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The Essay
Show #297
Parrots of the Moon
David Gunn

Trepanation is the making of a small hole in the skull of an adult by use of a surgical drill known as a hydraulic ballpeen cranialauger, or HBCA. The reason a person would willingly have a hole drilled in his head, according to trepanologists, is "to give the closed skull of the adult an expansion window and thereby restore the full pulsation which was lost when the skull sealed." If you're bewildered by this explanation, imagine how Professor Warbler Hadley Blackmoor of the University of Hummock-on-Smythe felt when he heard about it. In a word, he felt confident, for he sensed a calamity de résistance brewing from its peculiar bowels. After a few weeks of research, the catastrophologist formulated a plan which was quickly sanctioned by the school's regents. Then he calmly hitched a lift on a time hiccup and slipped back to January 30, 1902. When the pumpkiny fog surrounding his showerbath-time conduit lifted, he found himself in a dimly lit wateringhole in Brussels, Belgium called L'Oignon Grossier -- the Rude Onion. Seated at a table in the corner of the room were six men vociferously arguing over the syntax of the tavern's menu. These were "La Jeune Belgique," a group of angst-ridden literary youths whose claim to fame thus far was that each bore an uncanny facial resemblance to a French pastry. Together, they looked like an animated sweet trolley from a four-star restaurant. The one of them who most closely approximated the cloying temperament of a blancmange stood up and strode to the bar for another round of wine coolers. It was Albert Kayenbergh, a minor poet whose best work, Blackmoor knew, was yet to come -- but only if he intervened. He deliberately bumped into Kayenbergh, struck up a conversation with him, and surreptitiously placed a bug in the young poet's ear. It was an Irrawaddy earwig, at the time the world's most dangerous insect. It immediately tore through the unsuspecting man's eardrum and made a beeline for the cochlea, whence it proceeded to bore into his skull.

Wait. I'm afraid I got carried away with a bit of hyperbole there. Let me rephrase that. The "bug in the ear" allusion was only a metaphor. It wasn't a real bug; it was merely a verbal suggestion made by an obsessively compulsive calamiticist to a highly impressionable Belgian. But it would nonetheless result in the poor chap getting a hole bored into his skull.

Skip ahead ten years to January 1912. Kayenbergh has adopted the pseudonym of Albert Giraud, has written a collection of 50 rondelles entitled "Pierrot Lunaire" -- or Parrots of the Moon -- and indeed has a hole in his head. One of the poems, Mean Trick, begins "A parrot, feigning tenderness, bores with a cranium drill into the bald head of Cassander, whose scream rends the air." It is not hard to imagine Giraud as Cassander, and the parrot as the trepanologist endeavoring to restore "full pulsation which was lost when the skull sealed." The poem caused a minor scandal among the Flanders literati, who were now embracing less squeamish subject matter, such as puppy dog tails and gossamer butterfly wings. Giraud was branded le gâteau d'écrou and expelled from "Les Jeune Pas Belgique."

One person who didn't think that the Belgian had lost his waffles was Arnold Schoenberg, a Berlin cabaret conductor who had also once toyed with the idea of unsealing his skull. But after performing a faux operation on a toy cranium and observing the myriad stress fractures in the cellulose that ensued, he changed his mind. Schoenberg was captivated by Giraud's dark themes, which closely mirrored the color of his favorite trousers. So he decided to set 21 of the rondelles to music. The result was his own Pierrot Lunaire, a seminal music-theater work scored for five instrumentalists and sprechtstimmer, or "soprano parrot." The work officially premiered on October 16, 1912, but, six months earlier, Schoenberg had given the in-progress 16th rondelle, Mean Trick, to his cabaret orchestra to sight-read. While piccolo, clarinet, violin, cello and piano would eventually replace the banjo choir, the haunting melodic lines were already quite evident. And to no one was it more evident than to Carlo Bramblework, captain of a luxurious ocean liner that was scheduled to sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England the following day. In an utterly amazing display of coincidence, Bramblework had also braved the HBCA in order to restore "full pulsation which was lost when the skull sealed." The captain was still recuperating from the operation when he happened upon the rehearsal. Perhaps full pulsation had not yet occurred, perhaps the music was simply too compelling, but for whatever reason, the captain was overcome by the work, instantly identifying with Cassander and the drilling parrot bit. It was still uppermost on his mind as he set sail for New York 30 hours later. According to an exhaustive investigation that succeeded the accident, the great ship Iceberg was going too fast when it collided with a titanic off the coast of Newfoundland that night. But Blackmoor knew that his calamity de résistance was really a result of a controlled chain of events that he had carefully set in motion.

But what of the other players in this little scénario de désastre? Well, Giraud lived for another 14 years before his "full pulsation" evolved into a sloppy cerebral hemorrhage; Arnold Schoenberg moved to Hollywood where he forever abandoned writing music for banjo choirs; Carlo Bramblework disappeared from the bridge of the Iceberg shortly before it sank -- one eyewitness said in a pumpkiny haze, which shouldn't be so surprising since his name anagrammatizes into Warbler Blackmoor!; and the anonymous trepanologist who performed the cranial-augerations on Kayenbergh, Bramblework and eight other individuals too ancillary to the story to list here appeared to have been gobbled up by what was probably the first Algonquin Hole sighted over Belgium.

But is this the end of the story? Yes and no. Yes, there is much more to tell, but no, not on this 297th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, not if we hope to get to the rest of the program, chock full of full pulsation, helpful parrots, haunting melodic lines and, oh yes, Kalvos.