No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, March 01, 1999

The Music of the Spheres: Classical Music and Science Fiction

This article, which is © Tanya Brown (1999) and may not be used without permission from the author, first appeared in Vector #204, March/April 1999. Vector is the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association

This article focuses on written SF, rather than the cinema. That serendipitous coupling of Strauss and space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Kubrick, 1968: featuring Richard Strauss’ 1896 Also Sprach Zarathustra) won’t be discussed here. Neither will Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. Spielberg, 1977), in which a simple five-note motif becomes a means of communicating with aliens. Portrayals of future music are also omitted, such as the alien diva’s rendition of the 'Mad Scene' from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) in The Fifth Element (dir. Besson, 1997). Music, like special effects, is limited by the technology available when the film is made: written SF is limited in its effects only by the imagination of the reader. Besson’s opera singer may have blue skin and more than the usual number of limbs, but her voice remains that of the Albanian soprano Inva Mulla Tchako.
Yet these films mirror three of the ways in which science fiction writers treat music. There is the use of the music of the past to illuminate a vision of the future (2001): the exploration of what music might become, given different bodies and minds (The Fifth Element): and how music might become a way of communication when language proves inadequate (Close Encounters).
Any definition of a field as broad as classical music – or science fiction – must include or exclude particular works on a relatively arbitrary basis. The lines between classical music, progressive rock and new age music are becoming increasingly blurred, with the advent of electronic amplification and the increasing tendency of rock musicians to compose works combining classical techniques and instruments with those used in rock music. The ‘new age’ label is applied to a multitude of musical sub-genres: contemporary composers are often included, as are several progressive rock groups who focus primarily on instrumental music. The latter – while often using science-fictional themes as inspiration, and sounding ethereal and other-worldly – can’t be said to be playing classical music: there is nothing inherently classical about instrumental pieces, however long or traditionally-constructed.
For this article, ‘classical music’ is defined as the existing classical canon, and the music which will occupy that niche in the future – music that, in Robert Silverberg’s ‘Gianni’ (1981: coll. The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party, 1984) is defined as ‘serious music that belonged only to an elite and [is] played merely on formal occasions’. To this definition I would add, ‘music from the Western tradition that is regularly performed for decades or centuries’: most of the stories surveyed here assume that classical music will still be played in the future.
This is a survey rather than an in-depth critical study: it covers only a fraction of SF references to classical music. (‘Science fiction’, for the purpose of this article, excludes fantasy or horror – although fantasy novels are often permeated with music.) The exchange of ideas is not one-sided: there is also an overview of some of the ways in which classical music has used science-fictional themes.

Science Fiction in Classical Music
Science fiction is primarily a twentieth-century genre, and thus the majority of the classical canon predates it. Additionally, it’s difficult to ascribe science fictional themes directly to programme music (music that is intended to suggest a series of images or moods). James Blish, in The Tale that Wags the God (ed. Chauvin, 1987) deplores the idea that a human might comprehend alien music. Discussing Thomas Wilson’s 1952 story, ‘The Face of the Enemy’, he observes that:
"The account in the story makes it very clear that this is program music; it appears to be a historical composition describing how one tribe triumphed over another and how beautiful towers arose thereafter. All this comes very clearly to the hero’s mind, despite the fact that even the most sophisticated Terrestrial music lover, encountering a piece of Terrestrial program music for the first time, will be very lucky if he can tell you whether it describes a battle or a love affair."
Even when the title of a piece indicates some science-fictional connection, it’s not easy to distinguish any direct relation between the music and its title.
Traditional orchestral music based on science fictional themes is rare: however, such themes are not entirely absent from the concert hall. Purists would deny David Bedford a place in the classical canon, since the electric guitar, which features largely in many of his works, has not yet been assimilated into the classical orchestra. Yet Bedford’s compositions – including Tentacles of the Dark Nebula (1975), from Arthur C. Clarke’s story ‘Transience’ (1949), and Jack of Shadows (1973, based on Roger Zelazny’s 1971 novel of the same name) – are generally played in symphony halls, rather than rock venues, and use the paradigms and structures of orchestral music.
Generally, however, orchestral music seldom refers explicitly to science fiction. An exception is Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony (1993), a ‘musical response to the myth of Superman’; each movement of the symphony explores a different aspect of the story, from ‘Krypton’ to ‘Red Cape Tango’. (As a listener, I found that the music evoked the story only when I was aware of the title of each movement). And, of course, there is the ever-increasing body of orchestral music composed as soundtracks to science fiction films.

SF has made a number of predictions concerning musical technology, some of which have already been fulfilled: for example, Charles Harness’ 1953 novella The Rose features a programmable synthesiser. Increasingly, too, musicians are devising new – almost science-fictional – ways in which to compose and perform music. Stephen Taylor, a contemporary American composer, integrates Andrew Yee’s recordings of the sound waves of solar oscillations into his music. Professor Todd Machover (of whom more below) is part of MIT’s Media Lab, which produces new musical instruments using the latest technology. Machover’s projects include the Conducting Jacket – which measures the wearer’s movements and ‘gives more complete, and more anticipatory, views of gestural control’ – and ‘squeezable music’, a new generation of musical ‘interfaces’ that will give direct tactile control over complex sound systems.
Stockhausen’s work on musical theory, if not his music, indicates an awareness of science fiction. In Towards a Cosmic Music (1989) he writes of his Klavierstucke (1952 onwards), an ongoing group of compositions for piano, as ‘small musical spaceships and time machines’. Stockhausen invites the actively participating listener to ‘empathise with temporal and spatial experiences of other living beings which live faster or slower, narrower or wider than human beings (insects, birds, fish, plants, trees, clouds, etc.)’. Stockhausen seems to hold the view that music can be a means of communication with, or comprehension of, non-human intelligences. Whether his theories are evident in his music is a question that is, fortunately, beyond the scope of this article. The inability of many humans to understand Stockhausen’s music does not bode well for any aliens who may be listening.

There are a growing number of science fiction operas. Science fiction works often have a distinct narrator or protagonist, while opera plots tend to be in the third-person, with characters who take it in turns to describe what is happening. However, the dramatic gestures and improbable plots of opera are comparable in scale to the more grandiose works of SF. This wasn’t lost on a group of fans who, in 1990, approached the New York Metropolitan Opera with the idea of staging an opera based on Star Trek for the 25th anniversary of the show in 1991. Sadly, the project was doomed: it takes much longer than a year to write, rehearse and produce a new opera.
The first opera to deal with an SF theme was probably Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna (‘The World on the Moon’), composed in 1777. It’s an allegory, rather than a literal account of space travel: they don’t actually get to the moon. However, it shows an early awareness of extraterrestrial themes in the world of classical music.
Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (‘The Tales of Hoffman’, 1880) includes an automaton, Olympia, who dances and sings marvellously (if you like French operetta) but eventually malfunctions and is destroyed. Another of Offenbach’s operas is La Voyage dans la Lune (1875), the plot of which drew heavily from Jules Verne’s De la Terre á la Lune (‘From the Earth to the Moon’, 1865).
Twentieth-century operas with science-fictional themes are more abundant, perhaps because of the increased popularity of science fiction and the explosion of the pulp SF market in the USA. Janácek’s Vêk Makropulos (‘The Makropolous Case’, 1925) is based on a story by Karel Capek – inventor of the word ‘robot’ – about an immortal opera singer who is three hundred years old. In Výlety pana Broucka (‘Mr. Broucek’s Journey’, 1920), drunkard Broucek dreams of a trip to the Moon, whose inhabitants are effete and pretentious creatures. They live for Art and nourish themselves by sniffing flowers.
The science fiction opera – that is, opera as a work of science fiction in its own right – began to flourish in the 1950s. A notable example is Blomdahl’s Aniara (1959), based on the poem by Harry Martinson. A spaceship abandons a post-apocalyptic Earth to colonise Mars: a fault develops and the ship goes off course, doomed to drift forever. Aniara, an eclectic piece including taped electronic music and combining modernist twelve-tone techniques with neo-Romantic orchestration, is still performed regularly.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Help, Help, the Globolinks! (1968) is a children’s opera about alien invasion, in which the power of music becomes a potent weapon against the Globolinks. Musical instruments are the only defence against the aliens, who can penetrate walls and doors, but are frightened and repulsed by the children’s music.
Many operas are based upon best-selling novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), for example, has inspired at least four operas. The most recent of these is a version by Libby Larsen, which was named by USA Today as one of the eight best classical music events of 1990. Larsen is no stranger to science fiction: she has also composed an opera based on Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), and has been rumoured to be considering an opera based on an Ursula Le Guin novel. Philip Glass has composed two operas with librettos by Doris Lessing, from her own novels. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) and The Marriage of Zones Three, Four and Five (1997). The latter (also a source for the American composer Paul Barker) was produced by English National Opera in 1997, to mixed reviews.
There are a number of other science-fiction operas which are not based on existing works: however, these plots are seldom novel or thought-provoking. The Games (Meredith Monk and Ping Chong, 1983) is set on board a generation starship, where children’s games have acquired a ritual status. Paul Dresher and Rinded Eckert’s Power Failure (1989) tells the story of a man who has spent his entire wealth on the development and production of an immortality machine: as he is about to use it, a power failure traps him, along with various downtrodden employees, in his underground laboratory. Rigel-9 (David Bedford, 1985) shows that even the involvement of as august a personage as Le Guin, who wrote the libretto, does not elevate the plot. It deals with that staple of science fiction, a group of spacemen alone on a strange planet: only one is sensitive enough to perceive the alien city. While these tales may be strange and wonderful to the average opera-goer (who, given many traditional opera plots, must have learnt to suspend disbelief), readers familiar with science fiction may well find them simplistic.
The idea of alien intervention, while no longer specifically a science-fictional theme – it has become part of mainstream culture – has been aired in several operas. Sir Michael Tippett’s New Year (1988), features three alien visitors. The computer genius Merlin, the space pilot Pelegrin and their female commander Regan appear in a space ship from ‘Nowhere’ and ‘Tomorrow’ to change the lives of a corresponding trio from ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Today’. Tippett also updates the idea of the deus ex machina in The Ice Break (1976) by introducing an alien visitor, rather than a god or a ghost, to resolve the plot.
Perhaps the most innovative use of a science-fiction text in opera is Todd Machover’s VALIS (1987). Based on the novel by Philip K Dick, the opera recounts the story of Dick’s alter ego, Horselover Fat. The VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) experience, which may be a technological experiment, a nervous breakdown, or a true spiritual experience, is portrayed via electronic music, song and spoken text. Machover, as mentioned above, is also active in the field of musical technology: VALIS represents the first use of hyperinstruments, which use computers to augment natural musical expression. The entire ‘orchestra’ for VALIS consisted of two instruments, a hyperkeyboard and a hyperpercussion.

Classical Music in Science Fiction:
It has become almost a cliché to have the protagonist of a science fiction text listening to the ancient, obscure music of some twentieth-century band. Less frequently – although perhaps more credibly – such a character relaxes to the strains of Beethoven or Mozart, whose music has already lasted ten times longer than that of Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. Such cultural references seldom enhance the plot: when the reference is to a classical piece, it often fails to give any impression except that of pretentiousness. Kim Stanley Robinson, in Icehenge (1984), describes the rings of Saturn as ‘like the music that Beethoven might have written had he ever seen the sea.’
Robinson, though, can be forgiven on the basis of his description of a radiation storm in Red Mars (1992): like a masterly film director, he provides as a soundtrack the ‘Storm’ movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (1808). Arkady, who puts the recording over the PA system, is using music as a sort of social control. The idea of the power of music to soothe, or to excite, dates back to Ancient Greece: Robinson returns to it repeatedly, and other authors have explored it with varying degrees of success.
All too often, the classical music that future listeners cherish dates from well before the author’s time. That music might be a way of indicating a particular cultural context, or of evoking a specific mood or image. The better-known a work or composer is, of course, the more chance the reader has of recognising the reference – and of believing that the person or the music will be remembered in the future. But it can’t be assumed that the classical canon will remain fixed. Arthur C. Clarke, in The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) is one of the few science fiction writers to assume the integration of today’s experimental music into the artistic mainstream. The canon implied in Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness (1985) seems to skip from Mussorgsky to composers in our future, the past of the novel.
Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are more likely than any other composers to be mentioned in science fiction. Their music is ubiquitous today, and seems likely to last. Fashions change, though, even in classical music: Mozart was seldom heard in nineteenth-century England, while Telemann (who wrote more music than any other composer) seems out of favour with contemporary concert programmers. Perhaps there is something so timeless about the music of the Great Three that it will remain popular and accessible in the future: conversely, it may be the writers’ prejudices, rather than their predictions, which elevate these three to immortality.

If the writer is referring to a particular composer or musician – especially in alternate history and time-travel stories – the historical individual might stand as a cipher for the time or place in which he flourished. Some of the possibilities are explored in three stories that resurrect famous composers. While these stories may seem at first to include the musical aspects simply as background, they all ask questions about the role of art – in this case, music – in the life of the composer.
‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’ (1984), by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, has spawned many imitations. An instance of the eighteenth century has been opened up for commercial enterprise, and a young Mozart is introduced to recordings of the music that another version of himself will have written. He’s awed – and ambitious, especially when he realises that, in some way, his future has already happened. "History says I’m going to be dead in fifteen years! I don’t want to die in this dump! I want that car and that recording studio!" Influenced by the contemporary music brought back from Realtime, his style changes: eventually his songs are sent back up the line, and he tops the Billboard charts. In a twist of the classic ‘interference’ time travel story, Mozart emigrates from his own time with neither a backward glance nor a Requiem Mass. The music of that other Mozart, presumably, still exists in the time to which he travels, but it will never be written in the time that he leaves.
Silverberg deals with a similar theme in ‘Gianni’. The eighteenth-century composer Pergolesi is ‘time-scooped’ from the year 1736, just 18 days before his death – thus having written all the music that he was ever to write – and transported to 2008. He is brought rapidly up to date on the evolution of music since his time and, eschewing classical music altogether, joins an ‘overload’ band. Accused of turning his back on ‘serious’ music, he says, ‘I starved to death composing that music… I renounce nothing. I merely transform.’ Unlike Sterling’s Mozart, however, he doesn’t cheat death: he dies of a drug overdose. ‘Self-destructive is as self-destructive does, and a change of scenery doesn’t alter the case’. Interestingly, this story (1981) predates ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’.
The two pieces, taken together, give alternate versions of a classic time-travel dilemma: can the past – or an individual’s fate – be changed? Both stories also pose the question of whether a historical personage is rooted in their own time and culture. You can take a man out of the 18th century, but can you take the 18th century out of the man?
‘A Work of Art’ by James Blish (1956: coll. The Best Science Fiction Stories of James Blish, 1973) – who was also a composer, and was working on a study of Strauss’ operas – recreates Richard Strauss in the year 2161. Strauss (composer of Also Sprach Zarathustra) has been dead for 212 years. He has been resurrected to write an opera, and finds the music flowing as he remembers it doing in his previous life. There is wild applause at the opera’s premiere: but it isn’t for the music. Barkun Kris, the mind sculptor, has not resurrected Strauss after all. Instead, he has recreated the composer’s personality in the mind of Jerom Busch, a man with no musical talent at all. ‘Strauss’, however, knows enough to recognise – unlike the audience – that the music he’s written is unoriginal and uninspired. "He need not tell Dr. Kris that the ‘Strauss’ he had created was as empty of genius as a hollow gourd. The joke would always be on the sculptor, who was incapable of hearing the hollowness of the music." Blish illustrates the uniqueness of genius and the nature of art: the Frankenstein-like scientist cannot recreate Strauss’ creativity, for it is not amenable to scientific law. Dr. Kris doesn’t recognise the subjective worth of what he has created, and is only interested in the objective, scientific results.
Sterling, Silverberg and Blish all focus upon composers, almost to the exclusion of the music they composed. Sterling’s Mozart hasn’t written the music for which Mozart is famous. Blish’s Strauss, an empty husk of the original, produces empty music. Pergolesi, in the Silverberg story, ends up performing music quite different to that for which he is known, although the narrator constantly reminds him of the glory of his famous Stabat Mater.
In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987), Douglas Adams turns the situation on its head: what about a world in which a composer and his music don’t exist? Richard MacDuff programs computers, trying to find the formula that will decode the music that he believes is inherent in naturally-occurring number sequences, such as those derived from the flight of swallows. He finds himself aboard an alien spaceship, listening to the ‘music of life itself’, the sounds of Earth recorded and transformed by the ship’s computers. One tune stays in his mind, and he is most disconcerted to hear it again back on Earth. "Who wrote it?" he asks. "Bach." Richard’s never heard of Bach: until this moment, he has been living in a world in which Bach’s music did not exist. Only by the intervention of Reg, a slightly mad professor with a time machine, has the ‘tiniest scrap’ of the music he heard on the spaceship been saved – and attributed to a historical figure who had never written any music of his own.

When the reader must supply contextual information to understand a story, the point may be lost. An example is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s masterful, if obscure, ‘The Fellini Beggar’ (1975: coll. Cautionary Tales, 1978). A reporter visits a former actor – now a beggar – who lives alone near the ruins of the Vatican with a vast collection of opera scores. His payment for playing a harrowing, life-threatening film role was Puccini’s own score of Turandot (1926), which the composer was working on when he died. The score for which the beggar almost died contains Puccini’s version of the last scene of the opera, which is now lost. Yarbro suggests that the composer’s ending was quite different to the happy resolution supplied by his musical executor: thus, the beggar possesses the only true version – an important artistic relic, presently lost but perhaps to be recovered. The reporter – echoing, I suspect, most readers – fails to appreciate the significance of this: "You could have gone to the library, or bought it!"
That tale ultimately stands, or falls, on the reader’s comprehension of the riddle. More accessible is Yarbro’s ‘Un Bel Di’ (1973: coll. Cautionary Tales, 1978), which translates the plot of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) to another planet. This Butterfly is an asexual alien who is assigned to a brutal diplomat for his pleasure: as in the opera, he returns to his home, leaving Butterfly determined to wait for the ‘fine day’ on which he will return. This story doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the opera’s plot: it supplies a substantially different setting for a classic tragedy, which is effective in itself rather than as a product of a particular cultural context. The tale is tragic even if the reader doesn’t recognise its source.
Julian May uses operatic themes in several of her novels, referring both to music and to plot. In Jack the Bodiless (1991) she explores some of the ways in which the performance of music might change in the future. The novel features a ‘metapsychically operant’ coloratura soprano, Teresa Kendall: "the disparagers of her legend like to hint that the voice’s effect was a mere psychocreative illusion, a mesmerising of the audience by the mindpower of the singer", though her recordings prove otherwise. Snowbound in a log cabin, Teresa performs Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden (1882), complete with psychically-created visual and emotional projections that bring the music, and the scenes, to life.
Anne McCaffrey, a former opera singer and producer, is also aware of the possibilities of the human voice. Helda, in The Ship Who Sang (1969), is a cyborg, grafted into a spaceship which becomes an extension of her senses. Given this technology she finds herself able to sing – not just in the traditionally female soprano and alto ranges, but also tenor and bass. Although she can never perform on a stage, her magnificent voice transcends the limitations of the human body. Her voice later becomes a weapon: with superhuman vocal control, she drives another ship-person to madness and death.
The alteration of the human body opens up a potential multitude of new musical skills. Lois McMaster Bujold’s quaddies – humans genetically engineered to live in freefall, with four equally dextrous ‘hands’ – can play a ‘double dulcimer’ (‘Labyrinth’: coll. Borders of Infinity, 1989). The Einstein Intersection (Samuel Delany, 1969) introduces a mutant who plays a twenty-hole flute with both hands and both feet. Aliens, of course – not being limited to human physiology – may play a variety of improbable instruments, requiring multiple limbs or mouths.
Conversely, there may be a return to old techniques, albeit by different methods. For over two hundred years, the castrato voice – that of a male castrated at puberty to preserve his voice – was regarded as the height of vocal achievement. This practice has fallen into disfavour for moral and ethical reasons. In The Alteration (1976), Kingsley Amis posits a parallel twentieth century in which the Reformation, and associated social reforms, never happened: castration is still performed on promising boy sopranos, such as the protagonist Hubert Anvil.
Orson Scott Card – himself a singer – also reinvents the castrati. Songmaster (1980) tells the story of one such figure. Ansset is raised in the Songhouse, where he is ‘castrated’ by means of drugs and hormones – thus deprived, unlike the original castrati, of the possibility of any sexual relationship. Ansset’s voice is fantastically affecting; it can induce ecstasy or self-destruction in his listeners. The power of that voice almost destroys the singer: finally, he is reduced to the role of a servant, and socially silenced lest his songs affect others.
Music can be dangerous, both to the individual (as with Ansset and Helda) and to society. Lloyd Biggle Jr, a composer and musicologist at the University of Michigan, has dealt with the social power of music in several works. ‘The Tunesmith’ (1957: coll. The Metallic Muse, 1972) is set in a world dominated by advertising music. Erlin Baque finds ways to play his own compositions, which do not extol the virtues of any product, and which are much longer than the jingles commissioned by advertisers. The ‘new music’ is tremendously popular, and inspires others to compose and perform classical music. New concert halls are erected, and opera is broadcast live for the first time in two centuries. Baque hears none of it: through the machinations of an enemy, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labour on Ganymede. Finally paroled, a deaf old man with mangled hands, he takes pride in the cultural renaissance he has wrought.
In The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets (Biggle, 1968) a society undergoes a more traditional revolution. Forzon is a Cultural Survey officer who is sent to Kurr, a planet where prowess in the harp-like torril is greatly prized. Unfortunately the King’s punishment for criminals is amputation of an arm. Appalled by social conditions, and angered by the sentencing of a particularly fine musician, Forzon introduces the trumpet – an instrument that can literally be played single-handed. Thus empowered, an army of ex-musicians and other ‘criminals’ marches on the capital and overthrows the corrupt regime.
The theme of the mutilated musician surfaces again in Orson Scott Card’s ‘Unaccompanied Sonata’ (1979: coll. Unaccompanied Sonata, 1981). In a pastoral future, talented composers live in isolation, forbidden to hear any other music lest it taint their own compositions. Christian Haroldsen is given a recording of Bach, and the Watchers realise from his sudden avoidance of anything Bach-like that his music has become ‘polluted’. First he is taken away from his Instrument: unable to live without music, he plays piano in a bar. The Watcher hunts him down and cuts off his fingers. Christian joins a road construction team, but is heard singing: the Watcher returns and makes him dumb. For many years, he is a Watcher himself: but finally, in retirement, he hears a street corner band singing one of the songs he wrote. Despite his mutilations, his music has survived and will be remembered: genius, Card seems to be arguing, cannot be suppressed or destroyed.

Whether music will be a part of the future, as it is part of past and present, is another question that has been addressed in science fiction. Music can be suppressed – as in Orwell’s 1984 (1948), where music is a vehicle for propaganda – and it can be transformed to something that is not recognisably music. J. G. Ballard’s 1960 story, ‘The Sound Sweep’ (coll. The Four-Dimensional Nightmare, 1963), is set in a world where waste noise is gathered and disposed of by a ‘sonovac’. Mangon is the ‘sound sweep’ who encounters former opera singer Madame Giaconda, now living in an abandoned radio station. Her dearest wish is to sing again, but there is no longer any demand for audible music: instead, the great classics have been rescored for ultrasonic instruments, and give ‘an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody, uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music’.
Ballard’s inaudible music of the future is reminiscent of the Martian music described by Isaac Asimov in his early story, ‘The Secret Sense’ (1941: coll. The Early Asimov, 1974). Fields, a self-confessed aesthete, is tantalised by the knowledge of Martian music composed from patterns of electrical current – music that no human can perceive. He persuades a Martian to inject him with a preparation which will allow him to ‘hear’ the music for just five minutes, after which the relevant part of the cortex will be burnt out, never to be reactivated. Fields listens, and is entranced: the electrical music consists of ‘pure waves of enjoyment’. Then it fades, and he is ‘blind’ forever.
Many descriptions of alien music stress its overwhelming effect on human senses. Langdon Jones, in ‘The Music Makers’ (New Worlds #156, November 1965), reiterates the theme of music as a weapon: his Martians, uniting to drive out the colonists, play music that kills any human listener capable of appreciating it.
"It was music that he would never have dreamed could exist. It said all there was to say. It was beyond emotion … It spiralled around him, catching his brain and his bowels and his lungs. It made breathing impossible… "

Music may play an important part in the process of communicating with, or at least contacting, aliens. In The Lives of a Cell (1978), biologist Lewis Thomas suggests that radio broadcasts of classical music might impress any aliens who may be listening. He proposes continual broadcasts of Bach’s music as a way of ‘bragging’ about our own culture: "[Music] may be the best language we have for explaining what we are like." (Intriguingly, Thomas also refers to Bach as a ‘mutant’).
But would the aliens be impressed by earthly music? Would they glean any meaning, or any information about life on Earth, from the sound alone? From Blish’s comments on terrestrial programme music, quoted above, it seems more probable that aliens hearing human music, or vice versa, would be incapable of accurately reading any great level of meaning into that music. An incorrect interpretation with shattering consequences is described in The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell, 1997). Beautiful alien music emanating from Proxima Centauri inspires a Jesuit-funded mission to ‘God’s other children’. Sandoz, and his Jesuit colleagues, believe that the beauty of the alien songs must indicate a form of religious worship: "All the music that sounds most similar to the extraterrestrial music is sacred in nature." The harrowing climax of the book leads to the realisation that Jana’ata music is ‘not prayer but pornography’: the Jesuit mission, and the listeners on Earth, have comprehensively misinterpreted what they’ve heard in the context of terrestrial culture.
Unlike other art forms, music is dependent on time. A piece of music cannot be appreciated as a whole: it has duration, a beginning and an end. ("Only God," said Beethoven, "is outside time.") Music consists of a series of instructions about pitch and duration: as Douglas Adams’ protagonist discovers, these instructions can be translated into mathematics, and vice versa. Musical works derived from data series have been used by several writers to convey a sense of ‘natural harmony’, and of the innate beauty of mathematics. In Children of God (1998), the sequel to Russell’s The Sparrow, interspecies harmony – in both senses – is signalled by music that encodes the genetic structures of three sentient species. Not all of the music thus derived is harmonic: nothing is perfect. What remains when the dissonant passages are removed is ‘uncanny’ and ‘glorious’ – unlike any music he had ever heard’. Russell suggests that music is one of the ways in which humans make sense out of chaos.
Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud (1957) describes an alien intelligence inhabiting a cloud of black dust surrounding our sun. Humans eventually succeed in communicating with the cloud, and transmit Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata (1818). This elicits a surprising response: the cloud wants the piece to be retransmitted at a faster tempo. Given that there is still controversy about the speed at which this sonata should be played – Beethoven’s metronomic markings, which specify beats per minute, are regarded by many pianists as being unplayable – it’s implicit that the alien prefers Beethoven’s original version to the mundane slower tempo. Perhaps this validates Stockhausen’s inclusion of ‘clouds’ as one of the classes of ‘living beings’ with which humans can empathise via music.
What is the alien’s experience of this music? Is there some ‘hidden meaning’ in it? Kim Stanley Robinson, though he does not refer to the earlier novel, suggests one possibility. In The Memory of Whiteness (1985), he introduces the Orchestra – a complex musical instrument that is believed to have been invented to replace a traditional orchestra. It was devised by the physicist Holywelkin, who was also responsible for the theoretical physics that led to ‘whitsuns’ – miniature ‘suns’ powered by whitelines of energy from the Sun itself. Holywelkin, dead for three hundred years at the time of the novel’s events, claimed that understanding of the Orchestra would lead to understanding of the nature of reality. The current Master of the Orchestra, Johannes Wright, embarks upon a Grand Tour of the solar system. His growing comprehension of the deterministic universe implied by Holywelkin is mirrored in the music he plays. Wright’s ‘Piano Concerto with Mechanical Orchestra, by the Universe’ consists of ‘phrases in the whole range of audible sound… five or six melodic lines that tumbled across each other in a wild, thick contrapuntal mesh, all to the rhythm, the rhythm, the dance…’
While he plays, Wright realises that the music already exists, ‘implied in the big bang so long ago’: an ultimately deterministic creation. It is not only his own music that encodes this ‘secret knowledge’: Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata is used to illustrate ‘the mad energy of the universe’. Wright’s final performance evokes the solar system, the whitelines that tie together the myriad inhabited worlds, and the indomitable fragility of the human spirit. In this part of the novel, Robinson uses the music itself as a metaphor for the physics he describes. It’s a powerful and remarkably successful example of music as mathematics, as – like science fiction itself – a tool for philosophical exploration.

In all but the darkest of futures, music – the music familiar to us now, as well as the music yet to be written – is a part of human, and often alien, life. Science fiction has explored the roles of music and the musician within society, and suggested an astounding variety of ways in which music might be more than mere entertainment.
Music is one of the least representational arts. When it attempts to mirror the function of a text – as in programme music – it often fails, because there is no direct correlation between verbal and non-verbal imagery. In The Memory of Whiteness, music is a move towards representation – and deeper understanding – of objective physical truths. The structured nature of classical music, rather than the spontaneity of popular music, might be the most fitting vehicle for the transformation of mathematical data. Music may not provide an alternate vocabulary, but it can encode emotional and physical truths in ways that language cannot.

Any omissions, oversimplifications etc may be attributed to the author's frantic attempts to compress an article potentially twice as long into a 6,000-word limit.
I would like to thank:
  • Claire Brialey for clarity
  • Mark Plummer for Real Books
  • Andrew Butler for VALIS
  • K V Bailey for Stockhausen
  • Gary Dalkin for editing, and the Metropolis Symphony
  • Everyone on the newsgroups and who provided suggestions, corrections and encouragement.


  1. thank you for information

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