Squealing laughter drifted up from the neighbors’ yard, where two young children played in the first real snow of the season. It was a distraction, even though the window of the music studio was double-glazed and well-insulated. Morgan held her honey-colored hair back from her forehead, as if that would help her to listen, and sounded an octave on the harpsichord. It was dry, but not quite pure—yes, there was a beat, a small pocket of sound like a water droplet condensing on a spider’s web. She picked up the tuning hammer, steadied her elbow against the nameboard, and placed the hammer with care on one of the B-flat pins.
For Morgan, tuning a harpsichord was a meditation on the Great Flaw of the musical universe: it was impossible to have all intervals in tune at once. Tune the fifths, and the thirds were too wide. Tune all the thirds, and the fifths were too narrow. Space the twelve tones evenly throughout the octave, as piano tuners did today, and every interval beat with impurity to a greater or lesser extent.
It had been a terrific shock, the revelation of this Great Flaw. When Morgan’s first harpsichord teacher explained that equal temperament—the modern standard in tuning—was not “correct” in any absolute sense, it knocked Morgan’s entire frame of musical reference irrevocably askew. One half-step was not the same as another? An A-sharp was not necessarily the same as a B-flat?
Morgan squeezed her slender fingers over the head of the tuning hammer and turned it almost imperceptibly, until the B-flat octave sounded so dry, it was pure desert sunlight uncompromised by humidity. Outside, the childish voices seemed to resonate in the cold air, defying the snow’s muffling effect. It irritated Morgan to find herself thinking about the acoustic properties of snow, and she sounded the octave again, just to be sure she hadn’t missed any beats. Satisfied, she lifted the hammer gently off the tuning pin, careful not to bend it. Then she sounded the next octave.
As she listened for beats in the tone, her thoughts turned contemplative again. Knowing every chord to be a compromise that violated aural purity had had the effect of tempering her customary perfectionism. As Dad so often pointed out, art and purity rarely had much in common. “Purity is just another word for sterility,” he’d say. “Imperfection is the real essence of art.” And, indeed, Morgan had learned to love the Great Flaw, the way it complicated the music, opened up new possibilities. There was beauty in the fact that nothing was ever simple.
Equal half-steps might allow infinite modulations from key to key, but introducing slight inequalities into the distance between tones had its own charms. An unequal temperament rearranged the imperfections that sprang from the Great Flaw so that some intervals could ring pure, while others vibrated with greater dissonance, creating expressive tensions and exquisite spaces in the music. Instead of making all keys sound the same, an unequal temperament endowed each key with its own idiosyncratic delights. Half-steps were not created equal, and pretending they were was not a solution to the Great Flaw. It was merely one way to contend with it. Not a very interesting way, either.
Over the years, Morgan had become a connoisseur of unequal temperaments. At the present moment, she was tuning her Kirckman replica harpsichord in preparation for Dad’s visit at Christmas. Normally she used the Werckmeister III temperament for Bach, but she wanted to try out a modified Kirnberger to play the g minor prelude and fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. She had heard that this Kirnberger brought out the merriment in g minor, and that would suit the prelude admirably, since it was as full of wintry drama and cheer as a Dickens Christmas.
A few days ago, she and her husband, Rob, had visited Dad for Thanksgiving. After touring his studio to see the paintings he was working on, they all gorged themselves on the huge traditional feast. As the sun set, Dad sat down at the Steinway—the same one she had played for untold hours as a child—and performed the A-flat major prelude from Book I. Then Morgan played the same piece and continued on with the corresponding fugue. That’s what they did whenever they got together: played the same baroque piece, agreed upon ahead of time. When he visited her, she would play her harpsichord, and he played the old upright piano across the room. They’d been sampling The Well-Tempered Clavier for quite some time now, though Dad usually stuck to the preludes while Morgan always included the fugues as well.
“Katie! Be careful!” Tracy, the young mother next door, was calling out to her four-year-old. Her voice scraping through the air broke Morgan’s concentration once again. Just let the little girl have some fun, she thought. Her neighbor was such a worrier.
By dint of will and long-practiced concentration, Morgan succeeded in filtering out most of the high-pitched babbling from next door as she sounded the next three octaves, making them all so pure and dry that they were acoustically dead. She couldn’t decide whether the dead sound of a perfect octave was a paradox. Free of beats—those sonic conjunctions of frequency and wavelength that occurred whenever two pitches were out of tune—perfect octaves lacked personality, depth, beauty, and anything that might identify them as art. It was a scientific sound, a mathematical value stripped of all emotion. Perfect octaves formed an empty grid—or, as Dad would think of it, a blank canvas—on which the physics of sound could paint sympathetic vibrations and overtones from all three choirs of the harpsichord’s strings.
The shrill jangling of a metal bell rudely intruded on her meditation. It was the old rotary phone in the guest bedroom across the hall. Her irritation having reached critical mass, she put her tuning hammer down. She was almost done, but she decided to play for a while and finish up the last few strings later, once the phone had stopped ringing and the kids had stopped squealing.
She trilled the opening G of the prelude with her right hand, slowly at first and gradually picking up speed, independent of the sixteenth notes setting a steady rhythm in the left hand. She was proud of that independence of the left and right, an independence hard-schooled at the piano when she was still a child. Faster and faster she drove the long trill, until it locked in precise rhythm with the left hand, three notes to each sixteenth in the bass. The phone rang again, a slightly flat A, not entirely discordant with the G trill.
Dad didn’t like trills much, but he would love the bass, the insistence in it, the steadiness, the alternating dissonance and consonance. It seemed to Morgan that the bass was pumping moisture into the air, while the trill made dust fly, high up in the troposphere in a flurry of light—an aerosol around which the moisture would condense and crystallize into snow. The trill resolved into a tumble-down pattern of sixteenth and thirty-second notes, and she thought that Dad would see the snow fly against window panes just as she did, swirling and eddying toward the ground, dancing but not landing.
The bass became more liquid under the second trill, melting snow that the trill pulverized once more into vapor and aerosol. The phone rang a third time as she played that measure again, coaxing more liquid out of the overlapping notes, experimenting with a different tempo of the trill, savoring the fluttering resistance in the middle of each key-stroke as the plectra plucked the strings inside the case.
Morgan followed the dancing snow as it tumbled down and blew back up the staff, as if riding the complex drafts that ricocheted off the buildings of a narrow Victorian street. A third trill welled up from the bass—a rumbling of thunder, that rare and wonderful winter phenomenon. The snowflakes above linked up and clung together in the moisture-laden air, stickier and fluffier the closer they came to becoming water again. Soon there would be a conversation in the right hand, near turns tossed back and forth: Shall we be rain? Shall we be snow?
Dad would like this part. The motif was similar to Bach’s “Invention Number 14,” which he loved to play—they used to talk about how it was like a well-rehearsed comedy team trading quips left and right. When thunder sounded again even lower in the bass, the storm turned sinister, more like ice than snow. Sustained notes overlapped—smooth layers of rain freezing on contact, not dripping away.
How would Dad see this section? she wondered. He saw lines and shapes where she saw frontal boundaries, cyclones and anticyclones. But this piece was a microscale phenomenon, and she was in the thick of it, not observing it from a satellite’s view. She saw the snow dance around her, heard its conversation with the rain. Dad’s painting metaphors would be colors, she thought. Colors and textures.
As she reworked the fingering of this section, she realized that Rob was standing in the doorway. He liked to listen to her practice. Sometimes he listened to her for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, just standing in the doorway, and when she was finally done with the piece, he would rub her shoulders and kiss her ear.
The snow rallied in the second half of the piece, breaking free of its coating of sustained notes, finding bits of dust and aerosol still flying around from the trills, bits to cling to, to crystallize against in the higher reaches of the troposphere before drifting back down. And yet there still was ice, long sustained notes undergirding the flights of sixteenth and thirty-second notes, and the conversation returned with a variation: Are we snow? Are we ice? A dusting of snow finally swirled to the earth with a completed turn on a B-natural that lingered on in a trill.
Morgan relished that final trill, trying to see what Dad would see. He always said that a Picardy third was like a cool green suddenly turning warm by bursting out yellow. But the major chord felt unstable to her, not green, not yellow, but suspended impatiently between colorless water and air. It leaned into the fugue, longed to continue as she released the keys and heard the damper end the tone.
Outdoors, a child shrieked and began to cry. Morgan reached up to turn the page, but Rob entered the room, saying her name in a ragged whisper.
Surprised that he would interrupt her, she turned and looked up at him. He stepped behind her and laid his hands softly on her shoulders. His hands trembled in the moment before they squeezed gently. His lips trembled too, and his eyes were red.
Morgan put her hands to his. “What’s wrong?” Her voice was dry and barely audible, even to her.
“It’s your Dad,” he said hoarsely.
Morgan leaned back into his stomach and stopped breathing. She wished that the child outside would stop crying.
“He had a heart attack.” She felt Rob’s diaphragm heave in a sob, and barely heard him say, “He’s gone.”
The edge of a troublesome warm front hesitated in the southeastern quadrant of the regional radar, as brilliant patches of time-lapsed rain, snow, ice—who knew which was which at the end of a shift?—flitted spastically across Morgan’s computer screen. “Are we snow? Are we ice?” she said under her breath, then shook her head violently as she heard herself.
“You okay, Morgan?” Jack asked as he paused behind her workstation. He was an intern, a clean-cut kid from southern Indiana, just out of college.
“I’m getting bleary-eyed, that’s all,” she said, not taking her eyes from the screen. “Does this look like snow to you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jack leaned in over her shoulder. “Looks like snow to me. Most of it, leastways. That edge, right along the isobar at Hildesong? Could be a mix.”
Morgan changed the color scheme on the reflectivity data and, as was sometimes the case, could suddenly see distinctions better. A narrow line of a bluer hue popped out where Jack had pointed, remnant of a bright band. “Good call. Something a little different’s happening there, anyway.”
“Just talked to a state trooper, said it’s some freezing drizzle mixed in,” Jack said, explaining away his discerning eye and handing her a scrap of paper with the details. “But all snow now a few miles to the south. Coming down wet and heavy, he said.”
For most of the day, there had been freezing rain along the edge of the front, with cold rain following once the front had passed. When it stalled out earlier in the day, it had looked as if the ice build-up would become a problem. Morgan had issued a winter storm warning around 10 a.m. for three counties in the southeast. A lot of schools had subsequently closed, taking the kids home before cars started sliding off the roads. But after a few hours, the jet stream had angled slightly to the east, shaking loose the low pressure system that was driving the front, and now the low was moving north, pulling the warm sector with it. As the front was on the move again, ice didn’t have a chance to build up anywhere.
Morgan, the science and operations officer for the Richfield forecast office, was one of the younger SOOs in the National Weather Service. She loved the job—training the interns and forecasters, running simulations, evaluating verification statistics, keeping up with the leading edge of atmospheric science. But sometimes she found herself itching for the immediacy of forecasting, so she didn’t usually mind busy days like today, when she was called back to the operations area.
It was exhilarating at first, keeping up with the flood of data, detecting overall patterns on one screen while sifting for significant details on another, analyzing conflicting computer models, calling observers, reading their text messages. Now, however, it had become just plain exhausting, especially considering all the energy Morgan had to expend not to hear that piece of Bach running through her head. She couldn’t remember when it had crept into the back of her mind: Are we snow? Are we ice? Sometime in the early afternoon, it must have been.
Jack had gone on to the long-range workstation, and Morgan called to him, “Susan here yet? I’m about done in.”
“Yeah, we been run ragged,” Jack called back, “all the precip and these temps hovering ’round freezing all day.”
Morgan wondered what kind of data Terence had him running over there.
“Anyway,” Jack drawled on, “just saw Susan come in. Putting her snacks in the fridge as we speak.”
“Rough shift?” Susan’s voice rang out from the break room.
Morgan looked up from her monitor and blinked as Susan made her way through the operations area, one hand resting on her six-months-pregnant belly. The Bach welled up in Morgan’s mind again, a liquid bass and bright fluttering treble. Her fatigued eyes smarted with tears. “I love you, Susan,” she said. “Please take over.”
Susan grabbed a chair and sat down next to Morgan. “You okay? You look beat.”
“Just tired. And I’ve got some music stuck in my head that I’m thoroughly sick of. How were the roads driving in?” Susan lived in Clayton County, which was now just behind the front.
“Not bad, if you’re a careful driver. Definitely some icy spots. But no trees or power lines down.”
Morgan nodded. She didn’t like issuing warnings that seemed unnecessary in hindsight, but she was also glad that there hadn’t been any major damage. “We caught a lucky break when the low started moving north. We’ve let the storm warnings lapse. There’s still an advisory for the southeast counties, and it should probably be extended over the rest of the area because the rain’s turning to snow. For the overnight, the main question is how much will fall.”
“Hey, before I forget—Terence wants to see you before you go.”
Great, Morgan thought. Forget about catching her breath before rehearsal.
Terence was the meteorologist-in-charge, everyone’s boss. When Morgan had finished briefing Susan, she found him bent over a computer terminal, conferring with Jack and another intern about jet-stream data. She waited until the conversation wound down before interrupting. “Much as I hate to bring you all down to the surface, I need to get going, and Susan said you wanted to see me, Terence.”
Terence lifted his head in a crisp nod left over from his military career and led the way to his office on the periphery of the building.
Morgan always imagined him in a uniform, though she’d never seen him in one. He was a taciturn man of average height and far better than average posture, with a deadpan face that nevertheless spoke louder than his few dry words.
He sat down behind his desk, but Morgan remained standing. She didn’t want the conversation to last a long time.
“You need to get to a rehearsal tonight?”
“That’s right, sir.” (Terence smiled slightly whenever she said “sir.”) “An opera out in Wolverton. Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten. You should get out to see it at the Civic Center in late March. There’s more weather in it than the average opera.”
Terence nodded once, as if taking the suggestion under advisement. That was a joke, but Morgan didn’t let on that she had caught it. He said, “I’m concerned about having enough meteorologists to cover the shifts over the next few months. Susan’s not due for a while, but I think it would be a good idea to start planning more flexibility into the schedule, while at the same time not asking her to work any overtime.”
Morgan nodded. More flexibility while restricting a forecaster’s overtime meant that the other meteorologists in the office would need to take a forecasting shift every so often. “So you’re worried I won’t be available because of rehearsals?”
“No. Just giving you a heads up.”
He handed her the planning schedule for the next three months. Morgan was slated for three swing shifts and a midnight. Only two conflicted with rehearsals, but she knew she could be called in for more. It was nothing new.
She shrugged. “Not a problem.”
Terence looked at her as if he weren’t finished, but he didn’t say anything.
“Is that all? Because I really need to get going.”
He nodded, though he was still looking at her intently. As she turned around to leave, he said to her back, “Get some sleep. You look like hell.”
“Thanks,” she said brightly, without breaking her stride.
Back when Morgan had been a forecaster, she had always made up the shift schedule. She’d had to, if she was to have any hope of getting it to mesh with her rehearsal schedules. It wasn’t an odious chore, though. She found an aesthetic pleasure in accommodating everyone’s requests and making the hours come out right, in finding the combinations of forecasters and interns who had the skills to cover the work and, if she was up to the challenge, who worked well together. It was a lot like designing a temperament, where you had to find the right combinations of in-tune and out-of-tune intervals, combinations that allowed you to play the music you wanted and, if you were up to the challenge, to placate the wolf.
The wolf was that leftover interval that bore the brunt of the Great Flaw: the more in tune the other intervals were, the further out of tune the last interval became. Its dissonance had been likened to howling. In early tuning systems, the wolf was often the interval G-sharp to E-flat, and it turned out to be far wider than a perfect fifth. Its howling was so discordant, composers simply wouldn’t write in keys that might require its use. The well-tempered systems of the later baroque distributed the burden more equitably—allowed fewer intervals to be perfectly in tune, so that the last interval might pass for a fifth—but even so, the wolf still lurked among the sharps and flats of the less common keys. Only with equal temperament did musicians consider the wolf finally banished. Morgan, however, knew that the wolf still howled faintly everywhere, in every interval. Modern musicians were simply trained not to hear it.
After a fresh tuning, Morgan used to like sounding the wolf on her harpsichord, listening to the glorious cacophony of beats vibrating in the air: the distillation of imperfection that made beauty possible. There was something noble about the unsung wolf, singing for herself.
Morgan Tallis has long been a virtuoso at dividing her time. A talented pianist who didn’t quite have what it takes for a solo concert career, she rebounded from that early disappointment to immerse herself in two passions: weather and harpsichord. The result is a satisfying but difficult balancing act as a National Weather Service meteorologist and a professional accompanist. She and her husband, an engineering professor and amateur artist, decided early in their marriage not to have children because they believed their busy lives precluded responsible parenthood. But when Morgan’s father suddenly dies, regrets about that decision drive them apart without either understanding why. In her fumbling efforts to restore a semblance of order to her life and emotions, Morgan has to face new options, old fears, and the unpredictability of weather, art, and family.
Unequal Temperament had its beginnings many years ago in a short story I wrote about a girl who has to come to grips with the failure of her musical talent to carry her as far as she wants. Her emotional crisis was resolved in the story (“Two-Part Inventions,” published in Cicada in 2005), but I couldn’t help wondering where the girl’s second choice would lead her. Eventually that question led me to jump ahead eighteen years and see where someone like her might land. The character evolved to become Unequal Temperament’s Morgan, whose back story includes the situation and emotional dilemma of the girl at the heart of “Two-Part Inventions.”
As I was exploring Morgan’s character, with her passion for precision and order amid complexity, I imagined that a talented pianist who loved the music of J. S. Bach and his contemporaries would want to play that music on the instrument for which it was composed: the harpsichord. Never having played the harpsichord myself, I was shocked to learn about the concept of temperament and the arbitrary nature of tuning systems. Much as it did for Morgan, this knocked my “entire frame of musical reference irrevocably askew,” but it was also immediately evident to me that the design of a temperament could be a creative input leading to further creative choices—a complicating ripple in the precision and order of musical expression. The concept fit Morgan’s character so well that it was spooky. And it was the perfect metaphor for the story I wanted to tell: how it is impossible to give every aspect of life a perfection of attention, and the ways you choose to balance the imperfections will determine the sound and shape of your life.
Cheryl Walsh lives in Iowa City and works for Grinnell College. She earned an MA is History at Cornell University before giving in to the tug of fabrication and pursuing her MFA in Fiction Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her stories and essays have appeared in Short Édition, the audio magazine The Drum, and such print magazines as Confrontation, Cicada, and The MacGuffin, among others. Unequal Temperament won the 2021 Buffalo Books Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Buffalo Books in 2023. Follow Cheryl on Twitter: @IrishRoad.
Embark, Issue 16, April 2022