(Sarah Pinsker, 2019)

Where was the keyboard? There were two amps. The guitar was plugged into one; the other had a box plugged into it. Nothing else onstage.

The singer twitched and she spotted it: a single-octave keyboard tattooed inside his right forearm. The fingers of his left hand roved over it, pressed down. She looked for somebody to ask, but everyone was paying attention to the band. She pulled up her Hoodie again to record a short clip. Amazing how this one difference changed the nature of the whole performance – she wished she could rewind and watch him from the beginning.

The singer caught her looking at him and flashed a grin. He had eyes after all. She wondered if his closed eyes while performing marked shyness or stage fright or a deliberate effect.

“What were you doing with your arm?” she asked, hoping it wasn’t some fad everyone here had, yet another question to make her look ignorant.

He held out his arm for her to examine. Flat implants lay underneath the tattoo, one for each key. “Triggers and a transmitter. They send to a box synthesizer plugged into my amp. You can touch if you want.”

Rosemary fought to keep her recoil internal, concentrated on the tech. “That’s okay. Did you design it?”

“The trigger system idea was, uh, a friend’s, but I designed the synthesizer. I’m working on a guitar fretboard next, but I can’t decide where to put it. Here, maybe.” He put his left hand to his chest and played an invisible riff. “Then a gyro in my right wrist to pick up the strum.”

“Why not play a guitar instead of going to all that trouble?” Rosemary asked.

The singer gave her a funny look. “It’s not trouble.”

He moved away, leaving her wondering. She’d seen Tina Simmons’s biometric tattoo and hadn’t thought twice about that modification. What was wrong with trying to become your own instrument? She left the question alone to contemplate at a later time.

[later in the book]

Joni started to play a simple bass riff, nothing like the sound she had ripped from her cello, though she still carried the same intensity of purpose that Rosemary had found so entrancing. Then the other instrument started, one she didn’t recognize, something bowed mated with something brassy. Rosemary turned, remembering she was supposed to be listening to Katja this time, not Joni. She expected to see Katja playing an instrument, but her hands were empty. The sound itself came from a small amplifier on the desk.

The pitch changed, and Rosemary looked closer, determined to figure out what she’d missed. Katja massaged her own wrist and…was that it? She ran her hand up and down her other arm, drawing notes, changing the pitch and velocity. Somehow it all worked with Joni’s bass. She slapped her own shoulders, her forearms, her thighs. Her entire body made music. Everywhere she touched produced sound. Rosemary looked for something like Kurt Zell’s keyboard tattoo.

Katja held out her right arm, and Rosemary realized it was an invitation. She was repulsed for a moment at the idea of touching a stranger so intimately, but Joni whispered, “Go on, it’s okay,’ without missing a note, and Rosemary pushed her fear aside and reached out.

She used one finger to stroke Katja’s forearm. Katja shuddered, and the amp emitted a ripple of notes, barely audible, all in key. “Harder, please. That tickled.”

Three fingers, pressed down. A chord, insistent, dying the second she lifted her hand away. Katja smiled and pushed her chair backward again, to indicate she no longer needed Rosemary’s touch. She played for a couple more minutes, then nodded to Jodi, who ran through her riff two more times, then stopped. The beat kept going, but both women looked at Rosemary expectantly.

“Wow,” she said. “How do you do that?”

“Trigger implants under my skin. Processor translates them all into key and then out to the amp.” Katja leaned over and hit a button to cut off the beat.

“Like that Kurtz guy?”

“Not ‘like that Kurtz guy.’ That ass stole my idea.’
Joni slapped the bass strings, making a rude noise. “But if he hadn’t stolen your idea, you’d never have gotten a better one.”

“This is way cooler than his little keyboard,” Rosemary said, hoping to repair whatever insult she’d made mentioning him.

“True,” Katja ran her hand across her forearm again, though it no longer made a sound. “And he wouldn’t have gotten kicked out of the house, and you wouldn’t have moved in, so I guess it’s a win for everyone.”

“Now show her the vid,” Joni said.

Katja pulled up her Hoodie, and Rosemary took the hint to do the same. Katja pushed a video her way.

“Are you watching it?” Joni asked.

“Give her a sec.”

The clip lasted a minute. It had been filmed at the 2020, on a third party’s Hoodie, since she was seeing Katja from a few feet away. Rosemary watched hood-Katja throw herself into the crowd, allowing them to play her the way Rosemary had. They were respectful, but not as shy as she had been. It felt intimate, as it had in real life, but also voyeuristic to watch other people do the touching on a recording. She shut it off.

“That’s amazing, and I get why you’re showing it to me. The video doesn’t capture it. But SHL…”

“SHL would program it so avatars could touch an avatar of me, and it would lose all meaning.”

Rosemary closed her eyes and pictured the code, then tried to picture Katja in the Bloom Bar. She imagined reaching out, avatar to avatar, and how the illusion would crumble. They were right, not everything was meant to be an SHL experience. She already knew that, had already been through the motions of choosing bands specifically for hoodspace, but none of those decisions had been based on a performance like this. You had to be in the room to experience this tactile connection. She understood: sometimes the performance was the music, and vice versa, and the two couldn’t be separated.

Sarah Pinsker’s sci-fi novel A Song for a New Day, published just months before the first COVID-19 case, describes a world divided into Before and After. In the Before, Luce Cannon is on tour with her band. In the After, terrorism and pandemic have wrought an America in which in-person gatherings are outlawed, goods are drone-delivered by corporate overlord Superwally, and most people “live happy in hoodspace” (the immersive digital world named for the device worn to access it). Rosemary was a child when the one-two punch of bombs and pox hit, and has grown up on a rural farm with her parents, graduating from virtual high school into Superwally customer service (likewise performed via avatar from her bedroom). But her musical sensibilities and yearning for something more (combined with her customer service record) land her a job as a musical talent scout for StageHoloLive (SHL), the company that produces musical performances for hoodspace. The job sends Rosemary out into the world in search of musicians, and as she gradually overcomes her fears of proximity to other people, she discovers clandestine communities of people who risk police raids and arrest for the chance to experience musical performances together in physical space.

The first excerpt above, describing a keyboard tattoo, comes from Rosemary’s very first experience of live musical performance. In the second excerpt, Rosemary meets the inventor of the transmitter implant system and experiences her more full-body realization of the concept, as well as how inadequate hoodspace is for simulating the tactile intimacy of such musical performance. While we might situate Song for a New Day within a cyberpunk tradition, the contrast in its take on digital worlds is striking: whereas 1980s-era cyberpunk conjured dreams of leaving the “meat body” behind, imagining technologies that would release or extract music directly from the mind (see Robinson’s Memory of Whiteness and Cadigan’s Synners), Pinsker dwells on the limits of cyberspace, and asserts the irreducibly embodied character of musical experience.

Text: Sarah Pinsker, A Song for a New Day (Penguin, 2019), 162-163, 234-236.