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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #461
la vengeance de Mars
David Gunn

A cool, midnight breeze sweeps through the village, stirring the leaves that have accumulated by the street curb. The gentle susurrus forms a liquid counterpoint to the chirruping of the tree frogs as they serenade their arboreal paramours. But there is another sound now, a rhythmic padding. It is barely audible and sounds far away. Gradually, its volume increases as it seems to be getting closer. And then, a man appears in the distance. He is running, hard. He enters the village--no more than a wide spot in the road, really--and collapses onto the bench in front of the community well. His action disturbs the frogs' nighttime coherence and they cease their raspy revelry. The man glances at the clock in the well tower and shakes his head. He has been running a long time, since dusk, and he is clearly exhausted. He looks apprehensively in the direction whence he has come, as if leery of what might be following him. He briefly holds his breath, the better to listen for any sound. Nothing. Relaxing a little, he looks longingly at the well. Its promise of water beckons, so he attaches the bucket to the rope and lowers it until he hears a splash. Then he slowly winches up the bucket. He unscrews his canteen and fills it with the cold well water. Savoring the moment, he drinks slowly but deeply, using his teeth to screen out the articulated rotifers which, until that moment, had been strictly wellborn, well-bred and well-fed.

Nearby, the village's sole traffic light winks from green to amber to red. The man feels the lamp's compound lenses gazing down at him with fierce curiosity. He hazards a glimpse at the light, and the sense of foreboding he feels from it sends a chill up his spine, setting his hackles on end. Peering beyond the light, he notices that the cloud cover had lifted, and the nighttime sky is luminous with stars. The gibbous moon glows alabaster, but not so brightly that it obscures a coruscating meteor as it caroms off the thermosphere. But, hold on. What's that over there, half a parsec west of the moon? Isn't that ... ?

A new sound intrudes into the village--rhythmically sinister, pulsing like a heart ready to burst. The sound morphs into col legno strings set against low woodwinds: it is the opening to Gustav Holst's "Mars, The Bringer of War," from The Planets. And overhead, Mars, the real planet, is glaring balefully down upon the man.

The sound--the music--increases in volume and intensity, and the man covers his ears. But it will do no good. For the man is an erstwhile classical music programmer who programmed the Mars movement of The Planets once too often. And now he must pay the planetary piper.

The music has been dogging him ever since he'd been forced from his public radio post by a public that had soured on his once favorite tune. Well, he had somehow justified playing it every day--sometimes two and three times a day. And now that he no longer exercised control over the music, it was controlling him. Now, wherever the man turns, the opening motif in five-four time confronts him. An Indian shaman had mixed the man a potion that successfully warded off the incessant g minor ostinato, but he had drunk the last of it this morning. And the shaman--a mercurial man named Bengaze--had vanished as suddenly as he had appeared. The man had no recourse but to flee--to try to flee--from the sound.

In the trees, the frogs have begun to croak again, in creepy concert with the three-plus-two rhythmic pattern. Overhead, the vengeful red planet, too, seems to pulsate along with the music. Even the rotifers are spinning the cilia exactly as the two harps methodically pluck their triplet, quarter, quarter, eighth-eighth, quarter cadence. Dropping the canteen, the man pushes off from the bench and staggers down the street, his feet unconsciously matching the tattoo of the timpani. Just ahead he spots a kiosk with an inflatable Victrola on its roof. That means it should house a coin-operated record player. The man's outlook brightens, for he'll be able to call up a different theme, if only briefly, to supplant that of Monsieur Holst. But the traffic light is still red--mockingly, scornfully red--and the kiosk lies alluringly on the opposite side of the street.

A sudden williwaw rouses the leaves from the gutter and blows them into a ring around the man, where they swirl provocatively as the lower brass enter the orchestral amalgamation. This last humiliation stirs the man to action. He stomps through the leafy barrier and crosses the street, flouting the flashing Do Not Walk sign beneath the traffic light. Rooting through his pockets, he finds and withdraws a quarter. He's about to insert it into the coin slot of the record player when he notes with horror that the machine has but one recording. It is the piece that already torments him: Mars, The Bringer of Warhorses.

The clock in the well tower chimes two-thirty. Suddenly the man recalls that, halfway around the world, broadcast is commencing of an alternative classical music radio program, one that would never willingly play a recording of anything composed in Holst's day. He reaches into his mouth and tweaks the filling in his lower right bicuspid. It's working--he hears the first faint hint of static. But he knows what he must do to improve reception. Resignedly, he pulls a crumpled aluminum gum wrapper from his pocket and bites down on it. The maddening metrical monotony is quickly forgotten as an electrical circuit closes and excruciating pain shoots through his jaw. Well, no one ever said that listening to the bifortnightly Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar was a picnic, especially extended episodes such as this 461st. But you don't necessarily need a mouthful of aluminum to enjoy the show. You need only a taste for the unusual and a musical tour guide not unlike Kalvos.