Tuesday, November 4, 2014

'Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone' -- maybe I wasn't there to begin with, and if I was, I was golden

Claude Arpeggio knew that a musical career in the mid-21st century required a lot of image upkeep.

From Claude Arpeggio's hands, nothing but brilliance.
It became the main focus of his life, and in the late digital age, it often seemed like a losing battle. An image of brilliance — matching his own frank concept of himself as an artist — had to be secured.

Extensive training, constant practice, and what he flattered himself was artistic insight could take a concert pianist only so far. If any nay-saying showed up in an online search for "Claude Arpeggio," there was no telling how much damage it might do. The possibilities ate away at Arpeggio.

He could look back on the precedent several decades earlier when a pianist named Dejan Lazic used the European Union's assertion of "a right to be forgotten" as justification for asking the Washington Post to take down a less than enraptured review of his recital.  The floodgates of image control had opened since then. No longer was it sufficient for a publicist to pluck positive phrases from reviews and lard them throughout program biographies, where they were eagerly picked up and reprinted by concert presenters.

No matter how well his practicing had gone, Arpeggio trudged away from the keyboard after preparing a concerto or a recital program. He felt ready to give his best, but he was steeling himself against misery.  He fussed in advance over how depressed he expected to be if any response to his performance carried even a hint of disapproval or boredom.

It would be there for all time, of course. Sometimes it came from one of the few remaining professional music critics at the media companies still quaintly tied to newspapers. More  often the source was the uncontrollable blogosphere and comment threads  populated by snobbish trolls. If it marred his professional image, what right did it have to be available to all comers forever?

Intermission chatter could be threatening.
And now that Google Glass had yielded to even more wearable technology, some of it internalized and embedded, the average listener's thoughts during intermission — not to mention what in former times was gossip and the private exchange of quips or sneers — might also be added to a searchable open book on a performing artist. The dilemma: Could a public career be sustained on the artist's privately held terms? Could "image" be protected as something inalienably one's own?

"Do you think Arpeggio really understands Schumann?"  "That encore was too long, and he sounded tired." "He's having to cover those left-hand octaves with more pedal than ever, did you notice? Why doesn't he just practice them more?"

The record was accumulating. Arpeggio could depend on a full schedule of performances, fortunately. He could take comfort in being "well-thought-of," but what faint praise that amounted to!  The more he performed, the more there were comments winging their way around the Internet and its cyber-successors. And they would always be there, the image-burnishing ones alongside the iconoclastic, the skeptical, the disparaging.

Arpeggio finally hired a lawyer, someone who gradually found ways of having "the right to be forgotten" increasingly established internationally for performing artists. This wily attorney, Cecil N. DeSist, was able to get scores of mixed to negative reviews and stray comments taken down. Rumors that a whiff of sulfur lingered after he left a room didn't faze the pianist.

DeSist became so good at positive image reinforcement that Arpeggio found a new reason to be depressed: His resume began to have notable holes in it. Out-and-out raves became the only publicly available accounts of his artistry. A stunning recital in 2019. A performance of "fully achieved mastery" in 2027.  Fresh, brilliant insights into a warhorse concerto in 2031.

What had Arpeggio been up to? people began to wonder.  And when DeSist cowed music-lovers into  deleting any slight demurrals they may have posted — a near-universal practice by 2045, in many formats — this formerly prominent pianist became something of a will-o'-the-wisp.

People who continued to flock to Arpeggio's performances would soon forget they had been there, particularly if there was anything they disliked, even mildly. His greatest fans — those who felt he could do no wrong and never said a discouraging word about him— became uncertain they had ever heard him. They might bring out a concert program from, say, January 2041, as certain proof that they had been in attendance.

But they often found little evidence that it was part of a full Arpeggio season. Had they imagined it? So what if they had kept a program? Printed programs had become an anachronism, usually run off by the handful as a souvenir or a joke. His fans'  memories of perfection became washed out, wilted under the dull glare of uncertainty.

DeSist tried to improve upon his success securing Arpeggio's selective "right to be forgotten" by extending similar services to other clients. The artistic world was full of potential for him. But in order to protect his first client, he was unable to demonstrate how useful his services had been. The outside world could see nothing but a long, oddly broken record of Arpeggio's success on the concert stage.

Arpeggio's publicists were annoyed that they could no longer cherry-pick reviews for juicy blurbs, because complete reviews were unavailable unless they were packed with unstinting kudos. Arpeggio's shining image was becoming indistinguishable from obscurity.

Arpeggio continued to pay DeSist a hefty retainer. And he told himself that his image, as represented by scattered raves over three decades, in fact was sterling — just what he always felt he had a right to. But then he couldn't help noticing repeated references to himself as "the right-to-be-forgotten warrior." His reputation became crowded with such phrases. He decided these were clouding his image and had to go.

"This fight is getting too much attention," he told his attorney. "Do something about it, Cecil. I'm an artist, not a controversy."

DeSist had an inkling that to go after such published references to his client as a newsmaker would diminish his own marketability. If Arpeggio's image had to be cleansed of references to the struggle they had undertaken together, where would DeSist's new clients come from? Yet he had to acknowledge that the more Arpeggio's success in controlling his image was known, the more persistent curiosity about what must be forgotten would increase.

The lawyer, whose power was assuming diabolical proportions,  reluctantly started exerting pressure to suppress references to the fight for the right to be forgotten. One court judgment in his favor went beyond his fondest hopes: The ruling not only expunged references to Arpeggio's lengthy cultivation of a positive image, but also declared it was impossible that such a person ever existed. The right to be forgotten had become absolute.

Attorney Cecil N. DeSist's office in palmier days.
So when Arpeggio died — no one knew if or how much his powers had declined —  DeSist was forced to respond to the occasional journalist's or music-lover's inquiry by denying  there had ever been a concert pianist named Claude Arpeggio. From a high-profile lawyer, DeSist himself sank into obscurity, piecing together a threadbare living drawing up trusts and wills.

He ordered Arpeggio's family to deny any relationship to the pianist and, if pressed, to proclaim their unawareness of his existence. Then he married the widow and adopted the children, which provided some cover. But he still had to turn aside unwelcome displays of curiosity. The effort was unrelenting.

"Didn't you use to be Claude Arpeggio's attorney — that pianist who never gave a bad performance?" he would be asked occasionally by a visitor to his shabby office.

DeSist would look at his interlocutor levelly, then scoff lightly. "That would be an enviable position to be in,  wouldn't it? Never a bad performance? Everyone slips up now and then. There couldn't have been such a person, could there? And by the way, it may be illegal for you to suggest there ever was."

The visitor would stare at him briefly, then look away, flustered.

DeSist would then appear to relax, but in truth he never enjoyed a relaxed moment again. His eyes  drifted upward to a wall calendar. Wall calendars had become a popular retro product, like turntables.  The page, topped by a serene photo depicting mountaintop removal, told him it was August 2047.

He was not a religious man, but he had begun to entertain apocalyptic thoughts. "Surely these are the end times," he announced wearily to himself.

He looked up at his visitor in alarm.  Did he hear that? Fortunately, DeSist had remembered to turn off his Brainbook share function. Many people had gotten careless about that. Privacy was so 20th-century, and connectivity had long ago banished civility, except for the automatic kind the lawyer found himself extending to his infrequent, annoyingly inquisitive visitors.

"Now," he would say brightly, "let's talk about updating that will of yours, shall we?"