distortion and "special effects" through an amplifier. How could they applaud?

What really vexed Armand was that no one took notice of what really was worth listening to. When he would zip through arpeggios on his acoustic guitar or do a bit of "Bolero" on his piano, his teenage audiences would just smile and say, "Oh, that's good, Armand. I really like that." Fools, all of them! They don't deserve to hear good music!

But Armand Angel restrained his vehemence. It was best to try to get along with others.

gradual woodwind crescendo

About a decade later the name "Angel" became synonymous with musical prowess. At thirty, Armand was already a respected composer, conductor, and performer. At times he was the pianist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra. He scored music for revues and served as the musical director for the Harlequin Theater in Washington, D.C. Life had become more authentic, mostly filled with music. Concert halls and theaters were aesthetic oases from the blemishes of reality.

For two years now Armand had been married to a costume designer he had met at the Harlequin. He loved his wife, Regina. All of her work was sedulous and innovative. Her costumes made people worthy to be on stage. She made actors look as perfect as mannequins. Excellent! For good actors should become works of art themselves.

More than human, that's what Regina was. On their very first dinner date, Armand thought she wasn't real. Could she be a sculpture or a three dimensional painting? Soft Cleopatra hair shimmering down her back - hair so black it gleamed silvery in the light; her eyes, turquoise and hypnotic, and her blinding white dress, contrasting her hair. Definitely aesthetic overload. And her imagination was just as beautiful as her slender body and flawless complexion. Such stunning costumes…that were often too good to be worn. Brilliance, creative genius.

Armand was happy, but there was something amiss - like the feeling you get when you think you are being perfidious toward a friend. It took a while, but Armand finally realized that the problem was other people. Yes, no doubt, other people, especially audiences. All audiences were contaminated. There was always someone who didn't belong out there. It could have been a small child whose rich parents had forced him to attend the show. It hurt Armand to betray music just to make a living. And the applause…all that clapping…such useless noise. To him it sounded so childish - so trivial and ignorant.

Even Regina was often a distraction….

"Come on, Armand, all you do is work. My sister said we should come over for dinner. Come on, you should get out more," she would often say, interrupting Armand at his piano. She sometimes pulled his hands from the keys, her bangles and necklaces clinking together as she tried to wrestle him from the piano.

"Stop it!" he would say peevishly. "Let me work! I can see the song! I have to finish it…." His voice would become shaky, and he would push Regina away - sometimes a bit fiercely. At this point she would capitulate and leave him alone. Perhaps out of respect or perhaps out of fear. Armand didn't care. So what if she called him eccentric. He would have liked to spend more time with her, but every hour with her meant one less hour to write and practice. It was almost as if music had been his wife all along, and Regina was merely a temptress.

Armand made the most of his time devoted to music. Lately he had become obsessed with beautifully crafted figurines, ceramic dolls, and masks. At home he had taken a new joy in setting up his studio where he played music. A few department store mannequins attired in Regina's costumes stood guard in the studio along with groups of glass and marble sculptures. Ceramic children dressed in elaborate outfits huddled and held hands in the corners of the room. On the walls he hung hordes of harlequin masks. He only liked masks that portrayed no emotion. Masks with gaping grins or frowns looked disingenuous.

In his studio he would play music for hours and look to all of his silent companions. He often wondered if they could hear him, or were they telling him what to play? Verily, the studio was the best place in the world. It was the only place where things were as they should be…beautiful. No ugliness, triviality, or disorganization. Armand began locking the door when he went inside. The silent inhabitants of the room were always decorous and reverent when he played. They always gave Armand Angel a sense of intimacy. They were his best audience.

forte piano

On one occasion Armand was playing Mozart's piano concerto no. 23 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. After the performance the uproar of applause was like that at a football game. Armand felt nauseous, even a bit guilty. Backstage he sat and sulked while everyone else engaged in ebullient conversation. From the rear of the room he thought he heard someone call to him in a whisper. An imitation of Titian's Venus of Urbino hungin the back of the chamber. Armand sat next to it and stared up at it for solace. The woman in the painting smiled down at him. She seemed to invite him to her side. At that instant a celebrated oboist from the orchestra approached him and patted him on the shoulder. "What's the matter, Armand? Why so glum? You played remarkably."

Armand still glared at the painting, fantasizing about how nice it would be to live inside a work of art.

"Armand, what's wrong? Everyone cheered for you hysterically!"

Suddenly Armand shuddered and turned to the oboist. He tilted his head and grumbled. "Cheered for me? Tell me, does anyone ever cheer for this painting?"

The oboist squinted and folded his arms. "What? Cheer for the painting? Just what are you talking about?"

"Oh never mind," Armand rasped and stood up. He began to walk away making loud footsteps.

The oboist shrugged to himself and followed Armand with his eyes. The room was silent. All eyes were on Armand, watching what he was going to do. Armand stood at the door with his back to everyone. He bent his head down and tugged on his hair. "Most people should keep their applause to themselves," he seethed through clenched teeth.

Armand Angel lifted his head and then exited the chamber….

bass drums and crash symbols

A week after the incident backstage Armand found himself one morning in his studio. He had been dreaming that he was free. Hovering over Beethoven's piano like a spectre. But the great master could not see him; Armand merely hung over him, intermingled with the air. Weightless and massless. Only himself, the piano, and the genius. For a moment Armand was blissful until he abruptly awoke.

Regina had woken him up. She stood over him with her arms akimbo. Armand rubbed his eyes. His guitar was still on his lap. Pages of handwritten sheet music were scattered all over the floor.

"This is the second time this week, Armand!" Regina screeched. "You stay in here all night until you fall asleep. I'm getting tired of sleeping alone!"

"I'm sorry, it's just that once I hear a song in my head, I want to jump inside of it. So I write down what I hear until it's finished."

"Well that's fantastic," Regina groaned, "but what about me? Look at this place - you have all of these mannequins and pretty artwork in here but not even one picture of me."

Armand lowered his head and clasped her hand. "Don't you think I always think of you while I work?"

"Your work, hmmm. Your work is making you nuts. People at the Harlequin have been saying you've been acting weird - like if everyone's against you. It's embarrassing, Armand."

"And what about you? You think I'm crazy too?"

Regina's eyes filled with tears. She let go of his hand and left him alone in his studio. Armand set his guitar on a glass table and sat at his piano. He just looked at the keys without playing anything. Why did Regina have to be so touchy? She used to be so independent and creative, but now all she wanted was attention. Asphyxiation. Drowning. Like choking the neck of a guitar with a rag.

Armand remembered when they were first married. She had picked out a water bed with a mosquito net over it. She used to even turn love making into a type of art. Often she would play the sounds of ocean waves through the bedroom stereo and pretend to be a siren, Once she decorated the bedroom like an exotic brothel - a modest example of her imagination. Purple silk drapes and frankincense. The gleaming earrings she wore highlighted her dark hair.

Where had it all gone? Perhaps all the travel and time apart, both of them always having to rush off to do this or that. So during the spare time they did have together, Regina wouldn't leave him alone. She would often whine to try to make him feel guilty. It rarely worked; he always walked away and went back to his studio. Neglecting music was even more painful.

Armand sighed and looked around his studio. At least his "friends" never asked for attention. He suddenly felt a streak of peace. Giggling, he gazed at his favorite ceramic doll in the corner of the room - a foot tall little girl in a bridesmaid's dress.

"Good morning, my dear," he said to the doll. "This is for you." Smiling at it the entire time he played "Serenade for the doll" by Claude Debussy.

As the song ended he laughed as if inebriated and looked to all the masks. Everything was fine now. He rose and started picking up the sheets of music from the floor. Maybe he would buy Regina some roses or spend the whole day with her…maybe. But first, Armand Angel was going to finish that song!

brass interlude

The noise became unbearable. Rapiers being poked into the ears. After every concert or every time Armand conducted the players for a musical - that noisome applause. As if music were a sport or something that required the approval of simpletons. Exemplary music was self-sufficient. Armand was getting migraine headaches from all the noise. People were cretins. Clapping: a fatuous gesture. Would one clap after reading brilliant literature? Appreciation should be reserved and dignified. Like meditation.

And Regina…would she leave him? She seemed to need less attention lately. After being in his studio for ten or eleven hours, Armand would find an empty house. No sign of her. But later she would return sanguine and saucy, not giving any straight answers. Oh, I had to be at a dress rehearsal, that's all. I figured you wouldn't want to be bothered. This pleased Armand at first, but soon he began to worry. She was the only one who at least tried to understand him. Alas, he wasn't ready to be completely alone. At least not yet.

So he decided to take some time off. No one at the Harlequin objected. Everyone seemed over accommodating. He lied to Regina that he was thinking about consulting a psychiatrist. She hugged him and offered to go with him for moral support. But all Armand really needed was some time alone to reconcile himself with music. It wasn't his fault that people didn't properly appreciate the arts. To be sure, he had to devote more time in his studio with his dear friends. But not just a commonplace studio session, no, something more extravagant…an apotheosis of music. Yes! Yes! Something anomalous and sublime! But what?

Finally it came to Armand to give a special performance for his close friends in the studio. They certainly deserved the extra consideration. And of course, he would need a special outfit.

So he asked Regina to make him a minstrel costume.

She was perplexed, but she agreed anyway. Armand figured she just wanted to humor him. Inadvertently, the costume seemed to bring them closer together. Intrigued by her dexterity, Armand watched her design and sew it. He thanked and kissed her often and even ran errands for her so that she could continue working on it. Regina welcomed his affection. From an outsider's viewpoint they appeared to be a happily married couple.

Regina designed for him a bright blue doublet with a matching hose. She worked in a black cloak that would drape down to the upper calves. Also, she included a black linen ruff and a Middle Age styled brimmed hat. Right away, Armand loved the outfit. He was sure his friends would approve of it.

For days he prepared the studio. Across from where he would play stood the mannequins like two human couples. On that side of the room he arranged all the figurines and dolls on the piano and on small glass tables. The wall above them he covered with masks. Both masculine and feminine faces; all of them expressionless. Such perfect faces but all of them so impassive. All of them were content just to be beautiful. At the center of the masks he hung a harlequin head wearing a real top hat. It was painted so well it looked like a real person wearing makeup. Facsimile hair covered its wooden scalp. Armand named this artwork the "King of the Audience". The King of All Audiences!

On the other side of the studio Armand set up the area where he would perform. He placed a lamp on each end of the wall and one behind where he would sit. In his zeal he chose lamps that would emit colored light. The lamp on the left would give off blue light, the one on the right, yellow, and the one in the back, red. A plain wooden chair was placed in front of the red lamp.

Armand also composed several guitar pieces for the special concert. He even rehearsed them in a separate room. When all was finally ready, he entered the studio and looked up at the King of the Audience and smiled. "Tomorrow, my friend. Tomorrow will be the most sincere show ever given."

From behind its top hat an orange and black butterfly emerged and hovered in midair. Armand blinked and watched it fly across the room to his favorite classical guitar. It crawled into the guitar's sound hole and did not reappear. Later, before he retired for the evening, Armand Angel looked into the guitar. But the butterfly had vanished.

whole rest

Armand hummed to himself as he strode in full costume toward the studio. He held his favorite classical guitar, almost in an embrace, and fondled its neck.

"Oh, come on, let me watch," Regina said smoothly, putting her arm around him. "You're not really going to play in there alone dressed like that, are you?"

"This is important," Armand professed in a cheerful but firm tone. "I need this outfit, and I need to be alone. It makes me feel closer to my songs." He jerked free of her hold and continued toward the door.

Regina rolled her eyes. "Fine, Armand. But we are going to have a psychiatrist talk to you later this week, right?"

"Yes, of course, whatever," Armand Angel muttered as went in the studio and locked the door behind him.

guitar solo

A pitch black room, but he knew his way; Armand stood at the end of the studio facing the expressionless mannequins. He turned the lamps on: first the blue, then the yellow, and finally the red. Shades of green, purple, and orange flowed in and out of the blackness. Through a shifting glow, the mannequins, masks, dolls, and figurines waited, tacit but anxious. The King of the Audience stared down with all of his court. No shadows covered his face.

Feeling a rush of vertigo, he quaked and bowed to the King. "Dear friends, I am very happy to be here this evening!" he proclaimed with his arms spread out. "You are the only ones who truly understand. Welcome to Armand Angel's theater!"

A visceral sensation assailed Armand. Flight. His hands trembled as he forced himself to sit and breath deeply. But immediately he commenced the first piece. A picture began to form. Have you ever sat by yourself in a meadow, just enjoying the plain wonder of….Natural time. A chime like intro of sixteenth note harmonics, gradually flowing into deep melodic chords connected with thirty-second notes. Big soft clouds. It's going to rain, but so what. Rain can be relaxing. Nobel notes. Notes that didn't care to be heard long; they merely flashed by. Drops are beginning to fall on the violets swaying in the breeze. Cut time. The pace quickened. Chords sprinkled into fluid scales. Fingers bolted over the fret board. The violets are getting soaked. But normal time again. Now the violets can wipe their drenched eyes. The song ended on a liquid, slow strummed chord. Armand looked up at the King of the Audience as that last chord faded out.

How magically you play!

Shifting in his chair, Armand's face flushed. It was so good not to hear any ignorant clapping. He looked at his costume. It was a glorious costume - it was Regina's talents without her frivolity. He grinned and tipped his hat to the King. Armand began to play again. A soothing tune with a laid back tempo. His fingers gently plucked the strings. A child drawing pictures in the sand. Sunshine and shells. No arrogance. No worries. Just innocent carefree notes. Once in a while a wave makes a loud splash against the shore, but then it rolls back with a yawn. Seagulls sang through the high strings. The child eagerly finishes his work. But it isn't just a sketch. Now it's a sand castle.

The King of the Audience glowed. His top hat seemed florescent from the lamps. Magnificent! Such spirit you have, my little minstrel!

Euphoria overcame Armand. He could scarcely feel the chair he sat on. He had to be flying. Orange and black wings were propelling him. The King's authoritative eyes were locked on Armand's. Soporific eyes; a lullaby stare.

Are you ready then? Don't you think the time has come? Is there something you want to happen?

"What do you mean?"

Don't pretend that you do not take my meaning. You've been wishing the same wish since you were a little boy. For many years now you have suffered. But you must tell me, are you ready? You cannot have any reservations.

Armand's heart rate quickened. Could it really be coming true? Tears of joy fell on his guitar, making soft notes.

There's no need for all that. Smile like a trumpet! Only requiems shed tears!

"But what about…."

Forget her. She'll find someone else with a more domestic heart but much less spirit. She'll be fine. You'll hurt her more by staying with her.

He looked hard at all the beautiful members of the audience. A big happy family, welcoming a long lost relative. Armand thought of the Venus of Urbino. Several classical melodies came into his mind's ear. Ahh, aesthetic intoxication. Armand remembered his dream about floating over Beethoven's piano. The dream seemed more veridical now. He shuddered. Yes, he was ready.

He smiled up at the King through watery eyes. He inhaled deeply and made a firm nod. "Yes, I'm ready."

Armand Angel's guitar fell to the floor….

harp coda

A locksmith finally opened the studio door. Regina had been banging on it for hours. She ran into the room screaming, "Armand! Where are you? What are you doing?"

There was no stereo in the studio, but Regina heard the charming sound of a harp. She turned on the room's ceiling light to dispel the eerie glow. The minstrel costume lay crumpled on the chair like a deflated balloon. Besides the one door, the studio had no other exits, but Armand was nowhere to be seen.

Violin notes joined in and blended with the harp.

"Armand! This isn't funny!"

She looked under the piano and around the lamps and glass tables. Nothing. No source of the dazzling music nor Armand.

More layers of musical instruments began to empower the piece. It was a movement of a symphony but one that Regina had never heard. Still, there was something familiar about it. Some of the note phrasings were very similar to ones Armand experimented with.

A top hat lay on the floor near the wall with all the masks. Armand Angel's guitar lay near his chair. It was wet - as if it had been in the rain - or dunked into an ocean of blissful tears. A large orange and black butterfly was flapping its wings against the guitar strings. It flew from the guitar and then disappeared into the top hat.

The ghostly symphony continued but started to fade. Its volume decreased like the voice of a person who is walking away and saying goodbye….