Pearl's Last Set

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Despite the absence of publicity, there must have been a thousand people gathered in the big wooden dome called the Exosphere for Pearl’s set. Most of them were pushing toward the front of the room, trying to catch sight of the famous DJ, although there wasn’t much to see: a skinny white kid in a brown t-shirt and oversized glasses, who hunched over his equipment with a worried frown. We wondered if he had changed; we wondered how he had changed. Did he want to please the crowd, now? “Probably sucks,” said Josh, who liked to anticipate that things would suck. “Probably,” said Erin, who hated disappointment even more than she hated agreeing with Josh. Pearl sank into his shoulders, as though he’d heard us, then, like a convict asked to pull the lever of his own gallows, he flipped a switch and his set began.

After two minutes we knew Josh was wrong. Being out in the world hadn’t made this Pearl less obscure, but it had slowed him down, as though he were crossing greater distances with every crossfade, not just from here to the back of the room and back again, but all the way across the desert, all the way across the night. The tempo made the music melancholy and hard to dance to, and after ten minutes people started leaving: kids naked to the waist who’d been hoping for a harder groove; day trippers in fleece vests who’d come to hear Pearl play the songs from N.E.O. But for us the music was perfect: it was as if Pearl knew we had come to recover from losing him, or maybe he was there to mourn a kid he’d liked better than the one who woke up now in fancy hotel rooms all over the planet.

We had been dancing for about an hour, or maybe it was longer, time was flowing through the Exosphere indiscriminately, like smugglers driving cargo trucks across an unwatched border in broad daylight. We had, in any case, been dancing long enough to think about sitting down, and in fact, we were just talking about sitting down, at the edge of the Exosphere, as many others around us were doing, when the music changed. At first it seemed to be getting faster: the beats (none of them actually beats, in the sense of, sounds made by a percussion instrument; Pearl’s rhythm that night was all samples: a glass breaks, a baby cries, a car screeches to a halt) were closer together, and louder. The overall impression, as best as I can remember it now, six years later, was that the music was a whole entity, or space, which was getting closer to the people who were listening to it. People who had been sitting got up, mouthing, finally or just shaking their heads wryly with relief. That Pearl! The sound had become like a drawing with equal amounts of positive and negative space, in which positive space and negative space trade places as you look. Day and night. Black birds and white birds. Sound and silence were weirdly balanced; I had the feeling that silence had become sound and vice-versa.

“Neat!” someone shouted. Possibly it was me.

If it had been only that we would have woken up the next day glowing with memory and enchantment. We would have trolled the Internet for a bootleg of the set he’d played in Nevada, and discovered, or not discovered, that what we’d experienced was a trick of the desert. It was a good set; maybe it was Pearl’s best set, but it was only music. It wasn’t only that, though.

Of course it’s impossible for me to be sure. The world is full of sounds I’ve never heard; Pearl was their archivist. Whales sporting in the Pacific, wind in the gaps of a mountain, the hum of a magnet in a Swiss lab, the stridulation of insects in the Amazon, Tuvan throat singers. And of course we lived in the age of Reason (the sound-editing software, I mean). Pearl’s sample could have been processed until it was something another whale, insect, magnet or Tuvan would not have recognized.  Even the most ordinary sound could be made otherworldly. So I can’t say I’m sure what I heard was from some Beyond farther away than Goa or Tokyo. I can’t be sure I heard something that no one had heard before, a completely new sound… All I can say is that, listening to Pearl, there, in the Exosphere, I had the brief but absolute conviction that I was in the presence of something completely new and utterly different from myself. Then the moment passed; the beats were only beats, the Exosphere only a canvas dome. We were left with the question, what on earth had Pearl sampled?

No one at the festival knew, but a lot of people were trying to find out. Star’s friends from the San Francisco Center for the Investigation of the Para-Paranormal drove to Gerlach to call their contacts in the high-frequency radio community, and the high-frequency radio people told them that it sounded interesting. If they could get a recording of it, they’d do some waveform analysis, compare it to signals they’d picked up during periods of solar activity, signals they’d got in conjunction with anomalous visual sightings over the Pacific Ocean. They had some weird sounds from a guy in Arizona: maybe Pearl had sampled those?

But Pearl was gone. He’d left the desert the night of his set; in fact some people said that he had left during his set. They swore he’d stepped away from his turntables and that the person who came back was a stand-in. A double playing Pearl-like music. Of course it wasn’t as good as the real thing; of course we hadn’t noticed.

Of course the story spread that Pearl Fabula had played an alien signal. The story changed from teller to teller: I heard a woman in fur boots telling her friend that the signal was a message of love; a man in a gold lamé unitard said that it had been in French. Some people said that aliens were coming; some people said they were already here. Many people believed that Pearl himself was an alien, who had come to this planet to gather information about the human race; his so-called “sets” were actually the means by which he transmitted his data back to a ship that floated at some unknowable distance over our heads. The signal he played had been a message from the ship: farewell.

Hard to say if anyone believed these stories. Easy to say that it didn’t matter. We were a community of exposed humans in the desert; our phones didn’t work. The weather had turned cold and a lot of the festival-goers were unprepared for it. They walked around in boots and underwear, shawl-wrapped, their lips blue. We needed something to protect us and what we had were stories about Pearl. And the stories did protect us: they confirmed that we were there, in the desert, for a reason deeper than our own pleasure. They opened the false bottom of our experience and revealed a new compartment in which something had been hiding: the possibility that our play-acting corresponded to some literal truth? Even our flimsy structures seemed to stand up better after we heard Pearl’s signal. Our tricked-out bicycles crossed the desert proudly, purposefully. There might be aliens! Even the mystery, even the possibility of a mystery, was enough for us. It guyed us, an invisible cable tied to a length of rebar and sunk in the depth of the sky.

Then, of course, on the drive back from the desert, Josh pretended to be disappointed by Pearl’s last set. “He was better in 1996,” Josh said. “You could really dance to him then.” Finally, Star pointed out that Josh hadn’t liked Pearl’s music in 1996. He’d been into grunge. “What are you talking about?” Josh said. “I never liked grunge. Pavement, yes, grunge, never,” and an argument began that carried us all the way back to San Francisco, and the phone call from Celeste.

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