f(ξ)

His role in what we shall call the Symphony was minimal. Minimal because this was a long symphony, long enough that one might’ve wondered if it were everlasting. Minimal enough that both the instrument he played and the measure at which he joined the composition are irrelevant. What instead merits exposition is how he came to understand his part.

Let us call the man Carter. Carter had learned his part, perfected its intricacies, and practiced for years. He had come to see the part as his and his alone.

But when one learns that their talent x, way of thinking y, athletic ability z, or attribute ξ is not, in fact, singular—is in fact shared with and surpassed by countless others, countless ad nauseam—one tends to lose some zeal, especially with respect to ξ.

Carter’s first rehearsal prompted just this discovery. The orchestra was large, to the extent that Carter was unable to see where his section began and ended. He felt surrounded by a legion of mimics. Mimics or clones, each given over to the same delusion. There appeared to be a figure situated where one would expect to find a conductor, but, given the relative size of Carter’s section alone, this figure was an indiscernible, vaguely gesticulating speck. Every mimic in sight seemed hell-­bent on performing, and performing well, for this imperceptible conductor. Carter, with his new perspective regarding his role—sans zeal—was as yet unconvinced.

So, in ensuing rehearsals, Carter thought he would experiment some. He experimented with tempo, playing his part to perfection but for minute variations in speed. He experimented with syncopation. He played his notes staccato instead of legato and vice versa. He even began omitting notes here and there.

Carter observed that each experiment unsettled the mimics, who began stealing glimpses in his direction—but only in the brief caesura of focus that a glance at the possible conductor­-figure in the distance afforded. He also observed that, despite their piety to the Symphony, the mimics were imperfect: on occasion, he would hear echoes of his own experiments drifting about his section. And so Carter got ambitious. He began altering tones. Harmonies allowed him to create beauty, unique beauty, within the score’s bounds, within his section’s oppressive monotony. These harmonies he came to almost love. For a time.

Still greater ambition possessed our Carter. That his part was set in a minor key bothered him, so he played his notes in the parallel key, fabricating dissonance. One rehearsal he simply did not play.

He no longer knew what to feel. Not powerful, not free, not content.

The Performance loomed. It was unclear to Carter whether he would perform the actual music, demonstrate ξ—to the ideal—and show his ultimate deference to the orthodoxy, or instead perform one last experiment, an unsolicited solo, sui generis, and prove his ultimate individuality.

Carter performed, one way or the other—unless he chose not to attend—and then it was over.

The Symphony was unmoved.


Joe Carmichael is a writer from Vermont who lives in Brooklyn. He has written for PopSci and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and spent a year playing with words and other writers’ dreams at Tin House in Portland, Oregon. Find his current work over at Inverse.