The Big Top
Shelley Burgon and Trevor Dunn
March 14, 2005
I awoke to the scariest sounds. Squirrels chirping, eating. Chilling grating noises. Some high, some low. The high ones were more disturbing--someone was maiming what sounded like a harp. Then the low ones were part of a horror movie soundtrack I hadn't heard yet. Next, there was nothing. Silence. I sat up in my bed, unsure if I was still asleep or awake. Waiting for it to go away. Hoping it would go away. I bit my fingernails with wide open eyes, and I massaged my hard thumb with fear into the index finger of my fist. Then, I heard unnatural footsteps. Some sort of waterdrop percussion coming closer to my room. So, I got up, tiptoed to my door and creaked it open. Nothing in the hall or on the stairs. I was about to close the door when I heard it again. It was downstairs. The bannister broke my run when I looked over it to find two people below the chandelier. One man was picking on a stand-up bass, while a woman was beating on harp strings with circular mallets. That was the footstep sound!
They didn't seem to notice me, so I went halfway down the stairs and looked at them from the side. The man took the circular mallet and stuck it in between his strings and varied between plucking his strings with fervor and bending them by pulling on the mallet with murderous nonchalance. Meanwhile, the woman picked up her pace and created some sort of creepy middle ground between consonance and dissonance. I always thought of the harp as a happy instrument, but this woman was pulling sounds of it that reminded me of minor chords.
The man finished off his angry fix by playing on top of the mallet with his bow until it fell to the floor. Then, there was silence again. And clapping. But, I wasn't clapping. A full sit-down audience was fading in and out in front of the duo. Like bad television reception. Now, I was scared. But, I just tried to convince myself it was a dream. That made it easier.
During the next song the duo went through the same sort of beautifully disjointed stutter steps. Hey, if I thought the music sucked I woulda been out the door a lot earlier. This was when I noticed the music outside of the band. The band was using silence to the concert's advantage. Whenever they stopped for a few seconds in the middle of songs, someone in the audience, which had completely faded in, or something in the kitchen invariably made a noise. And so the audience became the musicians for a little bit.
The duo was so focused on one another's movements. They copied speed and attitude. Sometimes their movements didn't make sense; the woman played a flurry when the man solemnly created the sound of hell's door opening with his bow. But, it was poetry. Snippets here and there. I don't think I was supposed to consciously catch every line. Each musician did so much. The man played a variety of bows, and he put clothesline pins on his strings to mute the sound at different points. The woman also placed jeweled muters in a configuration on the strings. Each one eventually fell off as she played.
The music stopped, and the crowd applauded as they faded away. I approached the musicians. The harpist was Shelley Burgon. The bassist was Trevor Dunn. They were nice. They gave me a CD of one of the performances they recorded in Brooklyn. Since I was sufficiently weirded out by the whole evening, I wasn't surprised when the two said they were time travelers from 2030. They said that our time wasn't ready for their adventurous, fearless music, but we needed it. I understood that.
I went back to sleep, but it always bothers me. I go back and forth between thinking it was reality or a dream. The good thing, either way, was that the two pushed the boundary of acceptable music. Now I know what I can do.