The Copyist – a story about the creative impulse.

musiccodex

The Copyist – T.N.W. Jackson

Deep in the recesses of the labyrinthine library the Copyist worked late into the night. He was absorbed by his task. This night as on so many others, alone amongst the ancient manuscripts, he underwent the transformation from Copyist to composer. His actions were forbidden. He was not the Composer. In each generation there could be but one Composer and one Composer’s Apprentice; the Copyist was neither. He was not a Sanctioned Creator and the punishment for Unsanctioned Creation was death. Working as he did, surrounded each day by the masterpieces of long past Ages of Unrestricted Creation, he was powerless to fight the urge to contribute to the canon. By day he performed his role as Copyist dutifully, preparing the Composer’s new scores and making the requested transcriptions of works by the Immortal Geniuses. He took pleasure in his allotted task but each night after completing the responsibilities of another day he found himself assailed by the insatiable desire to create. He too desired immortality.

The Copyist applied the finishing touches to another diamantine miniature. He had studied the works of all the Masters and knew his generation’s Composer had no place among them. Of his generation only he, the Copyist, possessed the knowledge and skill required to transcribe thought directly; to take a fully formed piece from the depths of the psyche and notate it, preserving in ink ephemera born of the stream of consciousness. With the threat of discovery ever present and the spectre of incompletion haunting his thoughts, he confined himself to work as a miniaturist. He believed himself impartial when he judged his creations as combining the crystallinity of Webern with the melodic invention of Schubert and an improvisatory quality that recalled Keneally. Upon completion he always took great care to secret his compositions between the pages of some long neglected piece of esoterica – the works of the First Renaissance were of little interest to anyone other than himself and thus served him well as a repository for the secret inventions he committed to blank pieces of paper discovered during his studies of ancient scores. His newly minted manuscript in hand, a piece of pure mind preserved upon the page, he set off on the long walk to his chosen hiding spot. He never composed within proximity of a previous or potential cache and he never hid one piece close to another for fear that should one be discovered and destroyed all would suffer the same fate. In truth, the chances of discovery were remote due to the age and decrepitude of the Archivist, who was rarely seen, often disappearing for days on end into the bowels of petrified knowledge. The Archivist had been a great scholar but now, obsessed in his dotage with the poetry of Goethe, rarely ventured out of this subject area. The Archives had not been updated for a decade.  Regardless of necessity, the Copyist was never more at peace than during his peripatetic wanderings amongst the dim aisles of the vast Library, searching for the right spot to hide his latest application to immortality.

The following day whilst transcribing another of the pompous fugal ineptitudes the Composer churned out to accolade after accolade, the Copyist had a curious visitation. A small party of men approached him at his desk to enquire if he had recently encountered the Archivist, who had missed several official engagements over the preceding weeks. He had not, but assured the men that the Archivist would no doubt show up soon and informed them that he could most often be found in the vicinity of Hexagon 1672, two days’ journey from their present position and most easily accessed via Aisle 987 and Goethe Way. The men thanked him and set off on their search, leaving the Copyist to his work.

He was no mere transcriptionist, but also an invariably unheralded auditor and editor and he now improved the clumsy theme of the fugue and subtly adjusted each imitative entrance, allowing the counterpoint to breathe. The Composer cared nothing for purity of form or clarity of line, indeed cared for nothing more than fame. Contemporary fame was the shallowest of all goals, the basest of all achievements, and The Copyist was glad that he did not suffer such a vice. He aspired only to the immaculate ideals: Art and Immortality.

Days passed and the search party returned bearing the lifeless body of the Archivist. Discovered within Hexagon 1672 as the Copyist had predicted, he had been dead for many days but his body had been perfectly preserved by the cool dry climate of the Library. The Ceremony of Interment would be performed immediately, followed by the Ceremony of Promotion in which the Archivist’s Apprentice would be officially elevated to the position of Archivist. Knowing that the man had died doing what he loved, the Copyist was not saddened by the death of The Archivist. He had greatly respected his colleague and that night he composed a miniature fugue in honour of the Archivist’s legacy. It was one of his finest works and a triumph of contrapuntal artistry far beyond the skill of the Composer. Returning to his desk having concealed the pages of barely dried ink, elated in the afterglow of creation and with the elegantly interwoven lines of his latest opus replaying in the private performance space of his imagination, he was startled when he almost collided with a young man coming down the aisle in the opposite direction.

“Ah, Copyist!” the Archivist greeted him. “What are you doing so late and so deep in the Library?”

“Greetings Archivist,” he responded stiffly, “I was studying the works of the First Renaissance, as I often do late at night.”

“Very well then. I must confess I have long wished to meet you, Copyist, as my former master would often show me your transcriptions and you have such a beautiful hand I feel I could recognise your work anywhere! It’s wonderful too that you take such an interest in these neglected manuscripts; I feel they are overdue for reappraisal and shall certainly devote my attention to ensuring that their archival entries are in order.”

“Indeed that is a most appropriate and long overdue task, Archivist. I assure you though that you flatter me and that my hand is no more beautiful than that of any other skilled transcriptionist. You shall find it quite impossible to distinguish from that of my countless predecessors.”

“You are too modest, Copyist. Good evening to you now, I must be off to Hexagon 1672 – when my poor master died he left some important work unfinished. We shall see each other again soon I am sure.”

“Good evening, Archivist.”

The Archivist was true to his word and the announcement was soon made that the works of a hitherto unknown composer had been discovered amongst the manuscripts of the First Renaissance. The new scores were not signed but were unquestionably the work of some great master. They were assumed to belong to an earlier era until the Musicologist, a learned and astute man, declared that the precise combination of techniques and timbres employed was unknown in any of the Ages of Unrestricted Creation. It was thus reported far and wide that an illicit inventor of great genius was living amongst the people, no doubt working at some menial task by day and pursuing the purest of artistic endeavours by night. Who could the mysterious artist be? Even the Composer agreed that this clandestine creator’s skill far exceeded his own. The question of the Unknown Composer’s identity was on everyone’s lips.

Months passed and the furore continued unabated, fuelled by the Archivist’s occasional discovery of new works. Great banquets were held in celebration of the Unknown Composer; a chair at the head of the table always kept empty lest the guest of honour should decide to attend. Graffiti appeared on walls all over the city with the slogan “I am the Unknown Composer”. The Sanctioned Creators paid homage: the Playwright composed “Creators in the Midst”, a comedy set in a fantastical world of unsanctioned creation, which played to sold out audiences for months on end; the Painter painted a series depicting a composer hard at work, his face shrouded in shadow; the Sculptor sculpted a huge question mark out of old musical instruments; the Philosopher wrote a treatise entitled “The Unsanctioned Act of Creation”; the Novelist wrote a bestseller in which a master detective followed clues to discover the identity of the Unknown Composer; even the Composer himself got in on the act, composing another fumbling fugue, “In Honour of My Great Contemporary”, which the Copyist duly edited and improved. The Political Leader gave a long and ambiguous speech which began with an exposition of the virtues of the Restricted Creation Act, detailing the decadence of the Ages of Unrestricted Creation in which great amounts of energy were wasted in the creation of more Art than could ever be appreciated; but ended with a great exultation of the glories of these new works of music and hailed the Unknown Composer as a National Hero. Nobody mentioned punishment for the illegal act.

Throughout the commotion the Copyist worked steadily in his official capacity, composing little. The Archivist often appeared to be regarding him quizzically and attempted to engage him in discussions regarding the Unknown Composer, but if the younger man harboured any suspicions he kept them to himself. Although he initially received some small pleasure from the accolades his work received, the Copyist, realising that it was the secret of his identity that so captured the public’s imagination and not the subtle craftsmanship of his work, which they couldn’t possibly comprehend, soon grew weary of all the fuss. The entire debacle was distasteful to him; after all, nothing was so shallow as the gimmick of contemporary fame. Moreover, the obsessive search of the Archivist for additional opus numbers made it impossible for him to compose regularly. This began to take its toll on him as it would on any vocational creator – he knew he must put a stop to this nonsense. He resolved to confess that the Unknown Composer was none other than him, the Copyist, certain that if he revealed his secret he would be able get on with his work in peace. No sooner had he made this resolution than he strode to the offices of the Political Leader, the man who had himself sung the praises of the Unknown Composer, and made an official confession.

*

The meeting was a success; the Political Leader accepted the confession and made a public announcement declaring the confessor to be the greatest artist of his generation. Blindfolded before the firing squad, the Copyist smiled – his immortality was assured.

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