Richard Milward – The Gongs (Short Story, In Full)

The Quietus presents an original short story, specially commissioned, inspired by the form and content of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

He was a home recordist with hereditary heart issues. He often felt that pursuing a career in housebound music-making would be beneficial to his health – though not completely stress-free, it was a career that encouraged contemplation, solitude and plenty of reclining. His wife was an understanding woman. She was currently the sole breadwinner of the household, keeping their suburban stack well-stocked with food and flowing electricity thanks to her skill with numbers. She worked an accountancy job towards the centre of town and, not only did the job pay handsomely, her eagerness for overtime granted her man more time Monday to Friday to work on what she endearingly called ‘his symphonies’.

He had originally been a metal spinner specialising in kitchenware, until finally accepting he could not compete with the superstores pedalling dirt cheap, dentable alternatives. His pans were perhaps so well-made (‘ANY SIZE, ANY HANDLE’ says a fluorescent star in a skip somewhere) that his customers never had to return to have them replaced. And so, unable to find a suitable buyer, he sold his lathe off for scrap and terminated the lease of his workshop.

Thrust into the static rat race of a fresh economic slump, his endeavours for reemployment felt like seeking work as a clown in a town of coulrophobes. He would not succumb to menial work in the gently blossoming service industries. He didn’t feel he had the appropriate people skills – his sales in the workshop were clinched by a young, loose-tongued nephew. He felt his shyness made him unemployable and yet he had a bold – perhaps even blind – ambition to reinvent himself as a master music-maker, albeit one who would release records reclusively rather than rambunctiously, without touring and press and the like.

His cardiac issues stemmed from an optic abnormality. His eyesight never bothered him while metal spinning – his work was a goggled, close-quartered manipulation of high-speed aluminium. However, now he had more time for window-shopping – from the inside looking out, searching for inspiration in the sky, or in his neighbours’ dwellings – he realised he might be myopic. His optician disagreed – perhaps he just needed binoculars. Nevertheless, his visit to the opticians was not completely in vain as the kindly, insistent eye doctor noted he had unusually wavy blood vessels in the back of one of his eyeballs – a possible indication of high blood pressure.

The mere insinuation that he had dirty arteries gave him palpitations. He was an anxious man, even at rest, though he wasn’t sure what he had to worry about – he was enjoying his time off, despite the financial strains. Nevertheless, his GP confirmed the optician’s suspicions – he gave a blood pressure reading of 150/85mmHg (though it could have been white coat hypertension), and he was referred to a phlebotomist for further, bloodcurdling analysis. He hated injections, but was buoyed slightly by the invitation to place his upturned fist on a stranger’s knee as she listlessly slid the needle into his vein. After surrendering three vials of crimson cocktail, he returned home with a strange feeling in his soul, strung halfway between enlightenment and foreboding. The fact of his own mortality hung heavily around his shoulders, like a lead apron. He didn’t feel his waist was plump enough to suggest diabetes, or that cholesterol could be a contributing factor. His wife often compared him to a bird at mealtimes, the way he picked at portions which had been gradually shrinking over the years. He could exercise more, though he did love long walks – or at least accepted them, seeing as his wife always had the car.

He woke the morning after his blood test with an overwhelming desire to choose a song for his funeral. Even for a music lover, it was a decision he felt no urgency in making before. He had always imagined a time much further from now – a time of will-writing and medication and perhaps even a death bed – when he would impart to whoever was nearest or dearest the choice of song for his closing credits.

He remained in his pyjamas as he waddled to the box room he called his music library. He span cumbersome and compact discs for more than two hours, weighing up each song in terms of its tunefulness, its dolefulness, its lyrical significance to his own life, its certainty of tear manufacture, its potential for popularity amongst a possibly philistine audience, and so on. The songs sounded different that morning, soundtracking an imaginary cremation in which he was the starring stiff. Ultimately though, none of the songs seemed to fit the occasion. Lyrics involving angels or new beginnings or departed loved ones seemed too twee, and the instrumentals felt almost like elevator music, no matter how upbeat or elegiac, as if chosen only to drown out awkward silence in a carpet showroom.

He decided to get dressed and have some breakfast. For all he knew, his blood test might come back clean. He choked down some bran cereal in front of the TV and thumbed the newspaper until he felt guilty enough to head upstairs to work.

Setting up his musical equipment was like a modern form of snake-charming: he uncoiled countless cables, made daisy chains of power adaptors and extension leads, raised faders and lowered the blinds. Once settled, he rubbed the cold from his hands across his trousers, and rested his fingers on the plastic ebony and ivory of his CASIO keyboard. His fingers naturally landed on A7: a chord that usually reminded him of the pop songs of his childhood, only today he was far too preoccupied with his ill health to indulge in any nostalgia. He played the chord, but it was an electric jeer that trilled around the former guest room. In that instant, he felt as though his whole musical output (admittedly, only half an album’s worth of half-finished songs) was an embarrassment. He wondered if he focused too much on the major keys rather than the more elegant minors. He thought to himself: if he was to die today and his wife picked one of his existing compositions for his farewell party, he would be laughed out of the crematorium. He played a glissando on the keyboard with his fist, then his forehead, and unplugged all the wires again.

The phlebotomist had told him, should there be any issues regarding his blood sample, the surgery would be in touch within seven days – otherwise, he should presume all was well. During these days, he viewed the postman as an aide to the Grim Reaper – however, none of the letters he posted were more frightening than a combined gas and electricity bill for £716.02, and the finances were his wife’s business, not his.

Still, his lack of a suitable song for his funeral disturbed him more each day. As a self-confessed ‘music man’, his failure to find one song of the thousands in his house that might sum up his mortal toil made him feel his whole life was a lie.

He was washing soup out of one of his handspun aluminium saucepans when the inspiration finally came to him. It came in the form of a gong. As the last dregs of minestrone swam away from the pan, the brush head began to make a sonorous, church bell chime as it rattled around the quality metalwork. Properly miked, he thought, this could be the basis for the ultimate transcendental memorial song. Or at least, a celebration of his time on this planet as an above-average metalspinner.

Though he had never been further afield than western Europe, he had travelled the globe in his armchair. Documentaries were his access-all-areas pass to places he would never visit due to monetary strains, fear of injections and/or disease, and his struggle to communicate even in his mother tongue. It was the traditional music of these territories which interested him more than the landscape, the cuisine or the religious curiosities: he had a fondness for the crisp hum of a Tibetan singing prayer bowl, the gulping rhythm of the tabla, the dawn chorus of a Chinese guzheng – but there was nothing that bewildered and gladdened him more than the gamelan ensembles of Java and Bali.

Creating a sound akin to a celestial foundry, a gamelan ensemble is made up of various gongs, drums, metallophones and chimes, often beaten to accompany a dance or shadow puppet show, but also found at Indonesian births, marriages and funerals. While not recommended listening material to ease a hangover, the repetitive atonal God-clang gamelan has the power to catapult the listener to the higher realms, like witnessing the Gates of Heaven being broken down by soft-headed beaters as opposed to sledgehammers.

He remembered watching a Javanese gamelan years back on the BBC, and being as close to rapture as is possible on a weeknight with his wife in the other room bleating and searching for some stray item of stationery. And now, as he turned the aluminium saucepan over in his hands and struck it again, this time on the back with more gusto, he realised he might be able to create his own gamelan ensemble using just his kitchenware and analogue four-track.

He set to work at once. He removed every pan from the kitchen – ranging in size from a 14cm milk pan to a jumbo 38cm wok – and strung them from hooks he screwed into the ceiling of his studio. It occurred to him that boring these holes might devalue the property slightly, and that his wife might be unforgiving but, as he would tell her, it was the only way to faithfully recreate the ageng, kempul and suwukan gongs of the gamelan. A successful marriage requires constant, unquestioning appeasement, he felt.

After referring to Gamelan: Traditional Sounds of Indonesia and experimenting for an hour or so with microphone positioning and reverb levels, he put down the first layer of gongs on TRACK I of his four-track. Since a gamelan traditionally consists of no less than ten players (and he had only two hands and four tracks available to record each instrument), he would need to combine (‘bounce’) many tracks together to create enough space to fit the full ensemble. For instance, he could record the gongs onto TRACK I, the drums onto TRACK II, and the chimes onto TRACK III, and then bounce these together over to TRACK IV, thus freeing up TRACKS I, II and III again. This process can continue ad infinitum, so technically a hundred-piece orchestra could be recorded by one musician, bit by bit, using just a four-track. However, the major downside of this process is with each bounce, the sound quality deteriorates, but he felt this was a necessary sacrifice to achieve the perfect pot-and-pan pandemonium.

After laying down the gongs, he recorded a simple rhythm onto TRACK II using upturned Tupperware in place of the traditional kendhong drums of the gamelan: tak tak dhung dah, tok tok dhung dah. Then, he recorded a layer of beaten saucepan lids onto TRACK III, mimicking the deadened cymbal sounds of the kenong, kethuk and kempyang. Finally, he set the faders to mix these layers together and bounced them over to TRACK IV, remembering to increase the treble in anticipation of the high frequency squeeze.

There was still an hour or so before his wife was due home, so he headed back to the kitchen to gather more crockery. However, as he dismounted the stairs, he was rapidly overcome by an abominable headache. The pain seared through his cranium as if someone had poured molten metal through his earholes. He ignored the door to the kitchen and instead went through to the living room, to bury his head in the cushions in the foetal position. And this was how his wife found him an hour and a half later, seemingly asleep but in fact wide-eyed and petrified. Perhaps he had had enough gongs for one day, he reasoned.

After painkillers, pasta in a destrung saucepan, and ample sleep, he awoke the next morning in a sprightly mood, ready to continue his composition. He and his wife had three matching sets of drinking vessels – some egg-shaped tumblers, four Boddingtons pint glasses, and six crystal champagne flutes, for best – which, when filled with differing levels of water and struck, faithfully recreated the peking, saron and demung metallophones. Once these tinkling treasures had been added to the mix, each playback lubricated his eyelashes with tears. He bounced the champagne flutes and Boddingtons glasses along with the pans, lids and Tupperware over to TRACK III, then added egg-shaped tumblers to the free TRACK I. Loaded with information, the magnetic tape hummed and groaned with wow and flutter, but he was pleased with his efforts. In fact, he was convinced he was shaking Chopin’s pedestal. He lost himself in reverie, imagining his composition soundtracking funerals of the future, perhaps even the homecoming of broken soldiers, the television coverage of the death of an icon, the…

His heart lurched in his chest as he was overcome again by searing cranium pain. This time the pain was accompanied by a nausea that flooded his cheeks with saliva – he had to grasp the edge of his reclining chair to stop himself from keeling over. The first vaguely rational thought that came to him was to not throw up over his musical equipment, so he crawled out of his studio and laid prostate across the unhoovered carpet, breathing heavily. He held this position for almost an hour, at which point the letterbox roused him, flapping and clattering downstairs. This was the fourth morning since his blood test. He made his way to the staircase and descended it gingerly, with both hands on the banister, only to find a few lurid circulars awaiting him on the meat-coloured doormat. He perched on the bottom step with his chin in his hands, trying to compose himself but his heart continued to race, unable to keep time with the gently progressing suburban scenes behind the frosted glass. He could not fathom what was wrong with him.

The next day, he loaded himself with multivitamins and shuffled, bent double, through to the kitchen, to rifle through the recycling box. He looked unwell in the reflection of the back door. Panting, he carried an armful of tin cans up to his studio, and spent the day plying them with ring modulation in an attempt to replicate the croak-and-chime of the bonang barung and panerus bells.

Before his wife returned home, he carefully bounced everything to TRACK IV – however, this time, the tears produced upon playback were down to a severe deterioration of sound quality. The song hissed back at him like a giant balloon deflating, or a bonfire fizzling out.

Following this latest bounce, he spent the rest of his studio time retching thin air into the bathtub, cursing his inexplicable affliction, not to mention his futile multitracking efforts. It wasn’t the hiss that bothered him as such – it was more that his health seemed to be suffering in direct response to the suffering cassette tape. As the days wore on and the tape wore down, he felt like a corpse at the helm of a ghost ship heading for the sun. His flesh had yellowed and his limbs felt weak. While the instrumentation grew richer, his health became poorer. When he mentioned this to his wife, she tutted him out of the living room.

‘It’s probably just cabin fever,’ she suggested, ‘because you realise you’re just sitting around all day, stewing over things. Have you had any fresh air this week?’

He went out into the front garden, to simultaneously ignore her and heed her advice. He swallowed lungful after lungful of crisp autumn air which, compared to the stale molecules in his studio, tasted like it had blown directly from the peaks of the Alps.

It was now the seventh morning since his blood test. He watched with windswept eyes as the postman hobbled down the odd side of the street, then the even, and ignored his letterbox.

His presence was not even acknowledged as he stood there wheezing on the patio. Perturbed, he took his mobile phone from his shirt’s breast pocket and selected the surgery’s number he’d saved. He used the term ‘just in case there’s been a mistake or a mix-up’ as he enquired about his blood test. He had ultratension in his fingers as he waited for an answer. However, the woman on the other end was pleased to inform him his sample had come back clean. He wasn’t so pleased. He felt awful. His whole frame ached as he returned indoors and collected his final gong, his piece de resistance: a 1cm diameter pan he once felt was worthy of a world record, if only he had the nerve to share it. It was a feat of precision handcrafting, or possibly a worthless novelty.

His skull throbbed with every step as he mounted the staircase with the tiny pan hidden in his fist. The deterioration of sound quality – in particular, the high and mid range frequencies – distressed him but he felt, with just one more layer of tinkling chimes, his composition could be completed.

He felt so frail, he could barely hold a rhythm as he tapped the back of the pan with a teaspoon in his studio. He filled TRACKS I, II and III with these off-kilter canary calls, struggling to smile though he could feel the track gradually coming to life again. His heart glowed unsteadily in his chest.

‘Do you want tea, love?’ his wife asked, peering around the door once the noises had stopped. She knew not to disturb him if she suspected PLAY/RECORD was depressed. ‘Or are you carrying on with your symphonies?’

‘Just one last bounce,’ he replied, with a voice that was barely more than a whisper.

‘Right you are,’ she said, and she left him to it. She wasn’t aware of the concept of bouncing or multitracking, but she certainly heard what she thought to be a bounce on the floorboards as she waited for him downstairs with two teas slowly going cold.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is out now on Constellation Records and Richard Milward’s latest novel Kimberly’s Capital Punishment is out now on Faber & Faber

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