NEW WORLD SYMPHONY
Anne E. Johnson
The Beethoven sounded fine. Maria set her cello on its side in front of her chair and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. She’d been practicing for two hours already, but the concert was tonight and she wanted to feel confident.
Her husband, Steve, was at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and staring at his laptop. He didn’t look up when he spoke to her. “Sounds nice, babe. A real toe-tapper.”
Kissing his ear, Maria laughed. “That Louie Beethoven. He’s hot at all the clubs these days.”
Steve raised his mug in a toast, favoring Maria with a grin. “Leave it to the Little Falls Symphony Orchestra to play the biggest hits.”
“And you’ve only heard the cello part.”
He raised his eyebrows and put his hand to his heart. “You’re not the soloist?”
“In Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto? Um, no.” She sighed. “I gotta get back to work. The Dvorák is giving me trouble.”
“New World Symphony?’
“That’s the one. I keep getting stuck on a passage in the first movement.” Maria set her water glass down hard. She was more stressed than she cared to admit.
“Honey.” Steve spoke in a somber voice that made Maria turn to meet his gaze. “You’ll do great tonight. I can’t wait to hear the concert. I’m so proud of you.” He kissed her goodbye and left for an afternoon appointment.
Her heart calmed by Steve’s kind words, Maria went back to the living room, put her cello between her knees, and opened the score of Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony Number 9, From the New World. The cello part was tough, and she knew she’d sounded pretty ragged in dress rehearsal the night before. But she was sure she could do better.
“We might not be the New York Philharmonic,” Maestra Czerny had said, smacking her baton on the music stand and glowering right at Maria, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be in tune and in rhythm, eh?”
Maria repeated those words in her memory as she squinted at the score. “Why is this so hard?” she asked the empty house. She found the toughest passage in the first movement and turned on her metronome to an embarrassingly slow sixty beats per minute. Tick-tick-tick-tick.
As she lifted her bow above the bridge and positioned her left hand on the neck, the cello seemed to protest. All four strings suddenly buzzed so hard that they blurred, and the wooden body gave out a creak like a ship’s timbers. Where they touched the cello, her knees and the left side of her collarbone buzzed, too, and a strange heat flowed through her.
“What the hell?” she cried, pushing the cello away from her shoulder so it was upright on its end pin. The buzzing reached a squealing pitch, then stopped abruptly. Panting, Maria cautiously drew the instrument back toward her and leaned over it to look for fractures in its front and back. Her left hand had been gripping the neck so hard, her fingers ached.
Fighting down panic, she pulled the endpin loose and laid the instrument across her lap, examining it like a mother might a child who’d fallen on the sidewalk. Everything looked normal, but in her twenty-five years of playing the cello, she’d never even heard of anything like that. “Maybe it was a little earthquake,” she told herself. She didn’t really believe it, though: the only thing that had shaken was the cello.
Despite Maria’s rattled nerves, Dvorák still waited on her music stand and the concert loomed ever closer. For half an hour she tried to play those few bars correctly. At first, it was just frustrating. But her playing got worse, and not in the usual way her playing might weaken after a night of partying or if she had the flu or something distracting on her mind. She was putting her left-hand fingers in the correct place on the fingerboard, and moving her bow in the written patterns. But the sound was coming out weirdly diffuse, as if someone else were playing music in the next room, and not on a cello.
She examined her instrument again, although she couldn’t imagine any type of damage that could cause these sounds. There were no cracks that she could see. The sound post inside was upright. The bridge was flush with the top. Everything seemed fine, so she tried again. Her tone wobbled. The pitch shot up incredibly high, as if she were playing a violin. A couple of measures even sounded like the electronic wail of a Theramin in an old horror movie soundtrack.
“What the hell?” Maria repeated. She started to hurl her bow across the room in frustration, but remembered just in time that it was worth twenty-five grand and had just been re-haired. Instead, she buried her nose in the shoulder of her cello and moaned into it, making the wood vibrate, breathing in the calming scent of wood and rosin. “Why, why, why?”
Tears weren’t good for the varnish on her cello, so she quickly wiped off the wood with a kerchief she always had nearby. I should call Steve, she thought. But, no. It was time to pull herself together. Everything’s fine, she told herself. Just pre-concert jitters.
Maria packed up her cello and heated some soup for dinner. She listened to the radio while she ate, tuning to some kitchy pop music, as far from Beethoven and Dvorák as possible. By the time she’d eaten, showered, and dressed in her long black gown, Maria was feeling calm and confident. “Okay, Dvorák,” she said to the score as she zipped it into her shoulder bag, “let’s do this thing.”
– The vibrations beckon. Sound, the humans call it.
– Did you locate a conduit for our transfer?
– A female human will provide the sound entry, through a large vibrational device.
– What device? What are its properties?
– It is called cello. It is made of hard but porous plant materials. Sound vibrations travel easily across its molecular structure.
– You know we require a metallic interface in order to ride the vibrations.
– Yes. The device has a component called strings where the vibrational frequency is controlled. They call that frequency pitch.
– It seems ideal for our needs. But I am concerned about the practical application of the transfer.
– We conducted a number of experiments. The transference process affected the sound data.
– What manner of data alteration did you observe?
– Change of pitch.
– And pitch is vibrational frequency?
– Correct. There was also a loss of consistency in rhythm.
– Define rhythm.
– The subdivision of sound and silence in time. These both seem to be serious issues that could prevent completion of the transfer.
– Did you solve these issues?
– We were forced to cut our experiments short because of the most severe problem of all.
– What could be more severe than distorted data?
– There is a factor of human psychology that cannot be controlled.
– I am unable to distinguish cause and effect accurately.
– Extrapolate from observation.
– Very well. After experiencing the sound data changes during our tests on the cello device, the female human became so emotionally distraught that she ceased operation of the cello.
– Do you believe that the debilitating emotional response was caused by your transmission tests?
– And do you believe this same response will occur during the actual transfer?
– I do.
– Will you be able to experiment further, to perfect the technique so that the data is not interrupted?
– No. That is impossible. There is no time. The optimum transfer point, which is called concert, occurs less than a million deg-units from now.
– Can we not wait? Will there be no other concerts using this cello device?
– As you know, our fuel stream is waning. This concert is the ideal chance because of the sound pattern to be represented.
– And what is special about this particular sound pattern?
– It is an invitation, as if it were meant for us.
– The sound pattern has a special name. It is called the Symphony from the New World.
– That is indeed an auspicious name.
As soon as she arrived at the theater, Maria considered going back home. Several people stopped to ask if she was okay while she was walking to the dressing room she shared with thirty other women from the orchestra.
“Honey, you look like you just hit someone with your car.” That’s how her old friend Jenny, a flutist, said hello. “I’ve seen Wonderbread with better color than you.”
Maria glanced in the dressing room mirror over the heads of several other women fixing their hair and makeup. A gray-faced, haggard facsimile of herself peered back from the glass. “Oh, god, you’re right.” She patted her cheeks to bring the blood to them.
“That better not be the flu, or we’ll never forgive you.”
“I don’t have the flu.” Maria didn’t take offense at Jenny’s typically brusque manner. “I’m just nervous.” She forced out a little laugh.
Jenny put her hand on Maria’s arm. “Maybe you should call Steve to come pick you up.”
“No!” Maria hadn’t meant to sound harsh, but worrying her husband was out of the question. “Please, no,” she said more softly. “He still gets so, you know, jumpy.” It had been only three months since Maria’s miscarriage. Steve still threatened to call 911 if she had a hangnail. “I’ll be fine.” She took her cello out of her case and headed toward the wings.
She had the whole first half of the concert between her and the dreaded Dvorák symphony, which wouldn’t be played until after intermission. Although she knew it was putting off the inevitable, the reprieve gave Maria the courage to walk onstage at all. She held her cello up with one hand and raised her long skirt off the floor as she picked her way between rows of chairs. Audience members were already trickling into the hall and about half the musicians were in their chairs warming up their instruments. The familiar main theme of The New World Symphony floated across the stage from the French horn section. Hearing it made Maria woozy, but she chastised herself for being as nervous as an amateur.
She tried to look nonchalant when her stand partner, Sonchai, grinned in greeting. “I learned recently the English word for this,” he said in his charming Thai accent.
“For what?” Maria asked eagerly, glad for a diversion.
“For how is your face looking tonight.” Sonchai pointed right at Maria. “Word is ‘jittery.’ Correct word, yes?”
Maria had to laugh as she bent to place the rubber disc on the floor to keep her cello from sliding around while she played. “Yes, jittery is a good word for how I feel. Practice didn’t go so well today.”
Sonchai nodded sagely. “The Williams?” He was referring to a brand new short composition they were opening the concert with. “Sixteenth note runs in Williams are, er, I think the correct word is ‘wicked.’”
Maria laughed again. “You always have the right word, Sonchai.”
“I love adjectives.”
“Well, the Williams is wicked, but my problem is with the Dvorák.” She pulled her bow across her D string and was surprised at the clear, sweet tone, nothing like she’d sounded earlier. “I’m just being silly,” she said.
“You are American,” Sonchai pointed out. “Dvorák wrote New World Symphony for you to play. Should be, I think the word is ‘naturalistic’ for you.”
“You mean ‘natural.’ But I’m not sure I agree.”
“Explain, please?” Sonchai rosined his bow.
Before answering, Maria scanned the audience. She could see Steve in the third row, talking to a couple they sometimes went to shows with. Just knowing he was there calmed her. “Maybe Dvorák wrote it for you, Sonchai.”
“I am not from this New World,” he countered.
“And that’s why it’s your piece, not mine.” Maria gave her stand partner a warm smile. “To you, America is a New World. To me, it’s the same old world I’ve always known.”
“Ha ha!” Sonchai laughed appreciatively. “The correct adjective for this statement is ‘insightful.’”
“Oh, I’m not sure about that, but thank you.” Wrapping her left arm around her cello’s neck, Maria rested her chin on the comforting curve of its shoulder. “I wonder if there truly are any new worlds anymore?” she mused.
The house lights dimmed and the concertmaster come onstage and pointed to the oboe for an A to tune the orchestra. Maria felt ready.
– How will the transference occur?
– In the same way you designed it.
– When I designed the method, it was purely theoretical. I did not truly imagine there would be a viable conduit for practical application.
– You did not believe our species could be saved?
– I did not. Explain how we will use the cello mechanism to execute the transfer.
– We must prepare by pre-materializing. We will take the metaform called thought.
– We will be thought particles before we are transmitted?
– Yes. We will position ourselves so that the physical vibration and spiritual power of the music capture us at the point where they combine.
– And what point is that?
– The physical location is an element of the cello called the sound post. It collects the vibrations from the cello as a friction engine called a bow causes these vibrations when it is forced across the strings.
– And the metaphysical component?
– The spiritual vibrations occur simultaneously with the physical ones. The cello operator feels the resistance and consequent vibrations in her body. She hears the resultant pitch frequency and experiences an instantaneous spiritual reaction.
– Does only the cello operator experience these phenomena?
– No, our research indicates that anyone close enough to encounter the cello’s vibrations will have a similar reaction, albeit slightly delayed and less intense than that of the cello operator. No other mechanism seems to produce such a profound rift in the interplanar membrane as does the cello.
– What is its special property?
– A theory?
– It is the musical instrument closest in shape and size to the human body. Therefore reaction is magnified.
– Noted. And once the cello conduit is opened?
– Then our people will be able to make use of the other instruments for transference as well.
– Very good. This report gives me confidence that our species may yet be saved in this new plane.
– I share that confidence. The metaphysical energy of humans is strong. The vibrations of their creativity will support us for a long time.
– With no effect on the humans and other creatures of this planet?
– None besides an enhanced perception of all their senses.
– That is a desirable effect, as all of our previous hosts have discovered. One last question before we prepare: How will our people manifest themselves on the human plane?
– As photic particles with a spectral reflection.
– The humans will be aware of us?
– Yes. They will perceive us as what they call light and color.
– And then?
– And then we will have found a new home.
The first half of the concert went smoothly. Maria had nearly forgotten about her problems that afternoon. During intermission she joked around with her colleagues and even grabbed a snack from the ubiquitous deli plate backstage. Rather than fear, she was enjoying the usual excitement of the concert atmosphere.
But all of that changed when she took her seat for the second half. The music stand she shared with Sonchai was now hidden by the intimidating, oversized Dvorák score. Its weight seemed to transfer to Maria’s back, and she had trouble breathing.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered hoarsely to Sonchai as the house lights dimmed and the conductor strutted back out and mounted her podium. Sonchai gave Maria a concerned look, but Maestra Czerny’s arms were raised for the downbeat, so it was too late for discussion.
The strings began the first movement of the New World Symphony, playing a mournful, slow melody in unison. With her first pull of the bow, Maria felt a buzzing where her chest met the back of her instrument. Although she was playing timidly, her cello sounded like gleaming molten silver, like a great tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. She saw the maestra shoot her a strange look, but within a few bars the oboe and brass entered, which mercifully distracted the conductor from the cellos.
While the winds echoed the bittersweet opening, Maria closed her eyes and silently promised to blend in better. The next phrase of the music featured the strings again, strident and syncopated. Maria drew the notes out at a reckless forte. The sound she made rubbed her nerves achingly like heroin. Each time her part rested, she became more eager for her next entrance. As the music of the adagio introduction intensified, the wood in her cello’s body undulated. Wood cannot move like that, she thought, horrified that she was hallucinating. But she caught a baffled look from Sonchai that told her he could see it, too.
Maestra Czerny, sweating, glared fiercely at the cello section. When the woodwinds took the theme again, Maria didn’t stop playing. She doubled their melody along with them, in defiance of the score. Each bow stroke filled her with delicious power. Nothing could have made her stop.
Maria’s husband was in his usual seat. While she could barely make out his face in the darkness, she knew he must be appalled. But like a teenager manic with raging hormones, Maria played even louder, squinting into the audience just to revel in Steve’s disapproval.
It was not disapproval she saw on his face. It was lust.
A keening moan emanated from the cellists behind Maria. She could hear their instruments clearly despite how she sawed away at full volume. They didn’t sound like cellos, but spilled out a kind of shimmering effect that wasn’t quite music at all, wasn’t even quite sound in the usual sense. As the measures of score passed, the cellos became louder and their music less earthly.
Then threads of every color, slightly more solid than rays of light, began to snake and swirl from the four points on Maria’s cello where the strings stretched over the bridge. Sonchai’s cello sprouted threads, too, and then the others in the section. The threads rose and twisted, finding other sets of four and knotting around them. The more fervently Maria played, the faster she spun the magical thread. Her heart beat so hard her ribs rattled. She could smell something wondrous now, food and sex and flowers and rotting and spring and sadness and wine. Every breath brought more tantalizing scents. Maria sucked air through her nose so deeply and quickly that the room spun.
The violas, violins, and double basses were the next to be transformed. The instruments appeared to wobble as if they were underwater, and the players bowed frantically with their eyes closed. Many cried out with pleasure as the threads snaked out from their bridges. Maria could see their noses pulling greedily at the tornado of scents.
Dvorák’s composition was no longer anywhere in evidence, but Maestra Czerny did not stop conducting. She seemed to be in the throes of passion, moaning and weeping openly. Maria saw the air around the maestra shake and split, as it might through broken eyeglasses. “Keep playing!” Maestra Czerny shouted. “Please! Please don’t stop!”
The wind and brass players caught the contagion, blowing bizarre and rapturous noises, gulping desperately for air so they could blow some more. The colorful light threads floated from the flutes and clarinets, the trumpets and French horns. All those dancing, weightless ropes met high above the stage, tangled, spun and spread. They streamed out over the audience as a massive, pulsing specter, diaphanous and mesmerizing.
The hall rang with wails and screams of ecstasy. The walls and seats glowed gold. Several stage lights exploded, as did the bulbs of the chandelier. But the audience didn’t run out in terror. They stood and reached their arms upward into the roiling ribbon god that engulfed them.
And then it was over. Everyone in the audience sat down with a thud. Every musician stopped playing. Maria halted her bow along with everyone else, as if a huge double bar sign had landed on the stage, indicating an absolute finish to the piece.
Stunned and trembling, Maria set her bow on the floor and looked around. The other musicians were exploring, too, whimpering, their eyes wide and their mouths open. Everything was different. Maria could distinguish the individual plant fibers that made up her score. It was more intricate and mystical than a Seurat painting. Sonchai’s face had such deep contrasts of texture and relief, Maria might have been viewing the Alps. She could pick out individual scents and breathing patterns for each of the seventy-two people on the stage.
It was Steve, pressing his chest against the edge of the stage and reaching toward the orchestra, as many audience members were doing.
“Maria!” The simple calling of her name was as exquisite and variegated as a Mozart opera aria.
She staggered toward him and reached out her hand. Just the grazing of her fingertips against his jolted her backwards. He lunged his upper body forward and grabbed her hand to steady her. Their most exalted nights of lovemaking had never approached the ecstasy she felt.
Clutching his hand, Maria knelt and raised her eyes to the ceiling, where the millions of colored threads had dissolved into intermingled clouds. Some deep instinct told her that everything would be different from now on. She was also sure that, somehow, she had composed this magnificent, endless Symphony of the Senses. She had made the old world new again.
Food for Thought
For many years I taught music history. One of the pieces I always covered was Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. He wrote that piece as a means of acknowledging the existence of native peoples of North America, but presented within the context of the European classical tradition. Because I am a science fiction writer, it occurred to me that our entire planet might be viewed as a New World by extra-terrestrials. In this story, the alien life form has interpreted the title of Dvorak’s piece as an invitation. Additionally, I explored the concept that musical frequencies might be conduits for life energy, and the parallel notion that a musician’s instrument is an extension of her body.
About the Author
Anne E. Johnson, based in Brooklyn, writes in a variety of genres for both adults and children. Her short speculative fiction has appeared in Perihelion SF, Buzzy Mag, Liquid Imagination, FrostFire Worlds, Shelter of Daylight, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Her series of humorous science fiction novels, The Webrid Chronicles, is being published by Candlemark & Gleam. So far the series includes Green Light Delivery and Blue Diamond Delivery, with Red Spawn Delivery in the works. Anne writes speculative fiction for children and tweens as well, including the paranormal mystery Ebenezer’s Locker from MuseItUp Publishing. Recently she signed with Black & White Press to create the text for a series of prose comic novelettes. Learn more on her website, http://anneejohnson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnneEJohnson.
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