Half as Happy

No Kind of Music

He sat in one of the lower rows of the balcony section, high enough that the musicians in their black and white appeared to him diminished and foreshortened, but not so distant their sound was lost or tone compromised. He liked to imagine that being this elevated raised his own position within the music, Godlike, and that the distance between himself and the players might erase mistakes and mismatched pitches, causing notes to arrive to him sweetened and more perfectly blended, more purely themselves; and he watched the players for evidence of a divine or magical connection to some essential truth within the music moving so uniformly through them, innervating them. He knew this was a fiction—any player up close was a lot of suffering joints and contradictory impulses, bad breath, weak eyesight, creaky digestion (he’d talked with them at fundraiser events and a few times following open rehearsals, enough to have witnessed all of this and more); if there were evidence of magical or divine connections to be beheld in them it showed in the raw skin of their fingertips, bitten nails and torn cuticles, chapped mouths—all the places where they’d worn through themselves trying and trying and loving the music so habitually, so imperfectly over the years. They were only human, after all—mortal, mutable. Nothing in the world was ever otherwise. The search for essential truths and perfection was probably as delusional as it was invariably empty…he knew this, and yet he also liked to imagine, up there in the balcony seats, watching, feeling a piece as it breathed and came to life, its pulse resuscitatedand ticked into being by the conductor’s baton after however many hundreds of years in manuscript vaults and libraries, picturing the violins as hearts or lungs, bows vibrating air through them all in unison, he liked to imagine maybe it wasn’t empty. Why else did music exist? So his rapture, listening, was composed of equal parts pleasure in anticipating the revelation of a truth he’d never known, longing that he might one day know it, and ecstatic grief at having always been so estranged. Tonight’s program—late works of Gyorgy Ligeti and, following intermission, Brahms’s Fourth—was no exception, and kept stirring in him emotions he couldn’t name…the Ligeti especially, with its cinematic, throbbing impressionism. It could only be followed by something as brooding as Brahms. He wondered if he’d stay for the Brahms after all—if he might not be better off without it. He’d never been much for Brahms, in the best of times.

Over a year ago but not quite two, in the fallout of grief following the deaths of their remaining parents—first his mother, then, within months, his wife’s father (her mother having died when she was a child)—his wife had left him for another man. There was nothing new in this. Sick to death of him and the reminders of loss and suffering he must have come to embody for her—all the talk about white blood cell counts, wigs and nebulizers, bed pans, catheters, pneumonia, hospice-care, end of life plans—she’d fled. Taken up with a man four years younger than herself, who had a carbon and titanium contraption for a left leg (to Patrick it looked part gazelle, part Cyborg with a short springy ski-foot thing at the end of it, more like a small inverted suspension bridge than a foot). He ran marathons and triathlons semi-regularly and was as accustomed to triumphing over all adversities as Patrick and Charlotte had grown accustomed to giving in and expecting the worst. Patrick had recognized this about the man the first time he’d laid eyes on him, at the annual Bloomsday Race, loping crookedly alongside them—creaking, sweating, stride half-flesh half-metal—months before Charlotte had taken up with him. For a while they’d all been friends. At first, thinking ahead to his new singleness, and later, beginning to settle into it, he’d even felt some excitement about the inevitable change—visions of an eventual, triumphal second life for himself, some woman other than Charlotte beside him—an implicit challenge to survive and better himself, and subsequent surge of darkly-tinged humor about the whole affair to go with it. He’d lost weight, cut his ponytail, got new glasses, capped his teeth and learned to smile more at strangers. But after a time, a few months, less, when the alarm of new loss had expired and he found himself more or less the same as ever but alone and unguarded against a world that seemed slightly modulated from before, unmoored from any personal connections in a way he would never have envisioned for himself, he began his renewed interest in music—specifically, symphonic.

Part of it had to do with his maternal grandfather, who had always wished he’d been a conductor rather than a businessman. Some of Patrick’s earliest recollections—from the years in which he and his mother had lived in the grandfather’s basement in-law halfsuite while she finished her nursing degree and Patrick was often left in the grandfather’s care for what seemed like days at a time—involved long afternoons, the two of them alone in his grandfather’s study listening through sides of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, Vivaldi, and Sibelius. They’d listen, and if Patrick were able to stay awake through it, if he weren’t lulled down by something under the surface of the music—not feeling or rhythm but a logical, picture generating complexity that was like being in a dream where all thoughts and images somehow derived from an ever-shifting wheel of mathematics—if he kept his attention in the room and didn’t drop off, his grandfather would explain. Stern and shamefaced at the same time, but gradually giving in to an affection which overrode his embarrassment at having such hopeless, fruitless aspirations and such a weight of disappointment in himself for never having pursued them, he’d narrate where the musical ideas and themes began and how they built, whistling along tunelessly and waving a finger at the speaker cabinet, pointing at things you couldn’t really see; he’d translate how themes replicated themselves and inverted into accompaniment and developed into new themes, new ideas in a relative key, like telling a story or passing from one afterlife into another, or coming up for air after a plunge to the bottom of the lake. So there was something ancestral, almost at the gene-level in his renewed interest in music which on the one hand aligned him (depressingly) with all of his grandfather’s failure and abandoned aspirations, and which on the other hand was just plain tranquil. A general giving in and pacification of ambitions which reminded him of those afternoons alone with his grandfather in the study, listening through the crackle of the needle on vinyl, and which he liked to imagine now drew him closer to a true appreciation of whatever he heard. He did not check out books from the library on meter and theory, or score interpretation, did not make half-hearted attempts at decoding the score annotations of the great conductors or shake his head, pencil in hand, tapping with one finger and considering the subtlety of dynamic interpretations. Unlike his grandfather, he could not read a note of music. He did not stand at a mirror, arms upraised, sculpting the air in a mimicry of symphonic sound, stirring his right hand in squares or diamonds or triangles with the beat, cueing invisible horns with his left (all things he’d witnessed his grandfather doing as he sank in and out of his own music-induced sleep). He listened and let his mind drift to the forms he felt articulated inside the music.

His guilty pleasure, if he had one, was reading about the lives of the composers, the better to inform his listening. He liked imagining a world with no cell phones or cars, QuickBooks, Excel, tax codes or keypads. A world defined by the clip-clop of horsehooves and a grindingly austere metal-ringed carriage wheel rolling over rocks or snow, horse’s tail blown back at you in a cold wind; a world where Bach was considered insignificant as compared with the field of then-popular composers, all forgotten now, or where Vivaldi and his two sister-mistresses had disappeared into obscurity, all of his musical legacy abandoned and forgotten until shortly before Patrick’s own birth year. He wasn’t anything like systematic about his reading; nothing particular was at stake in it. He skipped around from the classical to the baroque to the romantics and wandered back again, never settling on a favorite period or personality. They’d all been hounds. They’d had their health complications and problems with drink and syphilis and gout and chronic under-employment, and they’d hated each other for any success that wasn’t their own, all of them, with the possible exception of Bach....

Books

Short Stories
“Each story moves and unfolds, deepens and develops beautifully complex textures and moods, not unlike beautiful pieces of music. Spatz has a pitch-perfect ear for the language and an uncanny ability to mine the substance of his characters’ rich lives. These stories are both funny and sad, in the true and inescapable way of real life, full of elegiac beauty. A masterful collection.” —Brad Watson, author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives and The Heaven of Mercury
Stories originally published in "The New Yorker," "Glimmer Train Stories," "Epoch," "Shenandoah," "New England Review," and elsewhere. WA State Book Award. MidList First Series Award. Glasgow Prize Runner-up.
Novel
”At its heart Inukshuk is about family. But Spatz has transfigured this beautifully told, wise story with history and myth, poetry and magic into something rarer, stranger, and altogether amazing. A book that points unerringly true north.” —Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club and Wit’s End
“Gregory Spatz writes about the experience of playing music with more truth and beauty than it has ever been written about before.”—David Huddle, author of La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl
"Coolly detached first-person tale of forbidden love, family breakdown and growing up." Publisher's Weekly