Ariston and Odette Make a Love Song
A Japanese super robot cartoon makes it to the top of the charts. A son receives an unexpected email from his father, who abandoned his family 27 years before. A renaissance man composes a love song for a national competition and wins an all-expenses-paid trip to America. A man and his lover enjoy a new life together. A man makes an advertising pitch for the country’s no. 2 fast food brand. A woman returns to her hometown. A man steps into a polar bear costume. A boy becomes the first Filipino to land on the moon. Not necessarily in that order. Joy is music, ecstasy, grace, virtuality, mercy, food, America, sadness, electronics, sex, animatronics, death, pretending, aspiring, age, one-night-stands, and the Philippines. And not necessarily in that order, either.
The following is an excerpt from Sarge Lacuesta’s debut novel, “Joy.”
Odette was the only thing that gave him the silence he needed. He felt he could write a song with her around. Not a jingle that was a rip-off of an American pop tune, with lyrics made according to the job order or the agency brief, not a corporate anthem that relied on the same old tired chords and key changes and the same old corporate truisms, but a real song, with complexity and unpredictability, with words that were so true that they did not need to rhyme, with a refrain that soared without exertion.
By listening to the songs of the so-called ‘masters,’ he knew their secrets. They knew just where to put the strings and the horns, where to let the basslines and the backup singers wander. They knew how lyrics worked, loaded with words no one ever used in real life but made so much sense in songs. For two syllables there was giliw and wagas. Pag-ibig and liwanag had three. Magkapakailanman had five. But only Cayabyab could put a word like parisukat in a song and make it work.
Odette had fallen into deep sleep, her breath becoming audible and rhythmic. The song began from the verse. He had it somewhere in his head. Some words, a melody, broken apart by his bigger thoughts: an upcoming car payment, the big-time ad agencies that had not paid him for months, the tuition at Areté Academy, the rackets that would pay for it—well, pay back Lita’s father for paying for it. All these thoughts he slept with and woke up with.
‘A good love song is about no one,’ Serge told him once. ‘A great love song is about everyone. In our love songs the guy is always poor. If a girl is singing it, she is almost always uncertain about her feelings.’
That night, Ariston dreamt the first verse in a dream, the words and the melody in a single thread. He hummed it into the back of Odette’s neck as they lay in the mattress that was only as wide as a doorframe. Odette briefly awakened, sensing the soft vibrations of notes and his warm, acrid breath. She closed her eyes again but held the melody in her head.
In the morning, she hummed it back to Ariston, who wobbled out of the mattress and spread out the folded leaves of cigarette foil he still held in his hand and wrote out what words he could remember.
On top of the words, he wrote the melody in letter notation. He had forgotten to write musical notes soon after he dropped out of college. He grasped the guitar hanging from a hook on the recording booth wall by the neck and let the strings ring out one by one. Odette always kept them in tune.
‘Mic!’ he whispered.
Odette, her linen blouse crumpled and still open to her navel, switched on the mixing board and the amplifiers. She grasped the mic stand, loosened the screw and brought the mic down closer to the guitar as he strummed chord combinations, calling them out to her as he played them. Odette had already had her steno pad in hand.
Arrangement: Piano, Horns. French horns. No, a clarinet. This is where the bass comes in, on bar 9. Call Alex and ask him if he’s available later. Ariston went back to his cigarette paper and wrote some lines. Complete the rhythm section after the first verse. Yes, come in with a drum fill, it’s expected. No surprises. No surprises. Just pure feeling.
We need the best. Nothing but the best. We need the best. Call Jun Regalado. Ask him if he’ll do it for free. I’ll pay him back. I’ll play anything for him. Any time, anywhere.
The guitar stops. Ariston writes more lines. The instrumental part fits here. Let’s put a vibrato on the guitar—not a solo, just the verse melody again. This is all about the verse.
He hums to himself. Two syllables, three syllables, no, I’ll need four. Do we need a bridge, he asks himself. Odette hears everything and writes everything down. Even the small things can be heard in the recording booth, the scratches his pencil made on the paper, the little grunts and sniffs he made as he thought.
Ariston sings the verse in a falsetto. ‘Put on the talkback. Sing it back to me.’
Despite herself, Odette sings the verse.
Her amateur voice is off-tune by something like a quarter of a note. Ariston has never heard anything like it. She sounds like a naïve high school girl plucked from a talent contest.
I think let’s put some strings here. Ang then another verse, I don’t what it will be yet. Sing it back to me.
Ariston twists the screw on the mic stand violently and pulls up the mic up. She calls Odette into the booth.
‘Dito ka,’ he says. ‘Palit tayo.’
When she enters, he adjusts the mic so its right up against Odette’s lips. He exits the booth and closes the door.
Again, he implores her on the talkback mic on the mixing board. Again. He fishes out his remaining blank reel and strings it up on the deck, his hands moving on their own as he keeps his eyes on Odette through the glass window, her blouse still undone, her hair lopsided and her eyes fuzzy with sleep.
Ariston did not have a chorus until the day before the deadline. Only then could he work on the notation, which was part of the entry requirement. For that he found himself ringing up his old teacher Nonong Buencamino and asking him for help, well, only if he wasn’t busy with his own entry to the Musicpop himself.
Maybe he was, Nonong said, in the easy mellow voice that made Ariston suddenly miss his years as a student without a care in the world. But of course, I’ll help you with the notation, he said. Lagari ka na naman! He also added that he considered it his personal failure that his student had forgotten how to do it.
Songs usually happened from the chorus. In American pop the verse was almost always a two- or three- note melody—dull, but singable, and it stuck right up to that chorus like its life depended on it. But this was not American Top 40. This was not how it would happen. The chorus would spring from the verse—or a prechorus, if he felt like writing one—with a transitional note or chord that would sound completely natural, but would also be, in musical terms, completely clever. This was how it always happened in the songs the great Filipino composers wrote. For Ariston Letrero, it would happen once, and never again.
About the Author
Angelo R. Lacuesta has won many awards for his writing, among them three Philippine National Book Awards, the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award, the NVM Gonzalez Award, and numerous Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards and Philippines Graphic Awards.
He has written several books, including five short story collections, two non-fiction books, and a collection of graphic stories. He has participated in many international literary residencies, fellowships, festivals, and conferences.
He is Editor-at-Large at Esquire Philippines and is a member of the Board of the Philippine Centre of PEN International (Poets, Essayists, Novelists).
He lives in Manila with his wife and son.
"Joy" is Published by Penguin Random House SEA and may be purchased at https://bit.ly/ShopGoodIntentions or at favorite bookstores.