Jean-Pierre slowly explained all this to his girlfriend, Veronique, as he took their third album,
Where Soundwaves Turn To Sound, out of its case and put it into the CD drawer of his small and expensive stereo.
She took a long drink of white wine and said, “Oh.”
“It’s not really songs,” he said. “It’s more like soundscapes.”
She took another long drink of wine, and said, “Ah.”
“Listen,” he said, pressing play on the remote control and settling back, stretching out on the floor with his head resting against the armchair.
The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet deliberately started their first track two minutes and fifteen seconds into the CD, as if to make their listeners wonder whether they were missing something inaudible yet sonically extraordinary. During the silence Veronique took some of her hair in her fingers, separated three strands and started to turn them into a plait. It was a habit she had picked up when she had had long hair, and she still did it even though her hair was now cut too short for her to be able to make a plait of any significance.
“You’re not concentrating,” said Jean-Pierre.
She didn’t say anything, but she stopped plaiting her hair. It wasn’t something she felt strongly enough about for it to be the cause of an argument. She tried concentrating on the silence instead, and eventually the music began. A third of her half-listened to it, another third of her thought about other things, and the other third just looked around the room that had become so familiar over the eight months she had spent as a regular visitor to Jean-Pierre’s apartment, at the almost bare walls in the dim light of the carefully placed lamps and candles, and at the floor and the doors.
She was sitting at the far end of the sofa, out of the way of Jean-Pierre’s outstretched legs. He was wearing his old leather boots. She didn’t know why. She hadn’t been paying the closest attention, but she was fairly sure he hadn’t been wearing them when they had made love earlier in the evening, and since they weren’t going to be going anywhere, as usual, she didn’t see the point of him putting them on. She supposed it was just one of those stupid, annoying things he did. He was also wearing thick woolen socks. It was still August, just, and it was easily warm enough for him to go around without hiking socks on his feet.
He had, as usual, rolled six fat joints before she had arrived, and laid them in line on a plate. He had smoked three already, offering each one to her. She had declined every time. He lit the fourth, slowly rolling his head around as he held the smoke in his lungs, and then exhaling with his lips curled in a way that had lost him friends. People who had been undecided about whether or not they liked him had backed off after seeing this display, as he closed his eyes with such exaggerated indifference as the smoke blew slowly from a perfect hole on the right hand side of his mouth and hung in the air like seraphim. “He’s in love with himself,” they would say to each other afterwards. ‘did you see what he did with his smoke?” Veronique had heard this quite a few times.
She refilled her glass, and he offered her the joint. She had told herself that, for once, she was going to spend an evening at Jean-Pierre’s place without getting stoned. She had been doing very well, but there was something about Where Soundwaves Turn To Sound by The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet that made her feel she had no choice, so she reached over and took it. She smoked it for a while, then handed it back.
After eighteen minutes the first track ended. Usually he would press pause on the remote control between pieces of music, and deliver a short lecture about what they had just heard, but this time he just looked at the ceiling instead, letting the CD play on. He blinked, very slowly.
The joint had gone out in the ash tray. She relit it, and held on to it for a while before passing it back to him and going back to her wine. Track two seemed to be the same as track one, the only difference being that it was a lot shorter. It ended after less than a minute. Jean-Pierre picked up the remote control, pointed it at the stereo and paused the CD.
“I’ve got to get them over here,” he said.
She had heard this kind of talk many times before. He often spoke at great length about how he was going to arrange a series of unique avant-garde music evenings in spectacular venues. They would be packed with appreciative people and given rave reviews, and their reputation would build with such momentum that each one would sell out weeks in advance. They would make him money, enable him to evangelise about the music he loved, and turn him into the celebrated Bohemian he had always wanted to be. He would be respected throughout Paris and across the world by musicians he admired, and his name would be known by people who mattered to him.
In the early days of their relationship Veronique had thought that he really was on the verge of becoming somebody interesting, but as months went by without anything happening she realised that he would never really come close to arranging a concert, or starting a record label, or getting his own band together. She knew that at some point over the coming month or two he would make a call to someone or other about the logistics of attaining work permits for fourteen Sofia-based avant-garde musicians, and find out that it would be a lengthy process involving the filling in of lots of forms. He would ask her to help out. She would say no, that she was too busy doing her own things, and that anyway they were only forms and not such a big deal, and he would abandon his plans, citing her lack of support as the main reason, maybe even the only reason, for the project’s failure.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Veronique turned down the corners of her mouth, and shrugged.
He pressed pause, and track three began. She finished her wine and refilled her glass. She yawned. The bottle, their second of the evening, was nearly empty, and Jean-Pierre had only had about one and a half glasses all night. She hadn’t meant to drink nearly so much, but there hadn’t been a lot else to do. She felt her eyelids grow heavy. Jean-Pierre stubbed out the remains of the joint and lay back on the floor, his eyes closed.
After a while Veronique heard something in the music that she recognised. She couldn’t quite place it. It went away, so she stopped thinking about it. She went back to her wine, and to looking at the wall. The music carried on, with no apparent tune or form. Then it happened again. Somewhere within the murk of track three was a tune that she recognised.
She hummed in her head. A few bars later the notes came around again. “Yes,” she said, coming to life and raising her glass to toast her discovery. “I’ve got it.”
Jean-Pierre looked at her without smiling. He leaned forward and lit the fifth joint. Then he settled back down and closed his eyes.
“Listen,” Veronique said.
It took a while for the familiar part of the tune to come around again, but when it did she sang along.
He looked at her with disgust.
“No, really,” she said. “Wait.”
The tune sank back into the drone of the soundscape, but when it returned she sang along once again. “Can’t you hear it?”
“No,” he said. “I can’t hear it at all.” But he was lying. It was with horror that he realised that The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet had included the tune of the chorus of Vanessa Paradis’s “Joe Le Taxi” as a recurring flourish in track three of Where Soundwaves Turn To Sound. It was slower than the original, and probably played on a trombone, but the notes were exactly the same as the vocal melody. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. He shivered, hoping that it was a coincidence on the octet’s part, that they wouldn’t cite early Paradis as a primary influence alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Coltrane and Holger Czukay. He started to wonder whether arranging a concert for them would be such a good idea after all.
The tune came around again, and Veronique jumped to her feet. She stepped into her shoes and started singing along, and dancing just like Vanessa Paradis in the video.
“There is no connection,” said Jean-Pierre. Veronique carried on dancing. “You should stop that now,” he said. “No way.”
“You are tone deaf.”
She hadn’t thought about “Joe Le Taxi” for a long time, but she still loved it. She hadn’t always been ready to admit that she loved it, but she always had. It reminded her of times spent having fun.
“You know nothing about music,” said JeanPierre. “You’ve never played a note of it in your life, every record you own is bad, and you don’t appreciate the musical education I give you. You just don’t begin to understand it.”
She ignored him. “People used to say I looked like Vanessa Paradis,” she said.
“Horseshit,” he snapped, sitting up. His eyes were even more hooded than usual. “That is total fucking horseshit.”
‘so you don’t think I’m pretty enough?” The tune came around again, and Veronique sang along.
“You have completely the wrong shape head.”
“What? In a good way or a bad way?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if my head’s the wrong shape in a bad way why didn’t you tell me a long time ago? I would have changed the shape of my head for you.”
“I’m not saying it’s the wrong shape in a bad way, it’s just different from Paradis’s head. She has a very distinctive head shape, as you know.”
“And you prefer her head to mine. I see.”
“I’m not going to argue about whose head I prefer, but you don’t look anything like her.”
“Well, people said I did. When this song came out . . .”
“This is not “Joe Le-fucking-Taxi”,” he snapped. “This is track three of Where Soundwaves Turn To Sound by The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet. It doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.”
“OK, when “Joe Le Taxi” came out I must have been about . . .” she squinted at the ceiling in concentration, “. . . let me think . . . When did it come out?”
“I don’t fucking know. I don’t fucking care.”
She thought for a moment longer, then said, “I’m twenty-two now, and it’s 1997. It must have been around 1987, when I was twelve, because that was when my grandmother died and I went to stay with my cousin Valerie from Lille who is my age, well, six weeks younger, and we watched the video over and over again and we learned the dance. Look.” She moved from side to side with a studied listlessness. “And when my aunt asked us what we would like to cheer us up we asked to go shopping for clothes and we both picked outfits like ones we’d seen Vanessa wearing on TV. They weren’t . . .” She tilted her head to one side, bit her lip and raised the index finger of her right hand. “Here it comes . . .”
Again she sang and danced along. Jean-Pierre looked at the floor and shook his head. When the tune vanished back into the formless soundscape she stopped singing but carried on dancing from side to side, as though there were a rhythm to follow.
“. . . they weren’t exactly like the outfits on TV, but they were as close as we could get from the shops in Lille. And we had to wear our old shoes because my aunt wouldn’t buy us new ones, and that made us mad. That was when people started saying I looked like her, even though the clothes weren’t quite right, and my hair is dark brown, almost black, and I’ve got completely the wrong shape head. But they still said I looked like her.”
“Which you don’t,” he said. His head was in his hands.
“But look at my eyes. They aren’t so different from hers – they’re pretty much the same colour, at least. And look at this.” She raised her top lip, and pointed. “I’ve got a gap between my front teeth. It’s nowhere near as wide as the gap she has between her front teeth, I know, but it’s still a gap, and my hair came down to here in those days,” she drew a line with her finger a few centimetres above her left elbow, “it wasn’t short like it is now. And I would do this . . .” She stuck her lips out a bit. “I used to do that all the time. I wanted to be her more than anything in the world.”
Track three ended. There was a pause, then track four began.
She sat down. Now the music had changed to what sounded like the slowed down creak of a rusty car door she felt sleepy again, and miserable. She wanted to talk to somebody about whether or not she should grow her hair again, or about how most of the people who had told her she looked like Vanessa Paradis had been middle-aged men who wouldn’t usually have been able to tell one pop star from the next. She hadn’t realised at the time what had really been going through their minds as they complimented her on her likeness. But Jean-Pierre wouldn’t want to talk about things like that. He preferred to talk about things like “harmonics’, and “cadence”, whatever they were. He passed her the joint. It didn’t make things any better. She looked at him. His dark brown hair hung over his shoulders. It was probably the same as it had always been, but lately it had seemed lifeless and boring. The way he nodded along to the erratic flow of the music annoyed her.
“You know,” she said, “Jesus was dead by the time he was your age.”
She had baked Jean-Pierre a cake on his birthday, and had spelled out the number thirty-four in thirty-four candles.
“What do you care about Jesus?”
She started back on the wine. It didn’t make him any younger, and it didn’t make her look any more or less like Vanessa Paradis. She thought for a while about coming on to him, covering his face with smoky kisses and letting him run his hands under her dress, but the thought bored her. It seemed so old. She stood up.
“I’m going now,” she said. He looked at her.
“Can I have that?” she asked, pointing at the last of Jean-Pierre’s joints. He passed it to her, and she put it in her bag. “Thank you,” she said.
“Are you really going?” he asked. She had never left before, at least not until the morning.
She didn’t say anything. She just put her brown suede jacket on. She had bought it the week before, and he hadn’t said a word about it, as though it were just her jacket, the one she always wore, and not something new, and fashionable, and a lot more expensive than she could really afford.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said.
“No. Don’t call me tomorrow. Don’t call me at all.” She had been thinking about saying that for a while. She was pleased with the way it sounded.
He said nothing.
She called Ce’sar, her Saint Bernard who had been dozing on a big cushion in the corner of the room, and put him on his lead. She looked at JeanPierre. She hadn’t expected him to look so sad. Her camera was in her bag and she thought about taking a photograph of him, lying on the floor – she would call it “Wounded Man”, or something like that. But she didn’t. It somehow wouldn’t seem right, and anyway it would have been too much effort for the state she was in.
“Come on Ce’sar,” she said, leading her dog towards the door as the music, if you could call it that, droned on. Jean-Pierre looked at the floorboards, or the rug. She couldn’t tell which.
Copyright ” 2004 by Danuta de Rhodes. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.