(Kim Stanley Robinson, 1985)
I turn to the Orchestra at last. “Imagine all of the instruments of a modern orchestra caught in a small tornado,” an early detractor wrote of it, “and you will have Holywelkin’s invention.” But there are few detractors left. Age equals respectability, and the Orchestra is now three hundred years old. An institution.
And imposing enough: eleven meters of musical instruments soaring in air, eleven meters of twisted metal and curved wood, suspended from a complex armature of glass rods only visible because of the blue and red spotlights glinting from them. The cloud of violas, the broken staircase of trombones, the bulbous mercury drum; the comical balloon flutes, sleek lyricon, sinuous godzilla . . . all the world’s soundmakers hanging like fruit in a giant glass tree. It is a beautiful statue, truly. But Holywelkin, architect of our age, was a mathematician as well as a sculptor, a musician as well as an inventor, and this particular result of his synthesizing mind was, in my opinion, unfortunate. Unmusical. Dangerous.
I stride to the piano entrance and slide onto the bench. The glassy depression rods cover the keys so that it is impossible to play the piano from its bench; and that symbolizes the whole. I continue up to the control booth, using the glass steps behind the cellos. Even the steps are inlaid with tiny figures, of French horns, lyres, serpentines . . . It is as if I see everything in the Orchestra for the first time. The control booth, suspended in the center of the thing, nearly hidden from the outside; I am astounded by it. I sit on the revolving stool and look at it. Computer consoles, keyboards, foot pedals, chord knobs, ensemble tabs, volume stops, percussion buttons, tape machines, amp controls, keyboards: strings yellow, woodwinds blue, brass red, percussion brown, synthetics green . . . I hit the tympani roll tab with my toe, hit tempo and sustainkeys and boom, suddenly the B flat tympani fills the room, sticks a blur in the glass arms holding them. I long to hold the sticks and become the rhythm myself, to see the vibrations in the round surface and feel them in the pit of my stomach, for that is what music is, that feeling; but to play that roll in Holywelkin’s Orchestra I just slide a tab to a certain position and push another one down with my toe, so I stop pushing the tab down and there is instant silence. “No, Holywelkin, no! Don’t you see what you’ve done? Don’t you see how you’ve stripped from music the human component, the human act that allows it to move us? This damned orchestrina. . . .”…
I’m not convinced by you, Holywelkin! Not a bit!
I arrange the keyboards in concert position, my hands shoving them about like tugboats pushing big ships….De Bruik’s monumental Tenth Symphony, as effortlessly as if I were the conductor and not the performer. My interior field of vision clears and becomes a neutral color, grey or dull purple. Ten clear lines run across it in sets of five. The score. As I play the notes they appear, in long vertical sets as in a conductor’s score. They move off to the left as on a computer screen. Excellent. Half-notes, quarter-notes, all like the sun shining through pinholes in dark paper. As far as I can tell the score is perfectly accurate. It is more than one person can play and I don’t remember commanding the tape of the Symphony that might be on file to join in, but when I think, “it would be nice to have the aeolia howl through this passage,” the airy whistling courses through the music, picking it up as a scrap of paper is picked up in a gale. My fingers are doing it, and yet my mind is not. Play it with everything in you: now every single instrument in the statue is giving voice, the Orchestra spins, the glass arms fiddle and finger and jerk about madly, the great finale of De Bruik’s greatest symphony tears about the room, carrying me with it so that my heart beats like a child inside me, trapped and fighting to get out. Nineteen years, Holywelkin, is this what you meant? My mind is doing it, and yet my fingers are not.
The Orchestra plays what I want to hear.
I move into realms of my own, shifting from passage to passage, playing the music I have always searched for, the half-remembered snatches and majestic chords that I have woken up from in the middle of the night, and wished I could recapture; and now the lost time has returned, the lost music is mine. The architecture of Bach, the power of Beethoven, the overwhelming beauty of De Bruik, all confused into a marvel of thought: think it and hear the Orchestra play it at that very instant. The performer the instrument, so that my hands fly about the control booth, my feet, elbows, forehead, all playing, while the essential I floats out of the body to observe and to listen, astonished to rapture.
Science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s second novel, The Memory of Whiteness, follows the musical apparatus known as Holywelkin’s Orchestra on a Grand Tour of the solar system in the year 3229. Its inventor, Arthur Holywelkin, was also a physicist whose grand unified theory provided the key to space travel. Since its construction, the orchestra has had a series of Masters: Johannes Wright, the speaker in the excerpt above, is the ninth.
Wright’s predecessors played primarily “light classics” on Holywelkin’s Orchestra, prompting one music critic to dismiss it as “nothing but a toy, really, a bauble used to take money away from the ignorant.” With the help of a drug-withdrawal-induced hallucination of Holywelkin himself, however, Wright discovers the true potential of the instrument. From a machine that removes one from the act of making music, the Orchestra becomes a seamless extension of the mind, allowing music to flow from thought into reality. In an effort to realize “a musical analogy for the world that was precisely accurate,” Wright uses the Orchestra to compose music based on the mathematics of Holywelkin’s grand unified theory. Holywelkin’s Orchestra thus merges not only mind with machine but also art with science, making possible a music that will explain the universe.
Robinson first developed the idea for Holywelkin’s orchestra in a short story published in 1976 entitled “In Pierson’s Orchestra.” Though much of the short story reappeared in the novel unchanged, the instrument received several significant additions. As described in 1976, the instrument essentially comprised an organ console controlling the sounds of a traditional orchestra:
“As always, I sit back in the chair and look at the colors: keyboards, foot pedals, chord knobs, ensemble tabs, volume stops, percussion buttons, keyboards, keyboards; strings yellow, woodwinds blue, brass red, percussion brown.”
In the parallel passage from the 1985 novel, electronics augment the traditional orchestra:
“I sit on the revolving stool and look at it. Computer consoles, keyboards, foot pedals, chord knobs, ensemble tabs, volume stops, percussion buttons, tape machines, amp controls, keyboards: strings yellow, woodwinds blue, brass red, percussion brown, synthetics green. . . .”
With the addition of computer consoles, tape machines, amplifier controls and synthesized sounds, Robinson updated the Romantic vision of a complete orchestra played by a single genius (see Euphonia and Gambara’s Panharmonicon) for the electronic age. Yet the twinned nightmare of technology dehumanizing music and the dream of it liberating the music within remains much the same.
Text and Image: The Memory of Whiteness (London: Voyager, 1999)