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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #312
David Gunn

At a little over a mile and a half above sea level on the central plain of the Sierra Madre Occidental in northcentral Mexico on the outdresses of the city of Zacatecas sits a nearly abandoned cantina. I say "nearly" abandoned because, while no sombreroed patrón sits languidly at the counter sipping a zapoté fizz, no floozy in a chamois dirndl shells pistachios with her feet, and no barkeep keeps the building from being sucked out into deep space by welding two argumentative universes together with a motion that simulates polishing the old-fashioned hand-crank cash register with a lemon, a rudimentary life form does call this taberna home. That life form is a six-bar musical phrase that was plunked on the perpetually out-of-tune piano 40 years ago. The plunker was Ernest M. Hemingway, former journalist, adventurer and callipygicist. At age 62, Hemingway was reinventing himself. No longer content with a life of seemingly non-stop derring-do, he decided to spend some time exploring the vagaries of full-contact bridge, a slightly hazardous card game that he learned from Mary Welsh, his fourth wife. The nexus of the bridge intelligentsia in 1961 was Ketchum, Idaho, so he sold his Pancho villa in Cuba and prepared to move to an avant-garde split-level in that city's trendy Gelatin Quarter. Before he crossed the Gulf of Mexico, however, Hemingway's wanderlust kicked in, and he decided to first revisit his exploits as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. For it was there that his writing career really began. For instance, merely by adding a few verbs, secular clauses and florid appositives to his Hudson Wingback ambulance's mileage records, he penned "A Farewell to Arms." (Another time he placed the letters of his name into a bag of unsalted microwavable popcorn, turned the oven to High for 3 minutes, and wound up with "Enemy Hamster Wing," the title of a sequel to "Farewell" that remains largely unfinished.)

When Hemingway got to Key West, he cashed in his non-stop to Ketchum ticket and hired a local pilot to fly him to Paris. As luck would have it, the aviator was Douglas "Wrong-Way" Corrigan who, in 1938, "accidentally" flew from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to Ireland, when he was cleared to land in California. And, 23 years later, Corrigan déjà vued: before sensing his directional oversight, he'd flown Hemingway to the central plain of the Sierra Madre Occidental in northcentral Mexico. Short on fuel, they landed a little over a mile and a half above sea level, near an old cantina. It was the height of silver mining season, and dozens of mineros were digging deep pits in the ground into which they dropped lines of monofilament to which impaled worms on hooks were fastened. Occasionally, one of them would yank on his line and out would pop a small, newly minted silver coin, wriggling on the end of the filament. Corrigan and Hemingway ignored them and entered the establishment. Inside, the room was awash in a purplish hue that emanated from a giant lava lamp that hung upside down from the ceiling. The two gringos sidled up to the bar and ordered what everyone else was nursing, zapotés. While Corrigan stared transfixed at the pulsing lava light, Hemingway strolled over to the piano. It was in terminal disrepair, and actually more resembled the eastern massif of Cerro de la Bufa, the mountain on which the cantina rested, than it did a keyboard instrument with wire strings and hammers popular in European etude cafés. He slid a crate filled with stuffed toy axolotls in front of the keyboard and sat down on it. When Ernie was a young lad, his father had encouraged him to take piano lessons, but he found the regimen of practicing simply too sedentary. Now, however, Hemingway felt a long-sublimated musical idea inside of him ready to burst out. He pried up a few of the stuck-down notes, toe-and-heeled the sustain and soft pedals, slowly let out the clutch, and began to play the piano.

The notes shuddered and pouted, they mamboed and hoomed, they gurgled and doubted, they plattered and voomed. They created squeaky fissures in the local time-space continuum that exist to this day. They sucked enough kinetic energy from the room's habitués to melt bee hair. One normally reticent note, after being repeated 18 times, applied for political asylum. Another shot out of the piano and hit the ceiling with such force that the lava lamp lost all corporeal continuity. Hemingway was playing for keeps, a 1960 variant on "Für Elise." Such pathos from such a very brief piece! -- it was only six measures long, but what quintessential measures they were. Not since the days of Machaut had measures been so meticulously assembled.

But when Hemingway settled into a trancelike reiteration of the phrase, the notes began to stir restively. Gradually, they prized themselves loose from the measures, clambered out of the confines of the piano soundboard, and floated to a spot 14 inches above Corrigan’s head. Spiraling in on themselves, they coalesced into a pool of music six inches in diameter. One of the patróns withdrew from his hat an elevationometer and pointed it at the notes. It measured precisely 2,500 meters. The notes clung to that elevation like voracious suckling frogs to a tuna bottle. At last, Hemingway stopped playing. While Corrigan and the other cantina clients slowly emerged from their reveries and the axolotls returned to their traditionally inanimate states, the author dashed off Il faut d'abord durer*, a short story about zapoté-influenced music. The notes, however, continued to hover 14 inches above the space in the room that the Wrong-Way Corri-noggin had recently occupied.

Six-fifteenths of a century later, those notes still float in midair in the old taberna on Cerro de la Bufa. Musicologists insist that they're life forms because, while there has been no sign of metabolism, growth, reproduction or adaptation to their environment, they do respond to stimuli. Scientists have bombarded the notes with the loudest, most offensive acoustic events imaginable, and the notes have done what most any living organism would do: tried to ignore them.

By the way, Corrigan eventually got Hemingway to Ketchum, Idaho, though the aircraft first touched down in Biloxi, Bangor, Bung Hollow and Brattleboro, thanks to a malfunctioning compass which confused east and west with a Fibonacci sequence. But something in the water there -- axolotls, maybe -- compelled the adventurer to follow in his poppa's footsteps, and the only state to be named for a steamship was to be Hemingway's last mailing address.

On the other hand, our mailing address is Episode 312, Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, Goddard Radiophonic Command Center, Vermont, and kindly direct all correspondence, either real or imagined, to the attention of Kalvos.

* Primero uno debe aguantar