VINYLIA by Phillip Hill
Chapter One – The Windhoek Sound
On the main avenue leading to Windhoek’s Oryx Airport there stands an impressive statue of Felix Schrodinger. You may notice that there are chicks peeking out of the top pocket of the lab coat he is wearing (and, you realise after a while, all his other pockets too) but the focal point of the work is the large disc he is holding in his hands and peering at with questioning eyes. As the intense airport traffic whizzes by, one after the other the tour groups shuffle into position at the base of the sculpture and raise their heads in unison when their guides announce emphatically that it portrays “the event”: the man in the very act of fathering Vinylia.
His claim to fatherhood is hotly disputed by some, who would accord him at most the title of grandfather (or even great-uncle). What is sure, however, is that if he had kept up the 45 degree angle at which he is holding the disc for more than a few seconds he would never have fathered, grandfathered or even great-uncled anything.
Schrodinger is usually described as a genetic engineer, although this suggests that he was part of the leading edge of that science, which had recently produced the commercial, patented Quikclone technology that had made it possible to churn out fully functioning human clones in a matter of weeks. The Quikclone Corporation offered money to buy up people’s title to their genome and anyone who had any special talents to sell stood to make quite a good profit out of such a transaction. Since the technology generated fully grown clones that were exactly the same age as the donors when the DNA was collected, it also meant that once you had sold your genome, there was a possibility that you might come across individuals exactly like yourself on the street. There was a rule that established that clones could not be turned out within a thousand miles of the home of the person they replicated, but it could be quite disconcerting to go on holiday to some remote resort and run into a copy of yourself working as a life guard, a traffic policeman, or – God forbid – a sexual transactionist.
Schrodinger, however, was involved in much more mundane pursuits. He was an external genetics draughtsperson for the Egg Office at the Windhoek Board for Poultry and Avian Derivatives (WinBoPAD) where he slogged away at improving the packability of chicken and duck eggs and took part in the nudging quest for the “full yellow”, an egg which would contain all yolk and no white, or the “half and half”, with a shell which would snap neatly into two equal parts. This he did in a laboratory he had equipped himself in his house on the outskirts of town. Chicks and ducklings were constantly hatching and, having no other available mother figure, they would totter across his laboratory floor following him wherever he went. There were always some which managed to slip out with him when he went to some other room. But, since Schrodinger was constantly opening and closing doors, the members of his squadron were never quite the same at any given time. Thirteen of them might follow him into the kitchen, but he might emerge with, on his heels, eleven completely different ones which had been stranded there the last time he had passed through, a few hours earlier.
The overall number of chicks and ducklings inside the various rooms of the house and out in the yard and their cumulative sound output increased progressively throughout the week until Friday came round which was when WinBoPad sent someone over to collect them. Schrodinger never seemed to notice the noise they made or their presence in between his feet. It was possibly the only thing about which he was never irate. As for the rest of the universe, his temper was always cocked and ready to detonate.
He would shout at his equipment whenever it failed to produce the results he was expecting, he would harangue a banging window all day rather than close it, he would insult clouds for being in the sky, he would berate his burnt toast every morning, he would assault his plumbing and he was always on time just before the shows started at 3 and 6 and 9 pm to upbraid the people walking down the road outside his house to the nearby Ramarama theatre.
“Where do you think you imbeciles are going?” he would cry out. “It’s stinking rubbish! It is total 360 degree subcontinental rubbish!”
“Subcontinental”, because the Ramarama had been invented in Jaipur in India; “total 360 degree” because it had a screen which surrounded the spectators completely; “stinking” because the Ramarama wasn’t just advanced cinema; in addition to the images and sounds which completely surrounded them, the spectators also had smells coming at them from all sides. In fact, the Ramarama engaged all the senses; you could even touch and taste everything around you.
It was hard to find anyone who didn’t admire it, but the Ramarama had only been around for twenty years or so and Schrodinger, who was sixty-five, had given up being adventurous on his fifteenth birthday and generally detested anything that was less than fifty years old.
One thing which was old enough for him to like was chess. After one of his rants, which usually left him unable to remember what he had been doing before it had been brought on, one of the few things which could calm him down was sitting at his chessboard and playing. He played against himself, always making the same moves and he always drew. He had the reassuring feeling that he was engaged in the constantly perfect match.
Another old thing he felt affinity with was hip-hop culture. It had long lost any rebelliousness it might have had in the late 20th Century and it had become a stilted and rigid set of activities and attitudes, which only people of his age had any interest in. Rap was performed in concert halls in unchanging ways to audiences of elderly devotees who unleashed volleys of coughing every time a gap in the performance gave them the chance to. Schrodinger also sported the old-fashioned tattoos and jewellery of hip hop. He was a perfect example of what was called a “Colonel Bling”.
He owned a DJ’s dual turntable from the golden age of rap, which could play records forwards and backwards. But rap was not the only music he played on it. As long as it was old it was likely to be in his huge vinyl collection, which he listened to constantly while he was engaged in exploring the exciting potential of poultry and avian derivatives in his laboratory.
For example, he often played Italian opera, in particular Verdi’s Il Trovatore . It seemed contradictory that he should listen to Il Trovatore so often since it always made him angry. But the fact was that the fury it unleashed inside his brain gave him waves of unconfessed seismic pleasure.
It was the absurdity of the plot which did it. He never failed to explode at the beginning of Act 2, when the gypsy woman Azucena tells the story of her attempt to take revenge on the local Count for burning her mother at the stake. She kidnaps his infant son and plans to throw him onto the same fire on which her mother died. By mistake, however, she throws her own baby into the flames instead. And then she brings up the Count’s son as if he were hers.
“You can’t be effing serious, woman!” Schrodinger would shout out in his thick raspy voice over his surrounding chorus of peeping chicks and ducklings. And he would curse the librettist too – “How can you write such effing rubbish!” – thrashing his arms around as if trying to land a blow on the man, despite the fact that he had died in 1852.
It was Il Trovatore he was listening to on that Sunday April day on whichthe Event happened and the world was changed forever. The opera had reached Act III and Schrodinger was in the middle of a tricky transfer when he realised that the music had started to sound mushy and gluey as if the record grooves were full of mud. He turned round to check and saw that a jar of Genie Mix, the genetic substrate which he used for most of his work, had been knocked over on the shelf above the turntable. It must have happened during his arm-flailing tirade against the gypsy woman Azucena twenty minutes earlier.
Schrodinger stood dumbfounded, listening to the sticky singing for a while, uncertain whether to wash away his expensive genetic substrate and save the record, which was one of the ones he valued most in his collection, or else sub-deplug the whole record, which would have saved the Genie Mix but completely ruined the disk. What Schrodinger ended up doing was to spend an hour meticulously collecting the substrate with a trylon swab and replacing it in the jar in an attempt to save both record and substrate. That evening, in order to check whether the Genie Mix was still working, he used it as a transfer base for some quadratic chickens he was working on. If it hadn’t been damaged he could expect them to hatch by next morning.
In the middle of the night, he was awoken from his sleep by an unaccustomed noise. For a moment he thought it must be a thief or that someone was playing a prank on him and had turned on his sound system. He went downstairs to confront the intruder and discovered that all the newly-hatched chickens were swarming excitedly over the floor of the laboratory. He had never seen such a highly-strung and ostentatious crew of poultry. And he had never heard any chicken make sounds like these. They were all strutting around producing high C’s and trills. All of them had hatched as sopranos.
This chaotic moment is generally considered to be the beginning of the “Age of Vinylia”, a period which lasted almost a hundred years.
Schrodinger never really did get to the bottom of the mechanism he had discovered but he did realise that what he had seen had in some way been caused by the contact between the genetic substrate and the vinyl grooves.
Over the next few days, Schrodinger managed to breed chickens, turkeys and ostriches exhibiting similar operatic behaviour using the same jar of Genie Mix which he had rescued on the Sunday. But when he tried to replicate the results by pouring a fresh batch of substrate onto the same record nothing happened. The chicks which hatched were completely normal.
He tried soaking the vinyl for a longer period – one, two and four hours – but there was not the slightest trace of an effect. He was so mystified that he couldn’t even find anything to vent his anger on. The next day he went to chapel and prayed. (Schrodinger was a devout member of the 7th Day Pediluvialist Church, which took foot-washing very seriously and forbade eating any animal with feet.)
After spending two hours with his feet in the holy basin, Schrodinger had an insight: the interaction between substrate and music must have been activated by the revolutions of the turntable. It wasn’t enough to soak the record; it had to be played in order for the Genie Mix to absorb the information in the grooves.
Schrodinger managed to confirm his theory over the next few days. He smeared a few dozen records from his collection with Genie Mix and played them for a few minutes before recovering the substrate. In every case, the chicks which he hatched with the treated substrate displayed modified behaviour. What was most interesting was that different types of music induced different effects. When he tried out his hip-hop collection, for example, the individuals which hatched all displayed an urge to collect shiny pieces of metal which they tried to lodge among their feathers, peeped with an unrelenting rhythm and spent a lot of their time facing off aggressively. In short, despite their size, they were chickens with attitude.
A few days later his vinyl dealer, Herby Mofokeng, turned up as he did every month trying to peddle him his new acquisitions. Schrodinger took the opportunity to show him his performing animals. Mofokeng, who had many contacts on the Windhoek music scene, was intrigued and told Schrodinger that if he could come up with any animals who could do something more up to date than Rap or Opera he might be able to find a few gigs for them. Mofokeng suggested that Slavonic Country and Eastern would be a good genre to start with and that he might obtain even more interesting results if he experimented with other animals and not just poultry. The result was the legendary animal band, Glagolitic Zoo.
Glagolitic Zoo was an amazing phenomenon; it turned out a prodigious blend of Country and Eastern styles, including Cross-gargling, Straight Behind and Dump combined with lyrics which tempered the genre’s underlying sentimentality with a refreshing cold-bloodedness only reptiles could have produced. Strangely enough, despite the enormous and immediate success, (in the space of only three months they were already dominating the music scene in major Southern African cities), this was the only mixed animal band Schrodinger ever generated, probably because the strained interspecies relations when the band was on the road made it very difficult to manage.
Schrodinger followed up on this success by engineering The Vole Works, a group of 4 voles (soprano, tenor, baritone and bass), which was only slightly less successful.
Mofokeng and Schrodinger ended up marketing the music on their own label, which they called, simply, Windhoek. The arrangement was that Schrodinger would focus on the genetic production and Mofokeng would then take the performers off his hands and train and fine tune their musical skills.
It was an almost perfect arrangement except for one thing: Schrodinger detested the appallingly contemporary music his animals produced. He began to dream of an animal band which could perform the good old-fashioned Rap he so loved. It would have to be a trio, he decided, since that was the most prestigious formation among those which performed at the Rap Auditorium, and it occurred to him that he could come up with something especially exciting if he made use of the capability of his turntable to play both forwards and backwards. He was thinking of a band which would have two animals which sang forwards and one which sang exclusively backwards.
Frog, Frog and Gorf he was going to call it (he had discovered that amphibians were particularly talented at hip hop). It only took him a day to turn out two excellent individuals to fill the standard Frog slots. He then used the same record, played in reverse, to prepare the genetic substrate for his Gorf.
He produced five frogs with this method, but none of them was any good. He had been expecting difficulties, this being the first time he had used the new technique, but what was really baffling was that not only could none of the new batch sing in reverse, they seemed incapable of producing any sound at all.
Thinking that socialisation might trigger a response, he placed one of his new, apparently dumb, frogs together with the two other frogs he had selected for his trio. As soon as he opened the box which he was keeping his two standard frogs in, they launched into a spectacular routine but when he put the third frog in the sound stopped. It took him some time to realise what was happening. He took the dumb frog out of the box and held its mouth closed. The music resumed. He let go of the frog’s mouth. The music stopped again.
The frog was eating the hip hop produced by the other two frogs. The reverse effect of preparing the Genie Mix on the record played backwards had been not on the direction of the music performed but had flipped the frog from being a producer of music to a material consumer of music.
This effect is now known as “Schrodinger’s Quirk” and is yet another of the strange coincidences which made it possible for Vinylia to come into being. It took a long time for Schrodinger to think about the implications of the effect because his mind was wholly focused on the idea of producing music. Since his Rap Trio didn’t seem to be workable he simply shelved it and turned to another potentially lucrative project Mofokeng had been pressing him to tackle, which was to come up with a MicroMusic band. This, of course, was A Million Ants. Nobody actually figured out how many ants were involved but there were enough of them producing minimally different melodies to change the face of MicroMusic forever and also to cause permanent changes in the brain structure of a number of people who listened to them.
It would take too long to provide a full list of all the bands and performers Schrodinger produced, but it is worth just mentioning The Original Sopranified Chickens as well as Beagle im Spiegel. (It never was quite clear whether this was a canine duo or a particularly talented soloist). There is no telling what else Schrodinger and Mofokeng might have come up with if not for the fact that one day, with no warning signs, the bottom fell out of the market. Overnight, the demand for animal bands collapsed. Mofokeng tried to ride the crisis out and had the animals perform in small backwaters desperate for any distraction but in the end even he gave up. One day he drove up to Schrodinger’s house in a huge truck and honked all of its sixteen horns. Schrodinger, who was still in his pyjamas, peered out of the window.
“I’m terminating our arrangement, Felix!” Mofokeng shouted to the bewildered Schrodinger. But Schrodinger couldn’t hear him. The noise around him had suddenly become overwhelming. Mofokeng had dumped all the singing animals unsorted into Felix’s yard and they had already started to express themselves.
For Schrodinger the next few weeks were dramatic. He was used to having chicks cheeping around and beneath him but now there were a hundred and fifty animals of multiple species producing overlapping sound round the clock in twenty different musical genres which he detested. Schrodinger moodily counted a total of 430 legs his Pediluvialism prohibited him from harming. Just before 3, 6 and 9 pm the people passing by on their way to the Ramarama would stop and gape. Schrodinger always shouted himself hoarse ordering them to go away but there was no way he could make himself heard.
After a few days he remembered his sound-eating frogs and brought them out. They made a small dent in the din but it would have taken a few hundred of them, Schrodinger figured, to create total silence. Perhaps a few lions, crocodiles or elephants might have done the trick, but the risk of mishaps seemed too great, so in the end he decided to buy some Quikclones and use them to produce twenty or so reverse-engineered humans who, he hoped, would have a big enough appetite to gobble up enough of the noise to restore the peace he was used to.
Windhoek’s Quikclone store did not have a large selection. To get top-grade material you had to reserve in advance and what there was on the shelves was mostly powdered genome from drunks, hoboes, criminals and entertainment personalities who had sold their genetic copyright for a quick buck. But Schrodinger wasn’t looking for any special abilities and speed was what mattered most to him. He drove down to the store, walked through the shop, blindly grabbed a dozen cans from the discount baskets near the exit and in a matter of five minutes was on his way home again.
He spent the next few days bathing and reverse-spinning records. Just to be safe, he used the same record which had produced his sound-eating frogs, which happened to be the coarsest, harshest, brashest, bluntest, crassest hip-hop he had, except for one occasion where he got distracted by his emotional reaction to Il Trovatore, and spun out a Quikclone on that instead.
One week later he had completed the whole process and one night he found himself facing twenty-two apparently normal human beings – ready, dressed and bewildered. He took them out into the yard that same evening and they performed exactly as he had hoped. They ate the Country and Eastern, they ate the Micromusic, they ate the Splurge, the Williwash and the Tincant; there was no music they didn’t eat. He let out a cry of jubilation. They ate that too.
The silence stretched on into the night. He gave them the first names that came into his head: Alfie, Betty, Charlie, Delia, Everett, Frieda and so on up to Ulrich and Victoria. Schrodinger sat on his rocking chair and watched with pleasure trying to differentiate between the twenty-two new beings he had put into the world.
There was one who stood out from the others clearly; the one he had named Charlie. He had a sardonic smile which hardly ever left his handsome face. You could tell that he was aware of his good looks even though he hadn’t had the chance to see his reflection in a mirror yet, but what was most noticeable was the sense of intelligence which darted out from his eyes. Charlie scanned everything around him busily as if trying to find something his intellectual abilities could wrestle with. When he noticed Schrodinger’s chess set, inside the house, just a few steps from the yard, he sat down there and started moving the pieces around. Schrodinger, who was in a much better mood than he had been in for a long time, sat down too and lined up the pieces properly for a game. He was curious to see how much Charlie could learn. He gave him a brief explanation. Charlie beat him in sixteen moves in the first match and in twelve in the second one.
“I’ll call you Charlie Sharpe,” said Schrodinger, who had just realised that they ought to have surnames as well, “because you seem to be particularly clever.” And then he heard an amazing noise. He turned round and saw one of the girls at the door. She had obviously been observing them play. She was covering her mouth in embarrassment although the sound she had produced had in actual fact been a soft and enchanting thirty-two note chord. “And you,” Schrodinger announced, “shall be Frieda Belchwell.”
After that he took no more than twenty minutes to find satisfactory surnames for all the others, starting with Alfie who he called Frownsmile because of the way he never seemed able to wear one of those expressions without the other as well. The only one of the band he had any real trouble with was Everett. Schrodinger found it very hard to understand what was going on inside him. Everett was so slow he never seemed fully awake. At first Schrodinger thought that the only thing Everett did was eat. He thought of calling him Everett Munching or Everett Eeting because of this, but closer inspection showed that while it was true that Everett ate round the clock, he did it very slowly. He would chew on a sound and then he would stop and look up at the sky or else he would close his eyes for a minute. It wasn’t clear to Schrodinger whether Everett was thinking something profound when he had his spells of silence or whether his digestion caused his mind to come to a halt. In the end he decided to name him after his doubts as to what he was doing all the time and called him Everett Watt.
His new guests didn’t just eat the music he had reverse-engineered them for, they ate anything audible around them. They ate the sound of the normal chicks in the yard, they ate the sound of the crickets, they ate the sound of thunder (which seem to do something exciting to their stomachs) and, despite his attempts to train them, they ate most of the things he tried to say to them.
In his notebook, Schrodinger referred to them as Audiovores, a name which no one uses any more. “Sedately eager” were the words Schrodinger used to summarise their attitude. They did everything he asked them to do, quietly, almost shyly. None of them wanted to be the centre of attention. Their politeness verged on the ridiculous. It took them ages to go through a door, because each one of them wanted to be the last to do so. Charlie was the only exception in this. He would smile his sardonic smile and walk right past everyone else.
A few days later, they came to him with their first and only complaint: they didn’t like their clothes. This was not at all surprising, since standard QuikClone kits were tasteless, shapeless and mismatched. But when he sat down with them to look through a catalogue, instead of ordering more colourful clothes, they all plumped for formal business suits. Even the ties the men ordered were very cautious. And when Schrodinger tried to interest them in the kind of accessories he liked so much – rings, sunglasses, necklaces – they were horrified.
The house was now so silent that it became even more noticeable than when it had been noisy. People started coming from all over town to gape at this aural black hole where sound just disappeared. Some brought along binoculars. They peered through them intensely, although there was nothing to be seen: the animals wandered or hopped round the courtyard looking like normal animals and the Audiovores sat in the shade, sedately eager, or strolled. Whatever was happening was invisible.
One day, while Schrodinger was sitting outside glowering at the crowd (there was no point making any attempt to shout, of course), a twin-incinerator Royce Roller trashgrinder drew up at the gates. It was a shockingly expensive new model, running on unsorted raw garbage which you simply tipped into a funnel in the back. Only one man in Windhoek owned one: Thompson Shikeda, founder of Thompo Air.
Thompo Air was a no-frills airline which flew out of Oryx Airport. Shikeda had been so successful in turning it into an international hub linking to the new cities which had sprung up in Western Antarctica with global warming that it was now one of the busiest airports in the world. The old Windhoek International Airport was practically a junkyard, where Shikeda went deliberately and ostentatiously to fill up his trashgrinder.
The car sat in front of the gates. Schrodinger looked up but otherwise did not react. Shikeda, an imposing figure, stepped out of his car. Two guards followed him. He waved them away. Shikeda took off his sunglasses and stared hard in the direction of Schrodinger. This was usually enough for him to get his way, he had had his eyes goldspangled and they were extremely convincing. Schrodinger did not budge.
Shikeda was handed two large bags and from the bags he began to extract money. He picked out handfuls of it and tossed them into the yard. The Afros piled up. Schrodinger still made no move. The crowd outside, however, began to get a bit restless. Shikeda kept on throwing money. When he got to 150,000 Afros, Schrodinger let him in.
Copyright Phillip Hill 2013 –