Ronald Cormorant’s passion for music began with his uncle. “Just listen to anything,” his uncle advised him when he was young. “You’ll get a feel for the music. Not like your father. He’s got a tin ear.” After school, Ronald would rush to his bedroom to listen to records of classical performances. His refinement took longer than his uncle had suggested, years that had felt like decades, but by his late teens he could identify a good performance within a few measures. The flight of Kissin along a Mendelssohn melody, the sharp, concentrated outbursts of Levine.
By his twenties, Ronald’s taste for classical music had begun to loop back on itself. What might have provided fuel for conversation at a cocktail party would degenerate quickly into an arcane argument about esoteric principles of orchestral performance that would even tire out musicians. Conductors would avoid him after concerts. Ushers gave unconvincing excuses and seated him in obstructed view seats. Unable to discuss his aural interests, Ronald’s tastes twisted and bent within his mind to accommodate the bizarre. For instance, he developed a passion for syncopation, and what might have been a healthy interest in rests devolved into a sputtering, snarling obsession that would haunt him in his sleep.
Ronald began to rank performers according to the preciseness of their rests. Sitting with an ear to his stereo, he would press a button on his stop watch at the exact moment that a musical rest began and press the button again when the rest concluded. He would repeat this throughout the performance, allowing for certain errors on his part, and classify the performer with a rating. The more consistent the musical rests in a piece, the higher the rating. Performances with digital music did not count. Over three years of painstaking work, Ronald awarded his prize to Giuseppe Pomodoro (1904-1968), a little known studio musician who had lived most of his days in the city of Udinese arranging operatic scores.
In hindsight, an obsession of Ronald’s kind – towards musical rests – can be seen to lead naturally towards composition. But it wasn’t so. This leap was a mistake. Ronald had just set a record on the turntable, a forgotten jazz recording with a drummer who had a talent for half-rests in the 5/4 time signature – that’s five beats per measure, with a quarter note as the measure of a beat – when the circuitry in his old browstone blew. The record stopped. Yet inside Ronald he continued to count out the beats. One-two-three-four-five, one-two-three-four-five, and on. When he tired, he pressed the stopwatch. He had achieved the most accurate rating ever. His rhythm was impeccable. His next step was to pull out a pen and experiment with a simple composition. It was called One Minute and Sixteen Seconds. There was no music. Only its inverse, rests and the implication of music: silence.
Ronald invested many weekends perfecting his compositions and suddenly became paranoid that someone would steal his ideas. He went to the local intellectual property attorney, who was listed in the phone book under the name ‘Brian Coomerswamy’.
“What is this, Arabic?” Coomerswamy said, when Ronald presented him with an armful of compositions. If the attorney had had money once, he had invested it in his silk tie and his shoes. Both were blue.
“It’s music,” Ronald said.
“Music? Where are the staves?”
“I write without them. Those are rests. That’s a quarter rest there, and that’s a sixteenth.”
Coomerswamy liked to use accents to ingratiate himself with prospective clients, of which he’d had few of late. He perked up at Ronald’s watery pronunciation of ‘quarter’. “You from Philadelphia?”
“I don’t watch sports.”
Disappointed, the attorney donned some reading glasses to get a closer look at Ronald’s music. “I had some music training myself. Tympani, you see.” He ran his finger along the unwritten musical staff. “You’ve got a lot of dots in here. I was always taught that it was bad form to use a lot of dots. What time signature?”
“Right. You may want to write that down.” Coomerswamy held the music up to the sunlight, as if hoping some truth would beam through the obscure writing. “I’ve got it. You don’t have any notes. Where are the notes?”
“There aren’t any.”
The attorney stabbed a finger into the air. “But then there’s no point in breaking the rests up, is there? It’s all silence anyway. You should just have a bunch of whole notes.” He shoved the music back in Ronald’s hands, relieved not to have deal with the situation.
But Ronald remained in place. “I break up the rests because it affects the mind of the performer.”
“But what performer? It’s just silence.”
“A quarter rest leaves a percussive imprint upon the mind. A whole rest blends the silence together and is more difficult to distinguish.”
The attorney stood. “Imprint on the mind, huh? Well, I have a very important appointment coming up. Very important. I’m afraid I can’t help you on such short notice.”
The attorney actually had arranged to meet Melody Tsai at a bar for happy hour drinks. Tsai was a sparkling young marketing executive with whom Coomerswamy secretly hoped to have an affair, especially because she was married and he was divorced, so the relationship would not affect him too badly. She wore a ponytail so tight that it threatened to pull her face over her head, yet gave off the impression that when she was relaxed she would untie her hair and shake it seductively. Coomerswamy longed to see this. He had arranged the meeting on the pretext that he was looking for suggestions as to how to expand his client base, and took notes on the back of Ronald’s composition, trying to instill a sense of attentiveness. He began making jokes.
“What’s that?” Tsai asked, pointing at the composition.
“I got it from a nutty client of mine. Or, I should say, a prospective client.” He frowned. “I hope I made that clear to him. He likes to compose in rests. He believes it leaves a percussive impression upon the mind.” He swigged his apple martini, and laughed. “I told him to use whole notes. It would be pointless to copyright such nonsense.”
Tsai fingered the composition. “Rests? Are they valid?”
Coomerswamy saw an opportunity to impress her, and tried to grab the music away while stroking her hand. She did not acknowledge the gesture. “Let’s see. He said it was in 4/4. That’s four beats to a measure, a quarter note representing a beat. One, two, three and four.” He tried to count out the beats, guessing where the measures would end. “He uses a lot of dots – that lengthens the value of the note by a half. Tough to read.” But eventually he got through it. “It’s valid. Actually, it’s a tight little piece. Damn hard to read it without inserting your own notes from your head. I was singing a line from—”
“—it’s silence, right? Rests are silence?”
He took a sip. “Yes. The absence of sound.”
“Then why does it say ‘affanato’ here? And ‘cantabile’?”
The attorney sneered again. “I know, it’s ridiculous. Those are expressive notations. Expressive notations for silence. It’s all very Western. Affanato means ‘sad or distressed’, ‘cantabile’ means ‘like a singer’. You see I had some musical training when I was younger, part of the Greater Bangor Youth Orchestra, I was. Tympani. ‘Moderato cantabile’, now that I think of it, was the name of a French novel. Piano lessons or something. While I was at Williams, I—”
Tsai was smiling broadly, and even kissed him on the cheek. “You just found our base.”
The next day, Coomerswamy called Ronald and offered to preregister the copyright a full year in advance. This gave Melody Tsai the opportunity to spread the word about Ronald’s new innovation in musical expression. To demonstrate the preciseness of Ronald’s compositions, Tsai arranged for Ronald to perform and be rated according to a simplified version of his own formula. He had perfect tempo, better than a metronome, and his ability to count difficult time signatures was not interrupted by trips to the bathroom. Melody began a modest advertising campaign about the expressive nature of our silences, that in every pregnant pause there is emotion, or its absence – and that Ronald had explored the entire spectrum of emotions by drawing upon the Italian expressive notations. He copyrighted pieces with calore (warmth), intrepido (confidence), sentito (expressiveness), and strepitoso (jubilant). A buzz began to grow. Ronald was invited to gigs as a pre-show until he could command an entire venue. It wasn’t always rests – sometimes it was measuring him against a jazz drummer, or a drum machine. He would beat them.
When the time was right, The Silence Corporation was born. It was a privately held company controlled by Ronald, with Coomerswamy and Melody Tsai signing on as CLO and CEO. Ronald’s copyrights would protect the expression of compositions of musical rests spanning from one second to seventeen hours. The company began an aggressive campaign to stamp out all imitators of Ronald’s work with threatening letters. When the imitators backed down, they pushed further, asserting ownership over all periods of silence that spanned Ronald’s compositions. A rest was the equivalent of silence, and because tempo could vary, Ronald’s copyrights covered the gamut of the implicated time period. One Minute and Sixteen Seconds occupied the entire field of silence from zero to one minute and sixteen seconds. They demanded licensing fees from any composition involving rests. When angry musicians protested, Coomerswamy filed for summary judgment in a small, but federal, district of Texas that entertained such suits. The expressive notation made the copyright valid on its face.
Ronald moved out of his small studio to a nicer part of the city. He bought several fancy record players and was soon able to invest in a wax music store that specialized in free jazz albums. In their mad honkings and crashings he would discern patterns that he was unable to vocalize. No longer needing to work, he quit his job as a foreign language textbook actor and wiled away his time berating street performers in parks.
The Silence Corporation pushed further. Tsai began slowly establishing a brand, creating a distinctive trademark that was a brilliant fusion of the Yin-Yang symbol and the peace emblem. Ronald’s compositions and, now, his tee-shirts, audio recordings (blank), and parasols offered the trustworthy promise of a ‘contemplative, peaceful day’. Enjoying licenses with a coterie of musicians, Silence Corp began to pester a troubled record industry for royalties from their catalogs. The record industry cross-licensed. Every time a song was played, a sophisticated computer program would measure the number of rests in a piece and automatically forward the proceeds to The Silence Corporation. The officers of the company considered allowing the company to be publicly traded on the stockmarket, but gambled that the increased revenue would allow them to push to a new level of growth. Again, they were right.
This time Silence Corps hired a lobbyist on the Hill. Her mission was simple: to convince a member of Congress to sponsor a bill recognizing the value of ‘silence in our lives’. She hired Buddhists, yoga instructors, and sound engineers to dine with as many members of congress as she could find. One incumbent, about to be ousted by a charismatic rabble rouser, quietly agreed to sponsor the bill as long as he could receive a portion of the proceeds for his campaign. Ronald’s attorney Coomerswamy wrote out the language of the bill. The “Peaceful Silence” bill entered the halls of Congress accompanied by a variety of riders that obscured the bill’s underlying purpose. The American public was suffering at this time from an outbreak of international war mongering, the preamble stated. Soldiers were dying. Silence wasn’t free, it had to be earned. Who doesn’t want peace? Who doesn’t want silence? What about our children? The enemies of America, the bill said, clamor against our right to peace and to silence.
The Silence Corporation began receiving one-one hundredth of one penny on any ten second pause in a legislator’s speech on the House or Senate floors, and also benefited from peacetime, defined as the ‘absence of war’. Earnings began to swell the company coffers. The officers were savvy in this respect and did not publish their wealth. Instead, Ronald, Coomerswamy, and Tsai agreed to part ways publicly and money was wired directly through a number of shadow corporations into offshore accounts.
As much as Ronald felt sidelined from his musical integrity, he couldn’t deny that the new partnership with the government worked on a far grander scale. These were multiples. Senators, he discovered, paused all the time during their speeches and couldn’t fill these empty moments with rhetoric. The most lucrative were the filibusters. War was expensive, and peace preferred, and the fractional royalties added up. Ronald bought a mansion in Halifax. He still composed on occasion, but rests had frankly begun to bore him. At unexpected times, he would reach out and smash together two objects, relishing the noise, or shout at the top of his lungs.
It was not long before The Silence Corporation had become one of the world’s richest companies. It was said that the brand was so successful at instilling a ‘contemplative, peaceful day’ that the mere wearing of a Silence Corp tee-shirt could lower the blood pressure of angioplasty patients. But the real wealth came from the government licenses. This wing of the business operated under pseudonyms and financed dozens of lobbyists to bolster the rights enshrined in the Peaceful Silence law, and bankrolled numerous entities in self-regulated industries, multiplying profits. While the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission scrutinized the more visible recyclable diaper and biotech industries, The Silence Corporation basked in glory.
The fall was inevitable, and it started in a caviar bar. Coomerswamy had gotten drunk at the Burgeoning Sturgeon in Dupont Circle and began bragging about the ‘fast one’ he’d pulled on everyone. He didn’t care that his audience was an employee at NASA, for he was attracted to the passion behind her eyeglasses.
“Shilensh is everywhere,” he slobbered. “All around us. Like the Force. You sheen Star Wars?”
The woman indicated that she had.
“It lurks behind every word. Every honk and hoot. With every boom, theresh a bust. But it’s not free. Not free. And guessh who gets paid? Little ‘ol me.”
The next day, the scientist discussed the nature of silence with her boss. There was agreement that silence was a relative concept that never existed without a vacuum. Sound waves were always present in a world of friction, although they were not necessarily discernible by the human ear. NASA officials began making inquiries about revitalizing their budget with Silence Corps funds. By now, The Silence Corporation had enough influential lobbyists on the Hill that a two-thirds majority to revoke the law would be impossible to achieve. The government used other channels. A full General Accounting Office investigation was held along with a Department of Justice antitrust inquiry. The far right and far left were courted to engage a metaphysical assault on The Silence Corporation as well. Silence would never eliminate the need for conflict, they agreed, which is fundamental to our existence and from which divine creativity is spawned. The law of Peaceful Silence ran counter to science and stifled spirituality.
As savvy as they were at maintaining a low profile, Ronald, Coomerswamy, and Tsai were eventually subpoenaed before Congress.
“Mr. Coomerswamy,” the Congressman from Wyoming asked. “I’m gonna hold up a sheet of paper and I’d like you to tell me what it is.”
Coomerswamy made a show of his squinting. “Arabic,” he said, to audience laughter.
“Order! This is a serious matter. This sheet of paper here is potentially worth, what is it, billions?”
“One point one trillion,” an official chimed in.
“And you tell me it’s Arabic, Mr. Coomerswamy?”
“The ink is oil-based.”
“I’ll ask you one more time, Mr. Coomerswamy. You’re on record here, a record for the American people. That will go down as a slur.”
Coomerswamy soon backed down and identified the scores as asked. “It’s a perfectly valid copyright,” he added.
“I didn’t ask you to speak about the law,” the Congressman stated. “Strike that from the record.”
The congressman then turned to Ronald.
“Ronald,” he asked, “we’re going to perform a little test. I am going to play a noise on this here machine, which our NASA colleagues advise us works well – and you press this button if you hear it. Just like the old test at the doctor’s office.”
“Why?” Ronald asked. He had been jiggling his leg for hours. He felt an eruption growing inside him, an eruption of pure and hot music. Usually in such moods he composed.
“To show you, and the American public, that there is no such thing as silence.” The congressman pointed with his pen at a terrarium. “Over there we’ve got a dung beetle. They can respond to infinitesimal – that’s very small – noises and vibrations more than a mile away. If the dung beetle hears it, then it’s there.”
“But, that’s hardly a measure of silence,” Ronald objected. “Or it’s underlying expression. My hearing has never been—”
“I’ll ask the questions, mind you, or it’ll be pots and pans for you.”
To the audience’s surprise, Ronald heard the first few sounds that were supposedly discernible only by the canine ear. But on the fourth test he heard nothing, and the dung beetle began tapping its spiny behind against the soft-packed soil in its tank.
Ronald could take no more. He leapt from his chair with a stupendous roar – aaaaaaaaawwwwraugh – and smashed his microphone against the ground, headbanging to whatever music he imagined was floating in the air. For, truth be told, Ronald had begun to despise silence and wanted to drown himself in noise.
The front page photos of Ronald rampaging, his hair dissheveled and his eyeglasses askance on his nose, were enough to mobilize the American public and the ‘Conflict Resolution and Innovation’ bill was introduced to bury the law of Peaceful Silence and nullify existing licensing agreements. Silence became a government regulated industry.
War soon erupted over certain resources, and with it, the creativity that accompanies the destruction of life. Clamorous spiritual movements blossomed, one church specializing in the polyrhythmic banging of wood blocks. Ronald and his fellow officers had squirrelled away money in offshore accounts and were not destitute. Banned for life from a marketing career, Melody Tsai ran for governor of the state of Oregon and won. Coomerswamy, the attorney, was disbarred and established a foundation that gave world music artists boat rides down the Saône river. Ronald returned to composing, this time with notes.
Deji Bryce Olukotun