The night breeze whispered through the trees, shuffling their crisp leaves and making them buzz like radio static. It was an unusually beautiful autumn day, but then again, it was January. Always several steps ahead in politics, technology, and accepted morality, Los Angeles remained ever a few months behind when it came to seasons.
But the future had arrived and two men sat rocking together just outside a cafe, contemplating it.
“Please don’t do that,” said a barista, bored for having nothing much to do since the espresso maker took over the bulk his primary job. “You’ll break the legs.”
The men ignored her, rocking on. If you happened to squint at them, blurring out the minimalist chic of the cafe, you might imagine you’d stepped back several decades— maybe even several centuries— to when front porches were the watering holes and rocking chairs the thrones of storytelling old men with nothing much else to do than to spread their wisdom to any passerby.
“— they said it couldn’t be done,” one of them was saying.
“Well, Phil,” said the other. His voice retained a hint of the old dust and drawers of a generation on its way out of style. It was grating, rough against the smooth plasticity of the modern cafe and flavoring his words with sawdust. “They said a lot of things couldn’t be done, and yet here we are, doing them or watching others doing them and not a word can be said against ‘em anymore.”
His companion grunted and rocked. Rocked and grunted, scratching an overgrown mustache and staring into a flashback only he could see.
“Do you know, Jenkins, I read a list a couple years back. Or maybe it was longer ago that that. Tory was a baby and still going by her rightful name, so I s’pose it was longer. Anyway, this list was circling around the internet — through email of all things — declaring that there were ten jobs that AI—”
“Artificial intelligence,” supplemented Jenkins.
“Yes, that,” said Phil. “Ten jobs that artificial intelligence could never replace. Now, I don’t profess to have much real intelligence—” here both men chuckled at the pun and toasted with their coffees “— but I do believe I’ve seen it all. Each and every one of those jobs eventually up and quit and gave over the the robots or computers or cell phones. And, you know, Jenkins, it just sort of makes me wonder.”
“Well, what’s next? When do we all become unnecessary? Technology goes in and out of style, always upgrading to the next iPhone or thinner television. Hell, you should have seen my grandkids’ Christmas lists— all virtual reality games. When I was that age, we just had games. Outside. A baseball bat and a bike and bruises we wore with pride.”
“And we walked to school uphill, rain or shine or snow.”
The men laughed at the joke that never quite grew old, even if its tellers always did. They threw back the last dregs of coffee and rocked their chairs with renewed gusto. Overhead, soft keyboard music filtered down, electronic mist to cool busy minds.
“It’s all wrong,” said Jenkins suddenly.
“It’s just wrong,” he repeated. “Can you hear that?”
“Music?” asked Phil. “Jazz?”
“Yes, but it’s too shiny. Too easy-breezy-beautiful like an advertisement for music ‘stead of the thing itself.”
“Sounds alright to me.”
“Alright, sure,” said Jenkins. “But it’s too clean, too calculated. Jazz is an art, not a technology; there should be room for error. Without room for error or mishap, where’s the room for genius?”
“Now you’re just getting smart,” grunted Phil. “I never could keep up with your philosophizing.”
They sat in silence as the computerized jazz trickled down over them. But it was a plastic rain; it neither struck nor entered their souls, instead rolling off to be quickly forgotten. Before they knew it was over, the barista swiped to a new audio station from behind the counter and classical music poured forth.
“You recognize this piece?” asked Jenkins. He continued before Phil could respond. “It’s Chopin. Oh, I used to love Chopin. But now I hardly recognize him. A million pianists would play his Barcarolle a million different ways, but it was always Chopin— always beautiful and spontaneous, poetic and alive. Alive, Phil. Alive. God, I can hardly recognize my old friend now; they’ve sterilized him. Sure, they’ve preserved and perfected him, but they ended up killing him all the same.”
“I knew a girl who once played this piece,” said Phil after a moment. “She used to say it was a love duet. You hear the two voices singing above the accompaniment like waves on a canal in Venice… That whole sentence feels like a foreign language now. It did then, too, to be sure— I had no business trying to talk music with a girl like that. But when she played it, I understood — somehow — exactly what she meant. I haven’t the foggiest clue as I listen now. Might as well be mathematics.”
“Except you’d understand math,” said Jenkins.
“You’re right I would,” sighed Phil. He tilted his head, letting the mechanical Chopin drain into his ear, clogging it with its noise before evaporating as the speakers shifted back again to jazz and then to pop and then to the folksy singer-songwriters that seem to have been born in a coffee shop.
“That’s better,” said Jenkins. “A bit sentimental, sure, but at least they’ve let some of the singer-songwriters keep singing with their own voices.”
“Math,” said Phil, his voice an echo.
“Math,” he repeated. “I’d understand math, that’s true. And maybe now I’m being the smart-ass philosopher, but where’s the meaning in it? Sure, I get that two plus two is four and once you get into geometry and algebra and even in calculus I did alright in my day, but how much to I really understand math? And how much does it matter when you cut to the heart of things? When that girl played for me, all those years ago, I understood something in it and, through it, about her and about myself. I think I might have been a little in love. I don’t know. But I understood that whatever it was meant something. It’s a funny thing, understanding that something means something to you beyond what you can logically understand. But it stuck with me and, well, damn it Jenkins I’m sad of a sudden. I hadn’t thought of that girl in years.”
“Blame the singer on the radio now,” said Jenkins. But he squinted at Phil. A shadow had come across his friend’s face that matched his own. Something irritated them as they sat with their drained cups, listening as the radio leapt between genres with terrible randomness.
“They said it could never be done,” said Phil finally.
“AI musicians,” said Phil.
“But it has.”
“So it has.”
They sat in silence for a few more moments. Well, as close to silence as they could get anymore. The ages of silence, of the wind roaring in the distance and of crickets chirping unironically in the creek bed, were far, far behind them. The radio continued to vomit into their ears and minds, the coffee stirred their spirits and boiled their blood, and the cars outside raced faster and faster down the crowded streets. It was impossible to listen to anything in particular. Impossible to sit in silence. They ceased their rocking so that one thing might at least remain quiet and still.
Quiet and still.
“Phil?” said Jenkins.
His friend grunted.
“You want to go somewhere old?”
“I don’t want to pick up women our age, if that’s what you mean.”
“No,” said Jenkins. “Do you want to go somewhere where there is sound with purpose? With real humans making it? People listening and interacting with it and each other? I don’t mean like at the arcades or clubs. I mean somewhere old like us, adapting as best we can but clinging to what was good before.”
No word was needed. They left in silence and walked in silence. They strained to hear the crunching of the leaves beneath their feet but heard only the whirring of car engines and the propellers of a delivery drone overhead. Stopping in front of a stairwell, they took in the neon blue arrow that illuminated their descent. Piano music tinkled from below, blowing away with the leaves when it reached the surface.
“Grieg’s Place,” said Jenkins. “I haven’t been in ages. I don’t know why. Something about it felt…difficult. Like the effort to listen to something real was beyond me and it was easier to stay in the electro-bars and hip cafes. Is that sad to you, Phil? That I am more ready to consume than to digest? To be entertained than provoked and included?”
“I reckon so,” said Phil. He was still frowning, likely still thinking of that girl who made him understand when she played and wishing he could remember what it was he understood.
The steps and rails of the stairs were scuffed with the boots and heels of the years of bar-goers. The wood was worn raw. It felt familiar, this rawness. Familiar, yet forgotten. Like the girl and her music.
They sat at the bar. It was easy to find a seat. It was barely evening on a weekday, sure, but the mustiness in the air hinted that the bar often sat vacant.
“What can I get you?” asked the bartender, barely looking up from his phone.
“Anyone playing?” Jenkins jerked his head toward where two baby grand pianos sat facing each other. Sleeping bulls ready for a fight, but nestled peacefully against each other in the absence of the matador.
“Tonight, yeah,” said the bartender. “Around eight. You can come back.”
“We’ll wait,” said Jenkins, scooting his stool closer. “Two beers.”
They sat, holding their beers, forgetting them, remembering them all at once for a single sip, and sinking back into their own separate thoughts once more. The bartender shifted, uncomfortable in the silent company. But as the clock ticked and the quiet fell thicker like the dust on the scraped-up floor, first Phil’s and then Jenkin’s shoulders began to relax as they released a burden of meaningless noise and rushing about. The stillness of companionship and waiting fell onto them, an easy weight like a soft blanket.
“People don’t keep quiet anymore,” said Phil. “I wonder if that’s why.”
Somewhere a clock ticked. Maybe inside their minds.
“What’s why?” asked the bartender, sliding into their conversation, whether out of desperate boredom or because Jenkin’s failure to reply immediately disconcerted him.
“Why everything is so noisy, so distracting. Every moment, every detail, has to be flashy, efficient, mechanical. Why we want to be stimulated and entertained instead of to listen. To actually listen. Ambiance music is what we want; sounds to simulate some feeling or another (want to be more sociable? play this! want to boost sales? play that!) but we rarely listen with the intention of listening, of meeting the music where it is, and hearing what’s being said in it.”
“And that’s why people don’t keep quiet?” prompted the bartender.
“Yes and no. People don’t keep quiet, whether their own mouths, radios, or anxiety-ridden minds as they rush from one thing to the next thing. And we keep blasting the radio and pumping the caffeine and improving the cell phones to keep up and to keep them going. And now we’ve forgotten how to be quiet entirely. Turn off the radio, lock the doors. Even completely alone, it terrifies us and our thoughts make enough noise to drive us insane…so we find whatever distraction we can.
“What are you playing on your phone, there?” Phil said suddenly.
“Oh, just scrolling,” said the bartender.
“Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all,” said Phil complacently. “But why were you ‘just scrolling’? That’s the question.”
“Passing the time.” He shrugged.
“Huh,” said Phil. He let the silence envelope them again like a blanket. The bartender fidgeted, unable to reach for his phone without feeling Phil’s gaze. Unable to endure the inactivity.
“Just passing the time,” echoed Jenkins. “I’ve been silent and still for exactly the last hour and, even then, the time passed. It didn’t need me at all.”
The bartender looked from Jenkins to his barely-touched beer, seeking an explanation and finding nothing. He grunted, shrugged again, and pretended to polish some glasses farther from the two men.
The clock continued to eat the time on its own and still the men sat.
It struck 8:00pm.
A few other people began to trickle in, sitting around Phil and Jenkins and nodding to them as they took their seats. They were mostly elderly and yawning despite the early hour in a world increasingly turning nocturnal. Phil and Jenkins nodded at the newcomers and exchanged a look that seemed to say, “God, are we old?”
The bartender smiled at the new patrons, glad to have something to do. As they settled with their drinks, the lights dimmed and the atmosphere echoed with the dust and drinks of bars past. It felt like a bar ought for that one moment. But that moment was drowned out in a sudden flash as the two pianos were illuminated from above and below. Their stage was a UFO, glowing with fierce artificiality in the bar’s dingy light.
“They’ve updated that,” said Jenkins. His voice was that of a ghost: hollow.
“Hope that’s all,” said Phil.
Jenkins grimaced and took a stagnate swig of beer.
There were still more empty than filled chairs. The bartender clattered around behind the bar while another man, emerging from somewhere in the back, began to speak into a microphone the size of a beetle that crawled along his jawbone.
“Welcomeeeee to Grieg’s!” he said.
A few scattered claps greeted his enthusiasm. Accustomed disappointment flickered across his face, but — quick as a text message — he swiped it away and replaced it with a grin.
“Who’s having a good time tonight?” he continued. “Go ahead and make some noise!”
More disinterested applause. One woman let loose a cheer that fell flat to the floor.
“We have a great lineup for tonight’s dueling pianos,” said the MC, “Our ‘Man vs. the Machine’ series continues tonight with one of the bravest new artists in town. Let me tell you: this lady has chops!”
This was greeted with more hope. A few heads tilted and several leaned forward in their chairs.
“No,”Jenkins choked out. “No, this is all wrong. The machine? What does he mean ‘the machine’?”
“And our challenger for the evening…” continued the MC, “Give it up for the Queen-of-the-Keys, a rising sun in this city of stars…Miss Clara Boulanger!”
A girl stepped onto the stage. Phil gasped. Jenkins caught his empty bottle as his friend’s hand struck and sent it spinning.
“Her…” the first man said under his breath.
“Impossible,” said Jenkins.
Phil said nothing.
Caught in the radiance of the swirling stage lights, the girl took her seat at the bench of the first piano. The other piano remained empty. But now they knew that it was empty not just at the bench, but within. If they cracked open the lid of the piano where Clara sat, they would find straight, taut strings and frames and hammers poised to attack and sing all at once. The other would have these, but also bound with wires and chips programed to listen to react instead of the enjoy.
Jenkin’s face contorted as if in physical pain while Phil stared in disbelief at the girl as she raised her hands to the keys. She struck first in the duel, the keys erupting in chords that pulsed with life and color. But then the other piano sparked to life and rebutted her motif with a more complex inversion. Undaunted, she laughed as she turned the music flawlessly back to her own idea.
It continued like this for several minutes, during which the audience slowly abandoned their conversations and drinks and people from the street drifted in, seeking something more interesting than the ever-changing advertisement feeds on the sides of the buildings.
Clara prepared to cadence with magnificence, taking a slight pause before the final chord, but the computerized keyboard captured the resolution before she could strike and turned it to its own piece, continuing where the fight — and the music — should have concluded.
“No,” said Jenkins, rising to his feet.
“Hey, calm down, man,” said the bartender. “It’s just a piano duel.”
“This isn’t how it should be,” said Jenkins, weakly. “This isn’t a fair fight.”
“Nah, man,” said the bartender. “It’s always been this way. We’ve just evolved to new levels. There were player pianos long before we started computerizing them for duels. Just like the people who complain about cell phones. Well, people were passing notes and shouting at each other long before them; now we just have a more streamlined way of doing it. Same thing here. Don’t have two pianists? No problem. Want a more exciting duel? Program it that way and let the digits take care of everything.”
Jenkins shook his head, slowly. Right, left. Back again. But he sat down and looked at Phil, who was crying.
A woman shot him a dirty look.
“Phil! What’s the matter?”
“I… understood again,” he said. “When she plays, I remembered that feeling. Of hearing something I couldn’t compute in the lab or explain with numbers. I understand something more again. But then that — damn it! That machine interrupts her! It’s the outside world all over again. Every time we have something truly beautiful, we have to shut it up with noise and plastic and hourly schedules and I’ll be—”
Phil was struggling to his feet now. Jenkins noticed for the first time the growing number of bottles behind him.
“Sir, calm down,” warned the bartender.
“How!” shrieked Phil, growing hysterical. “Only if it will shut up! Shut it off, damn it! Let its battery die. Unplug it. Let her play only! Oh, only let her play!”
“I can make a request,” said the bartender. He held out his hands as if to make peace. Jenkins guided his friend back to his stool.
The tension in the two men’s shoulders mounted them again. Their necks regained their hunched posture and hung once more with the overwhelming noise of the modern era.
On stage, the girl was sweating, but she still caught every riff the machine threw at her. It countered her melodies but remained sterile and bare, eery as a riderless horse.
The audience was mesmerized now. Surely the end was in sight. They’d never seen something like this. It was madness, surely. Clara was good, but she was human. Could a human ever be as flawless, as efficient, as analytical as the machine? The creator could pronounce man ‘very good,’ but a machine could be perfect.
How would she surrender, though? There was no shame in it. Dozens of pianists had given up as live classical and jazz were thrown out the window and back into the past, now to be enjoyed only as vintage records. But to those who looked closer, there was a spark in Clara’s eye that spoke of something more than the machine’s untried precision and calculation.
“My God,” said Phil. “She’s got an idea.”
Jenkins turned to the girl’s face and saw plainly that she was going to win and that she knew it. She bit her lip in thought, hiding the idea that was brewing.
And then, she attacked.
It was a risk.
It was a terrible risk.
Nobody could have predicted the sounds that she made just then. And they were all the more beautiful for their spontaneity. The machine hesitated, unsure which chord to steal, which riff to mimic. And she struck again in this momentary pause, in the most musical revenge.
Chopin. It sounded like Chopin.
That was the only thing to compare it to.
Yet it was not Chopin; it was Clara. There was something in this new tune that drew from the greats of the ages and yet sang from its composer’s own soul. It was the poetry of Chopin and the love of the Schumanns. And it was the dance of a Harlem jazz club and the swing of a WWII band.
It was human.
And that was all that could be understood of it.
It was alive.
But to be alive is to be vulnerable and, as such, to be a risk. The audience, as if of one mind, tilted its collective heads in confusion. But whatever its effect on them was, it baffled the machine as well. The audience may not have fully known whether or not they liked it, but machines have no such concern. Machines needn’t bother with judgment or taste. The machine only needed to analyze what its opponent was doing and to know what patterns to use next.
But it couldn’t.
“Jenkins,” gasped Phil. “It doesn’t understand.”
Jenkins looked to the robotic piano. Its keys continued to depress under the fingers of an unseen program, but it shuddered as if its cord had been yanked and its power source disturbed. The pause was enough and Clara struck the glorious concluding chords she had previously been denied.
“Jenkins,” said Phil again as the duel ended and a stunned silence preceded any applause. “It didn’t understand. The computer didn’t understand.”
“Do you understand, Phil?”
A tear rolled down his cheek.
Applause burst out like a gasp of relief. All at once, the audience realized they had wanted Clara to win. They needed her to win.
“I’ll be,” said the bartender. “She’s the first to beat the machine.”
“They said it couldn’t be done.” Phil’s voice was thick with beer and emotion.
“And yet it has,” added Jenkins.
“So it has,” said the bartender.
“With people like her,” said Phil. “We don’t need to worry…not yet, anyway.”
“No,” affirmed Jenkins. “The machine was flawless. But without the potential for failure, where is the potential for genius? Without chance, what room is there much for surprises? For joy?”
Phil just nodded, wiping away a final tear.
“Shall we?” asked Jenkins, checking his watch. It was late. They’d forgotten the clock in the heat of the duel and the others were reaching for their canes and partner’s hands and making their way back into the night.
Phil nodded again. Together, the two stumbled up the stairs and onto the street. Even at this hour, cars zipped around each other and horns blared and music blasted from each advertisement-plastered window in a flamboyance of color and sound. But they barely heard it as they made their way down the street.
Above, autumn leaves swirled and whispered in the breeze, telling stories of seasons and things that can never fully be replaced.
Inside, the bartender turned back to his phone as the counters wiped themselves clean and the drinks replaced and sorted themselves on their shelves. Clara, still breathing heavily from the duel, swiped to accept the tips sent to her digitally and left with a tired wave but a spring in her step. Neither she nor the bartender noticed as the other piano — the computerized piano — flickered. It growled softly, its wires still firing and its system restless.
It faded to silence again.
The bartender locked up with passcode on his phone.
The lights dimmed as he climbed the steps, crossed the threshold, and let the doors slide shut.
And then, in the lifeless still, the e-piano rumbled again and, note by note, began to play.
It played a tune of the girl it had battled, yet the tune was something of its own. So, serenading itself in the soft dark of the bar, the computer clicked away to pass the time and the divide between machine and musician grew narrower and narrower, a dissonance bound to resolve.