Word Count: 2000
Associate Professor Charles Eppes climbed the steps to the entrance of the campus concert hall, mind on the seminar he was going to give in half an hour. It was not only his first appearance outside the classroom since he’d started teaching at CalSci two years ago, but also his first lecture to mathematicians from all across the city. And, his friend and mentor Larry Fleinhardt had gleefully informed him, from San Diego and San Francisco, not to mention the man from the University of Washington in Seattle.
He hoped he could remember what he wanted to say. He was sure he’d remember the formulas and equations, but could he remember how to explain the beauty of what he saw so that the people in the audience would see it, too?
He juggled the keys to the hall and his folder of notes, nearly dropping them all.
He finally tucked the notes under his arm, got the key in the keyhole and turned in the right direction, then pressed the lever down at the same time and pulled. The door stuck, then came open with a jerk and a squawk, and this time he did drop his notes.
He stilled his shaking hands by grabbing onto the folder, took a deep breath, and entered the cool, tiled foyer.
A faint melody floated through the air, like the dust motes caught in a ray of afternoon sunshine.
He brushed it out of his mind, trying to decide on an opening. “Ladies and gentlemen of the—” What had he been about to say, “the jury”?
“My colleagues and friends—” Except that very few were his friends, were even acquaintances, and he was afraid that not many more considered themselves colleagues of a twenty-two-year-old upstart.
He sighed and opened the door to the hall, then stopped, frozen in the entrance.
Her hands danced across the ivory keys.
The sparkling notes he’d heard out in the foyer were coming from a night-black grand piano that stood, lid open, next to the lectern and whiteboard on the stage.
The girl’s face was obscured by shoulder-length coal black hair that swung as she played. A rose-colored knit top with cap sleeves and a scoop neck was tucked into a skirt that fell to a few inches above her knees. Slender arms and legs showed long, firm muscles that flexed as she played, feet tapping the pedals lightly, hands roaming over the keyboard with a feather-light touch. She was beautiful.
At first he was entranced by the motion of her hands, wondering how it would feel to have those strong, limber fingers tapping up and down his back, but then he was caught by the waterfall of sound. The higher notes tripped lightly downward, the fingers of her right hand moving more quickly than he could see. He’d watched concerts on television and always assumed the blurred hands were from the film, but he was fascinated to discover that the human body could move so quickly, so . . . precisely. The time between each note was miniscule but absolutely regular, no matter how much of the keyboard she covered.
The waterfalls were regularly interrupted by a series of chords played on the beat that reinforced the movement of the music. She swayed on the piano stool as she played ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three . . . or was it ONE, two, three, Four, five, six? Two sets of three, and the waterfalls had – he listened carefully – four notes for each of the three?
He reached back in his memory to Mrs. Beatty’s music class, back when he was eight. As soon as he’d grasped the concept that math could exist in time, he’d loved music, even if he’d never again studied it.
Three-four time. Quarter note gets the beat, so three quarter notes per measure. The waterfalls were sixteenth notes, four per beat, twelve per measure, twenty-four per phrase. No, there were five sets of four, ending with a single quarter note.
But the waterfalls didn’t sound like math. They sounded like the streams that sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted their way down the rocky gullies of the Sierras.
She caught her breath between each phrase, as if the piano needed to breathe, too.
The chords – the one, two, Three, FOUR, Five, six – they rose and fell like an eagle soaring over a ridge three times, then gliding low over the ground. How could a series of chords – they went on with no variation in rhythm, just steady quarter notes – how could they have such shape, such movement?
Back to the waterfalls, but now more serious. Part of him recognized that the music had moved to a minor key. A simple change of one note – the third of the scale – being dropped by a half-tone, but it changed the mood. Perhaps, if he were to stay with the mountain analogy, to that of clouds gathering. Just obscuring the sun a bit, but building.
Now that he’d taken in the right hand, the lower notes played by the left hand rose in importance. One, TWO, (three, four, five) SIX. One, TWO, (three, four, five) SIX. Were they the melody? Even if in the left hand?
He forgot the lecture as he moved as quietly as possible to the last row of seats. He eased into one of the theater style chairs and set his folder on the floor, then leaned forward, elbows on knees, chin on hands, as he watched the girl moving with the music.
Another fallacy he’d picked up from the movies. The actors moved their bodies, their arms, showing that they were playing. The girl made no move that didn’t affect the music. If she leaned forward, it was to throw her weight into the keyboard with a resulting deep resonance that sang through the hall. If her arms lifted and twisted, it was to place her hands in a way that her fingers were completely free to move as they needed.
He’d seen people playing music – but the music played her.
He’d been fond of saying that music was math and physics and he knew he was right, but as he watched the girl moving through massive chords that filled the room, he knew that his definition was incomplete. Every motion she made could be measured, every choice she made in speed and in the variations of loud and soft — the dynamics — could be mathematically described. The formulas soared in his mind, begging to be seen, to exist, to be released into black marks on the white board behind the piano. Yet he resisted. He listened.
Why did she make those particular choices of loud and soft, of slight hesitation or extra emphasis? They were right, they were mathematically sound, but how did she know? As she moved toward what he recognized would be the climax of the piece, he rose and very quietly moved down the aisle to the front of the stage. The power of the final measures surprised and stunned him, resonating through his body as they echoed through the hall.
And then she folded her hands in her lap and rested, and he suddenly realized how small and delicate she was. Where did that tremendous strength and power come from?
He cleared his throat, and she jumped and turned on the stool. Her face was as beautiful as her music. Not flawless, but with clear gray eyes that shone under arched black brows, a slightly crooked nose, and a mouth that he suddenly yearned to taste.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, not wanting to disturb the mood. The music hung in the room around them. He waved his folder once. “I have the next class. I’m sorry to disturb you.”
“No,” she answered. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have stayed so long.” Her voice was soft and low, and it pulled at something deep inside him. She started gathering her papers – her music – into a portfolio that she tucked into a backpack. “I’m afraid I got lost.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
She stopped and looked at him closely. “I think maybe you do.”
“May I . . .” He hesitated, but when she tilted her head in interest, he continued. “May I see your music? The song you were playing?”
She blinked in surprise. Maybe she’d been expecting him to hit on her. “Sure.” She sorted through her pile again and pulled out a thin folio of about ten pages. She stepped to the edge of the stage, close enough that he had an eye-opening view of her muscular calves and more if he wanted, and held the music out to him.
He focused his attention on the notes scattered across the page instead of looking where he knew he shouldn’t, but was soon engrossed in translating what he was seeing into what he’d heard. He couldn’t really hear the music, but he recognized the rhythms.
“Do you play?” she asked, settling on the wooden floor of the stage with her legs tucked to the side.
He shook his head. “I’m a mathematician. I never took the time. I don’t know if I’d be any good anyway.” He looked up at her, and his brows drew together in confusion. “How do you know how to change it?”
“Change what?” she asked.
He pointed at the first page, at where the chords interrupted the waterfall. “This reads as mathematically regular. No change in the beat. But you didn’t do that, and . . . and it was right.” He pressed two fingers against his temple, trying to figure out how to explain what he meant. “There aren’t any instructions here, so how did you know what to do?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I practiced a lot.”
“No,” he shook his head. “It’s more than that.”
“My teacher told me?” she tried next.
He dismissed that immediately. “What you were doing can’t be taught. It can be demonstrated by a teacher, but no one can exactly reproduce the creation of another. You made a new creation. How did you know what to do?”
“Ah. Inspiration.” She smiled. “If I could sell that secret, I’d make a fortune.”
He laughed. “Yeah, and I’d be first in line.”
They heard the squawk of the outside door, and voices beginning to fill the foyer.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m taking up your time.” She scrambled to her feet, a flashing skirt and tap-tapping sandals as she grabbed her backpack and zipped it up.
“Before you go,” he called, “answer me. How do you know?”
She grinned and pointed at the folio in his hand. “The music tells me. It’s all there. Those black dots and squiggles – that’s just the street signs. Once you get the directions down, the music comes alive, and it tells me.” She trotted toward backstage.
“Wait! Your music!” He waved the sheets at her.
She waved back. “I don’t need it any more. The music is inside me.” And she was gone into the darkness.
He looked down at the folio. Franz Schubert, Impromptu number 4 in A-flat minor, and below that, in delicate black ink, was written a name and phone number.
A slow smile grew, and he vaulted up onto the stage. He put his folder on the lectern, checked the whiteboard for markers and looked out at the growing audience.
As the music spoke to her from inside her heart, so numbers spoke to him. All he had to do was listen.
He tapped on the microphone, cleared his throat, and began. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming . . .”