“Unsound” by John Robertson, read by JJ Nazer

Performed at “Yay & Nay” on October 14, 2019.

I hadn’t played in a band since high school, but I didn’t think that would be an issue for The Antinotes.

The Antinotes were an experimental band who described their style as subtonal. Their songs consisted of no music, no sound whatsoever. It was “silence as you’ve never heard it before,” my friend Pete, the lead guitarist and frontman, liked to say.

But of course it had been heard before. They were paying homage to avant garde composer John Cage’s post-war piece 4’33. 4’33 consists of three movements, totaling 4 minutes and 33 seconds, of pure silence. It premiered in 1952 at Maverick Concert Hall in New York, and was declared groundbreaking by leading-edge musicologists and critics. It’s been performed occasionally over the decades since by renowned orchestras.

It was Pete who asked me to try out for the band. Pete and I had been pals for years, despite occasional transgressions on his part over that time. Chief among these was his convincing my girlfriend Stella to in turn convince me that our relationship should be an open one, in order for her to take part in some experimentalism of a more corporeal nature in Pete’s bedroom. Right or not, I’d decided to let that one slide.

Pete wanted a rhythm guitarist for The Antinotes ahead of the debut gig he had planned for them on February 3rd, 2019 – the 60th anniversary of the day Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens (famed singer of La Bamba) died in a plane crash. In rock n’ roll history February 3rd had of course been dubbed “The Day The Music Died”.

My first audition was at Golden Sound studio in Mong Kok.

Pete was there with a striking1969 Gibson Les Paul Custom on his lap. And there was Carlos on bass, Kiki on keyboard, and Manosh on drums.

“What the fuck is that?” said Pete, staring at my guitar when I walked in.

“You don’t remember?” I asked. “From high school?”

He scowled. “You better upgrade if you want to play with the big kids.”

Kiki and Manosh looked at each other and smirked.

“Oh…gotcha,” I said.

The session went for an hour, during which we were supposed to sit in total silence. The rest of the band managed perfectly, but somewhere in the middle I was desperate for a toilet break and excused myself, returning to frowns all around.

“So how did I do?” I asked Pete after it was over. “Yay or nay?”

He looked at me blankly.

“I’m not sure you’re serious enough about this,” he said. “I suggest doing a bit of background reading on Cage’s 4’33, get to know some theory. You’ve got to understand music before you can deconstruct it.”

I followed Pete’s instructions, immersing myself in various musicologists’ dissections of Cage’s work.

One of them, Richard Taruskin, argued that 4’33 was an example of the composer or artist subtracting himself from the process of creation, which was the only way to allow for pure creation, untainted by the artificial constraints that artists inevitably internalize from society.

Reading this made me think of something Pete once said to me about him and Stella. “Don’t sweat it pal,” he assured me, “what’s going on between she and I won’t ever become a relationship. In fact, it’s not even relational. I think of it as pure sex, sans the entire bourgeois construct of relationality. One might call it in Latin, coitus purus.”

My second try-out with the band was two weeks later. I was confident going in, ready to demonstrate what I’d learned, and brandishing a new Fender Jaguar I’d coughed out for.

“Oooh,” said Kiki the keyboardist, eyeing the Jaguar. “Somebody’s keen.”

The session lasted an hour again. This time it was almost a success. The only disturbance came from my phone, which I’d forgotten to put on silent, and which rang minutes before the hour was up.

“How was that?” I asked Pete when it was over.

He was delicately putting his vintage Les Paul back in its case, barely looking up at me.

“This is an important experiment and I just don’t think you’re getting it,” he said. “I’m willing to give you another shot, but you’ve got some serious studying to do.”

Carlos the drummer nodded. Kiki and Manosh smirked at each other just as they had the previous session.

Over the following two weeks, I listened intently every night to the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s recording of 4’33, playing it on loop for an hour.

During that time, Stella came over to collect the last of her belongings from the apartment. She’d moved in with Pete three weeks before. They were experimenting with something Pete called faux-habitation, which involved living together and sleeping in the same bed while remaining solidly committed to other partners.

My third session with the band went better than the others. The only sound from me during the entire hour was a barely audible cough, which drew only mild looks of annoyance from the others.

“Okay,” said Pete. “I’m willing to take a chance on you. You’re onboard for now. But don’t blow it.”

And so I became one of The Antinotes.

Februrary 3rd soon rolled around. The long-awaited gig was at The Aftermath.

There were about sixty people in the audience. Stella was there in a Boy Division t-shirt – Boy Division was Pete’s previous project, featuring boy band versions of Joy Division songs.

After the opening act, a local post-noise rock band, we got onstage and plugged in.

Pete walked up to the mic, his guitar slung down low.

“Hi all,” he said. “We’re The Antinotes, and we’re here to unrock your world. Let Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens turn in their graves tonight.”

Some audience members laughed awkwardly.

Then Manosh counted us in with his drum sticks: one, two, three…

Pure silence followed, just as we rehearsed.

After a minute passed, the audience began to look uneasy.

Which was precisely what Pete wanted. I could tell he was satisfied already. He was successfully reinventing himself as an artist, and I could feel him basking in the moment.

Then I began.

The sound of the opening riff to La Bamba from my guitar wasn’t loud, but it practically made Pete jump.

He looked at me, perplexed.

I pushed my way in front of him to the mic and began singing:

Para bailar La Bamba!

Para bailar La Bamba

se necessita una poca de gracia!

Some audience members chuckled.

Pete’s lower lip trembled as he stared at me with rage. The rest of the band looked aghast.

I grabbed the mic, went over to Carlos, and began manically slapping his bass as I sang on:

Una poca de gracia

Para mi, para ti, ay arriba, ay arriba!

The crowd started getting into it, thinking it was part of the act. Some began singing along.

I went up to Kiki and attacked the keys on her keyboard, with one hand still holding the mic.

Ay, arriba arriba

Por ti sere, por ti sere, por ti sere”

Then, still singing, I grabbed a stick from Manosh’s hand and began bashing away furiously at the drums.

When I got to the chorus, practically everyone in the crowd joined in:

Bamba bamba

bamba bamba

Pete was shaking furiously now.

Finally, the coup de grâce: I grabbed Pete’s ‘69 Les Paul Custom, ripped it from him, and swung it like a battle axe in the air by the neck.

The rage in his eyes turned to horror as I brought it crashing down to the floor in front of the stage. I kept at it, smashing the thing to pieces as if it was Pete himself.

The audience went wild, stamping on the guitar pieces in a frenzy. Rock n’ roll had been pronounced clinically dead just a minute ago, and was coming spitting back to life with a vengeance.“There you go!” I yelled at Pete, savoring the desperation in his pretty boy eyes as he looked at an alarmed Stella, as if for help, and then turned back to me. “How’s that for an experiment?!”

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