Spotlit, Marko crosses the shadowed stage to thundering applause. Tails on his red-sequinned evening jacket, twerk behind him. His thinning hair, a shade of tarnished silver, is slicked back. A slash of crimson lipstick and cavernous kohl eyes animate the kabuki mask face. Marko is back.
Thrusting his trademark white violin aloft, wire coiling round his feet like an umbilical cord, the crowd roar. And fall silent when a second spotlight tracks a roadie pushing a wheelchair on stage. Slumped in the seat is a Marko replica. Chin resting on chest, the features are obscured but the outfit and hair mirror Marko’s. Across the knees, a white violin. Marko bows towards his recumbent doppelganger. Then, jamming the instrument beneath his jaw, hacks out the savage opening chords of Melancholia. The crowd whoop and stamp approval. It takes me back decades.
The last time I’d seen Marko, or plain old Mark as he was then, was strange. Even by his lofty standard, strange. By this time, he was Croesus rich. Gold discs, Emmys, Grammys, Oscars rich. We hadn’t communicated for years. Mark never forgave me for quitting the band so I was curious to receive a letter (quaint touch) inviting me to his new house. He knew me too well to know I wouldn’t refuse.
Our feet beating out timpani across bare boards, Marko was determined to discuss the old days.
‘Remember when you drove us to Runcorn, Cyn?’ he laughed, showing me round stuccoed rooms devoid of furniture. Wearing jeans and shirt, without the show time paraphernalia, I could just about relate to the technology obsessed prodigy I’d taken to my heart at the Royal College of Music.
‘How could I forget? Driving three hungover wannabe rock stars to a gig in a working man’s club on Boxing Day? It was the pinnacle of my musical ambitions.’
‘Come on Cyn, we were dynamite that night.’
‘You gotta be joking,’ I smiled, remembering the pissed crowd who’d been expecting Glam Rock and ended up with Philip Glass on steroids. ‘It was like that bar scene in The Blues Brothers when rednecks chucked bottles at the band. Only without the protective cage.’
‘Yeah, but that was the night ‘SYNTH’ was born. Runcorn was our statement gig. The point of no return.’
‘It certainly was for me,’ I sighed, sinking down on a packing case while Mark rummaged through a Harrods hamper.
‘House warming gift from my manager,’ he explained, waggling a bottle of brandy. ‘You could have stayed with us Cyn,’ he added, pouring amber liquid into plastic glasses.
‘No I couldn’t. You were the techno wizard who turned our band into a musical Frankenstein’s monster. I was the cellist who mourned melody. Remember?’
‘I remember.’ Mark acknowledged, shaking his head with tangible regret. Then ruining the moment when he added, ‘But Cyn, look what you missed.’
‘An empty house in Hampstead and a Harrods hamper,’ I snapped, ‘I’ll live.’
‘I miss you,’ he whispered. Not for the first time, I wondered if maintaining my musical principles was worth losing Mark.
Setting his glass on the floor, typically he changed tempo. ‘Hey Cyn,’ he beckoned with genius fingers, ‘Come look at this.’
He led me down stone steps into a subterranean basement, security bars at tall windows. In the centre, banks of computers, mixing desks and musical instruments were arranged in a circle. Cables snaked between them. Modems winked. A nagging musical hum vibrated from banks of speakers, set ceiling high against the wall.
‘Ever the mad progressive,’ I sighed.
‘Not mad Cyn. This could revolutionise music forever. Listen.’ Mark tapped a keyboard. The sound morphed into something repetitively seductive. Mark’s stringent violin strokes were there but in another worldly form.
I remembered when, after I’d left the band citing ‘musical differences’ and ‘SYNTH’ was rocking the dance music universe, Mark suddenly went solo.
Rebranding himself as Marko, his art performance manifestations made Bowie look like Michael Buble. His literally electrifying live performances became legend. And the music? There were still notes on a stave but his spectral arrangements elevated the listening experience to an alternative visceral level.
Marko’s experimental compositions infiltrated everything from clubs to concert halls and cinemas. One Radio 3 critic likened his music to ‘hearing souls on the wing.’ The masterpiece he played me that night redefined harmony. ‘This is………’ Tears absorbed my sentiments. I gave a slow hand clap.
‘You like it huh?’ I nodded dumbly.
‘Do you want to know where it came from?’
‘Your genius brain?’
‘Not exactly. I’ve created an algorithm. It’s composing by itself.’
‘Isn’t that cheating?’
‘No, it’s my music interpreted by Artificial Intelligence. But, I’m working towards separating composition from human limitations. Just imagine. Pure raw inspiration unmediated by emotion, experience, pain or death. Music liberated by science.’
‘You’re bonkers,’ I laughed. ‘You can’t separate humanity from creativity.’
‘Watch me,’ he said. He stroked my cheek with manicured fingers. ‘Cyn, can I come home with you tonight?’
Since leaving Mark sleeping in my bed that morning ten years ago, I hadn’t heard a word. Until the invitation to his ‘Comeback Concert’ arrived accompanied by a handwritten note suggesting dressing room drinks. Of course, while lugging my cello on trains and planes between orchestral gigs, I’d tracked his ever ascendant star. Front page headlines reported two marriages, a still born child, divorces and a near fatal motorbike accident five years back resulting in a near severed right hand. Following a surgical rebuild, a question mark hovered over his ability to play. Fanatical fans might, however, have missed business pages charting Mark’s investment into an experimental research company specialising in synthetic skin and organs.
This was Marko’s first concert since his accident. Such were the severity of his injuries, journalists and camera crews outside the Albert Hall hotly debated Marko’s ability to play. Devoted fans on their feet hysterically applauding his apparent undimmed virtuosity gave the answer.
Tipping his head back, Marko bathes in pulsing waves of adulation. The figure in the wheelchair remains motionless. When the auditorium stills, Marko turns towards his mirror image and blows an exaggerated kiss. Gasps whisper round the hall as the figure raises a face echoing Marko’s. Gyrating his bow up and down, Marko encourages the figure to stand.
Tentatively grasping his violin and bow in one pallid hand, the effigy uses the other to push itself up. Feet clad in patent black pumps matching Marko’s search the floor with inquisitive toes. Struggling to a standing position, it sways and blinks in the spotlight’s circle.
The baffled crowd shuffle in their seats. As if growing in strength and balance, his twin shifts weight from foot to foot. When, finally, he stands feet planted wide apart mimicking Marko’s emblematic silhouette, he raises the white violin alofi in slow motion. In complete synchronicity, Marko mirrors the pose. The crowd whoop. The twin speaks. In Marko’s voice. ‘I’d like to play my latest symphony. ‘A Cure For Death’. As one, they play.
To my ears, the composition is like hearing breaking glass consistently reassembled in medieval church windows. The colours and counterpoints of musical tradition were present but realigned in an alternative harmonic universe. Yet what I could not discern was how it was played. Technically, A Cure For Death was not only illogical, it was impossible.
Heading backstage, I have no idea what to say. Marko has always been keen on stunts and the doppleganger made impressive stagecraft. But recalling our last conversation years before, the music disturbs me in ways I can’t fathom.
Marko opens the dressing room door. Still in costume, sweeping lips across my cheek, I detect a vinegary scent of wet humous and citrus. I am the only person present - apart from the avatar. He is seated on a stool, touching up his lipstick in the mirror. He turns, smiles and in Marko’s voice says, ‘We’re so glad you came.’
Disconcerted, I look from one to the other. From vocal inflection to elegant hand movements, the two Marks are identical. ‘Ok boys, joke over,’ I say, ‘Will the real Mark please stand up?’
The seated Marko stands. In unison they trill, ‘Does that answer your question?’ ‘Of course it doesn’t. Stop playing games. Why am I here?’
‘You were there at my beginning,’ says one. ‘Nobody knows Marko like you Cyn. We want to know if you can tell us apart?’
‘If you can’t tell which of us is human and which is synthetic, we’ve found it.’ ‘Found what?’ ‘A cure for death.’
‘There’s no cure for that, Mark,’ I shout, blundering towards the door.
A warm hand on my arm blocks my exit. One Marko whispers, ‘I was only alive when I was with you Cyn. Beside him, the other gives a bored sigh.
Searching their painted faces, blank eyes chill me. ‘It doesn’t matter which of you is human,’ I say, pushing past them, voice trembling. ‘Mark’s always been synthetic.’