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The Chamber Music

Allegretto villereccio

This Wednesday in the last week of November is the first winter evening of the season. Until now it hasn’t gotten that cold; instead, it’s rained every which way, and more than once since October I’ve thought of leaving this dreadful southwest corner of the country, of heading somewhere far away, somewhere up in the north, even going to another country, one where there’s a proper winter, like those we pretend we remember from childhood. But I still haven’t communicated the idea to my wife, who I know is perfectly happy with the warmth of a Reykjavík winter, and I don’t think I’ll mention it for a few days yet: if today’s weather forecast turns out to be correct, it’s going to be cold through the weekend—snowy, even.

I’ve decided to use this evening to read the last part of a book which I’ve so far had very great difficulty getting through: a six-hundred-page novel it would never have occurred to me to begin if the author weren’t a good friend of mine. I’m lying on the sofa, with this thick deadweight in my hands, making myself the promise that I’ll have a cigar once I’ve read two chapters, when suddenly the phone rings and I have no option but to get up and answer it; my wife isn’t at home and so it’s possible she might be calling me. But she isn’t. On the phone, which I’d left on the table, is my friend Bárður (I should point out that he isn’t the author of the aforementioned book) who, instead of introducing himself—as he normally does—launches straight into things, asking if I watch Spotlight, the program that follows the news on Reykjavík’s public television channel.

“If I usually watch it?” I ask, and Bárður rephrases his question: he wants to know if I customarily watch Spotlight and if I’m planning to watch it this evening. I say I’ll certainly be able to do so, since I’m not doing anything demanding, except for…I hold off on mentioning the book I’m reading; I know Bárður is not especially keen on the author of this six-hundred page book and I don’t want to risk him sounding off about both book and author. It’s difficult enough already to get through the text so that the author doesn’t interfere with my life any more than he’s managed to so far.

“There’s an interview with Oddgeir about the new release,” says Bárður, and I’m about to ask what new release he’s talking about when he fills me in. “He’s going to publicize the new CD they’ve made.”

“They who?”

“The string quartet.”

As I ask myself why I haven’t heard our mutual friend Oddgeir making a fuss about any forthcoming new release, I ask Bárður where he got his information. He answers by telling me something I already know: he’s related to the Assistant Program Director of the TV channel; his cousin leaked the information, just minutes ago.

“But why do you want me to watch the interview?” I ask. I’m curious, of course, to take a look at it, now that I know about it, but I’m eager to find out exactly why Bárður is asking me about it.

“I won’t be able to watch it,” replies Bárður. He tells me he’ll be on the way to the language school (where he teaches German); his class is scheduled for 7:30, and “I can’t afford” to be late, as he puts it.

“But why don’t they talk to the Englishman in the orchestra, what’s he called? Isn’t he the band leader?” I switch the handset over to my left hand so I can pour water into a glass with my right. Then I move a lit tealight a few centimeters closer to me on the table.

“I don’t know,” says Bárður, a little irritated. “I suppose they want to talk with Oddgeir because he is always so refreshing and so very cheerful. And, of course, it helps that he manages to speak Icelandic.”

“Strange that he hasn’t mentioned it to me,” I say, drawing a cigar from the half packet of London Docks which I’d fished up from my shirt pocket. “He typically lets me know about all his achievements.”

“He’s evidently too busy to talk right now. It must take quite the effort to prepare for something which he’s intent on peddling to his friends and relatives.”

I light myself a cigar using the flame of the tealight, and the smell of tobacco reminds me of Xmas. I look through the smoke at the twilight-steeped living room window and feel like the streetlamps outside somehow acquire more significance now it’s gotten cold around them.

“But is there anything wrong with releasing a CD now, before Xmas?” I ask, and smile to myself at Bárður’s baseless irritation. “You don’t release music—especially not chamber music—except at Xmas; it doesn’t sell at any other times. If it sells at all.”

Bárður has no reply, so I continue talking about Xmas and tell him that just this morning my mother invited my wife to go with her to the Canary Islands and stay there over Xmas; she’s already ordered the tickets, and they leave on December twenty-first.

“No, I’ll be at home,” I reply when Bárður asks whether I’m going with them. “I don’t have any desire to lie around sunbathing with some Brits and Hollanders over the Xmas holiday.”

“Well, yes, but still,” says Bárður, “I don’t like the idea that they’re going to release this CD. I have a very bad feeling about it.”

“A bad feeling!”

“That’s exactly what I have,” repeats Bárður, and emphasizes his concern by sighing into the handset.

I can picture the expression on his face at this moment: he resembles his father, a man who, despite having done rather well in life (financially at least), seems constantly eaten up with daily cares: over his seven decades he has developed a decidedly decision-weary expression which I expect will also characterize his son’s appearance in due time.

“It’s naturally too late to stop it now?” I ask, grinning to myself as to what purpose it could possibly serve to get in the way of a harmless event like a release by some string quartet. I don’t expect any reply from Bárður; I know him sufficiently well to know that he only ever listens to me when I say something that sounds like it could have come out of his own mouth. So it takes me by surprise when he answers, saying:

“Is it? It doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s too late.”

“No, why should it be?” I say, half-jokingly. “You must do everything in your power to block the release of a record by a string quartet in time for Xmas.”

“You know, an idea begins to take shape in my mind as we speak,” replies Bárður.

“Well, it’s downright immoral that a string quartet is releasing a CD in time for Xmas,” I add, watching the orange glow of the cigar with a smile. “And especially a private release like this one, entirely financed by the artists themselves. I’m guessing it’s a private release, since there isn’t a record label here in Iceland which trusts itself to publish classical music.”

“There is something to this, indeed,” says Bárður. “Why in heaven’s name should they release some CD in time for Xmas? But listen, I’m going to be late for the language school. We’ll chat when I get back home.”

I say good-bye to Bárður by telling him that I will watch the television show, that I’ll let him know what Oddgeir says. Then I turn on the TV.

Allegro agitato

Bárður had got it right: Oddgeir Hólmgeirsson was on television, talking with the host of Spotlight about the new record by the string quartet The Noel Experience. I had no idea that the music group Oddgeir and his friends were in had such a festive name. Once the show ends I relight the cigar, which I’d placed in the ashtray in the meantime, and rather than resuming the thick book I watch the next program, an educational show about the state of life in the ocean. When it ends I go over to the living room window and notice, to my great satisfaction, that it’s beginning to snow. I light another cigar and watch for a little while the peaceful, almost dreamlike snowfall which the streetlamps light as though on a movie set. I start toward the phone to see if Bárður is home yet, but when I pick up he's already on the other end. “I was just going to call you,” I say.

“What did Oddgeir say?” Bárður asks. From his breathlessness, I gather he has just this minute gotten home. He’s probably still white with snow, hasn’t taken the time to dust himself off before leaping to call me.

“He said the record hadn’t yet completed production,” I say. “It’s due the second week in December. There was some problem with the information booklet.”

“Well listen to that, great!” says Bárður. “I know exactly what we ought to do.”

“What we ought to do?”

“It’s odd that he’s blabbing about it on TV,” he said.

“What do you mean when you say that we ought to do something?” I repeat.

“What else did he say?”

“He also said there will be a concert in Kópavogur on December thirteenth. Some kind of release concert, after the album arrives.”

“And was he alone? Wasn’t anyone else with him?”

“No, he only mentioned the other members. Noel White, who plays the cello. He’s the Englishman, the band leader, whom the quartet is named after.”

“That total jerk,” says Bárður, as though we’re discussing an acknowledged fact.

“The show will be repeated later on this evening, some time around midnight. You could watch it yourself.”

“I’ve no intention of watching that smug mug Oddgeir, I don’t intend to do him that kindness. But what else did he say?”

“He said that there was a new viola player in the group. Jürgen something, some Austrian guy, Jürgen Schlippen-something, it sounded like…”

“He’s not new,” Bárður cuts in. “He’s some totally talentless idiot who they grubbed up from some hole in Akureyri. He pretended to be a music teacher but then it came to light that he works as a cook at a second-rate Chinese carryout.” Before asking his next question, he whispers a curse, as though he’s just hurt himself, or dropped something. “Did he talk about Heiðdís at all?”

“Yes, he mentioned her, too. I thought she was still on maternity leave.”

“She’s another freak. She’s barely given birth before she’s determined to make a spectacle of herself for the sake of some record.”

“You should just watch the show later,” I say. I don’t entirely understand Bárður’s spite toward the members of the quartet.

“That troupe just gets more devilish,” says Bárður—leaving me more dumbfounded still —and he sighs right into the earpiece and spits out: “Noel White! Jürgen Schlippenbach!”

“But what was the idea you mentioned just now?” I ask.

“Heiðdís Sigmundsdóttir!” adds Bárður, brusquely.

I repeat my question.

“I’ll tell you in good time,” answers Bárður, and as so often in our conversations—and I habitually let him get away with this—the topic of discussion suddenly switches to something other than what we were talking about a second ago. “But did you say you’re going abroad for Xmas?” he asks.

When I remind him that it’s my wife who’s going with my mother, not me, he asks if I’m going to be alone for Xmas, or if, given that my mother will be in the Canary Islands, I’ll head to my father’s.

“I’ll be alone,” I answer.

“But why not go to your father’s?”

“He will be with his friend.”

“Couldn’t you be there too?”

“He’s not my friend but my dad’s friend.”

“What on earth do you mean?” says Bárður, and adds: “Then all that remains is to invite you to come to ours for Xmas. Why in heaven’s name did your parents have to separate?”

“There’s no need for you to worry about me,” I say, while debating whether my situation is indeed the way my friend imagines it. “I’ll find something to putter about with.”

“And what about New Year’s Eve? Will you be alone for New Year’s Eve too?”

“I’m planning to be, yes.”

“No one is coming to visit you?”

“I’ll possibly stroll out to the New Year’s Eve bonfire,” I say. “I’ll possibly throw myself onto the pyre.”

“What in heaven’s name do you mean?”

Andantinoprestoadagio pesante

When I call Bárður two weeks later it’s not with the aim of discussing the publication of chamber music in Iceland. I want to let him know about the Xmas party at my workplace, the yearly schnapps-drinking affair which Bárður has sometimes accompanied me to instead of my wife, since she’s always been ill-disposed to my boss and can’t stand being under the same roof as him over Xmas. As always, Bárður makes appreciative noises about the invitation, then remembers he’s busy on the day it takes place. As we continue to talk about this and that I remember our earlier conversation and I tell him how Oddgeir Hólmgeirsson unexpectedly visited me about a week ago and gave me a proof copy of the quartet’s recording (a so-called CDR disk; he’d burned ten copies) and two tickets to the concert at Kópavogur for my wife and me.

In light of what I’ve just said about our mutual acquaintance, it strikes me as strange (not that I mind) that Bárður is calm on the other end of the phone. The Bárður who I’d half-expected to take up the thread from the other day and continue tearing apart our old friend and his musical companions seems far away, and instead I must be talking with some other version of this person, a different Bárður, one who listens calmly to me and—incredible as it sounds—acts like he’s really quite curious as to what I can tell him about the music on the quartet’s album. When I describe The Noel Experience’s plans for publishing and distributing the CD, he asks me about the technical details – things I know nothing about. The crowning gesture is that he doesn’t seem at all put out when I tell him of the good reception the record has received from a well-known Israeli violinist, temporarily a soloist with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra; he’d received a copy from Noel White (probably the same kind of burned disk as I myself got from Oddgeir) and has promised to mention the album to a Japanese music company he is familiar with, a company which specializes in North European chamber music.

“So they know each other?” asks Bárður. “Our pal Noel knows the Israeli violinist?”

I said I thought that was so, but it seemed a bit peculiar—almost suspicious—that Noel White was suddenly “our pal” Noel; only two weeks before, he’d been a total jerk.

“Good for him,” says Bárður and now all of a sudden—it was bound to happen—I recognized a glint of the Bárður I was used to.

“Things are looking good for them,” I say. “At least, it can’t hurt to get such a great response before the record even comes out.”

“Well, yes. That’s all very nice and fine,” Bárður cuts in. “Everything seems to be going smoothly. Except for the fact that there won’t be a release.”

“What do you mean?”

“It might be a good thing to get a positive reaction before the record comes out, but the record does actually have to come out.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what I say: there won’t be a release by the Nouvel Experiment or whatever they’re called, this string quartet. At least, not this Xmas.”

Even though Bárður is far from the sort of person who tends to make things up—he is definitely concerned with what is, not with what could be—I have great trouble understanding that what he tells me next is indeed true. With the help of “a certain party,” he found out where the production of the quartet’s record was happening: in Austria, the home country of Jürgen Schlippenbach (that peerless amateur viola), at a firm called DADC. He’d called the DADC office, managed to talk to the production manager, and let him know that the artists, that is to say the string quartet The Noel Experience (on that occasion he got the name right), were halting the release of the record at this time. The firm could send the master back; the release was frozen for the foreseeable future.

There was a silence on the phone line for a time after Bárður unraveled this tale for me, and I don’t plan to repeat what I said once he’d conclusively managed to convince me (with technical details) that what he’d just finished describing was real. Put plainly: he’d contrived to withdraw the production order made by Oddgeir or whoever it was who’d sent the master to Austria—the order for this wonderful record which I’d so much enjoyed listening to and which I’d allowed myself to look forward to getting a finished copy of, a record which, according to what Oddgeir told me when he dropped by, was going to be especially well-produced, in what is known as digipack format rather than that disagreeable plastic form which is so prone to crack and scratch. With fitting severity in my voice, I let Bárður know I plan to tell Oddgeir about this, that I’m firmly resolved to do so, but Bárður maintains that I gave him the idea in the first place:

“I mean, it was actually you,” he says, sounding triumphant, “who asked me the other day if it was too late to stop it.”

“I was joking,” I say.

“Are you completely sure about that?” Bárður comes back.

“I know when I’m joking and when I’m serious,” I reply.

“Please, do tell him all about it,” says Bárður, and I can’t be completely sure what the real meaning behind those words is.

“But what put it into your head,” I say, attempting to sound as angry and annoyed as I can, “to get in the way of something which people are doing in good faith, something which doesn’t interfere with anyone, something which is evidently done out of… I’m not ashamed to say it: love and affection.”

“Love and affection?” sneers Bárður.

“I’m serious,” I say. “What you’ve done is Satanic: destroying things for people who’ve done you no harm and who aren’t trying to do you any harm. No one gets it into his head to do something like this except… no one but the devil himself has such thoughts.”

“What an awful racket,” says Bárður, as though I’ve been unjustly berating him. “Don’t you have your own copy? You can just consider yourself one of the lucky ones.”

I try to articulate the magnitude of the outrage Bárður has committed, but

I find myself lost for words. Once I’ve put down the phone I stare into thin air—no doubt looking vacantly ahead, which best describes my frame of mind—and then I light a cigar, resolving not to tell Oddgeir about this conversation. In my eyes, that conversation never took place, no more than the conversation between Bárður and the production manager of DADC in Austria.

Finale: moderato

Right now there are just over two hours left in the year. At the moment I am standing ten meters away from the New Year’s Eve bonfire at Ægisíða, having been alone all evening, and it’s beginning to snow for the first time since early December, after a month-long warm rainy spell. While I think back to The Noel Experience’s show at the concert hall in Kópavogur in the middle of the month, I let a few lively bars of a Haydn quartet run through my mind, bars which Oddgeir, Noel, Jürgen, and Heiðdís played for my wife and I, and for approximately seven or eight other listeners who might have been at the concert hall. The Haydn quartet was in fact not to be found on the album which they’d been planning to announce; the group had rehearsed new material when it became clear that, because of some strange mistake which had taken place with the foreman at the Austrian production company, the product, as Oddgeir phrased it when we met by chance before the concert, would not reach Iceland in time for the Xmas market.

And yet it’s not unlikely that this music, I mean the recording which was sent to Austria and then back again, is playing right now in the Canary Islands. Or, at least, at some point during this holiday period. I’d played Oddgeir’s CDR disc for my wife and she immediately became so enthusiastic about the music (not to mention the performance) that she insisted on taking a copy with her to Las Palmas. “What’s more, I’m absolutely sure that your mother will enjoy it, especially because it sounds like the Four Seasons,” she’d said, talking about how it would certainly be something they could listen to together in the sun, how it would create the perfect Xmas atmosphere.

I wasn’t ready to part with the CD—I felt I needed it here more—but when my wife didn’t drop the matter I took steps to procure an extra copy, even though Oddgeir had asked me to keep the recording just for myself.My first thought was to get one of my coworkers to burn the CD for me, but his machine was being repaired, and neither advice nor CD burners come cheap.  I had no choice but to turn to the one character who definitely shouldn’t be involved in this affair any more than he already had been: Bárður. Apart from my coworker, he’s the only person I know who has a computer with a CD burner. Obviously I didn’t enjoy approaching him with this particular task but I decided to look past his somewhat heartless conduct which had led to a situation where we, my wife and I, can’t buy a copy of the album in a record store or get it at a discount from Oddgeir. At the same time—to ease my conscience—I very clearly asked Bárður to burn absolutely only a single copy, and to please, please delete the file from the computer after he’d completed burning the CD.

When I went to get the CD from Bárður the following day he’d burned me two copies in case it occurred to me that someone else might enjoy it. I couldn’t help but smile when I took the CDs from my friend’s hands, and I let him know that he certainly wouldn’t be that someone. And I repeated that he would have to promise to delete the file from his computer.

“It’ll have to come to light later whether I enjoy it,” he’d said; he hadn’t yet listened to his copy. “It’s not every day one is in the mood for chamber music,” he then added.

With some people it seems that what goes into the ears doesn’t have any influence on what happens between the ears.

Now, as I stand before the bonfire on New Year’s Eve and watch the flames crackle away in these final hours of the year, I recall what I said to Bárður on the phone a few weeks ago: that I would no doubt stroll out to the bonfire on the last evening of the year and perhaps throw myself onto the pyre. I look around me, into the half-lit darkness,and I wonder which of the men standing here near me in front of the crackling flames would leap after me and drag me away from the fire. If one ever gotthe idea to end one’s time on earth within this symbolic campfire—to burn one’s lone copy in the merciless flames—it would definitely be more advisable to slip unseen into the pyre some time during the day, or at least before the fire is lit.

What would Bárður’s view of this be? Without doubt, he is now standing outside on his balcony, a worried expression on his face, shooting fireworks into the air with his children. Possibly his father is there with him and his wife this evening, looking even more worried than his son, and in all likelihood much more worried than the two children who I can well imagine are already starting to worry about the future, based on the photographs I’ve seen of them.

I light myself another cigar and leave the warmth of the New Year’s Eve bonfire. On the way home, beneath a gentle, festive snowfall, I decide I’m in no mood for the annual New Year’s Eve comedy review on TV. Instead, I’m planning to get myself some whisky and have a cigar in my warm living room, and to finish reading the last part of the six- hundred-page novel, and then to let my first musical experience of the new year be the noise of fireworks—a noise which, once the wick has been lit, you can’t get in the way of, can’t stop.

“Stofutónlistin” © Bragi Olafsson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Lytton Smith. All rights reserved.