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The Essay
Show #383
Tautalus the Tuba Player
David Gunn

In 1603, Johann Bayer published Uranometria, the first comprehensive star atlas. It contained engravings of 89 different constellations--star formations named after classical mythological characters that appear in the night sky as if seen on the inner surface of a huge celestial sphere surrounding the Earth. Today, only 88 constellations remain. So, what happened to the 89th?

For the answer, we must journey to a remote backwater of the southern hemisphere where, nestled among a cluster of very faint magnitude 600 stars, lies the curious constellational duo of Vellum the Bookbinder and Arugula the Salad Green. It's curious because these two star formations regularly swap component stars. Astronomers have no explanation for the phenomenon, and conventional cosmological wisdom is to simply ignore it. The story of Vellum and Arugula, too, is one that doesn't jibe with traditional Greek mythology.

Vellum lived humbly in a small cottage on the outskirts of Mount Olympus Village. Like Sisyphus, who was forever condemned to roll a huge stone up Nob Hill in San Francisco, Vellum was doomed to bind books all day and all night. He never knew why he had to perform such an onerous task. His friend, Hermes, once said that the gods checked out a lot of books from the Olympian library and it was simply a matter of constant wear and tear. Actually, the task wasn't relentless. He had a few hours off every other evening, and during those precious moments he repaired to a garden in back of his cottage where he tended to his lovely Arugula. Her beautiful purple-veined, yellow-white petals drove Vellum to distraction, and he could never bring himself to harvest her leaves for the tossed green salad that he so often craved. One day, while rebinding a particularly unsavory book on usury for Pavo the Pawnbroker, he heard a knock on his door. There stood a busker bearing a musical instrument that Vellum had never seen before. The busker's name was Tautalus. He said that he came from long ago and far away and was on a lifelong quest for the perfect note. He called his instrument a tuba. Vellum thought immediately of the clandestine ligation operation that his ex-wife Hydrus the Hydrangea had had to tie her fallopian tubes. He wondered what sound could result from such a procedure that could possibly be considered agreeable. But then Tautalus took a deep breath, curled his lips around the mouthpiece, and gently blew into it.

What resonance! Such sonority! The sound seemed to wrap around him in pillowy timbres, gently caressing his cochleæ, filling him with simultaneous feelings of lofty aspiration and utter tranquillity. It evoked the glory of the Olympic gods without having to endure their insufferable hauteur, and unshackled him from the drudgery of bookbinding. At last Tautalus stopped playing, and Vellum drifted back to the present. He eagerly tossed a couple of coins into Tautalus' open instrument case. Then he thought about Arugula. How might she react to this music?

The bookbinder led the tuba player to his garden, pointed out his beloved Mediterranean plant, and urged him to play. But where Vellum saw only Arugula's botanical pulchritude, Tautalus saw a hottie desperate for some organic lovin'. And so he again began to play. But where the music had previously been serene and limpid, now it was dissolute, licentious, lustful. Arugula responded in kind. She writhed and flailed, flirted and flounced. She even pulled up her roots, swaggered over to the tuba player, and mooned him. Vellum had never seen her look so wanton. She was acting more like her libertine forebears, the Rockets. And he didn't like it.

Angrily, he grabbed Tautalus and booted him off his property. He kicked him so hard that he launched the tuba player up into the sky. Just then, Pavo the Pawnbroker stopped by to collect his book. When he learned that it wasn't ready, he, in a huff, booted Vellum into the heavens. For good measure, he tossed the still slutty Arugula up there, too.

For millennia, Tautalus sailed through the firmament playing his tuba, chased by both Arugula and Vellum, though for entirely different reasons. Once Arugula caught up to him, and out of a night's passion came Sousaphonia, a magnitude 4 blue star. But then, mere celestial moments after Bayer noted and registered Tautalus in his Uranometria, Vellum collared the tuba player and really sent him packing. Off he sailed into another galaxy, where it is rumored he plays his instrument still. Vellum caught up to Arugula in the southern hemisphere, where they eventually reconciled and, to this day, swap constituent stars--except for Sousaphonia, which Vellum demanded be exiled to the constellation Floozium.

How very timely, then, is this 383rd episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, because not only does it feature a live in-studio concert of Tautalus' music, but it also highlights the cosmologically pawnbroking talents of Kalvos.