Short Fiction Review: A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K.J. Parker

winter2011-425x561In July I discovered K.J. Parker in Subterranean Magazine’s special K.J. Parker edition, featuring the stories “The Sun and I” (nominated for a World Fantasy Award) and “Illuminated” and the essay “Rich Men’s Skins”. I liked Parker’s work so much that I have since forked out the $48 for a signed limited edition of Academic Exercises, the first collection of Parker’s shorter works (I’ve been helplessly drawn to special editions lately). Justin Landon’s glowing review over at Tor was the final push I needed to buy the book, and stories like “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” convince me that it was money well spent even though I have yet to lay eyes on the book itself.

You don’t need to spend a cent to read Parker’s short fiction though – most of it is available for free at Subterranean Magazine, and you’ll find “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” in the Winter 2011 edition. The novella won a World Fantasy Award, although it’s really only fantasy because it happens to be set in the same fantasy world of the other Parker stories I read. It reminded me of Amadeus (1984), the Milos Forman movie about the twisted relationship between the brilliant Mozart and his mediocre rival Salieri.

In Parker’s story, a music teacher (our unnamed narrator) visits his student who has been condemned to death for murder. Immediately, you get a sense of the intimately tense relationship between them. The teacher loves, hates, admires, and envies the brilliant Subtilius, and is painfully aware of his own inferiority as a composer. You could say that he didn’t so much teach Subtilius as introduce him to more ways to be exceptional. Subtilius on the other hand is so comfortably, dismissively arrogant. He knows he’s a genius, but he doesn’t care about the music. He knows his teacher envies him, and, most importantly, he knows how badly his teacher needs the money he will make by selling Subtilius’ final composition. It’s unfinished, and there’s a superbly pathetic interaction between the two characters when the narrator suggests finishing the work.

“I could finish it for you,” I said, soft and hoarse as a man propositioning his best friend’s wife. “You could hum me the theme, and—”


“No offence, my very good and dear old friend, but you simply aren’t up to it. You haven’t got the—” He paused to search for the word, then gave up. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “We’ve known each other—what, ten years? Can it really be that long?”

“You were fifteen when you came to the Studium.”

“Ten years.” He sighed. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. But you—well, let’s put it this way. Nobody knows more about form and technique than you do, but you haven’t got wings. All you can do is run fast and flap your arms up and down. Which you do,” he added pleasantly, “superlatively well.”

Subtilius is being cruel and manipulative, but he’s absolutely right about his teacher’s abilities, and they both know it. The narrator’s problem is that he cares too much about the music (whereas Subtilius does not). He reveres it, he’s afraid of it, he feels pressured to create something worthwhile. At the same time he’s constantly stressed out by his work as a music teacher, the security of his post at the Studium, and, of course, his finances. His desire, his need to create is what cripples his ability to do so.

Then comes the loveliest bit of plot. Subtilius escapes and asks the narrator to help him get out of the city. As payment, he has written a symphony that the narrator can pass off has his own. Subtilius copied his style, but elevated it with his own genius so that it’ll be better than anything his teacher every produced.

It’s a relatively simple thing, but it really perverts the already twisted relationship between the two characters. The narrator has devoted his life to music, but remains a mediocre composer whose greatest achievement is a attaining a fairly modest teaching position at a college. Subtilius can write music that will be remembered forever, but makes it look effortless, like “something he churned out in an idle moment between hangovers”. When offered the symphony, the narrator is torn. He feels like Subtilius has stolen his soul in imitating him so perfectly. He finds the idea of accepting the transaction shameful and disgusting. But then he thinks of the money.

As I mentioned, money is something that constantly stresses him out and impairs his creativity. He already lives a very spartan existence, and he’s terrified of the possibility of real poverty. He’s also quite proud of having climbed above his very humble beginnings, but those beginnings are always at the back of his mind. This is something that’s developed throughout the story, but I particularly like way Parker hints at it towards the end of the opening scene in Subtilius’ jail cell:

I stood up. “Goodbye,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t go blaming yourself for anything.” Absolution, so easy for him to give; like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips.

This kind of thing is part of why I’ve come to adore Parker’s writing – the image of the narrator’s little white scars from grabbing hot coins, and the way this conveys the sense of superiority and inferiority between student and master. It’s just so masterfully done. Subtilius is not rich, although he could easily be if he wanted to. He is, however, so rich in talent that he can write a brilliant symphony while hiding from the authorities in a bell tower, and then use that as currency. Giving his teacher the symphony is very much like the old duke maliciously tossing burning coins to the poor – the teacher wants that symphony so badly, but it will hurt and scar him to take it. Subtilius knows, and enjoys, his teacher’s anguish.

How the offer of that symphony changes his life is what drives the rest of this magnificent novella, exploring the nature and absurdities of creativity, talent and fame. The title refers to the success and genius that come at a great price, which is considered relatively small in comparison. At the start of the story, for example, Subtilius is in jail for murder, an act that is attributed to his artistic temperament. “The same essential characteristics that made him a genius also made him a murderer,” the Master of the college admits, and this is deemed acceptable, to an extent. After all, Subtilius has written music that will endure forever, while the man he killed was just a drunken thief who won’t be missed. “The most sublime music, set against a man’s life.” This question is posed several times in the story, but rather than lecture on the morality of the situation, Parker simply depicts it in all its beautifully discomfiting complexity.

After writing this review, I’m even more pleased that I bought the signed limited edition of Academic Exercises. If you’re also interested in it, Book Depository still had stock at the time of posting.

6 thoughts on “Short Fiction Review: A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K.J. Parker

  1. I didn’t buy it, but I have it from the library in my hands as we speak. I have previously read Blue and Gold along with Purple and Black. Purple and Gold was truly awesome. Looking foward to digging into the rest of them.

    But then, I love her full length novels as well. Except The Company. Skip that one.

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