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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #327
Smackover
David Gunn

On a Thursday in late August, Ruby Primavera was driving her 1979 Ford Mercator through the rural hollows of south central Arkansas when she glanced up and saw a hole in the sky. She slammed on the brakes, pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car, and stared. It was an even more awesome sight without a tinted windshield to lessen the brilliance. The hole was donut-shaped and seemed to pulsate. The ring that surrounded the hole was a dazzling yellow, as bright as the sun, and she had to shield her eyes to look at it. But where the ring was blazingly radiant, the hole was just as dark, tenebrous, disquieting. Ruby estimated it to be 150 meters in diameter, 5,200 feet above the ground, and entirely inappropriate for this part of Arkansas. A road sign directly in front of her read "Welcome to Smackover, Population 2,722." The air around her was unsettlingly inert, and then Ruby noticed that the upper layer was being slowly sucked up towards the hole. There was no sound as it moved, no wind; it just ... disappeared into the hole.

But there was a sound--now gone. Ruby pricked her ears, listened intently. There it was again, a kind of gnawing noise, as if a flock of deranged sheep was worrying an Aeolian harp. Using the vertices of her car and the road sign, she was able to triangulate the sound's location: 808 Main Street, Smackover. She got back in her car, tried to ignore the atmospheric funhouse overhead, and drove into town. Main Street was the first intersection. Ruby stopped the car and listened. The gnawing noise--or noises; she could discern two, maybe three different acoustic events--was clearly coming from the building on the left. A sign above the front door read "Wharton Opera House." The gnawing noise had recontextualized into the col legno bowings of a string quartet, but most disturbing of all was that the hole in the sky was directly overhead and seemed to react to the sounds of the music nearly a mile beneath it.

Ruby walked up to the house accompanied by a sense of foreboding. A uniformed woman opened the door and admitted her, but made the foreboding stay outside. Ruby was ushered into the back of a large room packed with people watching a string quartet on a dais at the front. Upon closer scrutiny, she wasn't sure it was a string quartet after all. True, there were four stringed instruments, but they didn't seem quite normal. The cello, for example, looked like it belonged in the middle of a public square in an Italian town, though Ruby couldnít explain why. The demeanor of the other three instruments, too, was visibly different from the norm: little wisps of steam arose from the strings where the bows touched them. She tapped the shoulder of a man seated in the last row. To her relief, he was the music critic for the "Smackover Sentinel," and he was as eager to explain current events as he understood them as she was to listen. Yes, this was "Verasmock," the resident string quartet, and yes, the instruments were not your typical J.C. Penney Music Dept. fiddles. The composer of the piece being performed had stipulated modified string instruments, and "Verasmock" had responded with a cello d'piazza, an articulated Posner violina, an alto violetta and a time violin. Add the surreal landscape of the composition to the combination of these typically contentious instruments, and itís no wonder that the fiddles were smoking. The term that the critic used was "sizzlin'," but not in a pejorative sense, for he quite liked the chemical reaction that was taking place, both on stage and in the audience, whose emotional fabric seemed to shred the more the players dug into their gut strings. However, they all might've changed their tune had they only looked outside. The vapor emanating from the instruments was really a miasma of greenhouse gases, and they did not sizzle in a friendly way. The moment they snaked through the overhead vent and cleared the roof of the Opera House, they made a beeline for the hole in the sky. And made it bigger, darker, more disquieting. And these weren't your typical greenhouse gases, either. Carbon tetrachloride, nitroglycerin, sodium pentothal, sulfur bacterium--sure, they were all there, but so were trace amounts of astatine, protactinium and Tang.

Ruby, who represented the weakest of links between that story of the house on the hill and this smoking string quartet, decided to sever the tie. Slipping away from the critic, who continued to prattle to no one in particular, she raced to the front of the room, grabbed the music from the startled players and, in the confusion which ensued, dashed out the door whence she'd entered. Foreboding was waiting by the car and got in with her as she sped off. The notes on the pages of music were evanescing and wafting up to the hole in the sky as she drove. Impulsively, she pulled over, snatched the music from Foreboding's lap, and scrawled a series of C major triads all over the time violin's part. At once, space-time simultaneously contracted and dilated; the music, Foreboding and the hole in the sky all vanished; and Smackover, Arkansas lost its bid as "biggest community to accommodate an anomalous atmospheric event" in the Guinness Book of World Records.

On the other hand, you'll find plenty of world records here on this 327th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, and here to spin the first of many is the show's own impulsively foreboding Kalvos.