You’re both musicians, so I’ll put it to you in musical terms. Certain people have volume problems, simply. They have what you might call an awkward sense of dynamics. They’re loud when the rest of us are soft, and when the rest of us are loud, they fall silent. And this man, Byron Brandt, was just such a person, a social misfit in the most literal sense. His part in the story of my life is hardly more than laughable, yet tied by fate to the end of my time with Peter Smith, which wasn’t laughable at all. I don’t mean to say that Peter’s leaving was tragic, exactly. It just happened, as I remember. What’s Eliot’s line? Not with a bang but a whimper.
He was primarily concerned with material things. He didn’t have a lot of respect for “ideas.”
Oh, I do realize he’s a small-time celebrity now, and a sort of idol of yours, but understand that when I first met Peter Smith he was just another struggling artist in his twenties, same as me. Of course, there are always plenty of struggling artists in their twenties. If Peter and I were different, which we were, it’s because we were both intensely committed to what we were calling “real life.” We believed that the most interesting art was that which engaged matter-of-factly with the most quotidian human events—work, play, eating, and sleeping, rather than just sex and death—and this idea, which probably sounds old-hat to you but seemed rather new-hat at the time, this idea was what brought us together. It set us apart from others and made us feel that we were working “beyond the rat race,” as Peter said. It put us on a different track, a fact that gave us a great sense of freedom coupled with a perhaps greater sense of futility and fear.
That Peter was a closed-off person, very private, was never a real problem. But we also disagreed about art, the one thing that mattered. I was interested in concepts, you see, while Peter was primarily concerned with material things, making, building. He didn’t have a lot of respect for “ideas,” although he kept this particular opinion to himself, or tried to, out of his feelings for me.
I haven’t forgotten Byron, by the way. We’ll get to him in a minute.
I’d been living with Peter for three years when I woke one day to the realization that I was twenty-seven, working four jobs just to pay our bills, and had nothing to show for myself artistically. You can imagine what a terrible day that was. It put me in a state of panic and self-doubt. I became obsessed with my own lack of productivity, my fear of failure, and all this anxiety only made it harder for me to get work done. I mean artistic work. If I didn’t talk with Peter about this, which I didn’t, that’s because I held him partly responsible—the circumstances of our lives together had distracted me from my own goals. Oddly enough, in reading his recent autobiography I’ve learned that Peter had a similar feeling at the time. Can you imagine finding out something like that from an autobiography? I was the one working four jobs, though, so I don’t see what he had to complain about.
At any rate, it was during this difficult period that I first spoke to—here we are—Byron Brandt, the man people called “the Astor Place crier.” He was always standing under the Astor Place cube ranting about one thing or another, anti-corporate this and ideological that, and so naturally I thought he was an art student. And he dressed eccentrically, a yellow bathing suit and sandals … and nothing else! Well, it was a gimmick. He claimed that his body was as naked as his truths, a slogan that became more desperately uninteresting each time he repeated it. He obviously intended to shock, to provoke. In reality, he turned out to be shy, but of that particular shyness that manifests itself as extreme, even obnoxious, extroversion.
At that time I was working at Carl Fischer Music in the afternoons, and so would pass him on my way to work. I’d always assumed he was a lunatic, which he was—Socrates in a swimsuit, with his endless catalog of rants, accusations, affronts, all the so-called “passionate” rhetoric that passes for the real. A lot of it having to do with music, though, which is why sometimes, walking past, I would listen, and why one day I decided to respond.
It was, I remember, a particularly miserable day, miserably hot, but also my mood was worse than usual. For some reason my personal frustrations had chosen that day to collide with my general sense of the futility of all artistic enterprise, so that I was predisposed, climbing up out of the subway station, to view anything I might run into as a mockery of my life. And there he was, his shrill voice and ridiculous outfit, claiming that music was the basis of all human experience. Since I was early for work, I walked over to him. Music, he was saying, was the “alpha discourse,” it was the “crème de la discourse” because it “said nothing,” and “Nothing,” he announced, “is the superior thing to say.” It was a high-spirited if not very nuanced argument, and an ironic claim from a man who apparently never stopped talking.
I imagine he was used to being ignored, one strange voice in a city of strange voices. I imagine having someone actually stop and pay attention must have been a rare experience for him, although my presence there did not slow him down. If anything he spoke faster, like a nervous schoolboy at a spelling bee. Having established that music “says nothing,” he proceeded to liken everything in life to it—food and shelter, love and laundry, science and sports—as if drawing analogies to music somehow made more sense than likening all the same things to, for example, the weather. Gertrude Stein tells us “comparisons are odious,” and as usual she is absolutely right. Comparisons are odious—they’re so easy and plentiful! A point our politicians understand very well. Byron, of course, was no politician. His ego was too erratic, for one, too up and down and up and down. I don’t mean to make him sound like a complete buffoon…. He wasn’t…. Well, he was, but the art world is filled with such people. He, at least, had the courage of his idiotic convictions.
There I was, though, growing more irritated with each of his shabby comparisons, imagining each a personal attack on my own self-worth. As he finished he turned to me provocatively, an arched-eyebrow look, as if I should wither from the heat of his fiery confidence. It was a very male gesture for a very male sort of foolishness, and so of course he was surprised when, instead of submitting to his absurdities, I decided to point them out: He wanted life to be music so that it wouldn’t have to be life. It wasn’t that he’d faced chaos and now wished upon it music’s quasi-mathematical coherence. It wasn’t that he’d struggled with the set of values that had been handed to him and found these values ultimately insufficient to human feeling, and so sought a system more beautiful and correct. It wasn’t that he cared about life at all, I told him, he just liked talking, and he believed he’d found something to say that would be hard to argue with. We all assert ourselves in one way or another, and this was the form he’d chosen. Which, I said, was fine as far as it went, but he should understand that, for anyone who cared about music and ideas, who worked very hard and tried to take her life very seriously, it was a frustrating, embarrassing display.
He seemed to shrink while I was talking, and when I was done he stayed silent. He wore an awful look of stupefaction, as if his erratic ego, his ego which pumped like a human heart—expanding to blood-filled hugeness only to collapse, then expand, then collapse—as if this ego had suddenly stopped mid-beat. If “nothing” was the superior thing to say, then Byron didn’t say it very well—his nothing was as obvious and vapid as his speech! Of course, I hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings, and when I saw how sensitive he was, I felt bad for what I’d said. I’d taken out my problems on this poor ridiculous person. This total stranger. I’d never even stopped to talk to him before.
The following afternoon I avoided Astor Place, approaching the Carl Fischer building from the south. I had no desire to see Byron again, but, alas, he found me, came into the store, up to my counter—somehow he’d found out that I worked there—and erupted with all of the refutations and rebuttals he’d apparently been rehearsing since the previous day. He didn’t get through very many before the manager and a security guard threw him out—too loud, and of course there were rules about dress—but by then any guilt I might have felt had turned to worry and anger at my own stupidity. I realized I’d bred a beast, and that this would not be the end of him.
Sure enough, he showed up the following day, dressed this time in long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, dress shoes, and a jacket. He found me working in the stacks. Right away he began listing his objections and clarifications, none of which I currently remember, although I stood there listening—I listened and listened and agreed with everything he said. I wasn’t about to argue. I told him he was right, whatever he was saying, I’d simply been confused, lost in my own problems, but certainly the world and everything in it was related to music and not to anything else. He wouldn’t let it go, though. He scoffed and insisted, underscored and reiterated, because the truth—which I only fully realized later—the truth was that Byron was less concerned with whether music was in fact the basis of all human experience than with whether or not I was impressed that he thought so.
After that, he would come into the store a few times a week dressed in his nice outfit, or would find me outside during my break time, always with new claims and fresh rebuttals, until finally I realized what was going on: He was courting me. In his twisted ridiculous mind these pseudo-intellectual harangues were supposed to attract me, like colorful plumage. This was of course something I had no interest in at all. I should have just turned him away, but I didn’t have the heart to, and he was either too shy or not self-aware enough to just come out with it, so instead we played this game. I started mentioning “my fiancé, Peter” as often as possible, thinking Byron’s crush would naturally pass. Peter and I were never actually engaged, but this was meant to strike a note of finality. I told him about Peter’s favorite foods, his little quirks, his plans to take me to Spain for our honeymoon—most of it lies, although I did dream of going to Spain. Or I’d talk about picnics Peter and I had taken in the park, or in the country, also made up. I was so dreamy about it, I almost convinced myself. At any rate, it had its effect. Every time I mentioned Peter, Byron would grow irritated, scoff, and storm off muttering.
If I was interested in Byron, which I suppose I was, this was only because he was so completely different from Peter. Where Peter was shielded and private, Byron was out there for all to see. You perhaps felt that you saw too much of him, but there was nonetheless this availability, this loudness, which was only partly off-putting, and only because of the second-rate quality of his mind. In truth, between my exhausting work schedule and Peter’s relative seclusion, my conversations with Byron were the only opportunities I had to discuss my various ideas about music and life and work, and so, mostly by default, this time became important to me. I didn’t love him, though. I never loved him. That he loved me was just another anxiety to deal with on top of all the others.
Now, given all the forces at work in my life at that time, you would think that I didn’t get any composing done at all, yes? And yet it was during this period that I wrote what would become my first work of any consequence, the performance piece “Four Minutes and 33 Pairs of Sweatpants.” The idea came because Peter was unemployed at the time and would sit around the apartment all day in his sweatpants, working on his instruments. Since I was holding down four jobs and had hardly any time for my own work, the sweatpants became a source of irritation for me, a symbol of my frustration. I would come home between jobs and find him still in his sweatpants. I’d say, “Please tell me you’re not still in your sweatpants,” and Peter would say, “I’m not still in my sweatpants, I changed into my sweatpants.” What he meant was that he’d changed from one pair of sweatpants into another—whether this constitutes “changing” or is simply a form of staying the same is a question I leave for the philosophers. Suffice it to say that Peter had more pairs of sweatpants than anyone I’ve ever met, as if he’d been collecting them all his life, which I think he possibly had.
The concept behind “Four Minutes” was simple enough: a composition in the form of a competition, the prize for which was the opportunity to make music. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of musical compositions about making music, because making music is something that I care about, and I enjoy making art out of things that I care about, but in retrospect I recognize the limitations of this particular work. It was solvable, for one, and was eventually solved, and so now is forgotten. I freely admit that it was a showy piece. I admitted it at the time, but saw no reason why an artwork could not afford to be a little showy as long as it produced something interesting.
Needless to say, the sweatpants allusion was not wasted on Peter.
The performance would take place in a large room, an auditorium or theater. There would be a stage filled with instruments of all types and sizes, and many items that were not at that time even considered instruments, including some of Peter’s own creations—a collection capable of making every sound imaginable, or at least the most beautiful ones. The performer would stand on the right side of the stage where a pile of sweatpants had been stacked, thirty-three in total. Thirty-three being the number of pairs I’d found in Peter’s sweatpants drawer. Once given the signal—my shouting “Go!”—the performer had four minutes in which to play anything he wished on any of the instruments assembled, provided he first accomplish the seemingly simple but in reality nearly impossible task of putting on every single pair of sweatpants. Thirty-three pairs in less than four minutes was to be rewarded with total creative freedom within the remaining time. I didn’t bother to stipulate that the performer would also take the sweatpants off, since it never occurred to me that anyone could wear thirty-three pairs concurrently. Or rather, it occurred to me several times that no one possibly could.
Needless to say, the sweatpants allusion was not wasted on Peter. I imagine that he resented it, although all he said about the piece was that it wasn’t a “composition,” it was just an “idea,” and that I was “buying into the whole competition business,” which meant that the piece “wasn’t really art.” It was the only time he’d directly criticized my work, and was the beginning of the end for us. I should have stood my aesthetic ground but was too angry to think, and so ended up arguing on his own pathetically practical terms. I said I didn’t have time to work on a “composition” because one of us had to make “money,” and this fact was what my “idea” was about, which made it a rather appropriate sort of “art,” didn’t he think?
Apparently, he did not. A textbook prima donna, Peter thought everything was about him, whereas in reality only a very small part of that composition—a simple detail, a stage prop—had to do with him at all. And even the sweatpants were not chosen to mock Peter, but because the task of climbing into thirty-three pairs of them was so obviously ridiculous. If I was mocking anything, which I was, it was my own life, the grueling boredom of my daily tasks and the absurdity of my own anger, this anger that had chosen to manifest itself in resentment toward, of all things, Peter’s sweatpants. It was not about our relationship so much as relationships in general, these types of banal frustrations that persist between people in love. I suppose our own relationship might have fared better had I told Peter some of this. But he never said a word about the sweatpants, so I never got a chance to explain.
There followed a moment of indecision, a day or two when my life might have gone a different way. “Four Minutes” was something new, an exciting possibility, but it was making things worse with Peter, who for so long had been the most important person in my life…. Well, I suppose you can second-guess anything, particularly in hindsight. If I’m going to be honest, there’s no way I could have stopped, even if I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t. “Four Minutes” was mine, after all. I’d conceived it, for what it was worth.
Peter, meanwhile, had become almost irritatingly cooperative. Deciding to play the martyr, he put aside his own feelings and helped me stage the first performance. We had no budget at all. We used a community auditorium that a friend had access to, and Peter took charge of assembling the instruments, some of which we had, some we made, most of which we borrowed. His generosity ended at his sweatpants, which he categorically refused to lend. In fact, he grew angry when I asked. This was a bit of a setback, although I suppose I could see his point. I took care of coordinating the performance—originally there was going to be just one, at most two—which meant hanging fliers all around town, an enumerated Martin Luther-type manifesto I’d composed, numbered points about the challenges to artistic production in the modern age along with an official announcement of the event, a call for participants, and a kind of tear-off and mail-in signup sheet. Within a week forty-five people had mailed in, mostly men. We got an extension on the space, scheduled five performances per night, and decided to charge admission.
Attendance was good from the start. On the first night, some art and music critics showed, those reporter types who write for the papers, and soon there was an unbelievable “buzz” around town. The piece moved into a larger space, but we were still turning people away. We bought a bell to signal “Go!” and some friends signed on to screen applicants. It was surprising how fast it all happened—it was absurd, truly—and it soured Peter on the project once and for all. He was right in what he said: People liked it for the wrong reasons. He didn’t mean this as a criticism of me. It was a joke to them, a good time. He stopped coming after the first week. He took back his instruments, and then, suddenly, he was gone, from the piece and from my life—just like that. His departure went almost entirely unmarked, as I remember. No fanfare, hardly even any feelings. We’d been together for three years. I suppose it was over well before that.
At any rate, the piece quickly grew into a bona fide cultural phenomenon, everyone was having a good time, and I started to make money from it. Not much money, but enough to give me courage to quit my various jobs and concentrate on other projects. Since I was never around Astor Place anymore, I stopped seeing Byron, and, frankly, didn’t give him much thought. At the same time—and this seems strange to me even in retrospect—I also started gaining a reputation as a promising conceptual artist, even though, as far as I could tell, no one took the piece seriously or considered it anything more than a glorified parlor game. I won’t say this realization didn’t bother me, just as I won’t claim that Peter wasn’t finally right about a lot of what he said. But I was caught up in success. And with Peter suddenly out of the picture—he’d taken his sweatpants and moved to New Jersey—it seemed the only thing that mattered to me or anyone in my life was the fact that no one could get in and out of thirty-three separate pairs of sweatpants in under four minutes’ time.
And this was the state of affairs when one night Byron showed up, dressed in his old yellow bathing suit. The piece had been running for just over a month by then, although it seemed much longer. He walked straight up to me, his face straining to look righteous, his finger pointed to look accusing. He claimed I’d “abandoned him” for my art—which was basically true—that I’d “stolen his ideas”—which was absurd—but that he’d come, now, to set things straight. He’d been “working the problem,” had “solved our furious enigma,” and would “demonstrate the ease of it.” I found his bravura maddening, but it turned out he’d mailed in an application and been accepted through the normal channels, so there was nothing to do but let him make a fool of himself.
He was third in the line-up, which was actually one of the better spots to fill—the audience was warmed up by then, and not yet tired. Since Byron was already a sort of local joke-celebrity, there was a considerable amount of cheering when he got onstage, although nothing as loud as Byron himself, who went on about a wide range of asinine topics interspersed with claims that he’d “prepared something very special” for when he’d “surmounted” all the sweatpants. Meanwhile, I stood in the back of the hall, pretending it wasn’t me he was looking at.
Of course I knew what Byron was up to, that he was planning, one way or another, to express his love for me. I saw this from the moment he walked in the door. But while I was not anxious to find out what sort of “music” Byron’s love might conjure up, neither was I particularly worried that I’d have to.
Then the bell rang, the clock started, the crowd settled down. Byron began normally enough, though what struck me right away was that, while he put the sweatpants on in the usual way, he didn’t take any pairs off, he just kept layering. We’d seen this strategy before, of course. Early on, a few competitors had tried to squeeze into four or five pairs before pulling off the bunch, but this method proved cumbersome and ended up taking more time rather than less. With Byron, though, we watched as he passed pairs three and four and continued to pair seven, eight, and on. As each pair stretched tighter, the chances of getting out of them grew slimmer, and so when he reached the eleventh pair, and there was obviously no going beyond it, I assumed the performance was done. Being dim-witted—I told myself—Byron had imagined he would keep going, that he would somehow magically fit into thirty-three pairs of sweatpants simultaneously, but instead he’d just managed to look like a fool.
Well, I underestimated him. Byron, it turned out, had a unique talent—I mean a talent unique not just to him but to that particular situation as well—he had the otherwise useless ability to wriggle out of eleven pairs of sweatpants in no time at all. If that doesn’t sound very impressive to you, I suggest you try it sometime. I, who’ve seen it happen, still haven’t the slightest idea how it was done. I can tell you that he was lying down, that the movements involved were disturbing to watch and even more to listen to, that the audience was silent and utterly amazed, and that I personally experienced every possible emotion, one after the other in just a few minute’s time-but beyond this, all I know is that he managed it. Eleven pairs of sweatpants!
He went on, of course, and reached the thirty-third pair, the final pair of the last eleven, with twenty-five seconds to spare. He didn’t bother to take the last eleven off, but simply moved himself as he was to center stage. The sight was met with silent, bewildered anticipation from everyone there. For my own part, I was excited to see what he’d do, which instrument he’d choose, what sort of music he would make with it. It had occurred to me, during the extraordinary emotional rollercoaster of the preceding minutes, that this was a chance for my piece to reclaim itself, to demonstrate to the world that there was a purpose to this tiresome exercise, a goal greater than the intentionally absurd task of fitting into a pile of sweatpants. It was only then, on the verge of Byron’s success, that I discovered how much such validation meant to me. I’d been through a great deal, after all, not just the sacrifice of the previous months but the struggle of previous years, all the work that goes into the creation of a single exceptional moment. So, I was excited. I hoped he might choose something beautiful, like an oboe—one of the more difficult instruments to play, but at that instant he seemed capable of anything. I said to myself, “If he picks up the oboe, I could love him.” But do you know what he picked up?
Nothing. He didn’t say or play a damn thing, he just stood there, staring out into the crowd, at me in the back of the room, with an expression as blank and stupid as when I’d first questioned him under the Astor Place cube. And while I’ll never know exactly which “nothing” he thought he was performing that day, I know which one I was witnessing. He looked frightened, terrified even, as if, having come all this way, the weight of his “mysterious” message had landed on his head and struck him dumb. For me, it was more revolting to watch than all the bizarre contortions his strange body could ever produce. I hated him. I wanted to throw things at him. He was wasting an artistic opportunity. He was mocking it. He might as well have spit in my face.
When his time was up, I slipped out, walked home, and went to sleep. I have no idea how the evening ended for everyone else.
Peter, it seems, left the next year. He joined the Army—I’ve just been reading about it. We weren’t talking by that point, and I didn’t hear of him again for almost twenty years, when his touring ensemble started appearing in art magazines. They play here in the city sometimes. I’ve attended once or twice, incognito. It’s interesting to read his book, to find out what happened to him, even if it is his own version. Our life together was several lifetimes ago, you understand, so there are no hard feelings. In fact, there are no feelings at all—how could there be? There couldn’t.
As for Byron, after that night he could no longer be found around Astor Place or anywhere else. I never saw him again. I can’t say I’ve missed him, or that I’ve given him much thought. He was an interesting man conceptually, the idea of him was interesting, but as a thing in the world he left a lot to be desired.
And while, looking back, I can’t say “Four Minutes” was my finest work by any measure, it was, I think, the best work I could have done at the time. It was silly, on one level, but on another it was a rather serious and intimate composition about work and art and the personal struggles I faced throughout my twenties. It was composed out of those struggles, as a way to make a space for myself in all the dull commotion.
Now, of course, it’s completely forgotten. And just as well. After that night there was no point to it anymore, it held no interest for either the audience or me, and the world moved on to other things. I know many artists, writers, and composers who hate their early pieces because their popularity overshadows later, better works. I know others who are true one-hit wonders and happily ride their singular wave into oblivion. I know artists who crave fame and others who despise it. I know some, riddled with pettiness and insecurities, who assume that everyone else is just as petty and self-absorbed, and I find these people only slightly less absurd than those who believe they are emotionally unique. I don’t know where I fall among such categories. At different times, I’ve fallen differently. I know that at one time “Four Minutes” was an important part of my life, that later I grew to resent it, that for a long time now it’s been as if someone else wrote it, and at moments I’ve been sorry they bothered. But there it is, either you make something or you don’t.