Friday, September 18, 2009

"Partita for the End of the World" (fiction)

I've actually been meaning to post this for a while, and I'm doing so now because of a post of Lynn's, in which she asks for stories about "alien violins". This doesn't precisely fit the bill, since it's the violin that's alien, but here it is, anyhow. I wrote this last winter.

In writing this story, I was indebted to the book Stradivari's Genius, by Toby Faber, for factual information about the construction of violins. They're significantly more complex instruments than many realize, and I myself suspect that genius is best able to flower when applied to complex ideas rather than simple.

Jonah Wilhelm dug his fingernails into his palms as the craft entered the steepest phase of its descent. He had never traveled by spaceplane before, and he likely never would again; he hated flying on standard jets, and the spaceplane from Dallas to Inner Beijing was like that, only worse: higher, faster, steeper, louder, and generally far more terrifying. He'd relied on a full injection of Cannabia to get him through the two hours of the flight, and he was glad that the ship had finally landed. His benefactor, Mr. Lang of Lang World Industries, had insisted on footing the bill to bring him here via spaceplane on such short notice, but Jonah had insisted on a cruise ship for the trip home, when time would not be of the essence.

The ship landed on schedule and spent the requisite forty-five minute engine-cooling period on the tarmac at Inner Beijing Starport (why the Chinese insisted on calling them "starports" was not entirely clear, since they were still a year shy of when they'd theoretically receive the first transmission from the sleeper ship to Alpha Centauri). Then, finally, the doors were opened and the passengers – all of them the very richest of the rich, the only ones other than heads of state who could afford to travel by spaceplane – disembarked. Jonah arrived at the bottom of the stairs onto the tarmac to find a Chinese worker in a Halliburton Spaceways uniform already there, with Jonah's worn luggage in his hand. Jonah followed this fellow out to the area five-hundred feet away where the cars awaiting the passengers were all parked. One bore the famous symbol of Lang Industries, and the gray-haired driver stood almost at military attention as Jonah approached.

"Welcome to China, Mr. Wilhelm," the driver said in impeccable English as he took Jonah's bags from the Halliburton porter. "It is an honor to have an artist such as you with us, even for such a short time. Mr. Lang is looking forward to meeting you."

"How long will it be before I'm taken to him?" Jonah asked as he moved to climb into the car via the door that the driver opened for him.

"How long?" The driver looked puzzled at the fact that the question had even been asked. "When Mr. Lang is looking forward to something, he expects it immediately." Without another word he put the bags in the trunk, moved to his own door, and took his position behind the wheel. The car's engine hummed to life, and the driver sped away from the landing field, leaving the spaceplane behind.

The drive took about twenty minutes. The car surged past common traffic and onto the roadway of privilege, which was devoted exclusively to people like Mr. Lang. Jonah looked out the window as they powered past the other roads, which were almost choked with regular internal combustion cars, heading for the skyscrapers of Inner Beijing, with the now empty skyline of Old Beijing still visible beyond, where the rising seas had claimed part of Earth's most populous city. The departed shells of the old world, Jonah thought. No one had told Jonah why Mr. Lang had suddenly demanded his presence in Inner Beijing, but Jonah knew that there was only one thing it could be, given what he did for a living and what he knew Mr. Lang to be the owner of.

Shortly they arrived at the Lang Industries Building, a black and red needle of a tower rising almost tenderly into the sky. The driver guided the car into Mr. Lang's private garage, where he kept his prized collection of vintage automobiles that he never drove. Then they got out and walked to the elevator, which surged upward with stunning swiftness that seemed to begin before the doors had slid shut behind them. The walls of the elevator were decorated with conceptual paintings of Mr. Lang's most famous investment: New Beijing, which would be built on the plains of terraformed Mars. The images were striking in their vision and ambition, but Jonah couldn't look at them. The ascent was so quick that he felt like throwing up. Mr. Lang clearly enjoyed speed, or hated slowness. Or both.

Jonah didn't know if the ride ended at the top floor or not, but it ended nonetheless in a room that was decorated sparsely and tastefully with beautiful carpets and paintings and sculptures. Glass windows – real glass – overlooked the rest of Inner Beijing. And there, in front of it all, was Mr. Lang himself. He looked just like in the news vids: tall, graying, and utterly clean in his appearance.

"I have been waiting for you, Mr. Wilhelm," he said. "Did you find the
spaceplane enjoyable?"

Jonah glanced at the driver, whose face was a mask, and then he shrugged. "Not particularly," he answered. "I don't like flying."

Mr. Lang smiled. "Forgive me. It is so rare to meet someone so afflicted these days, when flight has become so intrinsic to human activity that is is almost as if we were meant for the sky after all."

Jonah smiled a bit in return. "If God had meant for us to fly...."

"Ah, but he did mean for us to fly," Mr. Lang said. "He gave us the ability to give wings to ourselves. Come; we have business to discuss." He dismissed the driver with a single gesture, and then took Jonah by the arm and began walking him through the lavish suite.

"You were surprised, I suppose, that I summoned you here?" Mr. Lang asked.

"Yes," Jonah admitted. "But also no. I'd hoped to come here one day. I even have a letter to you, sealed in an envelope in my desk drawer at home."

"And why have you not sent that letter?"

Jonah shrugged. "I never have stamps these days."

Mr. Lang chuckled. "A paper letter. That would likely have caught my eye. I know, you probably think that there is no possible way a letter from a man such as you could reach a man such as me. I am rich beyond the confines of this world...and yet you yourself are rich too, in many ways." He sighed. "Men such as you, who devote their lives to the practice of ancient crafts that are no longer much appreciated in this day and age when all we do is as ephemeral as a cloud of dandelion spores blown into a stiff wind, are very rich indeed. Ah, here is a case in point."

They had arrived at a glass case which held a samurai sword. It was, so far as Jonah could tell, a nearly perfect specimen of its kind.

"Do you know how old this blade is?"

Jonah shook his head; he knew nothing about swords. "Three hundred years?"

Mr. Lang shook his head.

"Four hundred?"

"Hardly! It is actually less than forty years old. It was my first commission of an art object. I sought out the master swordmaker Sensei Yoshi of Kobe, and paid him to create the finest blade that he could craft. Money, I told him, was of no concern: I would pay whatever he needed to come as close to pure perfection in his craft as he could, and this is the result. Master Yoshi spent nearly seventy of his ninety years in this world developing his skills with sword and steel. He studied the writings of the masters from centuries before, he studied every elder blade he could find. He mastered the techniques of folding the molten metal back on itself dozens of times, strengthening the metal with each fold, and he mastered the technique of inserting into the metal a length of softer metal that would absorb the shock of impact in a duel. Master Yoshi was the finest of all Japanese swordsmiths until he died, nearly thirty years ago. Until the day he died, he had standing permission to fly to my home, whenever he wanted and at my expense, to look anew upon his greatest work."

Jonah had been slowly walking around the glass case, admiring the sword, as Mr. Lang had spoken. "How many times did he take you up on that offer?"

"Not once," Mr. Lang said. He ran a finger across the glass. "This blade has not been touched by a human hand since the day I locked it inside this case," he said. "I think you now begin to understand why I have brought you here."

Jonah nodded. "I do."

Mr. Lang smiled. "Then come. It is in the next room."

Jonah followed Mr. Lang past several more display cases containing fabulous works of art into another, smaller room that had no windows. This walls of this room were paneled with rich wood and a paneled wooden floor as well. One wall was dedicated to bookshelves that bore several hundred old volumes, more than a few of which Jonah recognized on sight. Another set of shelves held stacks of papers, some bound and some not. Along the far wall was a low table of ebony, where the thing that Jonah had come all the way from Dallas to see rested on a formed bed of velvet.

"Go ahead," Mr. Lang said. "You have come a long way."

Jonah's breath became very, very slow as he approached the table. He'd longed for this moment for most of his adult life, and now that it was upon him he did not know what to feel. What lay on the table before him was the last object of its kind in the world.

It was a violin, the last known existing Stradivarius violin.

Jonah leaned forward, down over the table, and inhaled deeply as if to draw in the aroma of the bygone world when and where it had been made. Drawing in a deep breath of air, Jonah thought that he could almost smell the aroma of Cremona, Italy, around 1680. It would have been the aroma that he had breathed in. The air that had filled the lungs of Nicolo Stradivari as he had crafted, one after the next, the greatest stringed instruments the world had ever known, a legacy now distilled to this single last exemplar.

The violin here was, as all the Strads in the world had been, the most beautiful examples of instrument-making possible. The proportions of the soundbox, the precision in the ratios of the scroll, the flawless insertions of the purfling, the perfect color of the wood itself – all were the hallmarks of the Stradivarius instruments. Here it was, within Jonah's reach: the last of the Strads.

"Go ahead," Mr. Lang said. "You came all this way. There is a bow in the drawer."

Jonah's breath trembled. He opened the drawer and took out the bow that rested within. It was a good bow, of course, but the secret of the Strad had nothing to do with the bow; it was in the almost superhuman skill Antonio Stradivari had had in his fingers, skill with woodworking and inlaying and carving and mathematics and in capturing perfect sound in a medium of wood. Knowledge of aesthetics, of acoustics, of tone and sound and technique and probably even chemistry, for all anyone knew so many centuries after the work of the great luthiers of Cremona, centuries during which the secret of the varnish used on the violins had never been solved to anyone's satisfaction.

Jonah held the bow in the fingers of his right hand, and, knowing that he was not worthy to do so even as he was doing it, with his left he took up the Strad violin called Messiah. He hefted it in that hand once, savoring its weight – within ounces of every violin he'd ever held, and yet somehow possessed of many times the heft, the heft of history – and then lifted it to his neck.

The varnish, even after four hundred years, still felt warm and supple beneath his fingers. The violin's weight was pleasing, and the instrument's balance was uncannily perfect. "Balance", he thought, recalling the Katana blade Mr. Lang had shown him earlier. Balance, that ethereal quality that marked the greatest art objects in the world, no matter what the medium. Stradivari's gift of balance was equal to that of the greatest swordmaker.

The wood was also warm to his skin, when he placed it beneath his chin. Jonah knew that Mr. Lang was not a player, so unless the industrialist had tried his hand with this violin in a private moment – something which Jonah found unthinkable, now having met the man – this would be the first time this instrument had been sounded in nearly sixty years. As the number of existing Strads in the world had dwindled, the days of their ownership by the musicians for whom they were meant had also ended, and the last instruments had passed into the hands of private owners until one by one even those instruments succumbed to the weight of time that not even the hand of Stradivari of Cremona could stay. He had done his work so well, made instruments so great, that they had become so highly valued that no actual musician could afford to own them. Thus it had come to pass that the sounds of the Strads had faded completely from the world's concert stages, with the strains of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Berg being heard from those instruments no more. From there it had been nothing more than time, and decay, and in some horrible cases fire and willful destruction, that had made a memory of all the world's Strads. All, now, but one.

Jonah felt his breath leave his body with the first vibrations of the unfingered G string. He'd tried to imagine this moment so many times, and still it stunned him, the astonishing depth and focus of the tone that came from those strings. This room was small, but even if it had been one of the largest concert halls in the world – the venerable Musikverein in Vienna, perhaps, or maybe the now half-submerged Carnegie Hall – Jonah knew that this single G would have shot through the great space of the hall to be heard by a listener in the most distant seats along the back wall. Such had been Stradivari's mastery, his ability to craft from the same wood as anyone else an instrument that could focus sound to a level that could only be described as laser-like. Jonah collected his emotions and dutifully tuned the other strings in their turn.

Those thoughts, though, had little bearing on the matter at hand. Jonah drew another breath, and then lifted the bow to begin playing the work he always played on instruments he didn't know, Bach's Partita No. 3 in E for solo violin.

Jonah closed his eyes as he played, and was thus unaware that Mr. Lang had begun casually circling the room, nodding his head in rhythm with the music. The piece was perhaps an obvious choice, but Jonah had never been able to think of one better. It was, he had found, the intersection of perfection that made such a piece in such a situation so preferable; it was as if the minds of Stradivari and of Bach were being brought together through the intermediary of, Jonah well knew, an inferior mind. Nevertheless, here they were: a gentleman of Cremona making the renewed acquaintance of the master from Leipzig, with the introductions coming from a man from Dallas and being made possible by the wealthy benefactor of Inner Beijing.

Jonah wended his way through the pages of the Partita, seeing the musical lines in his mind's eye as he played them, to the point that he even envisioned the place in the piece where, in the copy of the work that he'd learned in his student days, the page had to be turned. He played and played, and after the piece's four minutes were over, he lowered the bow and waited for a few seconds of silence, as if allowing the echo to die away even though, in this small room, there was no echo at all.

"Wonderful," Mr. Lang finally said. "You might have been underselling your skill as a performer, all these years."

"I doubt that." Jonah lifted the bow again and played the first few bars of the Mendelssohn concerto. "There isn't much of a market for violin soloists these days. Or orchestral musicians, for that matter."

"There is enough of one for you to have found work," Mr. Lang countered. "Enough work, in fact, to live reasonably comfortably."

"I have filled a niche," Jonah admitted. "But it's a niche that could have been filled by anyone."

"Not so," Mr. Lang said. He walked over to a bookshelf and pulled down an old, weathered volume. Opening it, he showed one of its pages to Jonah. It was a page of orchestral score, from a symphony, in fact; Jonah recognized it almost immediately as the scherzo from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. "Original paintings by Van Gogh sell for hundreds of millions of dollars now. So do original manuscripts of, say, William Faulkner. A Shakespeare First Folio? There are more nations on this planet that couldn't make such a purchase with their entire annual gross domestic poduct than ones that could. And things like this violin, or the few Stradivarius cellos that still exist: all things that carry prices that render mere discussion of their merits an almost absurd prospect. But what about music? Why shouldn't a manuscript in Bach's hand of, say, the Brandenburg Concertos command as much a price as a Shakespeare First Folio? What is it about music that makes this so?"

"A music score is not meant for the eye," Jonah replied. He'd often wondered the same thing. "The value of a music score, its greatness, is not inherent in its pages but in the sounds that result when the score is performed by musicians under the constraints of what the composer wished to hear."

"But the same can be said of the violin in your hand," Mr. Lang said. "The
violin is a tool, is it not? Is it truly an object in itself? Would not the violin be meaningless without the hand of a Heifetz, and the pages written by a Brahms to guide him?"

Jonah involuntarily glanced down a the violin in his hand. Mr. Lang was wrong, obviously. The violin WAS a thing of beauty, a thing for the eye as well as for the ear. The proportions were so precise, the instrument's curves so feminine. Surely not everything Stradivari had done had been geared toward fashioning an instrument to be heard and not seen. That would, Jonah thought, be almost cruel.

Mr. Lang seemed to have been reading Jonah's thoughts when he spoke again. "I suppose it seems selfish of me, doesn't it? Keeping an instrument such as this locked away where it cannot be heard. But we reach a point, do we not, where such things become so valuable in themselves that it becomes impossible to continue to allow them to circulate in the world? That partita you just played: over this violin's lifespan, how many times do you think its strings have sounded that exact work? Can the violin itself be said to have a memory of the music performed upon it?"

Jonah nodded. "That is not a new thought," he said. "Berlioz once wrote something like that, in his Evenings With the Orchestra. He imagined a piano at a competition, being played over and over again by the competitors, each of whom was required to play the same concerto. Toward the competition's end, the piano had been made to perform that concerto so much that it began to play the concerto itself, and when the piano was chopped into a thousand pieces with an ax, even the individual keys scattered across the ground still went on, playing that same concerto."

"No new thoughts under the sun, I suppose," Mr. Lang said. "Come, Mr. Wilhelm. I would share a drink with you, and tell you why I have consented to your coming here."

"I was wondering that myself," Jonah said as he placed the Messiah violin back down on its stand and returned the bow to its drawer. Mr. Lang then led him out of this room, and down a short corridor to a living area confined by a number of bookshelves arranged around a corner area of the larger room. The floor-to-ceiling windows here overlooked the spectacular skyline of Inner Beijing, which lept up to full height right at the side of the sea and extended inland almost to the very horizon. Jonah descended onto a soft leather bench while Mr. Lang poured him a glass of wine; then Mr. Lang joined him at the opposite end of the same bench.

"You have never been to Inner Beijing, I assume?"


"I can usually tell. The scale of this city always humbles those who see it the first time."

Jonah drew in a deep breath. Some part of his brain was still echoing the strains of that Bach partita.

"Many violinists have contacted me through the years, imploring me to give them the privilege I have just afforded you. I have granted none of these requests...and yet, here you are, without having made any request of me at all. Do you know why this is so?"

Jonah sipped his wine again. The answer was obvious. "Because I do not play violins by trade," he said. "I make them."

Mr. Lang nodded. "You do more than make them, Mr. Wilhelm. Your instruments are the best now in the world today. All violinists know this. It is said that to play a Wilhelm is as close as one can come these days to playing a Strad. Although we both know that isn't quite the case, don't we?" He smiled and raised his glass a little, and Jonah nodded.

Everyone he had ever known in his youth had thought it foolish of him to pursue such a trade. No one still wanted handmade instruments in this day and age, not new ones, anyway. There was no market at all for new instruments, not when there were enough old ones to satisfy the needs of violinists worldwide. The making of violins had been revolutionized, as had the making of just about all things, but the onward march of technology, so much so that there were now fewer than fifty people in the world who made instruments by hand. Of these, Jonah Wilhelm was universally recognized as the finest. His instruments were the only ones of modern make that were used with any frequency at all by the very greatest of the world's violin soloists, and ten of the violinists in the Berlin Philharmonic were now performing on Wilhelm instruments. But still, his violins were but pale reflections of the ones made four hundred years before by the master of Cremona.

Jonah Wilhelm had grown up wanting to be a professional violinist, of course. Living with his father as a boy after his mother had died very early on of cancer, Jonah had discovered music at a very early age, and his father, a repairman and in his spare time an amazing woodworker, had done everything he possibly could to encourage his son. So Jonah had practiced for hours a day, and thrown himself into his studies, and worked and worked and worked until he'd been accepted to the Curtis Institute, the nearly legendary music school in Philadelphia where, once accepted, every student attended tuition free. It would have put Jonah on the fast track to a life of musical excellence, had his train from Dallas to Philadelphia not derailed unexpectedly just outside Louisville. Fourteen people had died in the accident, but Jonah's injuries had not been chiefly limited to his left arm in general and his left hand specifically. The hand he used on the fingerboard.

Years of physical and occupational therapy restored his finger dexterity to a reasonably normal level; he was able to play again. But he was never and would never be able to maintain the complete command over his fingers that he would have needed to be any kind of musical performer at all. The most he might be able to muster would be three or four minutes at a time before his reconstructed ligaments and finger bones betrayed him again, before his nerves went numb from overexertion. The most he'd be able to play would be something roughly the duration of that Bach partita. So he'd gone to school in Texas instead, to study music education. To be a teacher.

It was in his junior year of college that Jonah's life had changed. For his birthday, his father had taken him to hear Josephine LaMotta, the newest wunderkind violinist from Canada, who was now blossoming into the spot vacated by the passings of such greats as Midori and Joshua Bell. Jonah had never been to hear such a luminary soloist before, and he had felt tremendous anticipation when he and his father had taken their seats in the upper mezzanine of the Dallas Symphony concert hall. Miss LaMotta had been on hand to play the Tchaikovsky concerto, one of the greatest of the repertoire's old warhorses – but when she had emerged onto the stage, her Strad violin in hand, both Jonah and his father had audibly gasped.

Never before that moment had Jonah ever realized just how much of his father's keen eye for woodworking he had inherited or how much of his knowledge he had gained seemingly through pure osmosis until the moment he laid eyes on Miss LaMotta's Strad violin. Even from his distance fifty feet away, he could see the sharp tiger-striped pattern of the instrument's back panel, the shocking striping in the maple. He was transfixed by the shimmering red of the varnish, and he could see the perfect proportions of the violin's scroll. As Miss LaMotta took up the strains of the Tchaikovsky, Jonah found himself wondering how Stradivari had done it. And his father, he could see when he glanced over at him, was thinking the same thing.

On the drive home, Jonah asked if he could work in his father's workshop, using his father's tools. His father had smiled and said, "You know, they've been trying to figure out Stradivari's secret for four hundred years."

Jonah remembered nodding, as his mind already began to work through various problems, such as how he would carve the f-holes, how he would insert the purfling, whether he would create the back plate from two pieces of wood or just one. The next morning, when he had risen, he read on the Net that Josephine LaMotta's plane had crashed on its way to Los Angeles. She was dead, and her violin was destroyed. Sick with grief over the passing of an artist and perhaps even sicker over the passing of her instrument, it was on that morning that Jonah began work on his first violin.

He still had that instrument, locked away with all of his father's belongings back on what they affectionately called "the Ranch". He had not taken it out or looked at it in twenty years. It had only been a start, and it had taken him eight years to produce an instrument worthy of being purchased by an actual musician – in that case, the fiddler for a Celtic band from upstate New York. In his heart he considered such a use of the fruits of a luthier's craft somewhat disappointing, but he kept those feelings in check for a sale, after all, was a sale. And now it was only a matter of time. Ten years on, he knew that his instruments were very good, perhaps among the best possible to make in this day and age. Thus was his career born, although even then he'd never believed he would become the finest luthier in the world. With every instrument he had ever made, no matter to whom it sold or how it was used, he had approached each of them the same way: as experiments in his lifelong quest to meet the mind of Antonio Stradivari, four hundred and fifty years after the Cremonese master's death.

"It's not the music with you," Mr. Lang said. "It's the mystery. You want to know how he did it. How he made them. Your pursuit has been so single-minded that you have come closer than anyone since he himself walked the streets of Cremona – but in other ways, you are as far away from him as if you were standing on the surface of another world entirely. Your appreciation of that instrument" – he gestured to the vault fom which they'd just come – "is not for what it could be in your hand, but in what it actually is. That speaks to my cybernano-enhanced heart."

Jonah sipped his wine. "You seem to know a great deal about me."

Mr. Lang shrugged. "I always do my research on those with whom I would do business. But even all the research in the world can lead to disaster. I had to meet you myself, to learn if I was right. And I soon realized that I was."


"When you played that Bach partita, instead of the Brahms concerto, or the Tchaikovsky, or the Bruch."

Jonah laughed. "That's it? Because I chose the partita instead of, maybe, Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending?"

"You chose a piece that would display the qualities of that instrument by itself. A concerto requires an orchestra; the partita requires a violin and a violinist."

Jonah leaned forward on his seat. "So having passed your test, why am I here, Mr. Lang?"

Mr. Lang set his empty wine glass down on the glass-topped table between them and likewise leaned forward. "I am seventy years old, but I will live for many more years, Gods and nanocybernetics be willing. Nevertheless, I have given much thought to what my legacy on this world will be. For what will they remember Lang of Inner Beijing?"

Jonah stared hard at Mr. Lang, wondering if he was joking. "But...won't they remember the sleeper ship to Alpha Centauri? The developments of nanocybernetics that you helped to discover?"

Mr. Lang nodded. "They will remember all those things, and more. But no man such as I is content to be remembered for just one or two things. My mark on the world must be more than just 'who stood here' or 'who discovered this'. I would be as Cato, and have everyone ask where the statues of me are than why there are statues of me in the first place."

Jonah sat still, not giving any reply. Little of this was making any sense to him at all.

"So, Mr. Wilhelm, what I would have you do is this: unlock the secret of the Stradivarius violins once and for all. Surpass them. I would be your benefactor, as you supplant the name Stradivarius with that of Wilhelm."

Now Jonah laughed. The idea was ludicrous, totally and utterly ludicrous. There could be no surpassing Stradivari; the very notion was laughable. Mr. Lang's expression did not change in any way, and Jonah caught himself. "This can't be," Jonah said.

"Of course it can. Have you never wondered just why it is that Stradivari left no successors? Why his standard of excellence did not foster a tradition of innovation and improvement? Had things gone their normal course, Stradivari would be remembered now as the one who began the journey, not the one who reached an apex that is unreachable forevermore."

Jonah frowned. That Stradivari had left no disciples, no one to carry on his work, had indeed vexed him over the years, but over time he had accepted this, and come to his final thoughts on that matter. "Perhaps," he said, "it is the case that Stradivari actually did reach an apex that is unreachable forevermore."

Mr. Lang laughed. "Now what kind of manner of thinking is that for a man such as yourself? Why would you accept such a state of affairs? Why else would you have devoted so much of your life to the pursuit of Maestro Stradivari's secrets? Why do any of it at all?"

Jonah was beginning to succumb to Mr. Lang's insistence, but even so he did not quite want to appear just yet that he was beginning to succumb. So he pushed his line of thought even farther. "Not all of us are interested in pushing the envelope of human enterprise forward," he said. "Some of us truly are content to learn what we can of what has gone before. Archaeologists still study the Pyramids of Giza, even though no one thinks they are trying to figure how to build better pyramids."

"Of course not, Mr. Wilhelm. But why they are learning is still important, and in a key way it has nothing to do with how to build pyramids at all, but rather how best to learn from those who have gone before. Which is what you have been trying to do, all your life. Were you truly satisfied, you would not have accepted my invitation to begin with."

Jonah sighed, finally conceding the point. "I am flattered that I have impressed you this much, Mr. Lang, but what you ask is beyond me."

"Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. That is not for you to decide though, is it?"

"Then whose?"

"The violins. When you have hit your mark, the violin will let you know."


Jonah leaned back in his seat as the spaceplane finally reached the point of cessation of acceleration. He was tired, terribly tired, and he had no idea how he was going to go about the job that had just been handed him. Mr. Lang was to pay Jonah for everything. He would have living expenses, access to the finest materials and tools, and he would have access to the latest research into woodworking techniques and other topics that might be germane to the creation of a violin. All of his expenses would be paid, every one, until he reached his goal. Mr. Lang had admitted that this was a calculated risk on his part, but he had time – nanocybernetics, after all – and he had money. Likely Jonah would be on his payroll for the rest of his life. In a perverse moment, Jonah thought to spend many years living off Mr. Lang's largesse, producing a single violin of deeply flawed workmanship, and then delivering it to the old man when he was on his own deathbed. This plan, of course, went nowhere except Jonah's own head. He had, if nothing else, tremendous professional pride, and, now he had lots of money. And in any case, Mr. Lang had done nothing worthy of such a treatment.

Of all the things Mr. Lang had promised would be his for the next however many years this took – it was an open-ended commitment – the one that excited Jonah the most was the wood. Jonah had never been able to shake his suspicion that the wood had been one of the most important factors in the success of the Strads, but he'd never been able to truly confirm this. It would take a fairly controlled experiment, after all, a simple comparison. All one had to do was find two violins made of different wood but by the same luthier, someone clearly in the same level of skill as a Stradivari. That was all.

Obviously it had never been done.

His production ground to a halt for more than a year, as Jonah spent that first year and a significant part of the second reading, barely touching wood at all. He was studying anew every aspect of acoustics, of the sonic qualities of wood, of the traditional varnishes of the Cremonese woodworkers – everything he could possibly think of that might have an effect on his work. Surely the perfection of the Stradivarius instruments had not been completely due to their maker, but also in some part reflective of something in the time and place from which those instruments had come. Terroir, the French called it – even though that term was used for wine, not violins or cellos.

Sixteen months after his meeting with Mr. Lang, Jonah Wilhelm walked into his workshop begin violin-making for the second time in his life. Even though he was already renowned in the music world as one of the finest luthiers anywhere, he was, for all intents and purposes, starting over completely.

As the money flowed, he found himself experimenting with exotic hardwoods he would never have otherwise been able to use, on the assumption that perhaps maple wasn't the best wood for violin-making after all. After two years, all this study resulted in the production of a single instrument, which he allowed to cure for one month before finally testing. Its sound was penetrating, no question about it, but it had a harsh sheen that he found unacceptable. He'd had a feeling this would be the case, even as he'd been carving the backplate to shape from the mold he'd copied from one of Stradivari's own. This violin he rejected, without even giving it a name.

The second fared little better in the sound department, which was a disappointment to him because he felt that with this particular instrument he was finally beginning to produce some very fine purfling indeed, which he now did purely by hand. In fact, as he put the finishing touches on this second violin, he was already planning to make the third completely by hand, with no power tools whatsoever. Jonah had decided that if he was going to try to improve upon Stradivari, he would have to go back in time to meet Stradivari, as closely as he could.

Thus began the third violin, as he headed into the fourth year of his work. Mr. Lang contacted him monthly, always out of courtesy and interest and never as a means of attempted influence. There was truly no pressure at all, at least not from his employer. The outside world exerted a good deal of pressure on its own.

As he was applying the second coat of varnish to this third violin, Jonah received the e-notification that his father had died. It had been expected for some time, since Mr. Wilhelm had opted to have his nanocybernetics deactivated. "They can't keep me alive forever," he had said, "and I don't want to be around for the final stages when these things start going haywire."

"No one knows if they ever go haywire, Dad," Jonah had said, but his father had been insistent.

"Jonah, sooner or later everything that is made by human beings goes haywire. Things either break or fall apart or stop working. Hell, sooner or later we either break or fall apart or stop working. It's the way things are." There'd been a silence, and then: "Jonah, it's the natural way of things that the Strads are all gone."

Jonah had left the violin to dry as he had gone to his father's funeral. His quest for perfection would now be carried out alone.

As he finished Instrument Number Three in the Lang series, Jonah decided that this instrument would carry a name. He would name it for his father, and as such, he would make certain that this instrument would be worthy of carrying that name. He already knew that this would be the best violin he had ever made. From this point on, every violin would be the best he'd ever made.

Even as the world awaited the first transmissions from the Alpha Centauri sleeper ship, and even as the Palestinian Republic declared war on Israel, and even as hostilities began again on the Sino-Russian border, Jonah's pursuit was the only thing he cared about. He would go afar in his pursuit of craft, seeking to learn ever more about the working of wood in the service of his art. Jonah traveled to the tiny Amish communities in Pennsylvania, the few that were left, to watch the artisans there carve with expertise still handed down from fathers to sons even in the face of a world where the very march of aging had been slowed to a barely-perceptible crawl. He journeyed to villages on the Canadian Atlantic coast where scrimshaw was still practiced, on genetically-cultivated ivory. He journeyed to Japan to see the swordmakers at work, even though the forging of metal had nothing to do with violin making but everything to do with ancient craft. From all these pursuits and more Jonah derived inspiration and knowledge, and he realized that while he had before achieved great success on the level of his talent alone, now he was actively pushing his skills to the farthest limit he could possibly reach – and even farther. The third violin he produced he named the Michael Wilhelm, as he had promised himself all along. The instrument sold for a high price to the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and almost immediately word began to seep out among the small but worldwide community that Jonah Wilhelm of Dallas, Texas had achieved a leap in quality no one could have foreseen. The recognition in the music world gave Jonah some comfort, although he reacted harshly to an interviewer who dared call him "the new Stradivari". Jonah knew how far short of that goal he still was, even if no one else did.

It was during his making of the sixth violin that antennae on the Moon finally received a transmission from the sleeper ship to Alpha Centauri. All the world was transfixed as the tale came in: the valiant efforts of the crew to keep the sleepers alive as they repaired their ship, damaged in the transit of Alpha Centauri's Oort Cloud; the insertion into orbit of the system's second planet, which was almost Earthlike in nature; the voyage via dropship onto the planet surface. And then there had been the images, sent toward Earth four years before, of the surface of an extra-Solar world. A planet of purple skies and white grassplains, of rocky mountains covered with snow as white as that on Earth (why wouldn't it be, after all), of "forests" of great black "trees" covered with immense green leaves. Over the next months, the scientific information came fast and furious from Alpha Centauri: biological information on the flora and fauna of the new planet, geological surveys of the landmasses heretofore discovered, climate studies, analytical data of soil samples, and more. This became the golden age of planetary astronomy as the information came in a steady stream from the colony on Alpha Centauri II, a world whose new inhabitants, unwilling to wait for the United Nations to reach consensus and then for news of that consensus to travel the four years to them, named their world New Ithaca.

And through all this, Jonah Wilhelm made violins. His devotion to his hand-made craft was such that even among the musical mainstream filled with people who had never once in their lives touched an acoustic instrument, Jonah's violins became the most sought-after instruments in the world, and beyond music some even credited him with the great resurgence in the great hand-craft movement of the early twenty-second century. But he cared about none of that, because he knew that no matter how revered his violins might be, none had yet approached the Strads of his dreams.

Mr. Lang continued to check in on him once a year, and he kept the money coming, despite the fact that Jonah could not in all honesty tell him that he was getting any closer to even equaling Stradivari, much less surpassing him. He had at his fingertips the results of every single scientific study ever performed on the Stradivarius violins ever undertaken, including some that had definitively concluded that the secret lay in the wood and others that the secret lay in the varnish – but when he tried to work based on the findings of those studies, his violins were still inferior.

Ten years became fifteen, and then twenty. Jonah's nano-cybernetics kept him going well past the age where he might otherwise have expected arthritis to rob him of his work. Meanwhile more and more data came from New Ithaca. The colony was – or had been, four years earlier – doing very well now that the colonists had become acclimated to their new world. They had integrated their buildings, erected from the converted hull of the sleeper ship itself, into the environment extremely well, and they were even able to announce the birth of the colony's first child. The first human being born outside the Solar System.

Jonah was now over eighty years old. He was now experimenting with different carving strategies and different woods and different varnishes. Some of his violins from this period were utterly ghastly in their sound, but even these were useful, pointing up the experimental paths that he felt sure that Stradivari must have taken as well. How many violins had the great master of Cremona himself rejected and thrown into the fires, he often wondered? And how many of the rejected violins had still been greater than the ones Jonah was now making, four hundred years later?

Jonah's thirty-fifth violin, a masterpiece, sold to Fiona March of Great Britain for a tremendous amount of money on the same day that Mr. Lang and his fellow investors announced construction of the second sleeper ship to Alpha Centauri. Over the next few months the United Nations finally dissolved permanently over the disputed use of the Great Lakes waters, the Battle of Mecca killed thousands, and forest fires swept across Greenland. It was an ugly time on Earth, and it was then that Mr. Lang came to visit Jonah in Dallas.

"You have done well," Mr. Lang said when he had finished his brief tour through Jonah's workshop. This hadn't taken long. The workshop was still what it had always been: a small room whose floor was littered with sawdust and whose tables were covered with carving tools and blocks of wood and violin templates and lengths of violin string and books on acoustics and printouts of the scientific data beamed back from New Ithaca – particularly the information on the trees there.

"Not well enough," Jonah replied. He brushed a lock of wispy silver hair from his eye; Mr. Lang still looked as youthful as ever. Jonah had allowed for some aging from his nano-cybernetics, while Mr. Lang had opted for unending youth. "I have not equaled Stradivari," Jonah said. "I never will."

"Yes, you will. You have figured out so much."

"I am an old man, Mr. Lang. I cannot do this forever."

"You could come closer than Stradivari ever did."

Jonah looked down at his hands – his old, weathered hands with joints that still moved smoothly and painlessly. The hands that had crafted so many violins, that had taught him so much and had seen him through so much work and trouble. The hands that could almost make a violin on pure muscle memory.

"You know you could," Mr. Lang pressed on. "I look around this place and I see not a workshop for a craftsman, but the laboratory of a scientist. You have been crafting hypotheses based on your own observations, you have been testing them, and you have been rejecting the fruitless paths for the ones that are almost certainly those also trod by our master of Cremona. But now, I suspect you have reached an impasse, and it is not a matter of age or weariness. Am I right?"

Jonah stared hard at Mr. Lang, amazed anew at how sharp his mind was even at the age of one hundred ten. Mr. Lang glanced over at Jonah's reading desk, tucked away in a corner, with titles piled upon it such as A History of Western Music, The Great Violinists, and Tales from Alpha Centauri.

"You have a request for me, do you not?" Mr. Lang asked.

Jonah lowered his head. He did indeed have a request, and it was why he had contacted Mr. Lang and requested to meet with him, even though he had never expected Mr. Lang to come to him. Then he lifted his head and looked around his workshop, the same as Mr. Lang had just done.

"It is the wood," he said. "I know it is. Something in the soil or the trees of Cremona, perhaps...I don't know if there was something special in the maple of Italy in the 1600s, or if it was his varnish, or his perfect craftsmanship, or some combination of all of that. It was probably all of those things, actually. He went as far as he could with the materials and skills of his time, and I have done the same – and I am still behind him. One reaches a point where environment determines everything."

Mr. Lang nodded. "There is only one conclusion, then, isn't there?"

"My craft cannot improve," Jonah said. "But...perhaps my materials can."

"And where would you go for better materials?"

"Alpha Centauri," Jonah said. Mr. Lang was already nodding. "I've read the botanical studies of the trees there. The trees of New Ithaca have wood that is very hard, but also acoustically supple in a way not seen here on Earth. They may have the wood I need."

"That is a great length to take on, for a hypothesis that may yet fail."

"I have already failed, Mr. Lang. Even if I go to New Ithaca and make a violin that is the better of anything Stradivari ever did, I will have not done so here. I will not have made this world's greatest violin – I will have made New Ithaca's."

Mr. Lang smiled, and leaned in close. "Then why go? There is no returning to this world. There are no sleeper ships that come back to Earth. Once you leave, you are gone forever. Why go?"

Jonah shook his head. "Because I have to know if I can do it," he said. "I knew I had to go as soon as I saw the pictures of those trees. A whole new world with wood never carved – I have to go there and make a violin. The principles of Stradivarius, taken to the stars."

Mr. Lang nodded. "Then you shall have a berth."


Two years went by, and they were the busiest two years of Jonah Wilhelm's life. He had so much to learn, so many skills to develop, which at his advancing age required more effort than on many days he thought he could exert in any meaningful way. Much of it seemed foolish to him, a waste of time. He wasn't going to Alpha Centauri as part of any scientific team, nor was he going in any capacity as a seed colonist. He was going for one reason, and one reason only. When that reason finally hit the Net, the controversy became almost too much for him to bear. This he dealt with in the way he had always dealt with such things in the past. He buried himself in his work: his studies for the fifty-year transit, his physical regimen to prepare himself, and the carving of his final violin on Earth, the one that would carry the only name left that he had never given to an instrument. Rose. His late wife, gone now for forty years.

The Rose violin was debuted in performance by its owner, Katherine Quinn, concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony. Her solos in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" were reported to have absolutely shimmered, piercing every single soul in the Gates Concert Hall that night. Jonah would have been there to hear, had the concert not taken place the night before his second flight on the spaceplane, the flight that would take him to Asimov Station and his boarding date on the Sagan Starship. Those last days flashed by, and they ended with Jonah climbing into his hibernation chamber. As his consciousness slipped away, Jonah heard in his inner ear the strains of Bach's Partita in E.



He had wondered, on Earth, what awakening on a new world would feel like.

And now...he still didn't know. He couldn't compare it to anything. He heard voices around him, for what felt like an eternity. He felt heat where there had been none before. He felt warm air on his face, and cold air on his feet. He felt his fingers tingling with that feeling they get when you've restored circulation after a while, but the tingling seemed to last for days, weeks, months. He felt that to open his eyes would be to invite death, so he kept them closed.

These sensations were normal.

Jonah finally opened his eyes on a new world, a new sun, a new life, and a new home. New possibilities, for new music.


The trees of New Ithaca, Jonah discovered, offered surprisingly hard wood. "Wood", of course, was something of a misnomer, since it was a different kind of entity altogether, but people were people and they used the most convenient words to describe things, and in this case, the stuff of the "trees" was best thought of as "wood". There were probably hundreds of kinds of the stuff on the planet, just as on Earth, but in the vicinity of the first colony city – one of three now, this one called Athens and the others Sparta and Syracuse – there were mostly hardwoods. This had been a good thing for those first colonists of seventy years before, when they had needed to build their shelters from the indigenous materials, and now it was a good thing for Jonah, who was using the wood in his spare time to carve the first backplates for his violins.

Things were very different for Jonah here on New Ithaca, in ways that went beyond the obvious. It wasn't just new stars and two moons in his sky; it wasn't a world that was eerily quiet and a daytime sky free of aircraft contrails. The daily rhythm of his life, now that he was awake again, was now completely different. Here he could not support himself on violin making; the population of New Ithaca still stood at less than two thousand humans, and thus there was no place for someone whose only vocation was an obscure area of craftsmanship. Jonah found himself using his woodcarving skills all over the city, and during harvest time, he worked the fields as did everyone else. He even took a shift or two monitoring the colonies' radio telescopes, but this quickly proved beyond his particular area of ability and he was relieved of any further such duties within hours of spilling his tea across the instrument panel.

In his spare time, then, he made his violins. It was an odd hobby to the other colonists, not one of whom had ever heard of Earth's greatest luthier, but many of their own hobbies were odd in his eyes as well, and it turned out that no one much bothered to judge him on that basis. No one thought anything odd of the woman who used the new wind patterns to fly kites she'd made from fibers native to this world; no one questioned the wisdom of the man who crafted his own kayak out of native wood and tested it out on the native rivers here. And no one questioned the old violin maker who had come from Dallas to Athens, New Ithaca.

The first three violins were disastrous. The wood was too hard, resulting in instruments whose tone was terribly harsh, sounding almost as though they had been outfitted with electronic amplification. He moved from tree species to tree species, testing as he went; in this way he became familiar with all of the wood of the region around Athens, and to his dismay he discovered that it was all too hard for his needs. He would have to find another place – one of the other colony cities. They both lay south of Athens; perhaps they would have softer wood in their local forests.

The problem that now arose was that transit between colony cities was not frequent. Each colony was intended to become self-sufficient before natural trade could be allowed to begin. Jonah had to wait for a natural excuse for him to make the next journey, and that excuse came over a year later (with New Ithaca years taking roughly 1.3 times an Earth year). It was the same reason for inter-colony travel as always: illness and injury. A type of fever had broken out in Sparta, and though they had identified the drugs that would work against it, they didn't have enough to treat everyone there. An expedition was arranged, and Jonah volunteered to go along.

The colony city of Sparta was larger now than Athens, even though it had been the second colony city established. Jonah helped distribute the medicines, and then he wasted no time in examining the wood of the surrounding region. He found that the woods here were softwoods after all – but they were too soft. If he made violins from these trees, the sound would be muddy, indistinct, ill-defined.

It was heartbreaking. Somewhere on this world, perhaps, there was wood that would be perfect for violin-making. But it was still a large world, as large as Earth, and Jonah was an old man. He went to sleep that night feeling total, utter failure. He had come across four light-years, he had left his world behind, he had imposed upon the wealth of a benefactor he never should have had, and now, it was all for naught.

He woke back up about forty minutes later, when the obvious solution finally snapped into his brain. He had already forsaken replicating Stradivari's methods; all that mattered to him was matching his results.

Perhaps, then, a violin made not of one type of wood, but of two.

Jonah didn't see the answer in a dream, exactly, but in one of those moments of inspiration that come in the dark, when sleep is on the verge of taking us under. He saw himself weaving strips of wood together, perhaps into a lattice form; or perhaps putting thin strips beside each other, one by one; or perhaps tempering the harshness of a backplate of hardwood with sideribs of soft. He didn't know which would work, but he knew that he had a way to go. Had Stradivari used more than one kind of wood in his violins? It didn't matter, Jonah realized. It was time for him to set Stradivari aside, and to fully embrace Wilhelm.

He obtained a large section of a tree from the construction crew, in exchange for woodworking services; this he used in conjunction with the hardwood he already had. Then he began carving the block. First he shaped the backplate, in accordance with the template he had brought with him all the way from Earth, the template that had yielded his best instruments. He aimed for an instrument width roughly halfway between that of his thinnest and thickest violins. He worked the woods together slowly into shape, using every ounce of his skill to mix wood as a potter might mix clay. The construction of this violin came easy to him, so easy that people who entered his workshop while he was working often remarked later that their colony woodcarver had been in some kind of trance. The fingerboard, the scroll, even the purfling – all of it came so easy to him now. But it was the fact of two kinds of wood at work that made it difficult now. He was in, so far as he knew, totally uncharted territory.

And he didn't care. For ten New Ithaca years, Jonah worked alongside the colonists by day and in his workshop by night, experimenting with different blends of wood. He also experimented with varnishes. He found one tree whose wood was virtually useless for violin-making, but whose sap was almost a perfect varnish as far as the acoustics went, even if the varnish was a vibrant green.

Finally it all came together. Finally all of his work, everything he knew, everything he had learned by study and by effort of his own fingers, met as one as he crafted an instrument that he knew, even as he began it, would be the finest he could ever make. This one would be the final summation of everything he had ever done. It was a day he'd never dared to hope would one day come, when he finally put the strings on this, his last violin.

It was on that day that the transmission from Mars came.

Very few transmissions came from the Martian colony – in fact, none had come directly from Mars in over twenty years, before Jonah had even arrived. Almost all of the transmissions from the Solar System had originated from Earth, the homeworld, the place where humanity had begun.

The message was cataclysmic. Months before, a very large meteor had been detected on a collision course with Earth. Every attempt at pushing it onto a different trajectory had failed, and the meteor had impacted the planet with force that was off any type of scale conceivable to the mind of a human.

Earth was gone. Everything gone. Dallas, gone. Inner Beijing, gone. Venice, gone. London, gone.

The last Stradivarius, gone.

Now, Jonah was all that was last of all violin makers.

In the time that he had been on New Ithaca, Jonah Wilhelm had become famous as the man who had traveled across four light-years to find wood to make a better violin. His willingness to leave behind his homeworld in pursuit of his craft had made him a legend, and his instruments quickly became revered on this, humanity's first world beyond the star of its birth.

The governing council of New Ithaca declared a day of mourning: a new world mourning the old. Humanity's birthworld was gone, but the colonies of Mars and New Ithaca remained. In time there would be more.

Jonah learned of Earth's fate while he was eating his supper of rice and wine. From his tiny chamber he could already hear the voices in the town square, raised in song, hymns of the old faiths offered in memory of the world now four years dead. He knew he had to join them, although he barely knew what to feel. He had left Earth behind. This was his world now.

He went down, in the end, to the town square to join his fellow citizens in mourning, and he took with him the new violin. He had not yet played it, but tonight would be the best time to do so, he realized. Jonah was an old man now, and he was thinking about deactivating his nanocybernetics and allowing nature – the nature of Alpha Centauri, not his own sun – to take its course. Whether or not this violin was the equal of any Strad was no longer important, but it was the only offering he could make to the planet of his birth, and in any event, he felt that he had to know.

Jonah chose to walk up to the top of the small hill that overlooked Sparta. The people followed, knowing that he was about to play his latest instrument for the first time. He had become something of a celebrity in his years here; moreso than on Earth, when he'd been known to only a tiny portion of musicians. When he reached the top of the hill, he softly tuned the violin, doing so as he always had, by ear alone.

In the valley below, the lights of Sparta glowed in the dry air, and in the sky above, the stars twinkled. Jonah had started learning the new constellations lately, the groupings chosen and named by the first generation of human children born on this world. He might have been able to pick out Sol in the night sky of New Ithaca, had he wished to – but now, it didn't matter. Jonah Wilhelm lifted his violin to his chin, lifted the bow, and for the first time in more than fifty Earth years – since he'd been on Earth at all – he played Bach's Partita in E for solo violin.

Thus sounded the greatest violin in the Universe, uniting again the principles of Stradivari with the music of Bach, both carried to the stars by Jonah Wilhelm. The Partita in E, played for the ending of a world, and the birth of the new.


1 comment:

Geoff Valentine said...

I really enjoyed this story. Thanks!