PseudoPod 769: Songs in a Lesser Known Key
From the author, “I’ve played saxophone and clarinet in big bands for more years than I care to admit to. And while I have performed Artie Shaw’s Nightmare once or twice (and as far as I know the audiences have largely survived the experience) I’ve never yet inflicted Gloomy Sunday on any of them. If I ever take the risk, and we all come out of it unscathed, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
Songs In A Lesser Known Key
by Mike Wood
I’m head down on the Formica-topped table beside the coffee machine, and I’m groaning. The band are taking five. Anne nudges my elbow. Anne’s our pianist.
“Don’t let Ralph get to you, Ed,” she says. “He’s an arse. He can’t help it.”
I sit up, lean back in my seat, and try to shake off the image of Ralph, bright red, screaming in my face, spit flying… Over a key signature for God’s sake.
“I’ve had it with this musical director shit, Anne. If it’s not Psycho Ralph, it’s the band’s finances. I still haven’t told the guys that I can only pay the leads for the next few gigs; the others will have to do it for the love. What they gonna say?”
I put my hand in my pocket and fish out my reed trimmer. It’s an obsession, the constant trimming, trying to get crap reeds to speak properly. The reed I’m using today is dull, needs work. I have a little pocketknife, very sharp, flat-bladed on one side, curved on the other for getting the reed’s profile just right.
Anne watches me for full on a minute. “You always start with the whittling when you’re stressed,” she says.
“It’s not whittling. The reed’s… Oh, I don’t know. You think I’m stressed? Well, yeah… I should sack Ralph. Downsize the bastard. Except where am I going to find another first trumpet who can hit screech notes like he does? And Molly: She and Ralph come as a set.”
Molly’s our singer. She’s the opposite of Ralph. While he’s built like a street brawler, she’s breakable, brittle as eggshells, porcelain-white completion, raven-black hair, voice of a Skylark.
“Could be it’s this new number that’s got Ralph rattled. Gloomy Sunday. Maybe he’s heard the story,” says Anne.
Gloomy Sunday’s a chart I picked up as part of a job lot from a band down in London. Band leader had died so his wife put the whole library on eBay. Three hundred and twenty numbers for forty quid. Not a bad deal.
Anne’s still talking. “They call it the Hungarian Suicide Song,” she says.
“And you’re going to tell me all about it, aren’t you,” I say, with a sigh. Having Anne in the band is like having our own musicology historian. She has a backstory to every chart in the pad.
“Not if you don’t want to hear.”
“Jesus, don’t you go all stroppy on me. If it’s this tune that’s put a worm up Ralph’s ass, I want to know. Tell me.”
“Well, story goes, the song was written by Rezs? Seress, a Hungarian Jew who spent the second world war in Nazi death camps.”
“So, it’s a sad song.”
“Very. Original title, from the Hungarian, was End of the World, so yeah, it’s sad. After the war Rezs? had no money. He couldn’t collect any royalties for the song because he’d have had to go to America for them. He committed suicide.”
“Suicide?” It’s Honey, joining us at the coffee machine. Honey is our lead Alto sax. Honey Potts. She insists it’s her real name.
“No straightforward suicide, this,” says Anne. “He did it twice. First he jumped out of a window, and survived. Then later, in hospital, he strangled himself on a telephone cord.”
“Ah, that suicide song?” says Honey. “I’ve heard of it. This is Ed’s new chart?”
“Yeah, but there’s more,” says Anne. “Billie Holiday recorded it a few years later. Became a big hit.”
“And then it got banned,” says Honey.
“That’s an urban myth,” says Anne.
I sit up straight. “Wait, it got banned? Why’d they ban it?”
“Multiple suicides,” says Anne. “A whole bunch of them across America. Some over here too. But it’s hearsay. They were all meant to have this song in common, Gloomy Sunday.” She waves her piano part. “The records – back then they’d be those old seventy-eights – kept turning up at the scene, left spinning on gramophones with that game-over, shush-shush-shushing sound. Gloomy Sunday was the last thing the kids heard before they topped themselves.”
I want to know more but I’m aware of Steve, our tenor sax, attracting my attention.
“Boss, ready to go.” He’s been to get his oboe from home – didn’t even know he played oboe – and he’s running up and down a few scales. They call the oboe an ill wind that nobody blows any good, but Steve really can play that thing.
I break up our little coffee machine gathering. The conversation’s taken a dark turn. Anne’s voice has gone all crypt-like. Time for some music.
I call the others back together, check they’re ready to go, lift my arm… then, just as they’re taking an in-breath a thought occurs, so I let my arm drop again.
“Just one thing. When we’ve played this. If anyone feels, I don’t know, a bit low in spirits, kind of down, like they might want to shuffle off this mortal coil, you speak to me first, okay?” And I add, “Except for Ralph. Ralph, don’t mind us, you just go right on ahead with the shuffling, yeah?”
Ralph gives me the finger.
I lift my arm again. “Three, four…”
Steve’s straight in with his oboe, a strange intro that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Arabian market. It’s only eight bars, but it’s worth waiting for. He could have done it on tenor but it wouldn’t have had the same haunting tone. Now it’s my turn on clarinet. I like doing Artie Shaw numbers, he had a special sensitivity for the middle range of the instrument. I have to admit, this key, for all its weirdness, feels right, even though it’s a bastard to read. I do a chorus of the tune. I’m deep into what this music’s saying. It’s serious stuff. There’s a funny little two-bar insert from the trombones, out of place but kind of right, and… I look up at the sound of a bass clarinet. Ben’s put aside his baritone sax to treat us to another bit of unusual instrumentation. We’re getting the full works in this number. My turn for another chorus. I’m a bit freer this time around, but I swear, I don’t know if it was Anne’s creepy tale or what, but I’m getting serious goosebumps up and down my back.
It’s a long intro. I look over to Molly who steps up to the mic, and… bloody hell, the lyrics. Talk about dark. It’s a song about a funeral. A lament for a lost love. At the end there’s… have I heard right? A suicide pact? No mistake. How did they get away with this stuff in, what was it? 1933?
The song comes to an end. There’s silence, and it’s hanging there. A spell. No-one knows what to say.
Molly, still at the mic, is first to give form to our thoughts, to put it into a word.
Molly never swears. Ever. She’s the anti-Ralph. Is it the shock of hearing that word coming from her mouth? If Ralph had said it, none of us would have even noticed. Is that why it had to be Molly, who never even says gosh, damn or darn, who is the only one amongst us with the capacity to turn the dial from zero to eleven in a single syllable? I don’t know. But cold shivers don’t come close to a description of the ice and dark dread that have fallen on me since that last note faded.
“Sorry,” says Molly after a moment. She realises what she’s just said. She goes red in the face and walks off to the side of the stage, one hand over her mouth.
“Song’s got power. I’ll give it that,” I say. “Not sure I like it; kind of messes with your head, and… well, what Molly said. But we’ll put it in the programme tonight.”
The rest of the rehearsal goes well enough, but I can tell, all our minds are elsewhere. If ever a song could be said to be haunting, it’s that Gloomy Sunday. Part of me wants to gather it in off the stands, take it out back and burn the bloody thing. But I can’t do that. Because I want to hear it again. I want to play that haunting clarinet line, hear Molly sing those lyrics. It has got right under my skin and despite all the bleak thoughts that have shaken loose I just don’t want the feelings to stop. And something’s telling me not to touch the key. I don’t have perfect pitch, and so for me, whatever key we choose, it shouldn’t matter. But I sense I have to leave it alone, even the bizarre transpositions, six sharps and a double sharp, on reeds and trumpets.
Do not touch! Feels like a command. Stupid as this might sound, insane key or not, I sense I might be tampering with something dark if I mess about with it.
I take a headcount. Just fifty in the audience and there’s only five minutes to go before kick off. Maybe I should encourage them to get up and dance at some point. We don’t do dances but a few warm bodies moving around might give the night an injection of atmosphere. We’ll need it; we’re doing three consecutive Fridays here at the Empire Suite, and we could use something to get the word out. With a turnout like this I’ll have to cut all the band’s pay. We just don’t have enough money left in the kitty.
We kick off with something full of life, a Kenton number, Malaguena. It’s big, brash, and it’s loud. An exciting chart. The band makes a good job of it, better than usual, but I can sense a wall between us and the audience. I should face reality. You can’t make money from big bands in the twenty-first century. I was born too late. Should have been around in the nineteen forties when people listened. Those audiences died a decade or more ago.
A couple of Basie numbers move the audience engagement down from one on the dial into minus digits. The roar of background conversation and clinking glasses is louder than the band. I feel an urge to shout something into the mic, like, shut the hell up and listen to the music!
“Guys, let’s put the new one up next,” I say. “Maybe it’ll remind them there’s a band in the room.”
We play Gloomy Sunday.
We get their attention.
But they don’t clap. It’s not nice when an audience doesn’t applaud. This is different though. We’re taking them somewhere new. The three couples who got up to dance just stop in their tracks. They’re standing, holding hands. Watching. Listening.
I have the band play Begin the Beguine next, a cheery number that should lighten the mood. But it doesn’t sound cheery. In the new context it sounds… ironic? Is that a thing?
After the break we play a conventional set. The audience is more attentive, but I feel they’re listening out for something that’ll reconnect them to what they heard in the first half.
They go home disappointed but in a contemplative mood. I’ve never seen that in an audience before, at least not a swing band audience. They put on their coats and filter out as though leaving a philosophy lecture. One, a young woman in her twenties, breaks away from a small group and approaches the bandstand.
“Excuse me? You’re here again next Friday, yeah?”
I tell her we are. Same time. Bring some friends.
“Will you be playing that song again? The sad one? The Sunday song?”
“Yes, we can play it if you want us too.”
She rejoins her group, passes on the message, and they all nod with solemn enthusiasm. I don’t know what to think.
We had two paid gigs in the week. Weddings. We didn’t play Gloomy Sunday. I guessed it wasn’t the right song for a wedding. Remember that song they played at our wedding? The miserable one about the lovers? One died, the other followed?
Today, Friday, the audience at the Empire Suite are waiting for the band to arrive. The hall isn’t full, but I stop counting at two hundred. Lot more young kids, too. Teenagers. What’s changed to make that happen? Could it be some new TV advert, like when the quirky Guinness ad had everyone asking us to play Guaglione. Or has some teen idol gone and covered a forties song that’s caught the wave and made big bands cool again? It’s happened before and when it does you might count on getting a month or so out of it. But it isn’t either of those things. I know what they’re here for and it gives me the creeps. A sense of foreboding. I mention it to Anne.
“It’s just a tune,” she says. “The key’s dark and it’s full of chromatic harmonies and lyrics with meaning. Kids don’t get to hear real music these days. Chromatic harmony’s a novelty for them. They’re interested, that’s all.”
I shake my head. “Why now? Why this? Why after we play a cursed song?”
“Come on, Ed, you don’t believe in that cursed song rubbish, do you? If we’d sent an audience off to do themselves in, they wouldn’t be back clamouring for more, would they? Ed, it’s a good song with impassioned lyrics, that’s all.”
“Dunno, it’s more than that. I’ve played a lot of numbers in my time. Nothing like this one.”
“Maybe it’s the key,” says Anne. “D sharp minor. Nobody writes stuff in D sharp minor, too depressing. Scriabin wrote some piano pieces in it. Bastard to play. Dreary as all hell.”
Anne plays a lot of classical stuff. She knows all about obscure composers and the psychological meanings behind keys. I pick keys that work for a singer’s vocal range, or fall under the fingers. I don’t do all that metaphysical mumbo jumbo. I don’t believe in cursed keys.
At least, I never used to.
I try to shake it off, the dark mood. There’s an audience out there. A big one. Who cares what brought them.
Gloomy Sunday does it again. Same effect. They wait through the whole set then call for an encore, but it’s a curtain call like no other. No screaming or whistling or shouts of more, more. They applaud with polite restraint, and they speak rather than shout the name of the song they want to hear again. There’s something about the way they say it that sets my nerves on edge. Less a curtain call, more an occultist chant.
What the hell is happening? On all levels this feels wrong. Very wrong. But I get the guys to play it again.
And again. Jesus, I’m beginning to hate this song. Hate is the wrong word. Too mild. What I feel is skin-crawling fear mixed with morbid fascination, much like the urge that makes you slow down and rubber-neck when you spot an accident on the opposite side of the motorway. Gloomy Sunday is like a bad car wreck with blood and severed body parts. I don’t want to see any of it, so why am I slowing the car and looking anyhow?
I can’t stop. I’ll be back for more Gloomy Sunday and so will they.
They’ll get more, too. I’ve had an idea. I’ll have work to do during the week though.
Our third Friday is a sell out.
And we have a new song.
Artie Shaw could be a depressing bastard at times. Something to do with having eight wives? I don’t know. But it wasn’t just Gloomy Sunday; his signature tune was a chart called Nightmare. Shaw went all out for the horror, noir effect, and with Nightmare he delivered it in spades. But Nightmare was written in A minor. I decided to call Anne in the week.
“Anne, it’s Ed. What’s A minor like?”
“You know, all that musicology/psychology shit. D sharp minor is despair and anguish. D major’s all happy pills. So what’s A minor?”
Anne thought about it. “I suppose, something in between. The key of A minor is quite sweet. A little plaintive maybe, but… I don’t know. Tender?”
That was good enough for me. My take on Nightmare was going to be a long, long way from tender. A trans-continental road trip away. I’ve rescored it, shifted all the parts up by an augmented fourth – a tritone, the devil’s interval as some call it – which moves it into our new favourite death key, D sharp minor. Ralph will give me shit for putting another tune onto the stand in that key, but he can lump it. I want this.
I’m at the front of the stage setting up the mics. The hall is already full, with fifty more waiting outside in the rain. I feel a touch on my arm. It’s Molly.
“Don’t play that song tonight, Ed.” She looks paler than ever. Her eyes are rimmed as though she’s been crying. “Is not good. Please. Don’t play song.” She has an accent, Polish. It doesn’t often show, but tonight it’s strong. And the way she stresses please, she means it.
“A lot of people have come along to hear Gloomy Sunday. They’ll be disappointed, Molly.”
“You be disappointed,” she says, an edge to her voice. She sounds almost aggressive, a trait she’s picked up from Ralph perhaps, but one I’ve never heard before. “Please, Ed. Do not play song.” She turns and melts back into the gloom at the side of the stage.
I’m tempted to heed her advice. I like Molly. More than “like” if truth be known. But I don’t respond to threats, not from Ralph when he’s in my face, and not from anybody else. What the hell did she mean, I’d be disappointed? I’ve lost all my previous foreboding about Gloomy Sunday. Damn thing has grown on me. Seeing the take from last week has helped me come to terms with the song. It’s doing good things for us. I’ll be paying bonuses out to the band and it’s been a few years since I’ve been able to do that.
And tonight’s audience. When did we last play to a crowd this size? I sense the Ed Elland swing band will be reaching out for bigger things. We’ve started a meme or something.
Opening number, Here’s That Rainy Day. A ballad, not a depressing song, but the right sentiment to use as a teaser. It goes down well. They know what’s coming.
Gloomy Sunday. Second number. Why wait? Hitting them straight after that subdued opening works. We have them. There’s a mood in the room that’s thick as an old London smog, the kind you used to be able to see, not the invisible killer of today.
I don’t need to look down at the music. I know it. Hell, it’s a part of me. The clarinet is almost playing itself, leading me ever deeper down dark, dripping passages. I watch their faces while I play. It’s like they’re in a trance.
Molly steps onto the stage. Is it an illusion or has she become even paler, thinner, more frail? The song, it’s getting inside her, too. She’s the one who has to sing the words. Uncomfortable words. I feel something. A pang of guilt? No, can’t let that happen. She’s a band member. Nothing more to me than that.
Third number. My new take on Nightmare. Yes, that key change works, is inspired. There’s black sorcery being woven tonight by eighteen musicians, and I’m at the centre of it. I can feel the power. I never use a baton, just my hands – batons are for the bow tie and tails brigade – and I sense there is satanic energy coming from my fingertips as I steer the band through a labyrinth of darkness.
Shouts from the audience. They love it. They want Nightmare again.
“Don’t turn that one over, guys, we’ll play it again.”
A hand on my arm. It’s Anne.
“What are you doing, Ed?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to play the same two tunes, over and over? Come on, Ed, snap out of it. Go back to the set list. Please.”
“Just sit down and play the damn piano, Anne. This is my band.”
We play In The Mood. A foot tapper, to appease Anne. But the audience don’t want to tap. They want despair.
Yes, it’s caught a hold of me, too. Damn song’s choking me. I want to play it again. I need to play it? Some of the band, not just Anne, are looking… what? Disturbed? Anxious?
But the audience wants Gloomy Sunday. Again. Well they shall have it.
Steve’s keening oboe. He’s gone from Arabian market to something that lurks in tarnished lamps and baskets of yellow-eyed snakes. Then I’m playing my part and the clarinet is me; I am the clarinet. Is it coincidence that the two prominent instruments in this song, the oboe and clarinet, are black and phallic?
Where’s Molly? She isn’t on stage. She’s missed her entrance. I take another eight bars. I catch Anne’s eye. Where’s Molly? Anne shrugs. I notice, up on the back line, only three trumpets. Ralph is missing too. What the hell has got into everyone tonight? Then I see Molly at the edge of the stage. Her face is blank. Her eyes wide. I make an angry gesture. Get on stage and sing. She shakes her head. There are tears streaming down her face.
I lean into Steve. “Take another oboe chorus. Mix it up.”
As I reach Molly, she is trembling.
“Molly, do the song.”
“Ed, it’s Ralph.”
“I don’t give a shit about Ralph. I’ll deal with him later. Sing the song.”
“He’s dead. He’s… there’s a rope…”
I glance backstage where she’s pointing. I see a shape in the shadows, swinging. For a moment, just a moment, it stops the breath in my lungs. I take a step onstage. I must stop the band. It’s what a normal person would do.
But a voice tells me no. A cold, demanding voice. The people want to hear the song. I want to hear the song.
“Molly, sing. We finish the set.”
“Jesus, Ed. Ralph…”
“Is dead. He can wait. Sing the song.”
“Fucking sing it, Molly!”
My voice is loud, harsh. It carries and I see worried expressions from the band. They’re looking at me, as though… what? As though I’m different? I’m not different, I’m their bandleader. Bandleaders lead.
I lower my voice to a threatening whisper. “Get out there, now, and sing!”
I don’t recognise my own voice. Do I even know that Ralph is dead? He might need help. Someone has to call an ambulance. Police. But I know from the way Ralph swings, back and forth, leaden. He swings the way some classical musicians swing trying to play jazz, like old meat on a hook. Ralph can wait. Some things are more important.
The song is more important.
Steve finishes his noodling on oboe and looks up at Molly, standing out there at the mic, alone. She sings the first line and she’s visibly crumbling, as though a terrible weight is pressing down on her with each word sung.
She chokes. The band play, wide-eyed, watching Molly, not their parts. She snatches for words between sobs.
At the part where the lyric tells of her love, taken by the black coach of sorrow, she grabs the mic for support but crumples to her knees. Her eyes look out, beseeching. It is the performance of a lifetime. I notice how some, out in the auditorium, have mirrored her and fallen to the floor themselves, but I’m not watching them, I’m watching Molly, sweet Molly. She finishes the verse. Her lost love will never be returned by the angels of death. Will they be angry if she chooses to join him in darkness?
And just like that, she’s gone. Can raw emotion do that? Suck the life right out of a person? Can a person die from sheer force of will? I know they can. In the way I knew that Ralph was dead I know that Molly is too. What used to be Molly is now just a decorative heap artfully arranged on the stage. There’ll be no more encores, tonight nor any other.
There’ll be questions – from the hall manager, the police… from my band – for what I just did. But what did I do? I made her sing. And do I care? No. The music guided me, still has me in its grasp. Every movement, every thought.
I slip a hand into my jacket pocket where there’s something cold and vital waiting, just for me. With a thumb I flip open the blade of the reed trimmer. So sharp, the merest stroke can pare down the dullest reed, one micron at a time, and breathe life into it. So too can it take away. Time for some cutting, whittling as Anne would say.
About the Author
Mjke’s short stories – horror, sci-fi and fantasy – have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Analog, Baen’s Universe and Intergalactic Medicine show. He’s a past winner of both Writers of the Future and the Jim Baen Memorial contest. Mjke’s longer fiction includes Deep Space Accountant, the first in his three-book Sphere of Influence series, and he’s currently putting the finishing touches to a stand-alone novel, Old Man in a Spacesuit, which he expects to be released later this year. Mjke lives on the Wirral, UK, with his wife, Sarah, a botanical artist.