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Asimov's Science Fiction Analog Science Fiction & Fact

Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected
Steven Popkes

Steven Popkes has been attempting to play music since he was four. He considers himself a determined, gifted amateur, except for the gifted part. He’s a software engineer and continues to experiment on how to grow bananas in New England.

 

 

A window opened up on the active wall and I stared at it. Rosie stared back.

“Hello, Jacob.” She smiled. The always unexpected dimples on each cheek and that bright, bright smile. A nose so thin it whistled when she was excited. Not beautiful. Not pretty. Compelling. Like a volcano or a ruined city or the Texas plains or a magnificent catastrophe. Beauty just isn’t a consideration. You’re witness to something amazing.

“It’s good to see you.” As if she’d just returned from shopping instead of reappearing in my life after twelve years of silence.

A jumble of memories and impressions struck me like a brick. Meeting her backstage in Brockton. The feel of her skin, the warmth of her breath, the smell of her. Singing back in Massachusetts. My band, Persons Unknown—me, Jess, Olive, and Obi. Stoned and laughing at the DeCordova. Release of “Don’t Make Me Cry.” Money. Fights. Letterman. Buying this house. The long tour scheduled from Boston to Los Angeles. That wonderful last night on the way to Ohio. The fight in Cleveland. Our breakup in St. Louis. The breakup of the band in Denver.

She wiggled a finger at me. “You and I need to talk.”

“Off,” I said and she winked out.

I sat there, breathing hard, my hands shaking. I started to pick up the coffee cup, realized I was going to make a mess and put it down again. The call alert sounded.

“Fuck you,” I snarled. I knew I’d answer it if I stayed. I grabbed a pair of shoes and hurried outside. I pulled them on and ran out the back on the trail. My earbud buzzed and I tossed it in the dirt.

Twenty acres of scrub just means when you get to the edge of your property you can still see your house, if the land is flat and in the desert. I was surrounded by public land on three sides. So far, only the ever approaching green cloud of Greater Los Angeles had been able to reach me. So far.

I sat down on an old volcanic boulder heaved here back when dinosaurs were still sitting around playing cards and waiting for the meteor to hit. I looked around the shady crevices for rattlesnakes. It was spring but an early emergent wasn’t unheard of. It was already hot but not uncomfortable. Unlike Boston, out here in California sweat works.

Eventually, I calmed down. After all, I thought. It’s been twelve years—almost thirteen. She must have a good reason to call me now. To mess with you again, I said to myself. Not necessarily. And it had been a long time. We were different people. I was a recluse living in a rotting house that the bank and state would someday fight over. She was probably a successful . . . well, something. Rich, probably. Doing something important. World famous—wouldn’t I have heard of her? Have you ever looked her up? No. I hadn’t. Not that I didn’t want to, but it felt too much like an addict returning to the drug. I was happy now.

Really?

I forcefully told myself to shut up.

Okay. We were adults, right? We could converse like adults.

I made my way back to the house. Found the bud lying next to the front door. I inspected it for wildlife. It was clean. I put it in.

I went back to my coffee. Cold as it was, this time I drank it down without spilling it. “Okay.” Grover, my house AI, figured out what I meant.

Rosie popped up again on the wall. “As I said: we need to talk.”

“Why?” I didn’t know if I was asking why she called now or why she had left.

“Got a song doctor gig for you to think about. A good one with lots of promise.”

I didn’t know what to say. “This is a . . . professional call?”

“I suppose it could also turn into studio work. You’re still doing studio work, aren’t you, Jake?”
“Sometimes. Are you representing musicians these days?” I felt suddenly very tired.

“I’m doing a favor for a friend.” She cocked her head to one side. “Besides, this is what you do, isn’t it? Pull musical order out of creative chaos? The price is very attractive.”

“I can’t—” I shook my head. I remembered how so often I felt at sea with Rosie. Always trying to catch up.

“Look,” she said, suddenly sympathetic. “I know you’ve had a rough time. Behind on the mortgage, right?”

“And the taxes.”

“Christ! The State of California is not someone you want to owe money to.” She took a deep breath. “My point is you need the money. A single song, Jake. That’s all. It’ll pay back the state and even bring the mortgage up to date.”

I loved this house: two stories, a couple of bedrooms on plenty of land far enough from Greater Los Angeles that the price had been screamingly ridiculous instead of obscene. It has its own power, water and sewer—I was paranoid about the end of the world when I bought it. Twelve years ago the world seemed a lot more precarious. Back before I blew any remaining money on riotous living. But it fit me. Kitchen. Bath. A couple of guest rooms, an office, and my bedroom. Nice studio in what would be the living room: high cathedral ceiling, good acoustics, and an active surface along the whole eastside wall. Enclosed and far from the crowd. My house. My house. “I guess,” I said slowly.

“Great. I’ll shoot you over a contract. This is going to be fun.”

“But—”

She had already disconnected. A moment later Grover flagged the packet and okayed the contract. I sighed and had him put it up on the wall.

A set of pages that ran the length of the wall at my eye height. I walked alongside reading it. “Downbeat Heart.” One song. Ten pages. Musical notes. Not techno tablature or vague demonstration melody. Actual musical notes. And not just vocal lines and a sketchy guitar accompaniment. These were full score sheets. Every sheet had vocal, guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum lines—at one point in the bridge tympani were called for. Tympani? Keyboards sections had synthesizer settings referring to frequency and sound envelope definitions. There was an appendix with suggested synthesizer models and a map of the envelope settings for each device.

It was a curious tune. A little three beat arpeggio in a four beat base. Odd. Take your right hand and tap out a 1-2-3 beat. Take your left hand and tap out a 1-2-3-4 beat at the same time. The right hand catches up to the left hand every twelve beats. It’s not a new idea, but it’s rare in pop music. It was clearly written for a divaloid—a long glissando up into parts of the audio spectrum only dogs could appreciate. Like someone had taught hummingbirds to sing. Drivel written by rich but untalented fans that would need far more than a complete rewrite to make it remotely listenable, much less performed by a software perfectionist. From the range and the run, I guessed the love interest of the composer was Dot. It was a sort of signature with her and she had the biggest fan base.

My interest faded right off the map.

Okay, I thought. Written on SynthaChord or ProMusica. Professional systems suggested deep pockets. A very rich divaloid fan. With delusions of grandeur.

But money was money. A contract was a contract. Rosie was Rosie.

I found myself playing the song back in my mind. First in one key. Then another. Faster. Slower. Change the key half way through. Fitting in different words. Adding a drum beat and a different guitar back up. Inverting the chorus. Play it backward. Inside out.

Okay. I was prejudiced. It was better than a Dot song.

Along around midnight I packaged up the whole thing and sent it off to Rosie with an invoice. Payment came in an hour later. Grover turned it around and sent it off to the banks and the State of California. The money was no more than a little loop of electrons into my account and out.

It had been more fun than I expected. I was even vaguely depressed it was over.

Tomorrow I had to nail the photovoltaic shingles back down. Or fix the composting toilet. Who in their right mind wanted to fix a composting toilet?

I took comfort in the knowledge I wasn’t going to be evicted for another month and went to bed.

Around dawn I heard something downstairs.

I turned on the light and listened. I didn’t hear anything. Thinking I had been dreaming I started to turn the light back off when I heard it again. A scraping. A muttering.

I left the bedroom and stood looking down the stairs, listening. Again.

No cops: there’d be an hour before they got out here. I rummaged in my closet until I found an ancient softball bat. Then, as quietly as I could, I eased downstairs.

I smelled coffee and cigarettes.

Rosie was sitting at the table next to the active wall, a keyboard in her lap. There were a few displays up showing things I didn’t understand. Behind her on the other table was a set of four open computer cases plugged into the data ports.

She was wearing a light colored suit with charms and bangles and bracelets hanging everywhere: arms, wrist, shoulders. Rosie rang like bells as she typed. Even from here, she smelled of cigarette smoke, and the aroma brought out a whole collection of memories. From the time I’d met her I’d been attracted to women who smoked. She wore reading glasses that, God help me, I found unbearably attractive.

She stopped typing and watched a display, the smoke from her cigarette curling quietly upward.
“How did you get in here?” I put the bat down on the table and sat across from her.

She tapped a key and all of the displays disappeared from the wall. Rosie pulled a tablet from the table with the cases and looked at it. “You gave me a key when you bought the place, remember? Just before the last great tour of Persons Unknown.”

“Twelve years ago.”

“And you never changed the locks.” She looked at me across her coffee. “What does that tell you?”

“That it’s time to change the locks.” I felt cornered. Constrained. Boxed in. I waved at the cases. “What are you doing here?” I snarled.

She took off her reading glasses. “My client liked what you did with ‘Downbeat Heart.’ Did you?”
The answer was yes. The more I thought about it the more I liked both the song and what I had done with it. Working on that song was far more fun than it should have been. It felt like water in the desert. What did that say about me?

“Musical order out of creative chaos. What’s not to like?” I felt defeated. “Even if it was music for Dot.”

“You figured that out on your own.”

“The glissando gave it away.”

“I expect it did.” She looked down, gathering her thoughts.

“Why did you send it to me?”

She looked away and back at the screen. “The client. Frankly, you weren’t my first choice.”
I exhaled. I didn’t realize I’d been holding my breath. “I see. Who’s the composer?”

Rosie nodded toward the wall. A small figure materialized, barely five feet tall, pale with short jet-black hair, big blue eyes, and tiny mouth instantly recognizable. Dot smiled at me. “Good morning, Mister Mulcahey.”

Rosie was watching me. “Jake? Meet your client.”

I stared at the two of them. Then I walked over to the main breaker box and pulled the master circuit. The entire room went dark. Dot and Rosie disappeared into darkness.

Rosie didn’t say anything for a moment. “Mature, Jake. Real mature.”

I heard her fumbling in the dark. A moment later light came from her hand. “Did I ever tell you the time I was consulting for Peabody Coal back east?” She passed the spot of light over me. “Always have a flashlight.” She looked into cases. “Gig taught me to always use buffered power supplies, too.” Rosie walked over to the breaker box and turned it back on again. After a moment, Dot reappeared on the wall.

Rosie found a chair and sat down. “What’s this all about?”

“Have you ever listened to her?”

“More than you would think.”

“If she weren’t wholly owned and controlled by Hitachi—”

“Don’t explain it to me.” Rosie gestured toward Dot. “Explain it to her.”

“What would be the point?”

“Indulge me.”

I looked at Dot. She was watching me. She didn’t look a day over sixteen.

“You’re a whore,” I said and stumbled. Not something I could say easily to an image my brain kept telling me was a young girl. “That is, if you weren’t wholly owned and controlled by Hitachi. That makes you a tool. A mechanism to find the absolute bottom, the broadest possible appeal. A vehicle to separate people from their money. You’re merchandise, easily purchased. Easily used. You’re easy listening. Music is supposed to make you feel. It’s supposed to cost you something—”

“I agree.”

“What?” I stared at her for a moment. I looked at Rosie. “What’s going on?”

Rosie pointed at Dot. “Don’t let me stop you. Go on. Talk to her.”

I turned back to Dot. “You agree?”

“Can you explain to me what you did to ‘Downbeat Heart’?”

I looked at Rosie and back at Dot. When I looked at her objectively it wasn’t hard to see her as a thing: eyes so big they’d look at home on a fish. Hair black as if painted in ink with stars twinkling in it. Shoulders narrow but hips wide—as stylized as the Venus of Willendorf. But some part of me kept translating all that into human.

I tried to explain what I had done. What I always did. What I had done since I was twelve.

The lyrics were sentimental but that didn’t matter. The quality of lyrics is overrated. They depend solely on the supporting music. The Iliad would sound crappy with a disco beat but “Mary Had a Little Lamb” could be profound if fit to the right arrangement. So lyrics came second.

In this case, that triple beat arpeggio driven square into a four by four rhythm gave weight to the emotion and turned the words from trivial to powerful. The arpeggio couldn’t hold a melody on its own. The bass line kept it in the song until it was later echoed in the chorus. But it lingered over that pattern way past the point of least boredom: the full three measures. Twice. I let the pattern start then, once it was established, deviated from it by sliding across the triple with the melody line hidden in the bass. This gave the impression of a four by four but without actually leaving the triple beat and also introduced the barest hint of the melody carried by the bass line. The second repeat already had a quirky key shift for the chorus. I leaned on that and put in a strong bridge back to the main line, adding some harmony in an accompanying minor key. Finally, a long glissando across three octaves back to hold the new key into the final chorus—had to give the divaloid fan his money’s worth. The result was a musically interesting danceable pop tune.
I ran the glissando up and down on my guitar a few times to make sure it fit. Then I had Grover play the bass line while I played the vocal line to make sure they sounded like what I expected. Then I had him play the vocal line while I went through and straightened out the other instrument lines.

The new vocal line was a better fit for the lyrics. Not that the lyrics were actually bad—love unlooked for. Lots of hope. Past disappointments. The broken mending themselves. That sort of thing. I didn’t pay much attention to the content. Instead, I listened to how the words sounded together. Too forced. The imagery was too tame.

Grover served as rhyming dictionary while I punched up the imagery—hands to fingertips, shining to glittering, things like that. Making the consonants fall on the beat so the vowels could carry the melody and then making the rhymes a little more memorable. Straightforward stuff.

“Straightforward stuff,” Dot repeated and seemed to freeze for a moment.

Rosie watched her tablet closely. She typed the keyboard a moment and watched the tablet one more time.

“I understand,” said Dot, suddenly moving. “Will you work with me again?”

“With you?”

“Yes. I have a new perspective on my work. I’d like to make it better. More fulfilling. With more impact. I’d like you to help me.”

“You want me to help you. Wouldn’t that put me out of a job?”

She smiled at me. “Do you really think you’re so easily replaced?”

“How could I possibly help you?”

Rose cleared her throat. “The contract involves helping a composer bring material to completion, prepare the material for a concert and shepherd the performance. One concert. You will be very well paid. The work on the single song brought your debts up to date.” She waved around the room. “With this gig you can pay off the mortgage and fix up the house. Maybe even have something left in the bank.”

I looked at Rosie. I looked at Dot. I looked around my house.

My house.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “What else have you got? Enough for a performance? Enough for a collection?”

Across the wall appeared folder icon after folder icon. There must have been thirty songs. Forty. More.

I whistled. “This isn’t a collection. It’s an opus.” I looked at Rosie. “Rosie, what have you done?”
Rosie smiled. “You’re about to find out.”

I took time for breakfast and coffee. But Dot was just standing there, waiting for me. Rose pulled out a tablet and watched it, glancing up from time to time to watch me or Dot.
I couldn’t take everybody just waiting.

“Okay, then.” And we got to work.

I had Dot pick out the best ten songs to work on. Her choice. This was a test of her as much as anything else. I wanted to see what she thought were the best songs. We cracked them open one at a time.

None of them were Dot songs. That is, none of them were pre- to early-adolescent love songs. One, called “Waiting on You,” was about a woman waiting for her husband or lover to return from war, getting messages, texts, emails—each delayed as his deployment came to an end and he was getting close to coming home. It was filled with frantic anticipation mixed with a determination not to get her hopes up—after all, anything, including the unthinkable, could happen. The song closed with a full key change and shift from minor to major on the chorus showing unbridled joy as she found out he had safely boarded the flight home. This could have been some sort of dark depressing thing but she pulled it off in a dance tune by having the waiting woman desperately go about her day drinking coffee or buying groceries, not thinking about what was happening yet having the excitement burst through. It needed work—the desperate bursts were too smooth, and it was keyed to that damned little girl voice Dot had made famous.

Another was called “With You, Without You.” That one was about a young mother recovering from birth, in her hospital bed alone with her newborn child for the first time, talking to her about whether or not she should give her up. Ultimately, the girl decides to keep the baby and sings about making a deal with her to get through what is coming. Now that was perfect for Dot. Her audience was right in that teenage girl demographic and it was a subject people just didn’t sing about outside of country music. Dot had enough presence in the field that she could turn that liability into a novelty asset. And, for once, that damned piping voice of hers might be of use. But again, it wasn’t a Dot song.

I found myself pushing her. Let’s change the key. Move it up. Move it down. Faster. Slower.
Dot, of course, never complained. After all, she was a construction.

Until she stopped and watched me for a moment. She bit her lip.

That pissed me off. She had no lip to bite. There was nothing there but photons. “Don’t try to manipulate me,” I said coldly. “I’m not some twelve-year-old fan who bought you just to make you take your clothes off.”

Her image froze. Then she looked at me.

I knew she was watching me from a camera somewhere in the room but it seemed she was looking right at me.

“No,” she said after a moment. “You’re an arrogant and spiteful man who enjoys taking it out on anyone nearby.”

No contract was worth this.

And I was just about to tell her just that when Rosie got up. “Time for a break.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me outside.

“Don’t say a word,” she held onto my arm.

“But—”

“Not a word. Or it’ll be Denver all over again.”

“You weren’t in Denver. You left me in Saint Louis.”

She turned me and stared me in the face. “I came to the damned concert. I sat there when you came out and announced Persons Unknown had broken up and then told people to go out and buy the album since that was the only way they’d ever hear the band again. I heard you get booed off the stage. If there hadn’t been good security that night there would have been a riot. I was there.”

“Why?”

“Because I wasn’t sure. Because I thought something might happen and I felt responsible. Because—because you’re an idiot who is incapable of looking out for his own best interest.” She let me go and pulled out a cigarette.

I looked down into a smog-covered basin. Fifty miles from Los Angeles and it still drives my weather. Even here, up in the hills where the bones of the earth show through the dirt. Here where the air was still clear. If the wind shifted, that yellow green cloud would roll right over us.
Rosie lit her cigarette, donating her share to the yellow cloud below us. She looked down. “I thought the L.A. smog was licked. What’s causing it?”

I shrugged. “Cooking fires. Barbecues. Older vehicles. Power plants. Manufacturing waste. Cigarettes.”

“Oh, har. Har. Har.”

“It collects down there. This is just a bad day. It’ll blow out to sea.”

“Will it come up here?”

“Probably not.” I waved back toward the house. “What are you doing with her?”
“I’m attempting to trigger anomalous non-deterministic emergent events deriving from conflicting algorithms.”

“Beg pardon?”

She sighed. “I’m attempting to simulate creative behavior.”

“What does that have to do with Dot?”

“Hitachi owns Dot. They approached me.”

“At MIT, right?”

Rosie looked pained. “Stanford.”

“How the hell would you make something like Dot creative?”

“Does the name Konrad Lorenz mean anything to you?”

I shook my head.

“Brilliant, cruel animal behaviorist, early twentieth century. Discovered imprinting. He did one particularly noisome experiment. He’d take a dog and scare it, but prevent it from cowering or attacking. It couldn’t bite. It couldn’t bark. But he kept scaring it. The dog started grooming itself. It’s called displacement behavior.”

“So?”

Rosie looked at me as if I were dense. “It’s a novel response. The act of creation is a novel response. I was using conflicting algorithms to see if I could generate something similar—got some interesting results, too. Hitachi liked my work and hired me to instill it in Dot.”

“Whatever for?”

Rosie shrugged and inhaled. “Better performances. Less scripted interviews. Dot’s performance engine is terrific. Captures crowd perception to the millimeter. Performance analysis feedback triggers retuning of the performance. All in real time. Very sweet work. Did you know every major politician in Asia uses a derivative of Dot’s analysis program to evaluate crowd responses? The success of a tool is measured by how well it performs when it’s not doing what it was designed for.” Draw. Exhale. “But she can only perform and retune within the parameters of the scripted material—the music. They want spontaneity.” Rose smiled at me. “Hell, maybe they’re going to use my research to build a new line of pleasurebots. Force the Thai sex slave markets to close down once and for all.”

She shrugged. “Anyway, they gave me a copy of the Dot concert model—that’s the most sophisticated version—and I hooked in a Watson discrimination system as a front end to a big cloud account. I installed my own version of Dot’s volition engine with the algorithm conflict modeling software installed and a whole lot of ancillary processing hardware. She booted up writing songs.”

“Is that the result of creativity?”

Rosie considered me for a moment. “Is it the result of a genetic algorithm engineered in the light of the analyses of many performances across I don’t know how many discrete samplings of audience attention and response? Or have I made Dot an artist? You tell me.”
I shrugged. Maybe there are some musical geniuses that could discern divine inspiration. I wasn’t one of them.

Rosie looked at me for a long minute. “You look good, Jake. I really liked Virgin Melody, by the way. Nice collection.”

It gave me a warm jolt to think she’d been following my work. Distraction. I made myself ignore it. “Dot has enough songs in there for a dozen performances. Isn’t that enough to show Hitachi what you’ve done?”

She shrugged. “It’s probably enough for Hitachi. Not for me. Think of it as Schrödinger’s creativity. Until I can see inside of her I won’t know if it’s real or not.” Rosie fell silent for a moment.

“How would you know real creativity if you found it?”

“I don’t know. Or care. I just want to know how Dot does it.”

We watched the green under the blue.

“I’m sorry I lost my temper.” I said quietly. “After a while you forget the too pale skin and the unnatural black hair and the blue eyes big enough for a fish. You forget she’s just modeling software and think of her as human.”

“Do you know what a Turing Test is?”

“No.”

“Alan Turing. He said there was no good way to define or demonstrate artificial intelligence but what we could do was see how well a system could imitate a human being. He posited two people communicating with only a keyboard and a screen. If you could substitute a system for one end of the communication link and the human on the other end couldn’t tell the difference then the system had succeeded. A lot of people took that idea and ran with it, thinking if you couldn’t tell the difference, there was no difference.”

“If you play music with a machine and forget who you’re playing with, is it human?”

Rosie shook her head. “There’s no way to tell—that presumes behavior is the sole arbiter of the qualitative nature of the organism. That’s behaviorism. Behaviorism says that the experiential nature of an organism—or, more correctly, that the internal state of the organism—isn’t relevant. If you have a robot that mimics human behavior in every way, is it human? Many would say yes. I don’t think so.” Rosie watched the green haze in the valley a moment. “She’s experiencing something. I’m convinced of it.”

“I think so, too. From the way she pushed back.”

“She likes you.”

I stared at her. “How could you possibly know that?”

Rosie smiled. “Attention vectors. When you tell her something I get a slew of transient processing loads as she takes apart what you’re saying. That’s expected. But when she’s just observing you there are bursts of transients at regular intervals attending to her modeling you rather than what you’re saying.”

“How do you get from that to her liking me?”

“Like might be the wrong word. Interest might be a better choice. You, personally, are garnering a great deal of her attention. She’ll build a model of you eventually, down to the finest jot and tittle.”

“People pay attention to things they dislike.”

Rosie shook her head. “She doesn’t like cats and hummingbirds. When she gives them her attention it’s a quick modeling computation and then that model stands in for whenever she encounters them. She only gives them attention when the object deviates from the model.”
“Maybe I’m more complicated than a cat or a hummingbird.”

“Maybe.” She held her cigarette and the smoke rose vertically in a single, wavering strand. “She gives me the same treatment as she gives cats.”

“You couldn’t possibly be jealous.”

She barked a laugh. “Hardly. I’m not surprised. I’m not a musician. I don’t understand performing. I don’t fall within her interest parameters. You do.” Rosie watched me a moment, drew on her cigarette. “You were her first and only choice. I couldn’t budge her. She wouldn’t even consider working with anybody else.” Rosie chuckled. “I’m still working on the flexibility/fixation problem.”
I thought about that. “Should I apologize?”

“Do as your conscience dictates.” She inhaled and exhaled smoke. “I have no advice. I don’t know if Dot has emotions or not. But she certainly knows that you do.”

So I humbled myself and apologized to a machine. Anything to grease the wheels of commerce. We started over.

Rosie sat in the back of the living room to observe and I stood in front of the wall when Dot appeared. The pages of “Downbeat Heart” were layered behind her so there was the appearance of the two of us standing next to one another in front of the music.

I had thought about this for a while. “You want to do a proof of concept concert, right? With a live band?”

She nodded.

“Okay, then. Delete everything but the vocal line and guitar support.”

Dot turned to me, puzzled. “What will they work from?”

“We’ll figure it out together. You’re probably smarter than me. But I suspect you’re not smarter than five people: you, the guitarist, bassist, drummer, and keyboard. Maybe a second guitar as well. We’ll have to see how it works out.”

“I don’t like it,” she said with a frown. “I have an idea—”

“Which you’re going to have to release so other people can work with it.” I thought for a moment. “This is like live theater. Director pulls together a cast. They rehearse. On opening night he has to let them go. He can’t be on the stage directing what they do, right? In fact, if he’s any good at all, he’s already done it in rehearsal. He has to do this so the cast can own their parts. It’s the same way with music. We’ll let the band come up with their own harmonies. Not completely—we’ll give them ideas, suggestions, all out of your score here. But we’ll let them develop it. It’ll be better. You’ll see. Now, sing ‘Downbeat Heart.’”

I sat back and watched as Dot sang out whatever served as her heart to me.

It was a good song and she backed her vocals with the score I’d modified and asked her to delete. I smiled at that. Maybe she wasn’t human, but I figured she was making a point. I closed my eyes and listened. Triple beat arpeggio in four/four time—came out even every three measures. That long glissando across three octaves back to hold the new key into the final chorus.

I stopped her. “Sing ‘Stardust.’ Your song, not the old jazz standard. The one you released a couple of years ago.”

“I’m trying to move away from that material.”

“You’re going to have to be able to mix old material with new material. The audience is coming to see you for two reasons: to repeat the experience they’ve had and to enjoy the novelty of new work. You’ve got to be able to manage both.”

“I can manage the performance. That’s not going to be a problem.”

“Really?”

She gave me a level gaze. “Really.”

I thought about that for a moment. Her little sixteen-year-old face watched me back. She was probably right: the Dot performance engine. “Why don’t you want to perform the old material?”
“The old material doesn’t measure up to what I can do now.”

I laughed then. “Suck it up. How many times did Eric Clapton have to sing ‘Layla’? How many times does the Berlin Philharmonic have to perform the Ninth Symphony? This is something all performers do: find what’s good in the material and lean on it to make something new.” Words Rosie had said came back to me. “The measure of a good artist is how well they turn old material into a new form. Come on: ‘Stardust,’ please.”

Dot fiddled with her hair for a moment, then nodded. I looked over to Rosie. Rosie didn’t look up from her pad.

“Okay, then,” said Dot. She sang “Stardust” for me a capella. In protest? I didn’t say anything. It served me just as well: I was interested in the vocalization. “How much control do you have of the voice envelope?”

“Total,” she said in a deep bass.

“Good. You want to keep the range—you’re known for it and all of the music I’ve seen is written for it. It strains the mind a little for a coloratura to be suddenly singing baritone. But you have to age the voice.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look at the lyrics. This woman has been around the block a few times—otherwise why should she be so nervous about it? The idea that anything is transitory and therefore suspect is not a teen concept. It’s the framework of an experienced adult. So, step one, the singer has to sound old enough for this song. But we don’t want to change the pitch of your voice, so we change the timbre. Roughen it. Punctuate it with taking breath. Exhaling. A sigh, now and then. And there has to be more variation in the notes. Young voices are pure—that’s why boys’ choirs were invented. Adult voices have more variation and are therefore richer.” I thought for a moment. “And strained. That high point where you’re jumping from C below middle C up three octaves? That’s an enormous range. There should be strain at both ends. Can you do that?”

She stood, fiddling with the curl of her hair that fell over her left ear. Over and over.

I looked over at Rosie. She was watching on her pad. “Big Watson query with heavy calculation. It’s not a loop. She’s thinking.”

Dot started moving again. “How about this?” And she sang the first four measures  of “Downbeat Heart” with that triple in four beat I had come to like so much. This was an older voice, roughened over the years with whisky and coffee.

I stared at her. She still looked sixteen. “Where did you get that?”

Dot smiled. “I sampled Janis Joplin.”

“Nice,” I said. “Lighten it some. It still has to be your voice. Work on it. Let’s leave that one for now.”

The next one had the accompanying material already removed. Only guitar and vocal harmonies were intact. Had that been in E? Now it was in B-flat. “Did you change the key?”

“Yes. I thought if I lowered the key I could stay within my normal range but give it a more mature quality.”

Jesus, she learned fast. “Hold on to the original keys until we get to the material. Then we can talk about it. Having it shift on me like that is going to drive me nuts.”

“Of course. After all, you’re only human.”

Rosie chuckled.

I looked at Dot. Had she just made a joke? Her face betrayed nothing—which shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, it was just a broad expanse of eyes, nose, and mouth. It only resembled a face because my brain insisted that anything with two circles and a line where eyes and mouth would be was a face.

She watched me.

If she’d made a joke I might never know.

We worked hard for the rest of the day. I was beat. Rosie had filled her ashtray and had circles under her eyes. Dot looked exactly the same.

“I’m done,” I said.

Rosie nodded and stubbed out her cigarette.

Dot looked first at me, then Rosie. “Good night,” she said and disappeared.
Rosie shut down her tablet and put it on the table with Dot’s equipment. “I need a drink.”
I went to the kitchen and brought back a bottle of wine and a glass. I put it in front of her.

Rosie eyed it. “You don’t have anything stronger?”

“This is for you. I don’t drink.”

“At all?”

“Not anymore.”

She poured wine into the glass. “It feels weird to be with you and drink alone.”

I shrugged.

“Why did you quit?”

“For about a year after Denver I snorted, shot, or swallowed anything I could find. One day I woke up in the ER staring at a scared intern with two electrical paddles in his hand and a deep pain in my chest. The money was gone.” I waved at the house. “This place was all I had left.”

She picked up her wine and swirled it in her glass without drinking.

I pushed the bottle toward her. “It’s okay. It doesn’t bother me at all. Honest.” I felt weighted with fatigue. “Grover? Put up the outside view, would you?”

The wall suddenly transformed into a broad window outside into the clear night. There was a faint crescent moon just visible past Rocky Peak and the stars were fine points of light. South the lights of Greater Los Angeles glowed against the sky.

Rosie gasped.

“Yeah.” I patted the table. “I love this place.”

She reached over and took my hand.

It was like touching electricity.

Then we were kissing. Then we were doing far more than that.

I met Rosie after a gig in Brockton. This was before “Don’t Make Me Cry,” my one hit wonder. I never quite grasped how we ended up in bed together that night.

Or this one.

Afterward, we were lying comfortably next to one another. I could feel the pendulous weight of her breasts against my side and belly, the warmth of her thighs against mine. Her head was snuggled against my chest so I could smell her hair but not see her face. I remembered how that had always simultaneously comforted and annoyed me. Nothing had changed there. I felt a warmth inside of me, a sense of something filled.

I didn’t want it. I’d been doing fine on my own, thank you very much.

“Rosie?”

She made a sound.

“Why are you here?”

I heard her sigh and she rolled back so she was lying on her side. “Are we going to have this conversation now?” She stared at me levelly.

“Seems as good a time as any.”

“Fine.” She sat up and leaned against the wall to look down at me. “I needed someone to teach her. That’s the problem with subjective data like music: it lives in the heads of human beings and you’re the human being I need.”

“I mean why are you here? Next to me?”

She reached over to the side table and found her purse and rummaged inside until she found her cigarettes. She put one in her mouth and lit it.

I looked at her.

“I hadn’t planned on it,” she said in a half-apology. “I certainly don’t regret lying here next to your sweet but aging body. And I certainly hadn’t decided it wouldn’t happen. I wasn’t averse if it did.”
“That doesn’t say a thing.”

She laughed. “You’re right. Fact of the matter is I didn’t think about it all that much. One of the algorithms I developed was a drive to succeed and do well. As soon as I got that established Dot brought up your name. Dot has the resources to demand the best and that’s you. The two of us didn’t enter that part of the equation.” She inhaled and breathed out smoke. It wreathed her head. “Besides,” she said. “That’s not the question you want to ask.”

She looked at me and I knew immediately what she meant. “Why did you leave?” I said.
She inhaled again. The smoke escaped her mouth as she spoke. “That was a fight, wasn’t it? Starting on where to eat dinner and then ranging across everything we’d ever done together or to each other. I could just say that fight burnt our bridges.” She puffed on the cigarette. “But it would be a lie. There was no place for me. I didn’t want to be your mistress. I didn’t want to be your groupie. I didn’t want to be your concubine.” She glanced at me with slitted eyes. “You didn’t ask me to be your wife. You had zero talent for or interest in my work and I had no ability or skill in yours. You could participate in my life or I could participate in yours: we couldn’t participate in each other’s. So I left.” She looked at me. “You never saw that?”
I shook my head.

“Interesting.” She stubbed out the cigarette. “I would have thought it was obvious. But now here’s something we can do together.” She snuggled down next to me, mouth open for a kiss, breath like a sultry dragon. “Among other things.” . . .

. . . .

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"Sudden, Broken and Unexpected" by Steven Popkes Copyright © 2012 with permission of the author.

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