What is a tone?
Not much to most people. Maybe delight if the tone is sung by a beloved opera singer or an admired mega-star, hardly anything if the tone is played by a wind or a string instrument, hidden in the anonymity of a big orchestra. Not even the director, the outer ear, takes an interest in every single note played by a big ensemble. A single false note in the rear of the violins, an occasional miss by one of four or five horn players most times this doesn't affect the wholeness, and the note is forgotten or overlooked.
By all except one.
This one person is the section colleague sitting next to the false note player. She hears every nuance, every frequency, every overtone, every tiny mistake. Some of these fellow musicians endure the false playing, some disregard it, some are not sensitive enough or do not burn enough for the beauty of harmony. Some the diplomats change their own note a trifle to make the two instruments sound better together.
Jesper Pahlin had no intention of changing any of the notes he played. He loved his trombone: its beautiful bend towards the bell, the winding of metal in the easy-running slide, the soft pressure of the mouthpiece against his lips, and the feeling when he produced a perfectly well intonated note.
He had been sitting next to Pontus Grahn, also a trombone player, in the City Symphony Orchestra for almost three years, and he still couldn't stand the latter's out-of-tune thirds.
What is a third?
The very linchpin in Western music! It turns major into major and minor into minor. Hovering between major and minor, it turns a blues into a blues. It opens Summertime and Hello, Dolly and triumphantly ends each one of the two world-famous pa-pa-pa-paa's that open Beethoven's fifth symphony.
Pontus Grahn's thirds were out of tune. Maybe he had a bad ear, maybe he just had some weird theoretical idea. Be that as it may, it jarred in a very nasty way on Pahlin's ears when Grahn struck up his thirds.
It was worst when the old masters were played: Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven. The moment before the mutual entry of the trombones the sound formed itself in Pahlin's mind: he moved his slide right on time to get a beautiful attack; he imagined the pitch, adjusting his slide with unnoticeable movements to give it the final touch; he adapted to the overall sound of the orchestra, being especially careful about tuning well with the contra basses; he... yes, in short he did all that a professionell musician should do: a musician who worships harmony, who polishes his skill for hours every day, and who has immersed himself deeply in his beloved tone. How deep? As deep as the best high jumper in the world has immersed himself in the knowledge of every move of his body before the jump over the bar.
And then, in each and every such situation, Grahn struck up his third, callously and out of tune, with a stiff motion of the slide. This always created a stabbing sensation in Pahlin's stomach. To him the sound was ugly and the pitch a disaster, all because Grahn was lazy, stupid, and not practising enough.
Pahlin suffered. His head and stomach ached. He often thought about leaving the job, but the place in the orchestra had been hard to get. Jobs for musicians were rare. In his imagination he planned to bully Grahn, or poison him, or trip him up to make him stumble and drop his trombone, so that the fragile slide would be askew and unplayable.
One night, when Pahlin was hating Grahn more than ever, after they had played a chorale by Brahms, the doorbell to his apartment rang. He went for the door, prepared to make a crushing comment, as he thought it was one of the neighbours, intending to complain about his hour-long scale practises.
Outside two men were standing, neatly dressed in black suits and white shirts. On their backs hung grey and black patterned rucksacks, looking quite new. The men were young, hardly past twenty-five, definitely under thirty. The suits, together with their youth, created a strange and somewhat weird impression. Jehova's Witnesses or something quite like it, Pahlin thought.
"I'm not religious," he said. "You'd better go visit someone else."
"Oh, no," said one of the men with a soft, smooth voice. "You are the one who needs us. We are talent-dealers. We do business in talents. When a talent is irritating, you simply get rid of it, sell it, swap it, or buy yourself a new one."
He took a little silver flute out of his pocket, put it to his lips and played some notes on it, jarringly false.
Pahlin reacted the same way most people would have: these two people are lunatics, and the best thing to do is to speak calmly and gently to them.
"Sure," he said. "But I have no problem with my talents, rather with someone else's lack of talent. Unfortunately my time is limited, so, gentlemen, if you will please excuse me..."
He tried to shut the door, but a well-polished black shoe prevented the door from being closed.
"But that's exactly the point!" said the other man, his voice as smooth as the first, but with a slightly darker sound.
Baritone, Pahlin thought, firmly keeping his grip on the doorknob.
"What point?" he asked.
He meant to distract the unwanted visitors, so that he would eventually be able to make the stranger's foot disappear from the crack of the door.
"Sources of irritation," said the man. "That's our speciality: eliminating sources of irritation. Talents often lead to irritation between people, quite unnecessarily so."
"Fine," said Pahlin. "Then see to that Pontus Grahn stops irritating me with his disgusting, out-of-tune thirds."
"What do you mean deal?"
"Done, agreed, it's a bargain, it's a deal. Simply, deal."
The foot withdrew, and the men disappeared downstairs towards the street. The first of them played the flute while walking down the stairs. Now the sound was stunningly beautiful and quite in tune. Pahlin stood in the doorway, relieved that the weirdos had disappeared, but left at the same time with an undefined feeling of loss inside.
Shortly after, the chief conductor called Pahlin for a private talk.
"This can't go on," said the conductor. "I don't understand what has happened. You were always the best at hitting the accurate pitch of every note. Now you miss all of them. What's going on?"
"I don't know," Pahlin said. "I had been hoping it would come to an end. That maybe I had caught a cold, or something like that. But something has happened to my talent for playing in tune. It's like I don't really care about it. Well, it's nice, after all, not to be bothered by Grahn's false notes any more. Especially his thirds they have been a nuisance to me all these years, actually."
"Unfortunately, he's the one being bothered, and you're the one playing out of tune, as things are now," the conductor said downheartedly.
The outcome of this talk was that Pahlin quit his job voluntarily, with one year's severance pay. As he looked at the year ahead of him, he considered different alternatives for the future, including the possibility of killing himself. But he loved music too dearly to want to die, and after all, music is not just pitch, but also rhythm, form, and sound.
Thus Pahlin spent his year off learning to play extremely fast and with great emphasis on rhythm. Soon he became a well-known character in the avant-garde music circles. He interpreted incredibly difficult newly written pieces for solo trombone, just as elegantly as he participated in contemporary free jazz. As time went by, media caught sight of him, and he had an international breakthrough as an interpreter of contemporary music. The reviewers' praise filled the cultural pages of the newspapers.
"Pahlin is one of our time's most uncompromising musicians. His bold rhythmics and ruthless melodic approach to melody and harmony make him one of the truly great solo performers," one review could say. Or: "Nobody plays the difficult quarter notes like Pahlin, angrily, colorfully, with no tendency to flatter the listener."
The fees for the solo concerts went sky high, and Pahlin became rich. The months went by, and one evening, while he sat in his apartment looking at real estate ads, pleased with the thought that he would now be able to buy himself a house, where he could practise his trombone at all hours without complaining neighbours, the doorbell rang.
Outside a short, square man was standing. He wore a red coat and a red cap, although he bore no resemblance to Santa Claus at all. The middle-aged, clean-shaven face had a cheerless look about it, like the face of a person doing his duty and not overly enthusiastic about it. Between his hands he held a small package, folded in brown paper. The package vibrated, emitting a strange humming tone.
"We have arrested Gand Berr and Tak Bilner," he said. "And we have been working very hard to seal the dimension gap. Of course, it might be possible that some Flutter Fairy has slipped through, along with those two well-known talent thieves. Well, I'll catch the fairy soon enough. For now my mission is solely to return the stolen property to its rightful owners. Would you please receive this package, sir, and acknowledge the receipt."
Pahlin looked at the package.
"What's in it?"
"Your talent, of course. The one they stole from you."
"My talent to play in tune?"
"It's not my job to keep track of those details. Berr and Bilner have been stealing all kinds of talents, from charm and contentment to golf-putting skill and gifts for solving mathematical problems. All I know is that this is your talent. Please sign your receipt, and let me do my work.
"What do you mean, sign?" Pahlin asked, since he could see neither paper nor pencil, and if he had, he wouldn't have dared to sign anyway.
"You are supposed to say that you take back your talent. That will do it. Interdimensional voice registration quite sufficient as evidence in any multi-dimensional court room."
"But I'm not sure that I want it back!"
The man dressed in red heaved a sigh.
"Why did I have to run into an idiot like you? Most likely, you are the only one in the whole multiverse who doesn't want his talent back. The talent must be valuable, or they wouldn't have stolen it. Please, take it back, and help me put an end to this phase of my work. Your talent is the last one to be returned."
Jesper Pahlin was struck by an idea.
"Give it to Pontus Grahn in the Symphony Orchestra," he said. "He really needs it."
"Do you solemnly declare that this talent is of benefit for this Pontus Grahn?"
"Absolutely," Pahlin said, "it's a talent every musician dreams about."
"In that case... deal!" said the red-coat, turned around with a click of his heels and disappeared downstairs.
As time went by Pontus Grahn became well-known in all the musical community for his beautiful and well-pitched trombone playing. He had no commercial success like Jesper Pahlin, though. Perhaps he wasn't provocative enough. Although his beautiful notes brought pleasure to the ears of many people, those same notes didn't fill his wallet any more than it took to keep body and soul together.
Therefore, he was very happy, when he was hired to play the trombone lead part in a show orchestra. The show was set up at the biggest theater in town. It was expected to run for several years. Grahn took leave from the Symphony Orchestra, taking delight in the fact that he would at last be able to save some money.
At the show's first rehearsal, he met Jesper Pahlin outside the door.
"So, what are you doing here?" asked Grahn, after the necessary polite phrases were done with.
"I'm going to play the second part," Pahlin said.
"I thought you only played solo concerts nowadays."
"Yes, that's true, but it so happened that I was offered this job. And as you know it's very well paid. Also, I can use a stand-in on the nights I want to be free and do something else. Quite a dream job, or what?"
Then the nightmare started for Pontus Grahn. By now, Jesper Pahlin had only an approximate idea of where to hit the right pitch of a note in a melody. Because of his record as a soloist, however, no one suspected him of being the source of a certain discord in the trombone section.
Grahn had to sit next to Pahlin, and his ears were daily abused by the latter's false playing. He was certain of that Pahlin secretly enjoyed tormenting him. Late at night, he tore his hair in anger, imagining thousands of ways to make Pahlin leave the show orchestra. But all the ideas came to nothing.
One night, Grahn came home to his simple suburban flat, more than usually exhausted by anger at Pahlin's rotten playing. His temples throbbed with all the rage that he had been holding back during the show. Buzzing, green spots were dancing in the air in front of his eyes. The spots seemed to hover around a shimmering point above the floor in the living room.
Migraine, Grahn thought. Pahlin has made me a migraine sufferer.
In the air a tiny, green-winged, female creature fluttered. At least it looked like a minuscule woman, about the size of a sparrow. The buzzing noise came from her wings, as she either changed her position in the air with jerky movements, or hovered motionless in one place, like a dragonfly.
"Tee hee!" she said. "Hello there, silly! What a fluttery instrument you have there! I wish I could play. But I can only flutter."
"Who are you?" Grahn asked.
"Who am I, who am I? I don't really know. I only know what I am. I'm a Flutter Fairy."
"A Flutter Fairy?" Grahn repeated in a tired voice.
I have to leave this show job, he thought. I'm so full of rage that I'm hallucinating.
It was all Pahlin's fault. If he only could get rid of Pahlin...
"A Flutter Fairy flutters wishes," said the fairy through the buzzing and flapping. "I can flutter a wish for you if you like. But only one. Then the flutter is finished."
"In that case," Grahn said through clenched teeth, "I wish that Pahlin's slide turns into a noose the next time he plays a false note in my ear, so I can strangle him with his own trombone slide."
"What fun!" the fairy giggled. "The metal slide will go limp! And tough, and strong like super plastic! And wriggling like a swamp snake! And then he dies... ugh, ugh. That certainly was a fluttery wish. Deal!"
She flittered through the window with jerky movements and disappeared in the air. Grahn remained standing, pleased to have worked off some of his anger. At the same time he felt ill at ease.
As if something wriggled inside him...
A month later the two trombone parts of the show orchestra were replaced. The new musicians were friends and enjoyed one another's playing. The conductor was happy at last the trombone section sounded good. If the catastrophe hadn't occurred, he would nevertheless have been forced to replace Grahn and Pahlin. These matters were not discussed very often, but one evening after the four hundred forty-second performance of the show, the subject was brought up, after the daily newspapers had announced that Pontus Grahn had been sentenced. He would not be sent to jail, since it was obvious that he suffered from mental illness: he had persistently and throughout blamed the murder of Jesper Pahlin on a fluttering, green fairy.
"It's considered to be proved," one of the trombone players said, "that Grahn strangled Pahlin in anger. But there's one thing nobody has ever been able to explain."
"Like what?" asked his colleague.
"Have you ever tried to straighten out a trombone slide with your hands? And then tie a knot with it?"
"Actually, the thought has never occurred to me."
"I knew Pontus Grahn casually. He wasn't very strong. He was lazy and a bit plump. Everybody is jogging these days, or building up their strength in other ways. But Pontus didn't. He liked to spend his free nights in front of the TV with some beers and a bag of chips."
The young musician cast an admiring glance at his own well-trained arms, stroked his well-kept trombone, let his finger follow the turns of the slide, and finally put the instrument in its stand with careful movements. Then he turned his gaze to his companion again and said:
"So how the hell could Grahn strangle Pahlin with the guy's own slide?"
Cecilia Wennerström is a jazz musician, saxophone player, composer and arranger, educated at the music academies in Malmoe and Gothenburg. She was born in 1947 and lives in Stockholm, Sweden.
Since 1994 she has played baritone saxophone with the internationally known Swedish tenor saxophone player Nisse Sandströms 10-piece band which plays transcriptions of Miles Davis/Gil Evans tuba band music. Among many memorable concerts is one with Rolf Eriksson on trumpet at the festival Jazz at Nyköpingshus 1995.
One of Swedens best jazz singers, Peo Jönis, is the leader of a ladies big band, Satin Dolls, where Wennerström has played the baritone sax for several years and also does some arranging for the band. Satin Dolls is an entertainment band and has been quite involved with Swedish television.
Wennerström also leads a Marty Paich-style 12-piece orchestra of her own which plays her arrangements, for instance at the jazz festival Sandviken Big Band Bang in 1996.
Visit Cecilia's web site.
Published by permission of the author.