The sounds in the air of this city right now are songs from three Washington acts: the raucous, garish stomp of Ben Ladner and The 13-Course Meals; the Vegas lounge bravado of The Architect, Karl Rove, and his cocky band of winkers and nudgers; and, off in a quiet corner of town, the daringly subtle stylings of Miss Shirley Horn, who needs no accompaniment.

You've never seen them on one stage, but put the three acts together and you'd have a pretty good portrait of Washington.

Start your evening with the Ladner show, featuring the burly academic in the great room of his Spring Valley manse, directing his personal chef and an extensive staff in a no-expenses-spared production you can't afford to miss. You also can't afford to attend, especially if you're a student or parent at American University, where Ladner was a one-man tuition increase until his presidency came to an abrupt end earlier this month.

Seems not everyone appreciated the glorious excesses of the Ladner show. But never fear, the university's trustees are keeping the party going. Now they've stuffed almost $3.75 million into Ladner's pockets on his way out the door. After all, it's free money -- roughly $340 for each AU student -- and there's always more parents where these came from, right?

(Oh, and please, let's not call it "severance" money -- so harsh. Let's just say this parting gift is a reward for all those frequent-diner points President Ladner built up while wining and dining AU donors.)

The Ladner show is all about status, image, privilege and power; it's rich.

On our second stop of this night on the town, we go a bit down and dirty, out to the Palisades, to the home of The Architect, Karl Rove, who comes from a grand Washington tradition of performances by supposedly behind-the-scenes second bananas who manage to make plain that they're really the marquee act.

Rove's band brings to life the dreams of a city of staffers. When the president's political Svengali jumps up on the bandstand, you'll hear clever songs of manipulation and deception, lyrics that wrap in upon themselves, saying one thing and meaning quite another. A fearsome, anthemic rock number called "Tight Ship Running," for example, turns out to reveal a coded message about the leaks that may doom the voyage.

It's a beautiful show -- other musicians regularly come by just to admire the craft -- but, alas, it may be coming to the end of a long run, victim of its own publicity and a too-heavy dose of hypocrisy.

Word on the street has it that a guest singer will drop in to play with the band this week, a tough guy from Chicago, in town just till Friday.

After that volatile show, you'll want to finish off the night by settling down with the songs of Shirley Horn, who passed from the scene last week. In the city that always seems in a hurry to get nowhere, Horn dug in and embraced her home. She grew up here, went to Howard, studied classical music, and found a path from Rachmaninoff to Oscar Peterson. Horn defended herself against the cacophony of a city that thrives on noise with a style all her own, a music with silence at its core. The air between her notes became as ripe with meaning as any lyric, any tune.

She was a world-famous jazz singer, and she was the wife of a Metro mechanic who preferred that his family stay close to home. She sang of the most delicate love, in the most intimate mood, and all the while, she suffered the indignities of segregation, the inequities of a harsh business, and then the insults of time -- breast cancer, diabetes, strokes.

"So here's to life," Horn sang -- even after she was forced to perform from a wheelchair, even after entire decades in which her extraordinary talent was ignored by a music business that lives only for the moment. "Here's to life, and all the joy it brings. Here's to life, here's to love, here's to you. May all your storms be weathered, and all that's good get better."

In some cities around the country, you could hear Horn on the radio all weekend, entire days of airtime devoted to her music. Not here, where jazz is hardly heard at all on the air; not in this city, where the sounds we cling to are the songs of right now, fleeting tunes from people who come and go, taking with them whatever they can grab.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com