Narrative of the Life of Jacob Livesey

by Douglas Watson
Narrative of the Life of Jacob Livesey by Douglas Watson

Jacob Livesey entered the world via his mother during a period of growth in the manufacturing sector and stagnation in the arts. He himself stagnated until a rainy Wednesday afternoon halfway through his thirty-ninth year, when, quite by accident, he discovered that he was a composer of experimental music. It happened in the usual way: the clatter of the fallen spoon, the rain against the pane. In that moment, Jacob heard the world as though for the first time. It was the only time he ever fell in love.

Soon Jacob was the owner of a basement recording studio and a top-floor reputation within the avant-garde composers’ community. There were many avant-garde composers (the arts having long ago ceased stagnating), but there was, it was said, only one Jacob Livesey. If you wanted to hear the surprisingly sensual musicality of the everyday sounds of the age, you could either listen for it yourself or you could listen to one of Jacob’s recordings. Jacob could put the sighing of a coffeepot on a whole new wavelength. But there was more to his music than that. In his most critically acclaimed compositions, Jacob not only rendered beautiful the quotidian but also evoked the twin longings that tore, although not asunder, the inner lives of many of his contemporaries: the desire for repetition and the hunger for something—anything—new.

Jacob himself was no stranger to these contradictory yearnings. He was an artist, after all, and what an artist did was strive, in the most tedious and repetitive way, to break through into new territory. Sometimes the whole project got a little old. Eventually, so did Jacob. Suddenly (as it seemed to him) he had arthritis and emphysema and the feeling, half the time, that he had misspent his life. As a young man he had loved driving; he could have been a delivery-truck driver, making the rounds, bringing, say, the loaves. But no, he’d insisted on becoming a composer—an experimental composer. Of what use were his musical offerings? Were they even all that musical? Did people really like them, or did they just say they did? Had Jacob, in the final analysis (whose hour drew near), contributed anything of value to the human enterprise?

Jacob would sit alone at his kitchen table, puffing on his pipe and thinking these thoughts. But then some sound—a moth thudding against the screen in the window, or a growling match between two lawnmowers—would pull him out of his head and into some better part of himself, and before he knew it he was assembling the pieces of a new composition.

Even in death he pursued his life’s work. A few days before embarking on that final journey, Jacob instructed his next-door neighbor to record the shouts and laughter of the guests at his funeral banquet. The resulting work, “Crying on the Inside,” won the deceased a permanent place in the strange hearts of the leading new-music critics, who claimed to hear in “Crying” a none-too-subtle rejection of the degraded politics of the age. Talk about missing the point. The point was: Jacob Livesey was no more. He had gone where all others had gone or would go. If the critics had had any sense, they would have said, Go in peace, Jacob, and thanks for opening our ears. What else was there to say?

Douglas Watson is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Ohio State. He is the author of an unpublished short story collection, an unfinished novel, and a life, also unfinished. He edits copy for TIME.