Many years ago, Jack and I had a mutual friend called Adrian (see the story Degrees of freedom). In addition to being an extremely talented mathematician, Adrian had an extremely annoying musical gift. He had taught himself to play the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on a synthesiser, without ever having had any musical training. This upset me. I had grown up hearing these pieces on Sundays when my father declared anew that Kiss and Foreigner were never to darken our house again. When he was done declaring, my father sat down at the piano and played and replayed many of the forty-eight pieces from the first book, haltingly, then with fervour, and then testily, always returning to the 8th prelude in E flat minor for solace and foundation. I often stood beside him, wishing that we could play chess instead, watching his fingers as he probed the keys to resuscitate Bach. The 8th prelude is a haunting piece. To this day it evokes for me the memory of what my father smelled like. It was therefore fundamentally unacceptable that Adrian could play it while I could hardly hum its main theme.
Adrian’s musical interests included only Bach. He could not care less about other composers. They were mere imposters, borrowing from Bach and then missing the quintessence of him, lapsing into saccharine refrains or fringe-bouncing key bashing. The more Adrian practised Bach to the exclusion of all others, the more he became capable of improvising in his style. This, needless to say, was upsetting too. But it was so beguiling that I forgave him and spent hours listening as he played, at a moment’s notice, whatever tune I’d put forward as a challenge, but in the counterpoint of Bach. I tried everything from Happy Birthday to You, to Yesterday, but Adrian, like my father, drew the line at Kiss and Foreigner and claimed not to know the songs Beth and Waiting for a girl like you.
Shortly after Adrian had granted himself a degree and enrolled in a doctoral programme in Computer Science—a programme he would later abandon in disgust—he met Samantha, a mousy woman doing a doctorate in Music. How this happened was never revealed. But Samantha had access to a harpsichord that stood in the basement of the university concert hall, the Aula, and that’s what mattered. Through Samantha, Adrian would gain access to this harpsichord and finally be able to practise Bach the way Bach did.
“She’s given me this key,” he announced when he’d brought us to a side door at the back of the Aula, behind the coffee shop where we always met. The hall was used daily by music students and now and then for debates and graduation ceremonies, and so Adrian added, “It opens onto the stage. Be quiet.”
He unlocked the door and eased it open gingerly, but there was no one around. We crossed the stage, on which stood a lone grand piano, and descended into the basement beneath it using a spiral stairway on the opposite side.
“She says I can come and practise as long as no one knows,” Adrian beamed when we came to the harpsichord.
The harpsichord was a thing of beauty, longer than I’d ever imagined, with two rows of keys.
“Are you fucking this Samantha?” Jack asked abruptly.
We would find out many years later that Adrian had always been gay, something we had been too obtuse to even notice.
“No,” Adrian waved the suggestion away. “But I like her.”
“She sure likes you,” I said. “You know, giving you a key and all that. Letting you use this.”
“I don’t think so,” Adrian said after what looked like careful consideration. “She’s just impressed that I could teach myself to play, that’s all.”
Over the next year, as Adrian mastered the harpsichord, Samantha became less impressed. Their friendship began to deteriorate. We found out because Adrian would drop subtle hints or sigh, and then explain how one thing or another wasn’t quite the way it had been. It was clear to us that he had done to her what he had done to his Applied Mathematics lecturer, and had overshadowed her work with his raw talent.
“She’s just stressed,” he said. “Her thesis is at a difficult point, and she hasn’t performed in a long while.”
“She’s stressed because of you,” Jack remarked.
“She’s asked for the key,” Adrian added glumly.
“But I’ve made a copy.”
Now Adrian could only practise on weekends, or very late at night, whenever he was sure that Samantha would not be around. His musical career had gone underground.
“I’m playing in a basement,” he sniffed a few months later, unamused.
“You’re the Jane Austen of music,” Jack said.
Adrian smiled by moving his ears. “It shouldn’t be this way,” he complained. “Music should be elevated above human pettiness.”
“Nothing is elevated above human pettiness,” I said. “It’s our highest achievement.”
“Playing on the synthesiser is not the same,” Adrian sighed and waved me away. “I need to play on the harpsichord.”
Instead of being thankful for what time he could get on the harpsichord, Adrian became increasingly enraged by the indignity of having to sneak around. One afternoon, in the Aula coffee shop, he started again. “I’m playing Bach for fuck’s sake,” he said, visibly exercised by the novelty of using the words Bach and fuck in the same sentence.
“So what?” Jack retorted with some irritation. “Who cares if you’re playing Beethoven’s eardrum?”
Adrian looked at Jack as though he had just noticed him for the first time.
“Where’s she now?” Jack asked before Adrian could recover.
“Your mother,” Jack said loudly. “Samantha.”
Adrian blanched. “She’s practising on the stage piano,” he hesitated. “Why?”
“How do you know?”
“I heard her,” Adrian said sheepishly. “I listened outside the stage door before I came here. She’s probably rehearsing for some recital.”
“Then let’s go,” I said.
“Let’s go talk to her.”
“Now,” Jack said, pulling Adrian out of his chair.
“But—” Adrian protested as we frogmarched him from the coffee shop.
“But what must I say?” Adrian asked when we came to the stage door.
We could just make out the third fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier being played inside. Samantha was playing it as Mozart might have, exploiting what the piano allowed but the harpsichord hadn’t in Bach’s day.
“Go on,” Jack said and gave Adrian a little shove. “Open up.”
“But what must I say?” Adrian pleaded again. “It’s crap. Listen!”
“Think about the harpsichord,” I said.
Adrian fumbled in his pocket and produced the key he had cut. “I’ll wait until she’s nearer the end,” he explained, holding up a stipulating finger. “And you two wait out here.”
We all knew the fugue well. At the last few measures, Adrian inserted the key into the lock, turned it, and eased open the door. A sliver of afternoon sun fell across the darkened stage and across Samantha, who sat with her back toward us, hunched over the piano in the coda of the fugue. When her fingers came away from the keys, Adrian opened the door all the way and marched onto the stage.
“Bravo!” he roared, applauding loudly, striding along like a stork. “Encore!”
Then he stopped. The pianist had not turned around and seemed to arch away from the sound of his voice. It was also clear now that it was not Samantha, but a man. To his left, almost invisible in contrast with the bright wedge of sunlight that fell across the stage, was a rather large audience.
A few days later Adrian was forced to return the key he’d made and was formally banned from the Music Department and all its buildings forever. Barging onto the stage during a post-graduate recital—Samantha and other doctoral students were reinterpreting composers in the style of later movements—was an unthinkable violation of all things civilised. Shortly after, I visited my parents for a Sunday lunch. My father had long before given up on the idea of meeting Bach at the piano, and had instead put on the only recording of the three violin concertos that he believed to do them justice—the 1962 recording by David and Igor Oistrakh—which now played in the living room.
“Is this the same Adrian you told me about a while ago?” he asked, wiping his glasses after a good laugh.
“Jesus,” my father sighed and sat back in his chair. “Play it again, Sam.”