• Published 25th Nov 2020
  • 654 Views, 24 Comments

The Cab Ride and a Night Train - Penguifyer

After her composition is bashed by the critics, Octavia travels to New York City in 1978 to seek inspiration. Her answer comes not from the concert halls or academics, but rather from a cab ride.

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A City of Cabs

Humans, and plenty of them.

Octavia leaned against the wall just off of the platform inside Pennsylvania Station. A sea of humans filled the halls and crowded the space. She put a hoof against the wall and caught her breath. She’d never seen a human before, let alone thousands. She didn’t even know if she’d seen this many ponies in one place before, even in Canterlot.

“Octavia Melody?”

Octavia turned her head to see a tall, pale man in a suit. His hair greyed at the tips and his face carried a few wrinkles. “H-here.”

He nodded and walked up to her. “I tried to get here before the train arrived and meet you at the platform, but there was a lot of traffic on the way here.”

Octavia steadied herself and grabbed her bag. “It’s okay.”

He held out his hand for the bag, which Octavia slid over to him. “Let’s get some fresh air.”

Octavia nodded.

After trekking through long corridors of humans and climbing several sets of stairs, they stepped through the glass doors of the station and onto the city street. Octavia breathed out a sigh of release, taking in the musty New York air.


“Much better,” Octavia assured.

“I almost forgot. “ The human held out his hand. “I’m Professor Netone. I’m currently doing a temporary stay at the Juilliard Conservatory nearby.”

Octavia stared at his hand, unsure of what to do. “Uh, I’m Octavia, but you already know that. I graduated from the Canterlot Conservatory in performance, although I’m looking into composition at the moment.”

“So you were serious about what you put in your application?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, most ponies that come to Earth are executives or politicians or even a few scientists. When the school got word that a composer wanted to come, the staff pushed hard to get your application approved, even offering to subsidize the trip.”

Octavia paused. “Wait, really?”

“Yeah, you still already paid, but you’ll get more than the minimum treatment you paid for.”

“That’s really nice, but why?”

“In your application, you said you were looking for inspiration after a failed compositional experiment. I have my suspicions, but would like you to elaborate on what you meant.”

“Well, where do I start?” She sat and scratched her head. “I guess when I think back to my studies and the music I listen to, Equestrian music really hasn’t changed in over a couple hundred years. Everything has harmony, a melody, and a resolution. Everything is in a single key at a time. Everypony uses the same instruments more or less. Sure, we’ve elaborated on tonality a whole deal. But at the end of the day, it’s just varying shades of the same thing. Even my roommate’s music is fundamentally based on these same ideas, and she’s as far from classical music as she can be. I don’t hate tonality, but I’m ready for something new.”

Netone smiled. “I think I have just the thing for you.”

— — —

The two of them spent the rest of the day touring the city. Octavia got to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center, although wasn’t able to go to the tops of any of them (Netone assured her that they were working on reserving time slots for that). Octavia didn’t mind; her purpose here was elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the last-minute schedule changes combined with the peak summer season and limited budget meant she had to take a train into Long Island to get to her hotel. Netone bought her a Walkman to help with the rides, including a cassette of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. When she listened to it during the train ride that night, she thought it was good but typical and quite antiquated.

They spent the next morning and afternoon touring more of the city. By the evening, Netone and his colleagues managed to secure two tickets to a New York Philharmonic piano recital that evening. Netone also mentioned that the program for the night included music from modern composers, some of it unlike anything she had heard. Octavia jumped at the news. She’d finally get to hear this experimental new music the humans made.

An hour passed and they arrived at the Lincoln Center and entered the Fisher Hall. They had to sit near the back and off to the side, but Octavia didn’t mind. She could hear and that was enough. It also minimized the number of heads that glanced at her.

She glanced down at her program and checked the first piece.

Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, “Pathétique” Op. 13 (1798)

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The lights dimmed as a man stepped on stage and sat in front of a piano. His hands glided across the piano, making short work of the powerful block chords and fast runs The capabilities of human hands impressed Octavia.

The music itself sounded excellent but familiar, too familiar in fact. She could easily mistake it for a piece from one of her colleagues. She knew by the date that this was antiquated for humans but enjoyed it nonetheless, awaiting the next pieces.

She glanced at her program again as the Beethoven ended and the applause quieted down.

Les jeux d’eaux á la Villa d’Este (1883)

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Rapid yet smooth arpeggios echoed throughout the hall as the pianist’s hands danced along the keyboard. If the last piece was difficult, the musicianship here astounded her.

She loved the music more than the previous Beethoven, but it still felt too familiar. If she composed something similar, she knew her colleagues would praise her and the royalty would adore her. But she craved innovation; she craved discovery. She wanted to feel like she discovered her cutie mark again.

As the Liszt came to a close, she glanced at the program again.

Some South-Paw Pitching (1919)

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Octavia noted the more recent date. Her knowledge of human music history was limited, but she inferred that this piece should be more “experimental.”

The pianist began with piercing octaves on each hand. A sharp dissonance stung with the first chord and Octavia felt something was off.

“Sound familiar?” Netone whispered to her.

The piece picked up. Octavia struggled to follow it. “What do you mean?”

“You mentioned something about bitonality in your application. Charles Ives is our textbook bitonal composer. I thought you’d find his music interesting.”

“Hmm,” she muttered back.

As the piece slowed down and ended on an unexpected resolution, Octavia’s nerves built up inside her. Was this her bitonality idea taken to its fullest? Is this what her music would’ve evolved into? She couldn’t hate it, but she couldn’t get behind it like the earlier pieces.

Dissonant chords rang out from the piano again as Octavia checked the program again.

Klavierstück Op. 33a and 33b (1929 and 1932)

Arnold Schöenberg (1874-1951)

The pitches conflicted with each other, making for a nearly indiscernible melody and harmony. Yet, she could tell by the grace and expertise of the pianist’s hands that every note was intended. His control of the dynamics and articulations matched any pianists Octavia knew back in Equestria. But the notes, they didn't make any sense.

She leaned over towards Netone and whispered, “I don’t get it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can tell the notes are intentional, but I don’t get it.”

“Really? I’ll explain it later.”

Octavia nodded as the piece came to a close, growing increasingly uncomfortable. Was this the path she was destined to take? Was this where her curiosity led her? She loved music for its expression and beauty, but she wanted to progress into new territory. Was this the only path to do so?

— — —

Octavia stood near the edge of the Lincoln center as Netone waved at the cars going by.

“Taxi!” he shouted as a yellow cab pulled over. He opened the backseat door and turned toward Octavia. “After you.”

Octavia trotted to him. “I guess.”

“You look worried.” He noted as she slipped inside the cab.

“Get in and I’ll explain.”

Netone shrugged and slid into the car.

As Octavia and Netone shifted around and buckled in, the cab driver turned around and smiled at them. She took note of his curly, disheveled hair. “Where are you two headin…” He stumbled on his last word, noticing Octavia.

“Penn station, she needs to catch a train.” He nodded toward Octavia.

Her brain went blank for a sec. “Uh… don’t worry. I don’t bite.”

The driver smirked. “Too bad you don’t get to see Grand Central. Penn is a bit of a letdown.”

“I’ve been there already. It’s no big deal.”

“That’s good.” He pulled the car into the street.

Octavia braced herself against the car door out of instinct. The jerky movements of the car still felt alien to her.

“So, what’s on your mind?” Netone prodded.

Octavia stared out of the window for a second, trying to put her thoughts together. “My mind… do you have the program?”

“Sure.” Netone pulled the program out of his pocket and handed it to Octavia. She unfolded it and skimmed through the pieces, collecting her thoughts. “Let’s start at the top. I liked the first one.”

“The Beethoven?” Netone corrected.

“That’s how you say it. Anyway, it was good but a bit…”


Octavia nodded. “Yeah, too similar to what we have in Equestria. The next was also good too. What does the title say?”

“‘The Fountains of the Villa d’Este.’”

“Fountains? That makes much more sense.” She paused, getting her mind back on track. “Anyway, I liked that one a lot too. Now that I think about it, it does sound like water flying through the air. At the same time…”

“It’s still a bit too familiar?”

“Yeah, like an incremental improvement. I’m sure if I took that piece and played in Equestria, it’d be universally praised. At the same time…”

“You want something new?”

“Exactly. That being said, the next piece, the ‘Charles Ives’ was… well…”


Octavia paused, searching for the right words. “Actually, I don’t know if I liked it.”

“Really? I thought you’d find that one quite interesting.”

“I did. But to be honest, it felt like the composer went a bit too far. When I made my bitonal piece, maybe I was a bit too safe, but I tried to make the two keys fit together. I didn’t think another composer would take things so far.”

“Hey, that’s what artists do. I personally think there’s some beauty in its chaos.”

“I guess. I see its value, but it's not music I’d listen to in my free time.”

“That’s fair.”

Octavia breathed in and let out a deep sigh. “Now, the elephant in the room.” She paused again and decided she had no other option but to be blunt. “What happened with that last piece?”

“I quite liked it. It’s actually quite logical.”

Octavia raised an eyebrow. “How?”

“You see, first Schoenberg aligned all twelve chromatic notes together in a row. Then, he constructed a note matrix that gave him all of the possible transformations including the various forms of inversions, retrogrades, and transpositions.”

Octavia stared at Netone. “What?” The cab driver chuckled.

“Using that matrix to guide his composition, all he had to do was supply additional rhythms, dynamics, and assign the notes to octaves.”

Octavia glanced at the program and looked out the window. “I don’t get it.”

“I think it makes sense.”

“I’ve studied music for over ten years and I couldn’t hear that.”

“It takes some getting used to.”

“But what’s the point? Where’s the expression? Just because I want something new doesn’t mean I want to stop loving music.”

“The way I see it, there’s more to music than expression. Music is like a science to us now.”

Octavia’s eyes twitched. “S-s-science!?”

“Well, advancing our field is more important to us now.”

“Let me prove my point.” She leaned forward toward the front seat. “Mr. driver?”

The driver turned his head slightly, keeping his eyes on the road. “Yup?”

“Do you listen to Schoenberg? Do you even know who he is?”

“Can’t say I’m a fan. When I was in Pari…”

“See!” She stared down Netone, breathing heavily. Tension lingered in the air.

The driver broke the silence. “You two okay back there?”

“I’m fine,” Octavia responded, steadying her breathing. “I’m not saying classical music should try to be popular, far from it. But I can’t see anyone enjoying that.”

Netone shrugged. “I enjoy it. I enjoy composing it and analyzing that kind of music.”

“But do you enjoy listening to it?”

He sat silent, tilting his head down with sharp eyes.

“I don’t want to be condescending, but I was taught that theory follows practice,” she continued, catching her breath and realizing how worked up she was. She paused and controlled her breathing. “I don’t want to say there’s no value in your music, but you have to understand that if Equestrian critics blasted me for bitonality, your music is out of the question.”

“That’s understandable,” Netone conceded.

She leaned back into her seat and stared out of the car window. “I guess I’m just disappointed. I came here looking for inspiration, looking for a completely new kind of music. Instead, I found music I can’t listen to, let alone compose.”

The car sat silent for a moment as Octavia and Netone reached an impasse.

The driver tilted his head towards Octavia. “Have you heard of Stravinsky?”

“Who?” Octavia replied as Netone widened his eyes.

“Igor Stravinsky. I think you’d like Firebird by him or even his Rite of Spring. I wouldn’t call him a true modernist, but he definitely blends a traditional style with modernist elements.”


“That’s what you call Schoenberg and Ives, although Schoenberg is more specifically a serialist. Not every composer went all in like they did, though, like Stravinsky.”

His response caught Octavia off guard. It sounded too knowledgeable. “Who are you?”

“I used to work for my father’s record store. I had to know all of the music in that store.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Octavia shot back.

The driver paused for a second. “Philip… Philip Glass.”

“That’s funny,” Netone noted. “You have the same name as a composer some of my colleagues at Julliard rave about. He composed an opera a couple years ago.”

The driver hesitated, fumbling over his words. “About that…”

Netone froze. “Don’t tell me.”

Philip chuckled. “Yes.”

“What are you doing driving my taxi!”

“I’m driving you two to Penn Station.”

“But you’re an artist.”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “And sometimes I’m a taxi driver as well.”

Octavia chuckled. “You didn’t answer the question again,” she teased.

Philip sighed. “Turns out even if you sell out a theatre two nights in a row, you can still lose money. At first I was angry, but I don’t mind it that much anymore. It beats running a moving company.”

“Let me get this straight, the guy who is driving my taxi wrote an opera?”

“Yes, and some people liked it too.”

Netone scoffed. “What kind of audience? I’m curious.”

“Well,” Philip shrugged. “My group and I have more of an audience than Schoenberg.”

Netone looked away, sweating and uncomfortable. Thankfully for him, the taxi pulled over just in front of the entrance to Penn Station. As soon as the taxi stopped, Netone hopped out and waited for Octavia to follow suit. Octavia didn’t care about him.

“I hate to barrage you with more questions.”

“Go ahead, I don’t mind.”

“Why drive a cab when you could be a professor? Why work a day job when you could write popular music? I feel like I’m missing something.”

“I’ll give you one word.” He turned toward her and smiled. “Independence.”

Octavia tilted her head. “I don’t follow.”

“When you’re a professor, you have to cater to the academics. When you’re a pop writer, you have to cater to the general public. By driving cabs, fixing people’s plumbing, and moving people out of houses, I can write what I want without someone standing over my shoulder.”

Octavia leaned over and looked down. “When my bitonal piece got blasted by critics, I felt like my career was over. But seeing you… I don’t know.”

“Hey, when someone hopped onto my stage and banged on my piano, I punched him in the jaw.”

Octavia laughed.

“Not kidding, when your music is the exact opposite… actually… let me…” He reached into the glove compartment, pulled out a cassette tape, and handed it to Octavia. “You should hear it yourself. Do you have a cassette player?”

“Netone bought me something he calls a ‘Walkman.’”

“Perfect. Other people call my music minimalist, although I don’t really like the term. But if you’re looking for something different, I think it’s worth checking out.”

Octavia bit the cassette and tossed it into her bag. “I’m definitely curious now.”

Philip smiled. “Keep in mind, that’s the kind of stuff I wrote after being surrounded by Schoenberg. It’s… uh… quite different.”

“How different can it be?”

“Let’s just say I needed to hear something simple. I don’t know, I like it.”

“That’s exactly why I’m interested.” She opened the door, slid out of the car, and paused. “Did Netone pay you?”

“Now that you say it…”

She fished through her bag and tossed him a ten-dollar bill. “Hopefully that covers it. Thanks for the ride.”

“You too,” Philip waved before driving off into the street.

Octavia waved back before trotting to Netone.

Neither of them spoke to each other as they navigated the halls of the station. Even as they waited for her train to board, they didn’t speak a word. When her train arrived and began boarding, Netone gave her a soft wave and walked away. Octavia didn’t mind, though.

As soon as she found a seat and sat down, she popped the cassette into her Walkman, adjusted her flimsy headphones (she thought about asking Vinyl for some pony friendly headphones), and played the cassette.

The train jolted forward as she stared out of the window, listening to the soft synth. It was simple, deceptively simple. Even a year or two ago, she would’ve blown it off as too repetitive and useless. But after the stress from the concert and the arguments with Netone, she found peace in the music’s repetition and gradual change.

At that moment, it clicked. Instead of rejecting aspects of music, maybe she should reduce music to its most basic components. Doing so would force her to think of music in a completely different way. Maybe then she can rebuild classical music into something that’s both new and pleasant.

She pulled a piece of staff paper and jotted down some ideas. She might even ask Vinyl to help her with this.

A faint glow of her Cutie Mark emanated from her flank.