V: Cadenza | Searchlight Song: "Stop Time"
Wait. Miles Davis is on. That’s half the picture right there. His muted trumpet braids silver around my veins. And maybe I’m sick of thinking about veins, or this quick-capped body they’re racing through, or the soft electric light shaking me clean at this late hour. I’m collapsed in my desk chair, too far from the floor. I’ll improvise the distance away. My voice swelling into a new space to live in, cascades of nonsense syllables that only he can decode. My pulse in my wrists slides slowly toward sunlight, uptempo, grit to grow from like a riot from a seed. I love to sing,I’ll tell my friends at school tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I’m any good. Lucky, then, that these don’t have to be songs; they only have to flower in colors that keep me safe. I don’t understand the jazz, but it answers me, sees through me, excuses the charcoal clawing the walls of my chest. A half-lit stage, a few shadows drunk on witness and warmth, a blue-hued note glimmering as if I was born to catch it.
In my other life, I spent five years singing. In places where people could actually hear me. I did think I was any good, and it showed on my face, and it was a brightness that needed no description. But here I am anyway with the words—
A choir for girls sounded so forbidden. Candy and carnations in my arms. That was how I justified it into myself, my small get-go frame, my mess of tendons and treble and terrible cheer. I slipped into the blouse and the black dress, decided to endure the nylons-not-tights, fixed the satin rosette with its hook around my neck. If this were today, I’d call it power. Back then? I didn’t yet have to name things to know they were mine.
I didn’t have any friends there save a girl I’d only spoken to because she lived the closest to me. I also didn’t notice. In the fourth grade, there were only so many things I could properly see at once. Every Tuesday a new melody to roll around in my chest. Fold and refold. A new set of lines to dance the wrinkles out of. A seat in the center of the front row—only because I was short and a new girl, but I didn’t notice that, either. Another beam of sun, two, three, cut out onto the rehearsal-room tiles below my feet. Just for me. I crafted houses upon houses for myself inside those joyful puzzles. When I’d convinced myself I had my part right, I listened in when our co-conductors addressed the alto section. I learned their notes. When I got home and practiced in the mirror, I switched between mine and theirs at random, just over four feet of pure warble. I must’ve been a sight: tiny, still bendable. Willed full of striving, sweet, incomprehensible swing.
The first time my younger brother came to one of my choir concerts, he slept through the entire thing. I laughed at him for days afterward. Sounds like a you problem. He just wasn’t a music kind of kid, I told myself. Where I grew heavy with joy, he grew away from the glow. Our repertoire whirled straight over his head, and mine: the love tunes with all the pronouns changed to “he.” Something like a thousand versions of the Catholic Mass. I fluted Italian and Latin and German through my teeth and figured it to be an education. I didn’t relate to it, sure, but to relate was to sacrifice art. However it chose to bare its neck.
Try as I might, though, I still couldn’t throw my choirgirl self and every single other one into tight-strung sense. My parents asked me why I had no melodies I could actually teach them. My friends, for the most part, never realized I could breathe anything other than shining fact. The other choirgirls tended to keep me at arm’s length; turns out I hit nerves everywhere I stepped. I started hearing again and again that my voice was too brash, out of season in the lovely ranks, that in choir, we have to learn to blend. Oh. A you problem.I patterned even my sound after a more legible anatomy. I tamed and tamed and tamed my belting-through-a-reed singing voice until it was pliant, summery, gray in a sea of gray. My head voice is still clean as a rock in a river. It’s had years to settle.
There was a girl-shaped gap for me here. There had to be: every few weeks, I caught sight of its glint. Spider silk turned legend in my lungs. My ribs expanding to let the dust in, alchemical wonder, and letting me cough up bell after bell. There were more and more moving targets I could fascinate myself with—soprano II, alto I, alto II. Better yet, there were soaring, scale-soaked arcs. Four-note hooks that had me fishlined behind them. Commissioned songs, imagine that, whose verses I could be the first person in the world to misunderstand. It was so much more than I needed, don’t you see, to go on chasing every key change that kept me alive. I kept wandering into rehearsal every Tuesday, stiff-backed and loose-hearted. And by loose I must mean happy. Just get these measures down, I thought, and you’ll see the way. If I was going to adapt out of my skin, I was going to do it right.
Hold it, hold it. I’m trying to sound more like me. “Body and Soul.” All of it. Wes Montgomery’s pulling me so taut that I can hear my whole spine ring. It’s a sour note, but I didn’t fall this far because I had a head for taste. I’m humming again with the music; this you can count on. Forever at my desk, forever with my sore hand burned around the pencil. Differential equations buzzing through my joints. As if I can rake together a birthright in what I leave behind.
Jazz respelled the guitar into my throat. I’d seen it as a feathered, wind-rolled thing, an instrument that could sigh the shore into my head. But when I heard Wes Montgomery for the first time, I knew why the heart had strings. I knew velvet speared into the fastest parts of me, and it was headed home.
I mean, his grin is seeping absolutely everywhere, isn’t it? That’s what this arrow is, spinning true in my ears? Something in the pit of my stomach is telling me yes. It’s so loud. It loves me so much. I can sing on its edge, pure and physical, easy as walking. No, I never really got music theory. There’s instinct bitten into these harmonies, nothing more, nothing breakably less. No, you’re not supposed to listen to instrumental jazz with your voicebox. But I can grasp two parallel lines here, pull them favorite-jacket close. This music gets the same growing pains my singing voice used to, but it looks good doing it. These guitar recordings, they light the way across the minefield. I have no lies for those blood-built stars.
Looking back, the drawing of the lines is obvious: I was one of three-as-a-generous-estimate girls of color in the entire choir at any given time. I went to public school. I treated God less like God and more like an idea I could take apart in my hands. Something I could argue with, the way I argued with rhythm and the color pink. Looking back, it makes grudging, lights-dimmed sense that even in a choir of forty girls strong, I stood alone. Is it any surprise? For me, every time. For all the dreams curled like centuries in my gut, ripe, unflinching, when I walked into that rehearsal room, I couldn’t hold a single note.
I guess the song just chose somebody else. I guess I’ve got greased notes without words instead. I guess I have to stop repeating myself. I guess Grant Green and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. I guess you let something new escape you and it shatters you across its knee. I guess I thought you could make a life out of making. Or that creation was pink-robed and ran as fast as I did. I guess second best blooms like treason on your face. I guess an artist’s love is cut gunpoint and conditional. I guess I improvised. Look what it did to me. I guess I saw a jazz band play once and nothing was ever so certain again. I guess. I guess. Revolution even in that awful phrase.
Believe it or not, I auditioned for this. Almost ten years ago now. How to fathom that? Even that skeleton, au-di-tion, still gets me, so smooth but full of holes.
Mostly, I remember the cats. They perched atop the teetering piles of sheet music without a care in the world for gravity. They stared hard at me. I was nine years old and still had the sense to stare back. There’s no feeling in the world like knowing that a cat expects great things. I remember, clear as the sky-blown note of a trumpet, thinking that here was a picture out of a story if there ever was one. A story with my outline already sketched into it, if only I could open my mouth.
I’m sure I must’ve been asked to sing some scales. To walk up and down the white ladder of the piano. I’m sure I had a solo planned, but I can’t ever recall how it went. There were no fears living in that room, or least none that I couldn’t pinch away like fuses in dollhouses. I’m sure my future conductors were being perfectly enchanting—they never were anything but. There was a line of sun punched right onto the carpeted floor. There were dust motes sailing with a surety they’d never get back. There were the cats. I think maybe they’ll live forever. This afternoon doesn’t need my voice to seem whole, but it does need my voice to just be. Back then, of course, don’t I know it still, my voice was immortal and enough.
There’s nothing more to tell. No. Tell is the wrong word. Any word—all limbs, insurrection in the eaves—is the wrong damn word. I’m at my desk again as I write this. Miles Davis, of course. He is, after all, the first long night, and the last, because once you stumble into the mouth of one you don’t leave your whole life long.
You know, I thought about translating. I do not know how to write about music. I tangle up the wires of technicality and terror instead of feeling for the pulse beneath. I’m always comparing what I hear to something more magnificent.
When will I get this into my head? I’m not here to be beautiful. I’m just here to be here. Salt the seams of this timeline before a metronome does. Clip the wings where it’ll hurt best. Teach the next girl that her art should take her as she is. Here it is, I swear: I heard a man smiling with all his teeth on the radio and couldn’t stay away. Just give me one more minute caught in the act, vocal cords straining in time with the beating darkness, sitting up like a ramrod while the trumpet fades.
This song-stricken body is no compromise. The jazz does not take back the border, but it does convince it away on cold nights. Portrait of my prayers with the bruises rubbed out. Can you say grace. Say renegotiation. When I make, I don’t transcend error. I become it, and its fury, and its endless uneven meadows, and its sense and missense, throwing my voice as far as it’ll take me.
I mean to cover the distance, but I pause. Wait for a gust of wind. I sing my life straight through the tightrope. Never, oh god, never look down.
(Searchlight Song is a column by Christina Im about the music behind identity: how it shapes us, explains us, and finds us when we are stumbling in the dark.This column, along with one more by the HM team and dozens more pieces of art, music, and writing by contributors, is published in Half Mystic Journal’s Issue V: Cadenza. It is available for preorder now.)