by Quincy Saul, September 23, 2017
Outside the window the world was bleak and in her mind it felt even bleaker, on the afternoon Aranya took out her horn, slowly and without enthusiasm, from its drab fake leather case. She went through the motions of practicing, while in her mind going through other motions; disgust at the human world for not living up to the beauty of nature, neatly congruent with resentment of herself for going through the motions of her art – for doing exactly what most disgusted her, even in her most exalted pursuits. This pattern was everywhere and seemed almost impossible to break.
Whether reading or playing something memorized or improvising, she was in a different place than her notes. She barely heard herself; her thoughts were on fascism and extinction, or on friends and family, on frivolities or on fate, while the music she created was in another dimension entirely – independent, autonomous. This was the discipline, this was the routine. This was the only way she knew, but today more than ever it felt excruciating – to practice like a machine and a militant, while in pursuit of that opposite thing; that sublime peace, that inspired bliss. The more she forced herself to keep playing, even while uninspired, the more she felt like a fraud and a failure. Whatever she executed well enough, was eclipsed completely by that horizon of genius which laughed at her meager discipline and scowled at her overbearing mediocrity. Nonetheless! Arpeggios, long tones, patterns, more long tones, and she wanted to cry but she kept going, because despite the pitiful cosmic drama in her head she had only been practicing for fifteen or twenty minutes...
… and the world was burning and the empire was falling, and she wondered as she looked out her bleak window at a bleak world what made her any different from Nero, or the other decadents she detested, whose art for art's sake was so horribly out of tune with Mother Earth's song and dropped every beat on Father Time's calendar? Aranya had no answers so she kept practicing. Like music was a mountain she plodded upwards, and the summit could never be seen, only dreamed about; and you might climb for years only to stay in the same place; and although the peak pointed to unity and fellowship, the path up was walked in a vast interior anonymity.
But as the bleak day continued outside, all of a sudden, something brilliant came about, somewhere between Aranya and her instrument. She had been improvising soullessly – but then there was a change – something came over her or into her or out of her – something beautiful and unexpected – and yet which seemed to emerge seamlessly from her previous phrases, redeeming them; making previous mistakes into majestic parts of a commencing whole... Without sense of time or place she continued to play, in a kind of elevated and distant awe of herself – not letting her consciousness get too close for fear of disrupting the flow – as a melody emerged which sounded like it had passed through a membrane from another world... She took a breath and repeated it, and then embellished upon it; something from beyond her own imagination. And –
BANG! There was a silver flash and roaring thunderclap and the bleak world stood still. And then a tiny blue winged man with a flute was standing on her windowsill, saying “Take my hand, now!” Aranya took his hand, and with her horn in the other, they disappeared from the bleak world with another silver flash BANG!
“Welcome Aranya!” said the little blue man. Suddenly they were soaring through what seemed to be a wormhole of sound; a fractal tunnel of vibrations which telescoped forwards and backwards, yet seeming to surge with motion, impossibly, in all directions simultaneously. She was having a difficult time distinguishing between sight and sound.
“And congratulations,” he continued, “Very few of your species are recruited. But we heard your sound, and I was sent immediately.”
Aranya was totally discomposed, struggling for her senses, and holding onto her horn like her life depended on it; for it was the only part of her life that hadn't suddenly disappeared... After a pause Aranya spoke. “You heard me practicing and you came from outer space to get me?”
“We heard your sound,” the creature repeated. “All sound is simultaneous, you see! You can hear all of it from anywhere, anytime, if you know how to tune in. We call it 'your sound,' because it can't be reduced to components of time, pitch, timbre, or anything. But you can think of it like a password, or a signal. If you play it just right, we notice. And when it's especially right, then we recruit you.” He smiled.
“What are you? Where are we? Where are we going?” Aranya asked, looking as if for the first time at this azure humanoid who held her hand and held his flute in the other like a sail in the winds of sound which swept over them.
“An earthling friend once called me Salazar, one of those few who we recruited. Your people called him Bird, and they were right. Far more birds than humans are recruited from your planet. I'm from a planet in the same spiral arm of the galaxy as your solar system, and right now we're traveling in a tunnel through soundspace. It allows us to travel through space and time simultaneously. It's way faster than light, but it goes back in time just as fast as it moves forward through space, so there are no causality violations and nobody gets hurt. We're on our way to headquarters. Think of it like a cosmic concert hall in soundspace where we get together and jam to save the universe.”
“Save the universe from what?” asked Aranya.
“From bad music! Welcome to the orchestra. We've got lots of names, but they all miss the point because it's beyond representation, you know. A cosmic congress of composers. A universal orchestra. We're guardians of intergalactic harmony. A big bang big band! When the cosmos falls on hard times, they call us in to sanctify. There's a lot of bad music out there, sister – bad vibrations. If we don't balance the score, if we don't keep the harmony, then it's all over. Without the music, the spheres stop! We keep the world turning. And we keep it swinging. Mostly the universe takes care of itself, but when the whole galaxy gets the blues, then we call in the best...
“You see the balance between entropy and negentropy is a battle of the bands. We musicians are on the front lines all the time. Everything makes music; rocks and trees and hydrogen atoms, and they tend to balance out. But more complex organisms come along with their complex sounds, and whole solar systems start skipping beats. Mostly they're saved by the less complex organisms – I once heard a chickadee from your planet singlehandedly resolve the dissonances of a supernova. But when creatures like you and me evolve infinite capacities for dreadful vibes and catastrophic music, then it becomes necessary to call in complex counterparts from other parts of the cosmos to set the record straight. If we didn't play our hearts out, the galaxy would have spun off its rocker long ago from the sounds which have come out of your planet alone! And it's not even the worst one, arguably.”
“Back up for a minute,” Aranya laughed, still not believing any of this. “So you're telling me that because I accidentally played some secret melody I've been kidnapped across the cosmos to join a band. Do I get paid?”
“Not a melody,” he corrected, ignoring the rest of what she said. “Your sound is a state of being, a dynamic state of being, which has technical, emotional, social, physical and metaphysical dimensions, expressed as an absolutely unique matrix of vibrations. It's not just about the notes, and it's not about complexity. Remember, more birds than humans are recruited. But whatever it is, you got it! Your sound was beautiful by the way. It's good to meet you and I'm glad you're here. There aren't many like us in the orchestra. Your species and mine seem to be in a weird evolutionary limbo on the musical continuum; a middle zone between creatures like your birds, with the simplest and purest sounds, and life forms so evolved and ancient that they are one with music on a molecular level... They're the bandleaders. Creatures like them built these tunnels, and taught us to travel them. They communicate with music, their diet is music... their sound is a music of such complexity that it'll drive you mad with love and joy and sadness to hear it. They're the ones who call these sessions. They're always tuned into the cosmos, and when they hear the right sound for the band, they send someone like me to recruit the musician from whatever woodshed in the galaxy they're hiding out in.”
“But I suck.” Aranya wasn't being modest, she was insisting. It was becoming increasingly difficult to disbelieve all the evidence of her senses, and she felt a sudden sense of dread that they had picked the wrong person and that she would let the cosmos down.
“I felt the same way when I was first called,” Salazar comforted her. “But remember, birds are in the band! Insects too. It's not about your technique, it's about how your technique is devoted to the cosmic source. It's about a particular beauty that you have in your heart. The universe needs it to balance out some other particularly ugly music which the birds and the bees alone can't handle. You were chosen because you've got what it takes to negate. It's not about drowning out the ugliness; it's about making the world sound beautiful all over again. You've got the antidote to entropy sister!”
“But...” Aranya struggled, “who decides what music is bad?”
“You do, sister, or you wouldn't be here. You took sides long ago; you took sides with nature. Music is nature, and nature has laws. Nobody has to decide about bad music any more than they have to decide about bad genes. Music is democratic, but it's a hierarchy. Just like nature. Bad music is like a disease or a parasite; it's all part of the ecosystem and even keeps good music healthy. But if you let it go unchecked, it'll kill you! Another horn player from your planet called Coltrane said it: “there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.” And he knew how to get there, he knew how to take sides. “The musician's calling,” he said, “is to get close to the sources of nature.” It's about communion with natural laws. It's about evolution – biological and cosmological! In the beginning was the sound! And the sound was good, still is good. But we have to keep the good music alive, sister.”
“My name means wilderness,” murmured Aranya to herself, trailing one hand in the rippling waves of sound that were the moving walls of the tunnel, the other hand raising her horn above her head, where it caught and carried her until she was eye to eye with the little blue man.
“And mine means an old house,” Salazar replied: “A place to practice, to hone my art to perfection, so I will be ready when the cosmos calls. We are different species from different planets and we have different names, Aranya, but as they say, music is the universal language.”
And soon they arrived at the cosmic crossroads, and they joined the big bang band of birds and music gods and untold other creatures seen and unseen. And they played their symphony and saved the universe. All in a day's work for musicians. Salazar showed Aranya the way home through the wormhole, and suddenly she as back in her room and the little blue man was perched on her window exactly as he had arrived.
“Pleasure to meet you young lady, you sounded great,” he said. “Remember, keep practicing! The universe is counting on you.”
And then Aranya was alone in her room. And the world was burning and the empire was falling and she looked out her bleak window at a bleak world, and she kept practicing. She had to hone her art so that when the cosmos called she would be ready. And in the meantime there was the battle of the bands for planet earth.