(Ferruccio Busoni, 1911)

An extraordinary discovery is announced from South Parkside. Kennelton Humphrey Happenziegh, the scientist domiciled there—who is highly esteemed in professional circles but in no way celebrated—has succeeded, thanks to an unusual gift of sharp deduction, in arriving at far-reaching conclusions, through comparatively simple experiments.

Happenziegh has devoted the greatest part of his studies to the experimental criticism of acoustic phenomena, and it was well known that in a life’s work he had recorded valuable observations that until now had not been made in public but which were waited for with suspense in learned circles.

The nature and object of these observations he had kept strictly secret, and so it had also remained a secret that, of late, Happenziegh has been occupied with the preparation of a super-sensitive apparatus (intended for phonographic disks). The contrivance, which he has perfected at last, resembles at a first glance a drum disk with a super-sensitive epidermis, and possesses the quality of combining the utmost delicacy with the complete power of resistance and is able to pick up noises which are inaudble or unintelligible to the human ear; moreover it has the power of dissecting complicated sounds into their constituent parts. If, for example, one plays a note on the violin, every accompanying noise is picked up separately; the sounds which arise from the hairs of the violin-bow; the resin, the pressure of the fingers which hold the bow, the most imperceptible vibration of a window pane are recorded on the disk. The contrivance is so extremely delicate that when a hand is passed through hair the crackling is distinctly audible; light steps in the next room are recorded by it, the slightest breath is impressed on it.

Happenziegh had arrived so far with his results when the most astonishing surprise fell to his lot through his invention.

And from here on it might be necessary to believe in the supernatural or to suppose trickery, if Happenziegh’s reputation did not warrant him to be a conscientious, truthful, and learned man, and if his clear calculations (which he does not withhold) did not point to the veracity of the incredible information which we shall endeavor to communicate as comprehensibly as possible.

Happenziegh left his laboratory at two o’clock in the morning, after he had completed a new and (as he believed) perfect disk, and entered it again at six o’clock after a short night’s rest.

He subjected his disk to an examination by means of a very powerful microscope constructed by him for this purpose, and discovered on it certain impressions which he could not account for. After he had separated the customary noises of the town at night, he found an accumulation of obscure diagrams which were systematic, complicated, and at first unintelligible. On first consideration they might have been of musical origin, although they showed only a remote relationship with the musical forms familiar to him. In any case they must have come from a very great distance.

An investigation as to whether within a ten-mile radius music might have been played that night and during those four hours, resulted in a negative answer. All restaurants were closed at this time and no private soirées had taken place. More precise information proved that there was no misunderstood genius living in this circuit and that no such person had been anywhere as guest that night….

But the marks were imprinted and the disk, when it was brought into rotation, sounded music without doubt, which to the scholar’s ears, however, remained as unintelligible as the diagrams had been to his eyes.

This happened about six months ago.

In between, Happenziegh had been at work incessantly and his never-resting mind had succeeded in giving the solution to the riddle and in bringing forward a new theory which fills us with awe and astonishment and opens up the widest prospects.

As the air needs an instrument to make its vibrations perceptible to our ear, so the air itself is only an instrument which transmits the not yet fully fathomed wave-lengths. These original wave-lengths, as Happenziegh recognizes, have the characteristic quality of being similarly effective in a time-sphere, as, for instance, wireless telegraphy in that of space.

In time its effect works as well backwards as forwards and its intensity decreases correspondingly with the distance.

Sound atmospherics, put into vibration through exerior impulse, continue in both directions. Their impressions will be passed on, into the past as well as into the future.

A scream fades away into tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and further, in corresponding strength—logically into yesterday and the day before yesterday also.

Thus, through a chance not yet cleared up, a demonstration of music in the future seems to have found its way on to the super-sensitive disk and to have impressed itself there.

After laborious calculations (for which quite new estimations will have to be found) the origin of the phonographic marks might lie twenty to three hundred years in front of us (according to Happenziegh’s assumption). If one takes an average figure, a hundred and forty years is the result, so that music written on the disk lies about a century and a half in the future.

Happenziegh is not a musician by profession and the reports about the musical nature of his remarkable impressions sound uncertain.

The reproduction itself is very weakened and appears still more indistinct because of its strangeness. One might almost suppose that all the instruments, which one knows of or can guess at, play muted, and that in addition to this the space in which they are placed is sharply separated from the listener.

But there are also sounds in the phenomenon whose nature is quite unknown to us and which certainly point to new sound mediums. Sounds from trombones like Aeolian harps melt into a sound fog, and again other voices out of the void, without audible beginning, disappear into the atmosphere of sound. Sounds as if coming from tinkling of water and burning fire assume melodic form, appear and disappear.

Invervals are apparently purer and show the aliveness of human breath in their gradations and combinations.

Nature itself seems to sound, and we are tempted to suppose that this music never wearies and goes on creating from what is there into infinity.

All further details and additions to this sensational discovery we will communicate to our readers punctually and conscientiously every year.

Busoni’s imaginary journalistic account, originally published as an April Fool’s joke in 1911, is a remarkable miniature of speculative fiction. The “marvelous invention” of the inventor Happenziegh combines the two great sound technologies of the early 20th century—gramophone and radio—in a recording device that picks up transmissions from the future. His inspiration was the “wireless telegraphy” popularized around the turn of the century by Guglielmo Marconi: just as radio waves extended spherically in all directions from the point of transmission, Busoni reasoned, perhaps sound waves could travel both backward and forward in time.
With its tone of breathless sensationalism and liberal sprinkling of technical jargon, the story might easily be read as a spoofing send-up of contemporary techno-enthusiasm. But for Busoni, as for many of his generation, the link between technology and the occult was no joke. In a letter to his wife written in 1913, he suggested that the “ubiquity of time”—again compared to the omnidirectional propagation of radio waves—could offer a scientifically grounded explanation for the phenomenon of ghost sightings.
Busoni’s deliciously evocative description of the sounds captured by Happenziegh’s “super-sensitive apparatus” contains both allusions to the Romantic “nature music” tradition and suggestive premonitions of 20th-century musical phenomena to come, from musique concrète to experimental systems of tuning.
Text: The Essence of Music and Other Papers, translated by Rosamond Ley (New York: Dover, 1957)
Image: Portrait of Ferruccio Busoni by Max Oppenheimer, 1916.