It started with the music, just one piece, jarring and experimental, played on the radio one summer afternoon by a pair of disc jockeys with little better to do. An unknown artist had composed it, an eccentric living in some basement apartment in Paris. It was easy to imagine them crouched before their computer, wild-haired, white-coated, jittering and electric; a parent in a birthing pool of subterranean darkness.
This anonymous musician had offered their magnum opus to any radio station that would play it, spurning the too-modern platform of streaming sites completely. One day, perhaps, they’d be bullied and cajoled into accessibility, like every other modern artist, but not then. It was neither wanted nor needed; that single, balmy afternoon was the moment, that first, infamous broadcast breaking over the heads of a thousand local listeners like a rain of glass.
It came from speakers and electronic devices all over the city via the softest vocals, so indistinct that listeners maximised the volume in curiosity and irritation. A moment later the dials were reversed again as the music suddenly became loud, soaring. Its words, now accompanied by murmuring strings, were still incomprehensible, sounding almost like English at times, then only nonsense sounds, vowels and consonants made instrument.
Somewhere a professor in ancient languages smiled and tapped her fingers, thinking she’d heard a phrase in a dead tongue, sung back into life:
“You would not hear my voice; you will listen now, and live unsound.”
The strings, which most listeners had presumed to be the violin, grew shrill, fraught. They seemed more like human voices now, had such possessed the ability to extend so high, and with such tragedy.
Listeners wept, and shared their thoughts online through impassioned reviews.
Then, with all hearing enraptured, entrapped, the music changed. The vocals became coarse, guttural, the strings squalling beyond discordance. Animal bellows and howls emerged between each stranded note, their distress somehow melodic, an earworm devouring from the inside.
Then began the sobs and screams, male and female and neither, others childlike, artfully aligned with the dominant voice so that they did not overshadow it, only complimented, beautiful in their horror. Pleasure sounds erupted amongst them, recordings of vicious delight and toppling orgasm pealing with the pomp of trumpet fare, and the shiver of the theremin.
One might have expected the listeners to have scrambled to switch the music off, covered their children’s ears or even their own, and some tried, at first, their clammy fingers struggling for purchase. But hands fell limp, twitching at their sides as they listened, and listened, compelled, over-stimulated to the point of pain but unable to stop.
As the song continued listeners collapsed to the floor in convulsions of ecstatic delirium, the sounds emerging from their chosen device skimming every nerve. Toes and fingers clenched, hips bucked, and people lying side by side fell upon each other in foaming, voracious need to feel skin, to taste sweat and ejaculate and spittle, as if some base mammalian quarter of the mind had gleaned such desire from those ceaseless chords.
Vehicles collided with walls, one another, and people in the street, killing wherever they struck, the listeners knowing nothing but pleasure even beyond death, their consciousness’ joined in some plane of sonic delight. Those who hadn’t heard the music found themselves oppressed by those who had, pleading uselessly against eyes flared wide and senseless as a slaughterhouse animal’s. Some were forced to listen, headphones jammed against bleeding ears so that they, too, might be in bliss rather than struggle beneath their attackers.
As the music continued, altered, and grew so did the mood of its acolytes. From thoughtless joy they fell to motions of rage, incensed by lyrics only they could interpret. Children pierced knives into the bellies of their mothers, parents drowned infants in their baths. Lovers who had never known a quarrel wrapped perspiring hands around one another’s throats and squeezed until both parties were wretched and gasping.
Most listeners aimed to injure rather than kill- without life none would exist to hear the music, after all -but their attacks were grisly, operatic, Shakespearean in their details. Eyes plucked like poppy heads and left to dangle on fleshy threads, teeth shattered inwards by fervent knuckles and swallowed. People swayed and thrashed and brutalised all they loved in thrall to the music, which continued for its sixth minute undisturbed.
From shrieking apoplexy the song, at last, became mournful again, the many voices dissolving into sobs and howls of grief. It was as if every sadness and suffering that had ever existed in the world had been composed into a symphony, and that symphony devolved into an element of pure, contagious sorrow.
Some listeners wept into their hands, others, numbed into desolation, took blades to their wrists or throats, bleeding their misery away. An overwhelming majority were paralysed by their sadness, lying, sallow as vampire-bitten maidens, soiling themselves as they lay, the very thought of standing pointless in its vacuity.
Soon the peaceable August Thursday was punctured all over by the cries of the distressed, those who had not or could not hear nonplussed and frightened by the event.
But at last some observers, realising the cause of the madness, were able to switch off the song whenever it played, freeing those around them from its noose. They were few, at first, for such a phenomenon had never been recorded before and seemed scientifically impossible. Yet as the dirge trailed on with corpses in its wake there was no choice but to believe, and thus take immediate action.
Ears were plugged, children barricaded into soundproofed rooms without access to any devices, and the radio station, still broadcasting despite desperate calls for it to end, was stormed, trashed, until the music ground to a wheezing halt on its accomplice machines.
At twenty minutes and twenty-two seconds the music was at its end. A song of such length should never have seen radio play, nor would have, under normal circumstances. The DJs responsible for its airtime could not answer for it; they had hung themselves in their studio halfway through the event, piss dripping down their legs and pooling on the toes of their shoes.
As for the listeners- what was there to do but pick themselves up, strengthless, trembling and ashamed? They washed away the song like the blood from their hands, but they could not forget it. They had raped, maimed and killed to that tune, and the worst of it was that it was catchy. A listener might hum or whistle a strand and find themselves frozen, even that bare copy sparking a momentary repeat of what they had mindlessly felt and desired.
Attempts were made to find the composer, both by police and aggrieved listeners, but every phone number reached a dead line, the address of the infamous Paris apartment dust-gathered and as cold as memorial stone. The musician’s name, discovered in emails to several radio stations, was false, a joke in Latin, something about feathers. Clearly the artist had anticipated the response to their creation and had prepared their flight well in advance.
Thus although many lay dead or maimed there was no justice to be had. There were too many people who had reacted to the violent song to be arrested and besides, the listeners were not generally seen by the public to be at fault, being as much victims as the dead.
Theories arose as to the cause of their behaviour- mass hypnotism or hysteria, some hidden pitch that triggered animal instinct, a subliminal message in its lyric-less words. But without any records surviving to study its true means were inconclusive, every copy that had been sent out either destroyed or revealing nothing but white noise.
There were rumours of a tape out there, somewhere, intact, innocuous, worth billions. The Dark Web was afloat with advertisements, most but a coy sham. Several people on various online message boards claimed to own the record, threatening to release it on every website in the world, although they never did. This led to outcry from listeners damaged from what the song had made them do, and a rabid need to posses it in those who yearned to hear it again.
The majority of those survivors were addicts, shuddering through a parched withdrawal. All other music was stale in comparison, the ghost of a ghost of its melody.
It was almost ten years later that the composer came forward, delivering an interview to a random newspaper with no particular standing. Their story wasn’t an unusual one: a young student with a dream of becoming something more. A dream had never seemed to come, until it did.
The music, they alleged, had been delivered to them in a drug-infused vision by an individual- or individuals -whom they refused to name. This person had instructed the artist on every sonic element, how it was to be played, how it should be heard, every detail predetermined to the last detail. The composer had readily agreed, for after a great period of artistic drought they’d been delighted to be offered the gift of writing again.
It was last piece of music they had ever made, both their masterpiece and their greatest regret.
They had spent the last decade strung out on the end of a needle, trying and failing to usher away the whispers that had driven them to create it. Soon, the artist claimed, they would put an end to their life, dousing the hellscape that it had become. They had been warned that they would be notorious, even hated, but they hadn’t known- could not have known -what that would mean.
It was too much.
But their own anguish was no reason to hold back art from its audience. Being in possession of the only working file of their work, the composer announced that they would play it, one last time, to an unnamed audience. Here the interviewer made an attempt to interject, asking when or where, which the elusive artist declined to answer.
Their final statement was that they were sorry, but that they could not stop. It was their purpose to create, and to share that creation; they were as incarcerated by it as any who had suffered from that song.
The world, anticipating chaos, erupted in panic. For months everyone waited, languishing on a cliff-hanger with no visible end. There were suicides from those who could not bear to endure such rapture again, celebrations thrown by those who had waited long to receive it. But months of bated breath crept into a year, years into another decade, and still the song did not play.
Then, suddenly, almost grudgingly, a track by an unnamed artist appeared on all of the major streaming sites in the world, free of charge to any who wished to listen. Its title, a series of letters and numbers, was decoded by curious hobbyists only minutes before it mysteriously vanished again, and long after many an innocent finger had already pressed play.
But the track’s title was only gibberish, a nonsense word: it meant nothing, after all, if