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Gradus ad Parnassum

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Arthur's first compositions — the ones he'd written for Eames, and not for class — had come upon him with the frenzy and suddenness of summer storms.

Notes pattered onto the page, it seemed; melodies ran like rivulets meandering between shingles. It was ecstatic, pure creativity.

It's still like that, sometimes; he'll wake up with a phrase in his head, or drift off mid-sentence in class, and those times it's like he can't lay hands on manuscript fast enough. Sometimes, later, the bolts of inspiration prove to be dreck, misleadingly tantalizing dead ends; more often they open up something, they unlock a whole world that proves to be a song or even a cycle.

But now that Arthur is a proper Composer, now that he has Commissions and Grants — now, more often than not, composition has become as much of a discipline as piano always has been.

Arthur sits dutifully at the piano with sharpened pencil in hand, the chosen text printed neatly onto looseleaf, manuscript paper at the ready, and he spends a long time frowning at the blankness, the nothing that perfectly reflects the echoing silence in his head. Sometimes Arthur even writes out whole rests, neatly, one after another, like he's doing a transcription of how little imagination he has. Eventually he'll settle on something, some little set of three or four notes that aren't horribly displeasing and then the real work begins.

Crafting a piece that doesn't want to flow is, at first, roundly an exercise in frustration and horror. Arthur crosses out four notes for every five he commits to paper.

"Beethoven wrote like this," Dom reminds Arthur, over coffee.

"Schubert wrote a song every morning," Arthur answers darkly.

"So write a song every morning," Dom says, like it's so easy.

Arthur takes up smoking again, quits, gets addicted to patches, quits those too.

He turns out a meagre five song cycle, hating every note. It is, of course, met with rave reviews, and hailed as Arthur's best work yet. "Thoughtful," says Dom. "Worthy of your intellect," says Miles. "Fucking gorgeous," Eames says, and fucks Arthur under the Steinway as is traditional.

So it's a discipline, Arthur grudgingly admits, and for two months he does, he writes a song every morning. Most of them he hates. Three of them are torrents of glorious sound, and two are immensely painful and crabbed little songs that make Arthur very proud and very certain that he can be good even when he's not channeling the muses directly.

Much as Arthur admires Cobb, he's always found his approach to composition too intellectual, like the goal of the thing is to turn notes around in a wholly new way; Arthur writes for beauty, for emotional truth, or so he likes to imagine. One day, though, sitting at the piano and struggling to write his sixty-third song, Arthur tears a bit of manuscript paper off and makes a mobius strip out of it, stares at it, and wonders if he could write it down.

"You sound like a nutter," Eames says over the phone when Arthur tries to explain his idea.

"Listen, a song that folds back on itself," Arthur says, "like an A-B-A-prime aria, but more overt."

"What are you wearing?" Eames says.

"Eames," says Arthur, desperate to make him see it, "cyclical song."

"Yes, it's called ninety-nine bottles of beer, it’s been done to death,” Eames answers. "Take off your shirt."

"No, it's," Arthur says, but he loosens his tie anyway out of habit.

The mobius strip doesn't work out in the end, but two weeks later Arthur finds the Penrose steps in a book about architectural paradoxes, and nearly runs to the piano.

"Music is linear," Eames says, grumpily, when Arthur calls to tell him about it.

"You just say that because you think sex is linear," Arthur points out, less bothered this time, because he's on to something, he knows it.

"Oh, right, and sex is in fact —“ and Eames sighs heavily. "Wait, are you about to start in on the female orgasm? Because, no offence darling, you are far from an expert."

“Shut up and listen," Arthur says, puts the phone on speaker, and plays the little loop he's written, layers the melody of the voice over it.

Eames is silent for a moment, and then his voice comes through: "All right," he says.

"Yeah?" Arthur says, grinning.

"Just don't stay on the stairs forever," Eames warns him.

"Don't worry," Arthur says, "I know how important it is for you, getting to the top or whatever."

"What are you wearing?" Eames asks.

Two sides of the same thing, Arthur realizes, or the same thing with two sides, or — a snake swallowing its tail, a hand drawing a hand drawing the first hand. Art speaks to him and makes Arthur work to produce art, and that's really all the same thing, it's all about turning a thing back on itself, taking a tiny constellation of sounds and blowing them out of all recognition before shrinking them back to essentials.

"Maybe a spiral," Arthur says to the ceiling, and Eames rolls off him, sated and sweaty and grinning, home at last after weeks away.

"Fibonacci," says Eames. "The Golden Ratio. Arthur, you're composing yourself back into the Renaissance."

"Yeah," says Arthur, and turns his head, grins. "Isn't it awesome?"