Chapter III: The Musicians



{Published in a slightly different form in Plain Brown Wrapper in 2008]

Hemadri Chandragupta ordered manufacture of Gold Mountain products from one of a small number of suppliers he had established relationships with; three in Taiwan, one in Korea, and one in Ireland, but his offices where design, marketing, sales, and finance took place were in a tilt-up building in Santa Clara, California.

Tilt-up buildings, as common as fast food shops in Santa Clara, are always two-story, and from the outside seem half way between a warehouse and a theme-park castle.

To erect a tilt-up building first you lay a foundation the size of a quarter city block, then pour two-story, concrete walls lying flat on the ground with their edges touching the foundation like four, rectangular flower petals. Then you layout a roof on the foundation, tilt the walls up and lock them together at the corners, then slide the roof up like an elevator platform. Now you can start on the interior, sheltered from the elements. The sole support of the building is the outside walls. The interior walls are called curtain walls because they hang from the ceiling and lock to the floor. It is easy to rearrange them to suit different tenants. A donut of office space, divided by walls or not, surrounds a core of service areas.

The brochures for the building described the setting as “park like”, but actually it was more like a small, moundy golf course. Lawns surrounded the buildings with miniature, rolling hills, 5-10 feet high covered with neatly mown grass and low bushes that looked like trees reduced in scale, and fountained ponds the shape of putting greens.  The originator of this landscape had read an article by an evolutionary biologist to the effect that our ancestors had evolved in a landscape of low hills and lakes. To prove this, the biologist had shown infants pictures of various landscapes and found they crawled toward views of low hills with scattered trees and lakes. Full-scale hills and trees were impractical, so the landscape architect had shrunk them.

Gold Mountain Hardware occupied the top floor of this tilt-up. The outer walls were mostly tall windows and the interior was arranged to distribute as much window light as possible to the people inside and as much sight as possible of the outside, where other tilt-ups receded in perspective beyond the grassy hillocks, miniature trees, and lobey ponds. Only Chandragupta’s corner office had opaque walls. The rest of the perimeter was mostly meeting rooms, a café, and three other offices. All these were walled mostly with glass on the interior side. Within were large spaces devoted to cubicles. Glass walls grouped the cubicles for purposes of heating and air conditioning. The closed core, perhaps a fifth of the total volume, held bathrooms, a small gym, rooms for computers, wiring, janitors etc.

Chandragupta put Lee in a cubicle near his office. He discovered that in the mornings he could hear Lee’s bike drawing into a place set aside for motorcycles below his window. Seeing him drive up made him think of the life of youth he had never known. He had been taken up as child of eleven, by a professor of engineering who had chanced to see his talent when he was working for a contractor doing a small wiring job in the professor’s house. He had never seen electrical wiring then but it did not occur to him that it was hard to understand. The professor clearly took a fancy to Hemadri, but he was only something more than a student and less than a relative. The professor had been generous and demanding, saw to it he was educated, kept him in his house on condition he kept up his grades, but he lived in the house with the professor’s wife two sons and a daughter as an outsider, a step below a dependent relative. The sons were honest, decent, self-indulgent young men who had nothing special but the gristly connection of birth. With the sister he was never on the easy terms that a brother is in a conventional Hindu household, which are totally unlike the relations with a male outside the family. He remembered the brothers had successively received scooters for their 14th birthdays while he had nothing but a hand-me-down bicycle, even though the professor talked to him into the night about engineering possibilities that would have been meaningless to his own sons.

But the course of software projects never runs to clock, and on the Wednesday before it was his last day the programmer Chandragupta’s software engineer assigned to work with Lee and learn the ropes looked at Lee and said, “We’re not going to finish.” He was a short thin man who wore western shirts and cowboy boots. He wrote the manuals for Gold Mountain products where they were necessary, and clearly he had been sent to make sure the code included clear and orderly comments. They had found a bond in that that they both believed in commenting code carefully.

Lee smiled to cover his embarrassment, nodded, and said, “Wouldn’t you know?”

Chandragupta had the only real secretary in the company, a rather dour woman from the San Jose Japanese-American community named Mildred Okamoto who had a helmet of salt-and-pepper hair and wore a succession of brown suits. Three young women worked as “area associates” —gofers, phone answerers, copiers — and reported to Okamoto, but they were all looking for other jobs or husbands or both. Mildred Okamoto was the only pro. She sat outside his door at the only wood desk in the building, a few papers neatly arranged around a small monitor. Lee went to her and asked for the earliest appointment available, which was the following afternoon.

But just as he finished speaking Chandragupta came out and stated, “Mildred said you wanted to see me.”

“Yes, I wish to apologize, sir, I will not have the simulator running on Friday.”

Chandragupta chuckled, “I suppose your implication is, it was the shortcomings of the hardware.”

“No,” Lee tried to be meticulous; he did not like to put blame on others, “the hardware has performed as described, well almost. I failed to anticipate...” and he mentioned some knotty problems in the simulation.

“Do you not feel you are duty bound to remain here and finish the designate task? Of course I will continue your contract, and pay for another ticket change,” Chandragupta said. The high-pitched, singsong quality of his voice seemed to make his words apologetic, although Lee felt the force of his obligation.

“Of course if you want me to,” Lee granted.

Then Chandragupta lightly tapped him on the shoulder with his fist, like an American, or a Brit, Lee thought, and added, more forcefully, “You better put on another week to make a couple of initial runs.”

Lee felt obliged to agree and at the same time felt as if a weight were lifting from him.

A cafeteria on the bottom floor served the whole building.  Hemadri Chandragupta, following a custom in many small- and medium-sized Silicon Valley companies, reserved the space on Friday starting at five and encouraged his employees to drop in, drink a free beer, and socialize. Chandragupta had first met the custom in another company he worked for and did not follow it himself. People who played music had gradually taken over Chandragupta had never had time for music in his life and, although he was not a teetotaler, he did not drink for sociability’s sake.  He thought of alcohol, which had been entirely absent from his upbringing, as one of the luxuries that he had earned and tended to drink small quantities of single-malt whiskies and expensive French wine on formal occasions although he did not enjoy their flavor.

But the Friday afternoon beer busts flourished without him and grew musical. Several people who worked for Gold Mountain were serious musicians. Most played keyboards or guitar, but there were other instruments reflecting other musical genres, a violin, an acoustic bass, an American who played the sitar, and a man who played not only the oboe, but also several early double reeds such as the shawm and the crumhorn. The double reed player acted as informal leader. He customarily wore dresses. It was not that he was trying to appear feminine; he was just a moderately bony, hirsute man who rather awkwardly wore a cheap, cotton  dresses.

The cafeteria was a featureless; cream-colored room about 30 by 50 ft.  The serving counter ran along one wall and, opened only for breakfast and lunch, was closed Friday afternoons by blank stainless steel panels. Tables and chairs filled the room. For the beer bust one table at the end held a keg of beer, paper cups, and chips and dips. The musicians had pushed the tables against the wall and arranged about a dozen chairs in a semicircle facing down the room. Chandragupta had contributed an expensive keyboard and drum set, which were normally stored in a linen closet. An empty space of about 10 feet separated the performers from the scattered chairs where listeners sat.

Lee had heard of the music at the beer busts during the first week he was at Gold Mountain from the guy assigned to work with him, but he assumed he would not have an opportunity to enjoy it. But the Friday after his contract was extended, he slipped in and sat among perhaps a dozen listeners.

@@When he entered, four people were playing:  a plump guy in a plaid shirt with long reddish gold hair, which blended with his beard was seated at the keyboard. A tall, solid woman in bluejeans, another plaid shirt, and worn cowboy boots sat on a stool playing an acoustic bass.  A guy in owlish glasses and a neatly trimmed beard who wore corduroy suit pants and a white shirt played electric guitar. A young man apparently Indian played electric bass. No one was sitting at the sparkling drum set. Cables snaked to speakers. They were playing a Grateful Dead tune. When they finished there was the popping of applause and people got up to refill their beer. The double reed player gestured generously towards Lee, introduced him as a new temporary contractor and asked him if he played.

Lee granted that he played both the French horn and the guitar, and the double reed player invited him to take a turn, but he demurred because he did not have his own instrument. One of the guitar players offered to sit out, and Lee improvised a simple baseline, concentrating carefully on the line laid down by the acoustic bass. She struck him as a person who knew what she was doing and was well trained. No hesitation or slop in her riffs.

When they finished there was a little more clapping and the double reed player asked if he wanted to solo. He politely declined, but promised he would another time.

He hung around listening until the party broke up. Where he’d been employed in New England there had been no such gatherings at work and, while he was unfailingly friendly with his co-workers, his social circle had mainly come from the Chinese-American community he’d been born into. He had a feeling that these were creative people that he could learn something from them even in the short time before he moved on. Out in the parking lot he was just taking his leathers out of the saddlebags when the bass player appeared with her cased instrument, unlocked a small van, and slid it in. They greeted each other and exchanged compliments on one another’s playing. Lee thought about the problem of carrying his guitar on his bike.  He thought she gave an interesting impression of soundness mixed with zaniness.

During the week he ran into several people he had seen in the Friday evening group and asked them what sort of thing they usually played.  He wanted to bring in something that would please them. When he played the French horn in an orchestra he concentrated on fulfilling the design of the conductor, or more accurately, of being part of the whole seamless sound the orchestra produced leaving possible effect on the audience to the conductor. But when he was part of a small group he carefully sought both to blend in with the group and to please his listeners. Some folks spend their time repeating chords waiting their turn to solo, but he believed the true expression of skill was a solo that made everyone sound better.

The Friday evening following the contract extension found him carrying his guitar into the gathering in the cafeteria where he played in the groups, but again declined to solo. When the party broke up the bass player invited him to go with her and a couple of the other musicians to have a beer at a local bar where they complimented him on his playing. He admired the bass player. It was a little disconcerting that she was a little taller than he and surely weighed more, and she was eccentric. But he liked the way that, though she was eccentric, she rolled in to the group. He was unattached and if he were not bound for distant land….

So the next Friday, which he again thought would be his last, he came having practiced at home a couple of Brian Eno songs and a David Bowie that he was embarrassed to have sentimental feelings about, China Girl. He thought music like this would be popular enough for the Gold Mountain musicians, but complicated enough that he could show his mettle and for him to care about.

When he came in the sitar player was doing a solo backed by someone on the drum set and the acoustic bass — Lee had barely heard Indian music. He sat down on one of the cafeteria chairs near the back, leaned his guitar against the wall beside him, and bowed his head to listen attentively. He found it harmonically thin, the acoustic bass softly repeated a three-note motif ceaselessly the whole time, and he suspected the sitar player blew a lot of notes, but there was something to admire, to learn from.

Choppy applause followed the sitar player’s climax. Lee thought it would be nice to ask him sometime what he was trying to do, but there probably would be no chance. The double reed player performed something with an electric bass and the drummer; it must have been a medieval dance.

Then the double reed player gestured for Lee, who came up carrying his guitar. The drummer stood, and the acoustic bass leaned her instrument against the wall.

Lee asked them if they knew Brian Eno’s Over Fire Island from his album Green World. The drummer shook his head but the acoustic bass player said she thought she might remember it and played a few notes something like the bass line. Lee corrected her on his instrument and commented apologetically that it wasn’t much more of a chance to show her stuff than the raga. “I’ll get in my licks sometime, don’t worry,” she said. She turned to the seated musicians and asked if any of them knew the piece. They shook their heads or remained silent.

They nodded to each other and he began playing. Lee knew the song well enough to improvise easily so he coasted until he knew how much she could do. She played well like a vein flowing modestly under the skin. As they went along he could do more.

When they finished there was a gust of applause, and then a silence, which was more eloquent than the applause. Some one scraped a chair, and it seemed sort of an irreverent act, which provoked another scattering of applause to cover it.

“’Not too shabby!” commented the double reed player. “Are you going to hang out for a while?” He smiled a narrow smile with his head slightly turned to the left.

“Do that for me again, stranger,” said a pot-bellied man in an Electronic Freedom Foundation tee shirt and bluejeans. He was often referred to, though not so often to his face, and the mousehead, not because he had a sharp nose a whiskers, but because with his ivory skin, almond-shaped, face and high brow he resembled the computer pointing device of that name.

“Folks don’t put it on the line like that in here every week.”  And turning aside, he queried the Indian bass player in undertones, “Where’s he from —Taiwan?”

“I think he’s from Boston as myself,” the electric bass player replied matter-of-factly.

Lee and the acoustic bassist repeated the tune twice, making it a little more complicated and a little more emotional each time. It was plain that nothing so cordial and at the same time impassioned had been heard in the cafeteria for some time.  The slightly off beat accent, the proficient lightness of the fingering, the sense of intense caring, and the seriousness with which he worked, surprised this set of geeks, who were only too prone to mute their emotions with casual fingering.

“I’ll be fucked if there’s any one around here who plays proactive like that,” the Cynic said. The Cynic was a paunchy grey guy who wore a dirty grey sweatshirt, grey gym pants, and a stubble of beard.

“What’s ‘proactive’,” asked a guy everyone called Bitbucket. He was a crane-tall geek with a big Adams apple who habitually walked with his head down and whose mouth fell ajar on the slightest provocation, seemingly because there was no chin to support it. He wore overalls and plain flannel shirts and sat in back with a group who did not play.

“Passive is when you’re walking down the street, and somebody punches you out,” said the guy usually called Buzzword the dealer. He had backed the double reed player on electric bass  “Active is when you punch him back, and proactive is when you walk down the street and punch out some random fucker.”

“When you take away from among us the fools,” the Cynic continued as if Buzzword had not spoken, “and the assholes, and the lazy boys, and the song birds, and the ecchizuki, and such like, there’s damn few left to ornament a tune or hack code in Gold Mountain or any damned digital mountain around here.”

“True,” said Buzzword the dealer, gazing at the gold-flecked Formica of the tabletop. Buzzword was a man of medium height with big head and broad shoulders from which dangled a spindly body. He dealt recreational drugs, not for the money, he was paid well, but for the love of it.

“Gold Mountain, shit, Lead Valley.” The Cynic continued, “I’ve heard there aren’t any contracts six months out. I’ve heard that Chandragupta doesn’t even own us anymore, the VC boys have all the stock and they’re just keeping him on as a figurehead until they can find someone who’s willing to captain a sinking ship, and for my part I can well believe it.”

“Mr. Chandragupta is a fine man and a visionary, and we should all be thankful he lets us work in his environment.” Bitbucket spoke as if he had been wounded.

“Where are you from,” inquired the guy in the Electronic Freedom Foundation tee shirt from the background, with the tone of a man who preferred the original subject.

“Newton, I grew up in Newton Massachusetts; it’s near Boston.”

A slight Chinese American woman, who was sitting the back with Bitbucket and the non-musicians, said something in Cantonese Lee could not understand. She wore a soft white sweater, loose fitting black pants and had her hair cut like a helmet.

“I’m sorry,” Lee said in English, “I only speak Mandarin” He was beginning to feel as if he were the speaker at a professional meeting facing a question-and-answer session after giving a successful talk.

“Do you play any other instrument?” she asked in English.

“Yes, I play the French horn — in a symphony you know.”

“Shit, it wasn’t worth your while to play for us,” the Cynic continued, “for as Buzzword says, it sucks here--the best of us can hardly hack our way out of a paper bag, and spend our time watching porn from the net except when the manager’s standing over us counting lines of code like we were making lice, and most of us reverse engineering the code from the competitors’ products.

“But, no!” said Bill Lee, “that’s not what he said.” And gazing round into their faces with earnest concern he added, “I’ve talked code with Chandragupta and he understands it better than any manager I’ve had. He must have gathered a good group around him? I have seen some of the work from here and its is clean, efficient code, and well commented.”

“You’re working on a short contract, right?” asked the double reed player.”

“Yes, I’m…”

“Where did you work in Boston,” The double reed player interrupted.

“Boston Communications,” Lee answered, “I worked for BCGI.”

“How’d you like it?’

“Oh yes, we were a harmonious group - I mean there was nothing like this,” he gestured deferentially toward the musicians around him evidently wanting to undo the unintentional pun, “No music, but a team where every body pulled together.” Then he looked a little pensive for the first time. “But it was not an organization where I could get ahead, so — so, he looked up as if greeting them, “so here I am a traveler.”

“I’ve heard in Boston you sweat in summer and shovel snow all winter,” the mouse-headed man said.

“Oh that’s partly true,” but it is lovely in the spring and the fall.  Surely some of you have been there on business.”

“I went to MIT,” said the double reed payer,” patting down his dress, “and I remember standing in the Cambridge subway station sweating in pouring rain.”

“But,” Lee continued, ”The flowers on the trees in the spring and their leaves in the fall are like a painting and the air is like wine.”

“I wish he would send me there,” Bitbucket said wistfully.

The Cynic was silenced, and as he could get no public sympathy, he mumbled his feelings to himself: “Shit, if I loved my home town half as well as the new coder does, I’d work in tech support before I’d go away!  For my part I’ve no more love for this Sandstone Valley than I do for the Gobi Desert, and the air is mostly gasoline fumes.”

“Come on let him play it again,” said the mouse-headed man, “I can listen all night.”

Lee glanced at the acoustic bass player who shook her head slightly responding to his smile, “That’s all of it,” He said apologetically.

“Do you know any Velvet Underground tunes?” asked Buzzword the dealer.

“Do you know any Lady punk?” inquired a fat woman in loose, figured purple pants, the waist string of which was overhung so far by her sides as to be invisible. Almost invisible too were her eyes in a circular disc reticulated with creases.

“Let his digits idle, Gertrude. He ain’t got his second wind yet,” protested the Indian bass player.

But Lee responded, “I’m glad to oblige you!” and began a familiar Dead melody, which he followed by Norwegian Wood.

By this time he had completely taken possession of the ears of the cafeteria quorum, including even the Cynic. Notwithstanding an occasional odd gravity, which made him seem pretentious at moments, they began to view him through a golden haze, which the manner of his playing seemed to raise around him. Gold Mountain had self-assurance; it had legends; but this stranger’s self assurance had a special quality, a modest self-assurance if you will. Maybe he was the first to articulate what all its listeners had longed for, though but dumbly till then.

The acoustic bass saw Chandragupta step in quietly and stand in the back of the room looking round upon the players and idlers with that ambiguous gaze of his, which at one moment seemed to her to mean satisfaction, and at another fiery disdain. His presence was unusual and what was more unusual after a little she saw the helmet of grey hair and the brown suit of Mildred Okamoto, his administrative assistant, who had never been seen at Friday night music before and who was never seen with Chandragupta outside of working hours.

“And are you going to take a regular job here?” the Chinese girl asked.

“O — no!” said Lee, with ambitious fatality in his voice, “I’m only passing through!  I am on my way to Taiwan to see what I can do in the land of my ancestors.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” said the mouse-headed man.  “We can ill afford to lose tuneful digits like yours when they fall among us.  And to make acquaintance with a man who plays in a symphony. We don’t hear that every day. Maybe there’s something to be learned from Bach and Beethoven.”

“Fawn plays in the symphony,” the Indian bass player said, for that was the name of the acoustic bass player. But the mouse-headed man continued unheeding, “When I was a kid in Sonoma we were hanging out in the park at night and the city fathers didn’t like it, so they played Beethoven and -- uh Wagner- over speakers to drive us out. It drove us out sure as shit. It’s music from the ungrateful dead and it made me feel like I was being buzzed by zombies.”

“I’m sorry you felt that way,” Lee said apologetically, “but the music is not dead at all no matter the death date of the men who made it. It contains a world of ideas and techniques, and I could not have played so well except for those dead men,” he continued passionately. “There are a hundred kinds of music and they are all one fabric.”

“Of course,” said the double reed player. He turned to the mouse-headed man. ”You need to hear more, before you can say that, you need to listen with your ears to what I play and Fawn plays.”

“Where are your things?” enquired the Chinese girl.

“Some are already shipped to Taiwan, and what I had on the plane is with me at my cousin’s where I’m staying.

A general sense of regret made itself apparent in the gathering.

4400 words


Copyright © 2008 by Dirk van Nouhuys:

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