Personal history

One day Lia passed through the pink noise generated by the dampers and heard something different. Like her first impressions of the big man it was alien, calming … and curiously attractive. The cadences of unaccompanied human voices swirled about her as she stood and let the beauty of the unfamiliar polyphonic singing fill her up. Eventually the sound faded away. She didn’t remember closing her eyes as she concentrated on the sounds but she must have done. She blinked, became alert again as Gihon peered at her then turned to an equally concerned looking Jensson folded up tight on one of the chairs.

“… and she’s back with us.” Gihon delicately patted her hand and guided her to sit on the sofa, sat by her side and continued to watch her carefully for a moment. “Don’t worry; the Stabat Mater Dolorosa can get people like that the first time. Sorry, should have put a warning on the door … ah, no door, I keep forgetting that.” He smiled his apology. A soft handkerchief appeared from somewhere inside his layers of clothes and was put into her hand. She looked at it, not comprehending the meaning of the square of cloth. “Dry your tears. You’ll be ok in a few minutes. I guess I’ll leave the old man to explain what that was.” Then he was gone, a long fall of hair catching on her shoulder as he rose and left. Gihon didn’t notice it but Dave saw the slight shiver as he brushed passed the young woman, the unconscious way her nostrils flared to catch the hint of him in the air.

“It seems we have a new subject for the day. Slightly out of scope but I have no problem with that. We start with one voice raised in worship two millennia ago.” A single voice issued from speakers, words in the same unknown language rising and falling, soaring as if to heaven. Jensson listened to the voice, as if gathering his thoughts, bathing in the crystal tones. “There is a wealth of information; this tablet has links and all the recordings I have ever found but I will give you a quick précis before I go. Most documented music of the European early middle ages was religious, which at the time meant the Catholic Church. Starting from the Roman Rite there was plainsong and then a form known as Gregorian Chant. In the twelve century a Prioress in an obscure part of what would become Germany wrote songs of such range and beauty many believed it to be directly inspired by God. What you are listening to now is a piece by Hildegard of Bingen, written over two thousand years ago.

“One voice became many, the patterns more complex, but always meant to reflect the glory of the deity, to be a feather on the breath of God. This was the predominant mode of worship in the liturgy of monasteries and the Church of the day. The Mass became a compositional form with orchestrations of such finesse that they could move many to tears such as the Pergolesi you walked in on. Anyway, society changed and the liturgy with it. Orchestral and choral music continued but Gregorian Chant became marginalised and largely forgotten. There were brief revivals as the world searched for beauty to re-affirm the soul against the brutalism of modernity, to find themes to evoke the past, even to re-use in sexualised variants for popular culture.”

The high clear voice – Lia couldn’t tell if it was a woman or a boy – was ended with a keystroke. Jensson seemed to be weighing what to say next. More gentle taps of his long fingers and a new voice began. It repeated the same song, but this was a man’s voice with a wild, rougher edge. The striving, sometimes cracked, tones reflected effort, a struggle to attain the flawless adoration of the first singer.

“One thing that happened after the Collapse was a return to faith. It was not so strong over here but in some areas of Europe it took hold as people sought meaning after the decadent west was proved to be an empty promise. The rise of new forms of fundamentalist faith dotted around in nationalistic enclaves also latched onto these early sources of worship and plainsong and chant returned in pockets of grace.” Briefly he closed his eyes. He seemed to be remembering something, his thin face haunted by the yearning evident in the wild voice. Lia shivered in the comfortable warmth of the Library. To her the voice was heartbreak, not faith, in audible form.

“You know, when I first met him he was … like a work of art, a masterpiece in flesh. I recorded this some years later, decades after he’d realised that he couldn’t accept the life that his society demanded of him. I can’t imagine the impact it would have had if he’d sung it as a boy, when he still tried to fit in. If they had found him in time I have no doubt his Church would have tried to take his manhood to keep the original voice intact.”

“Who?” The question was a whisper. Jensson sounded to have gone to some different present than the one they were both sharing in the Library. Lia couldn’t place the voice, why should she recognise it … unless … unless … Without conscious reasoning she felt the answer inside her even before he continued.

“Gihon’s route out from his home was a difficult one. He still carries some of the scars of his upbringing. I know you hear it. A man’s past can be a raw and painful place.” The man was known for laughing and cursing and his pointless lust, and sometimes even his moods. Never for exposing himself in such an intimate manner. Even as Lia wondered what the big man must have been through Jensson continued on, the revelation left as an aside – unacknowledged.

“This is the form I remember hearing before anything else, my father would play it when he talked to me. It was playing when I was finally able to talk back to him.” The woman was confused, she didn’t know what to say, or even if she was meant to say anything. The things he said to her sometimes in the privacy of their space intrigued her. She had kept his rare intimacies to herself. He raised an eyebrow as she kept her face neutral. “Oh, you must have heard that rumour or variations of it. That one, at least, is true. I was in a coma for most of the start of my life, pretty much fully grown before I could talk or walk. My father would sit with me and tell me about the outside world, thousands of words spoken to someone he just hoped was listening. He never gave up on me …” his face clouded briefly “… sometimes I used to wonder if that had been such a good idea. Still, that was a long time ago, lots of water under very many bridges since then.”

They sat peacefully and allowed the voice to come to the end of the piece, each within their own thoughts. Lia had no clue what Jensson might have been thinking, he was away somewhere in the strange world that was his past.

“I’ll leave you with this.” The woman refocused as the tablet was passed to her hands. “Read as much as you want, listen to as much as you want – if you want to go back to the Stabat Mater I’d recommend listening to the Palestrina arrangement, it’s slightly earlier than the Pergolesi that Gihon favours but I like it. Any of the Tallis is nice.” A small data chip appeared in his hand, the crystalline surface shimmering briefly as he slid it into the side of the tablet. “I take it I can count on your discretion. If you get tired of people worshipping God you will find a personal folder on there with more of Gihon if you want. Everything in it is honest, in its own way, but definitely not all as good for the soul as the Hildegard of Bingen.” He patted her on the shoulder as he left. “I’ll be back later, time to answer questions after you’ve had some thinking space.”