Kaie Kellough imagines a COVID-19 symphony at the Sala Rossa
Ear to Night is a personal essay by Kaie Kellough, part of CBC Books' series about life during COVID-19
Listening to music only amplifies the silence of quarantine. It also amplifies the loneliness of all music. The urge to collectively make sound appears as a response to solitude, a defiance of our final quiet.
Smoking hash only nourishes worry. I hold the smoke in my lungs without breathing. When I exhale, my thoughts can't follow the kick drum as it stutters out its rhythm. The snare drum's crack startles and disrupts my immersion, and my thoughts skitter from the dense syncopations of an Ondatrópica record to the status of my job to the balance of my savings account, to my elderly parents in quarantine at the opposite end of the country. I turn off the stereo and try to recall the last live concert I saw.
I glance around the room, wondering if I might recognize a friend. All of the heads in the Sala Rossa venue swivel toward me. Eyes narrow above blue surgical masks. I'm the only person not wearing a mask. I raise my hand to cover my mouth, but my hand meets only space, no mouth.
Listening to music only amplifies the silence of quarantine. It also amplifies the loneliness of all music.
The percussionist straddles a cajón*. He bends forward and beats out a staggering, intricate rhythm. As he hums and moans, his voice harmonizes with the tones of his instrument. He beats out the names of people who have succumbed to the virus. His solo lasts a month, and then another month measured out in 7/8 time, and then another. The other musicians, the baritone saxophone player to his left and the dreadlocked trumpet player to his right, nod as they sway to his pulse.
The trumpet player aims an accusatory lead line at our material comforts. His notes attack our medical insurance, our employment insurance, our grocery stores dispensing gloves and hand sanitizer, the strips of orange tape at six-foot intervals on the sidewalks, the internet service that immediately relays the news, replete with graphs and hysteria, to our devices. The staccato accusations become a sharp brass hail that chips our insured teeth, burns our cheeks, scratches the lenses of our name-brand eyes. The baritone chuckles in the lower register.
The baritone forces a rumbling laugh, and our eyes lower. The floorboards are not boards, but money, bills placed end-to-end beneath our feet. Our faces are on those bills, and our faces open into complaint. We enumerate our smallest frustrations. As we do, the saxophone softens its tone and mockingly consoles. It tells us that everything will be alright, and then it laughs long and deep. It tells us that we haven't done anything wrong, that we're innocent people with noble aspirations, beautiful families, and rainbows in our windows, and then it squeals. It squeals until our throats feel raw. It squeals until the sound abrades our clothes, which become threadbare. We stand in tatters, without style or distinction, exposed to the band. Finally, the saxophone tells us that we are all deserving of the generosity of others, before letting out a hoarse haaaaaaa-haaaaaaa, which it repeats.
It tells us that we haven't done anything wrong, that we're innocent people with noble aspirations, beautiful families, and rainbows in our windows, and then it squeals.
We are clothed again, but the fabric is coarse. We fidget. The band plays a melody cool like aloe. We itch, and the horn turns to an aloe plant in the hands of the musician. Its serrated tentacles encircle him. We ache to dance with our own aloe, irritated. The percussion player tilts his head back, his face made of bronze, mouth open, and his face beams light into the room. The light heats our faces and hurts our eyes. We squint against it, but it slides under our skin, inside our eyes. We wander through the venue, our faces identical masks of solid bronze that catch and reflect the light, and a giant aloe plant spirals out of the floor and reaches through the ceiling.
My memory is distorted by the virus that, like a soundwave, inhabits the air, permeates our individual thoughts with the collective worry. By the end of the concert, a thin crack has split the cajón's wood. The instrument gives a vexed buzz. I sit in my living room and listen for the buzz, and I know that same crack is traveling through my night.
A note from Kaie Kellough on the cajón
* The cajón, a box-drum, originated with enslaved musicians in Peru. African drums were banned in the 18th century in the Spanish colonial Americas. The cajón may be a direct descendant of musical instruments from west and central Africa. The cajón was adapted from fruit boxes, codfish crates, drawers, wardrobes, and other containers that passed through Peruvian shipping ports.
A Brief History of the Cajón, Drum Magazine, 2017/12/08
The Cajón – A Short History, Cigar Box Guitar, 2017/11/07
Kaie Kellough is a poet, sound performer, and fiction writer based in Montréal. His latest works are Magnetic Equator (poetry, McClelland & Stewart, 2019), and Dominoes at the Crossroads (short fiction, Véhicule Press, 2020). He has written for large and small musical ensembles, and his work has been presented internationally.
Transmission is a series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19. It was published in spring 2020.