Music of the Spheres

By Nina Shepardson

From the #16 Oct 2021 issue of CHM

Ian paced back and forth in front of the swath of black velvet hung on the wall. He laid a piece of engraved bronze against a spot on the velvet, held it there for a few seconds, then removed it and put it somewhere else. After ten minutes of indecision, he fastened the piece in place and stepped back to survey the effect.

A dozen seven-pointed metallic stars, criss-crossed with elegant curves, dotted the velvet. The impression of a brilliant night sky was exactly what he’d hoped for.

* * *

The clock in his studio read 2:45am by the time Ian finished the last sculpture. He pulled his safety goggles off, rejoicing in the feeling of cool air on the skin around his eyes.

Under the track lighting, the pieces for his first solo exhibit gleamed like sunlight on the ocean. Palm-sized sheets of bronze, cut into a variety of geometric shapes, hung suspended from metal rods or were wired together to form planes or cubes or spheres. Each was marked by lines and curves that joined together to form a unifying pattern for the whole object.

Despite his exhaustion, Ian smiled in satisfaction. The first piece in what critics were calling his Chladni series had opened doors for him. His greatest fear upon reaching this new level of renown hadn’t been about deadlines or incompetent movers breaking a piece or unforeseen disasters derailing the whole show. It had been that greater exposure and opportunity would reveal his work as mediocrity. There was no risk of that now. Let one of the pieces fall apart five minutes after the exhibit opened! Let a hurricane demolish the gallery! Let a pack of teenage vandals sneak in after hours and rip everything down! No matter what happened, Ian would always remember this moment, would always know—even if no one else did—that he had succeeded in creating beauty.

Ian bent over his workbench to turn off the soldering iron, then straightened up again. He’d seen something shift from the corner of his eye. Did one of the wires come loose? He scrutinized the sculpture, which featured hexagonal and pentagonal segments wired together in an arrangement intended to suggest a soccer ball. As far as he could tell, everything was in its proper place. The lines engraved on the shapes matched up perfectly, creating an intricate arabesque that flowed across the whole work.

There it was again! A hint of movement, obscured by the bronze plates. Ian leaned in closer to peer through the gap between a pentagon and the neighboring hexagon. Inside the sphere they formed, patches of light and shadow slid over one another.

God, I’m tired. Ian shook his head. It was three in the morning and he’d forgotten to eat dinner; of course he was seeing things. He put his equipment away, turned off the lights, and headed for his bedroom.

* * *

“Your first piece used Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, is that right?” Marianne Hoffsteder, arts correspondent for the city newspaper, poked at her tablet, then looked up at Ian with arched eyebrows.

“Yes, that’s right. Of course, when Ernst Chladni pioneered the technique, he rubbed a violin bow across the edge of the metal plates. It’s a lot more efficient to just have speakers playing the music. That also lets me watch the patterns for a whole piece—like Eine Kleine—and choose the ones I like best. But the principle is the same: the resonance causes the plate to vibrate, which moves the sand I’ve laid across the surface. It gathers along lines where the plate doesn’t vibrate—mathematicians call them nodal lines—to make the patterns.”

Marianne nodded. Her red hair was tied back in a bun so tight it looked as if it was pulling her skin taut. “And you take pictures of those patterns and use them to permanently engrave the plates?”

“Right again.” Ian had given a great deal of thought to how he wanted to appear at the exhibit opening. He didn’t want to look like the stereotypical artist who was so caught up in “decontextualizing the fundamental nature of reality” that he couldn’t be bothered to make sure his shirt was on right-side out. Neither did he want to appear too successful. Some of the people who could determine whether his work reached a wider audience would consider that a sign that he’d sold out. He’d chosen a button-down shirt and slacks that were without stains or tears but clearly weren’t new, either.

“And how do you create the impression of movement within the enclosed sculptures?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, your piece World Cup, for example. The one with the nodal lines created by vuvuzela music. How do you make it look as though there’s something moving inside the sphere?”

Ian’s brain, having confirmed that it was correctly interpreting the message received by his ears, scrambled to formulate a coherent response. She saw that too? It was real? “Oh, that!” he said. “Yes, well, there’s a funny story about that. It was initially an accident. After I finished constructing World Cup, I noticed that the lighting in my studio created a sort of optical illusion within the confines of the structure. So of course, I tried to replicate that lighting here in the installation. I feel it adds an extra dimension to the work.”

* * *

Ian stared at his latest creation over steepled fingers. It was his biggest yet, large enough that he could barely get his arms around it. He had left a gap between the panels on one side. The piece was positioned so that one of the track lights shone in through the gap, chasing away all shadows.

He couldn’t pretend it was a trick of the light or an optical illusion anymore. Something was moving inside the sphere.

Once, when he was in elementary school, Ian’s class had made a substance called gack. It looked like a liquid until you started moving it around. You could tip it from one hand to the other without any of it spilling, only to watch it dissolve into a puddle when you kept it still. At the time, it had seemed like magic, and Ian had proudly announced to his parents that his teacher was a witch. Now, he knew it was just a mix of corn starch and water, but looking at whatever was inside his sculpture, he was transported back to that childhood moment of wide-eyed wonder.

The air inside the structure was flowing. Glopping, to use the word he’d employed when describing the gack to his parents. It looked thick and viscous, and his view of the bronze plates behind it was distorted.

Ian stalked from one end of his studio to the other. He peered into corners, shone the track lights at the wall, the floors, other sculptures. The gackified air only appeared within the enclosed piece.

“So, what’s different?” he whispered. At the show, several people had repeated Marianne’s comment about the “optical illusion” in World Cup. No one had seen it in Night Music or any of the other pieces that didn’t create a full three-dimensional boundary around a central space.

Okay, so that was the difference. But why? From across the room, Ian gazed at his newest masterpiece. From here, it was easier to see the lines carved on the plates merging into a single large shape.

It looked like a net. Or a cage.

* * *

Over the next few months, Ian constructed several more pieces in which the strange distortion could be seen. When he wasn’t designing, etching, or soldering, he was reading. He already knew that sound waves at the proper pitch could have effects on physical objects, as in the famous example of the opera singer shattering a wine glass with her voice. His research taught him that certain combinations of waves could build upon or negate each other.

A vague theory started to take shape in the back of his mind. Chladni figures imprinted sound waves onto solid objects, fixing them in place. Was it possible that pairs of solidified waves could cancel each other out and that enclosing a space in such pairs left a void within? But what’s moving that would only be visible in such a void?

He got more food for thought when he left a rock in the middle of his latest piece. It was an ordinary grey stone he’d picked up off the ground at a local park. He wanted to know whether the currents of…whatever it was…would flow around the rock or through it. At first, they seemed to divert around it. Then he noticed its deep grey color lightening until the stone was translucent, like a lump of glass.

And before his eyes, that lump began to dissolve.

Bits of the rock’s surface peeled away, joining the glutinous, sloshing air around it. Within a few minutes, it was completely gone.

* * *

Ian shaded his eyes and took in the fields that stretched away to the horizon.

“Pretty impressive sight, isn’t it?” The woman walking up to him looked younger than she had on their FaceTime calls.

“It sure is. And all this is part of your vineyard?”

The woman nodded. “Obviously, these grapes won’t be making actual wine anytime soon, because of the fermentation and aging process. But we do have batches started by the previous owners that’ll be ready for bottling in about four months. We’ll be opening the winery to tours when we launch the new brand, and I’d love to have the sculpture completed by then. As we talked about on the phone, I’d also like to discuss licensing rights for a stylized image we can put on our bottles.”

The woman’s name was Hyeon, and she had been a computer programmer specializing in A.I. before she’d become a vintner. Google had bought her startup for a truly ridiculous amount of money, some of which she’d used to buy a bankrupt winery. “A lot of people say art and science don’t mix,” she’d told Ian during their first conversation, “but I think that’s a load of bull. I heard about your work from a friend, and it sounds like you understand that too.”

Ian had said something agreeable and tried not to look like one of those cartoon characters whose eyeballs turned into dollar signs.

Then Hyeon had told him about the piece she proposed for him to build outside the main entrance. She wanted a sphere eight feet in diameter. He’d done a quick mental calculation of how much bronze that would require and how much time it would take to build, extrapolated a price based on what he’d charged for the smaller pieces, and named the figure. Hyeon had agreed without any hesitation and offered to pay for his airfare and lodging.

Ian was pretty sure his attempt to not look like a dollar-sign-eyeballs character had failed miserably at that point.

Standing under the warm sun of Napa Valley, it was hard to believe in weird non-Newtonian flows of the air in the center of his sculptures. Ian was glad Hyeon either hadn’t heard about the “optical illusion” or hadn’t felt the need to ask. Listening to her talk about more detailed specifications, he could almost convince himself that he wouldn’t see it here.

* * *

The sun had just set and Venus hung low in the sky. Ian stepped back from the sphere. It was almost done, but he didn’t want to risk ruining anything by trying to work in the dark.

The one remaining gap was at eye level and about the size of Ian’s head. The network of wires and plates on the other side was visible but dim. In front of it, a gentle breeze stirred the… empty air?

No, Ian realized. The movement inside the sculpture wasn’t the same as the motion he’d been seeing in his peripheral vision the whole time he was working. It wasn’t wind stirring the grape vines or flocks of birds taking flight. He’d become inured to those blurs of motion through the long days working outdoors, and they had tricked him into not seeing what was right in front of his face.

Here, inside the largest of his creations, was the same strange congealed air he’d seen on a smaller scale in all the others.

There was movement on the other side of the structure too, but that was different. That was the natural scampering of a mouse. Whiskers twitching, it sniffed at a couple of the plates, squeezed between them, and began exploring the cement platform in which the sculpture was anchored.

Oh, great. Now I’m going to have to figure out how to clean mouse turds out of this thing. Ian wasn’t so naïve as to think any outdoor installation would remain pristine forever, but it was always good to let the customer have that impression. Maintaining it would become Hyeon’s problem once he’d collected his check and flown back home.

The mouse’s whiskers were light grey and so thin as to be almost nonexistent. As Ian watched, they did disappear, and that was when he remembered what had happened to the rock.

He had no love for mice, but he stamped his foot, hoping to scare it out of the globe. Instead, it hunkered down. That might have saved it from a hawk or cat, but it was no defense against whatever existed inside the net of Chladni figures. Color and solidity drained from the animal until it dissolved into the roiling current.

Ian stumbled backward and tripped over his pair of wire cutters. He sat down hard, but managed to put his hands out and keep himself from sprawling full-length on the grass. His head was tipped back so he looked up into the darkening sky. It was dotted with stars, but between those stars were vast empty spaces. He’d never heard anyone talk about stars making sound, but surely, they did: whooshing gas, crackling flames, tiny whomps of colliding atoms. But where there were no stars, those sounds would be absent. Like the old movie tagline said: in space no one can hear you scream.

If everything from rocks to mice to the air itself broke down into amorphous nothing when sound waves were solidified and placed opposite each other, negating each other’s influence, what happened where there was no sound to begin with? Were there places where reality just dissolved into goop?

* * *

Ian sat up in bed. He was too high up, and the walls were the wrong color, and the abstract sculpture in the corner was missing.

Then his conscious mind dredged up memories of the past few weeks. Hyeon’s commission, his flight out here on her private jet, the fancy hotel suite she’d put him up in. The long hours cutting and scoring metal, positioning pieces, twisting wire. The sense of satisfaction and pride as In Vino Veritas had taken shape. The corruption of that satisfaction into horror as the mouse deliquesced before his eyes.

It was bad enough to imagine that reality might break down if you went far enough out. Now, despite the sunlight streaming in through the gauzy curtains, an even worse idea occurred to him. What if that colorless, formless goop was reality? Maybe every laugh and sob, every clap of thunder and gust of wind, all the music from Mozart to Metallica, was a framework that forced the cosmic sludge into the definite shapes of the observable world. What he had envisioned as a breakdown might just be an escape from artificial constraints, a return to nature’s purest form.

He threw back the fluffy blanket and got out of bed, but instead of preparing for another day’s work, he wandered around the suite. Should I even go back? He could claim some sudden emergency, maybe an illness or a nervous breakdown. He’d have to refund most of Hyeong’s money, of course, and he’d be risking damage to his reputation. But how could he go through with it, suspecting what he did?

No! Stop that! “Suspecting” wasn’t the right word at all. “Suspecting” was a weasel-word, like when a politician said he couldn’t recall something. Ian had always hated that kind of behavior, and he’d be damned if he was going to start doing it himself.

“Knowing” was the right word. How could he go through with it, knowing what he knew?

The mouse, though. What if it hadn’t been just a mouse? What if it had been someone’s pet? Or someone’s child? The remaining gap in the structure probably wasn’t big enough for a kid to climb through, but sticking a hand in was certainly a possibility. You stick your left hand in, and it don’t come out, do the hokey-pokey.

Dismantling it wasn’t a viable option, either. He had made the connections between the plates strong enough to weather rain and wind, so it would take some time to pull them apart. There was no way Hyeon would fail to notice, and he couldn’t explain it without sounding insane. She could have him escorted off her property before he completed the demolition, and leaving a larger hole would be even more dangerous.

No, he would just have to finish it. Finish it and go home and hope that no more critters crawled into it while anyone was watching. The distortion itself could be dismissed as an optical illusion, as had happened for all the smaller versions. He would deny any further requests he got, maybe even make a public statement that the Chladni series was finished and he was moving on to other things.

Ian got dressed, collected his gear, and shuffled out to his rental car like a squire going to face the dragon that had eaten his master. He remembered rolling a ball of gack in his hands, letting it pool and drip and coat his fingers. He pictured stars and planets coalescing from it for a while, then subsiding back into the slime.

He imagined faces in it.


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