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What If Music Were the Key to Another World?

In Greg Bear's "The Infinity Concerto," an infamous melody carries an aspiring poet into a place of magic and myth...


The best music can transport us, connect us, or change our moods. Songs can resurface old memories. A favorite album can turn terrible days into good ones. It's true that music possesses its own sort of power—but what if the limits of that power stretched beyond reality, and into another world?

This is the central plot of Greg Bear's fantasy novel The Infinity Concerto. While chatting with film score composer Arno Waltiri, Infinity's protagonist Michael Perrin learns of the music legend’s glittering career. Most notable, Arno says, was his collaboration with the eccentric David Clarkham decades before. Together, they wrote the beautiful—and extremely controversial—Infinity concerto, which somehow put its listeners into a trance. Lawsuits ensued, and audience members mysteriously vanished shortly thereafter. Clarkham himself was not far behind, leaving Arno to pick up the pieces—left with only a mysterious key to explain his departure.

So why did people disappear after the concert? What sort of power was unleashed by the melody, and where did Clarkham go? These questions send Michael on a fantastical quest for answers, where he's carried by the unfathomable powers of music into a place of magic and myth...

Read on for an excerpt from The Infinity Concerto, and then download the book. 




The Infinity Concerto

Michael closed the book. “It’s not all nonsense,” Waltiri said, returning the tattered volume to the shelf. “That is roughly what happened. And then, months later, twenty people disappear. The only thing they have in common is, they were in the audience for our music.” He looked at Michael and lifted his eyebrows. “Most of us live in the real world, my young friend...but David Clarkham... I am not so sure. The first time I saw him, coming out of the wet with his suit so dry, I thought to myself, ‘The man must walk between raindrops.’ The last time I saw him, in July of 1944, it was also raining. Two years before, he had bought a house a few blocks from here. We didn’t see each other often. But this wet summer day he comes to stand on our porch and gives me a key. ‘I’m going on a trip,’ he says. ‘You should have this, in case you ever wish to follow me. The house will be taken care of.’ Very mysterious. With the key there is a piece of paper.”

Waltiri took a small teak box from the top of the bookshelf and held it before Michael, pulling up the lid. Inside was a yellowed, folded paper, and wrapped partly within, a tarnished brass house key. “I never followed him. I was curious, but I never had the courage. And besides, there was Golda. How could I leave her? But you...you are a young man.”

“Where did Clarkham go?” Michael asked.

“I don’t know. The last words he said to me, he says, ‘Arno, should you ever wish to come after me, do everything on the paper. Go to my house between midnight and two in the morning. I will meet you.” He removed the note and key from the box and gave them to Michael. “I won’t live forever. I will never follow. Perhaps you.”

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  • Photo Credit: Nietjuh / Pixabay

Michael grinned. “It all sounds pretty weird to me.”

“It is very weird, and silly. That house—he told me he did a great deal of musical experimentation there. I heard very little of it. As I said, we weren’t close after the premiere of the concerto. But once he told me, ‘The music gets into the walls in time, you know. It haunts the place.’

“He was a brilliant man, Michael, but he—how do you say it?—he ‘screwed me over.’ I took the blame for the concerto. He left for two years. I settled the lawsuits. Nothing was ever decided in court. I was nearly broke.

“He had made me write music that affects the way a person thinks, as drugs affect the brain. I have written nothing like it since.”

“What will happen if I go?”

“I don’t know,” Waltiri said, staring at him intently. “Perhaps you will find what lives above or below the things we know.”

“I mean, if something happened to me, what would my parents think?”

“There comes a time when one must disregard the thoughts of one’s parents, or the warnings of old men, when caution must be temporarily put aside and instincts followed. In short, when one must rely on one’s own judgment.” He opened another door in the bookcase. “Now, my young friend, before we become sententious, I’ve been thinking there is one other thing I’d like to give to you. A book. One of my favorites.” He pulled out a pocket-sized book bound in plain, shiny black leather and held it out for Michael.

"Perhaps you will find what lives above or below the things we know."

“It’s very pretty,” Michael said. “It looks old.”

“Not so very old,” Waltiri said. “My father bought it for me when I left for California. It’s the finest poetry, in English, all my favorites. A poet should have it. There is a large selection of Coleridge. You’ve read him, I’m sure.”

Michael nodded.

“Then, for me, read him again.”

Two weeks later, Michael was swimming in the backyard pool when his mother stepped out on the patio with a delicate walk and a peculiar expression. She nervously brushed back a strand of her red hair and shielded her eyes against the sun. Michael stared at her from poolside, his arm flesh goose-bumping. He almost knew.

“That was Golda on the phone,” she said. “Arno’s dead.”

There was no funeral. Waltiri’s ashes were placed in a columbarium at Forest Lawn. There were features on his death in the newspaper and on television.

That had been six weeks before. Michael had last spoken with Golda two days ago. She had sat on the piano bench in her front room, straight-backed and dignified, wearing a cream-colored suit, her golden hair immaculately coifed. Her accent was more pronounced than her husband’s.

“He was sitting right here, at the piano,” she said, “and he looked at me and said, ‘Golda, what have I done, I’ve given that boy Clarkham’s key. Call his parents now.’ And his arm stiffened... He said he was in great pain. Then he was on the floor.” She looked at Michael earnestly. “But I did not tell your parents. He trusted you. You will make the right decision.”

She sat quietly for a time, then continued. “Two days later, a tiny brown sparrow flew into Arno’s study, where the library is now. It sat on the piano and plucked at pieces of sheet music. Arno had once made a joke about a bird being a spirit inside an animal body. I tried to shoo it out the window, but it wouldn’t go. It perched on the music stand and stayed there for an hour, twisting its head to stare at me. Then it flew away.” She began to cry. “I would dearly love for Arno to visit me now and then, even as a sparrow. He is such a fine man.” She wiped her eyes and hugged Michael tightly, then let him go and straightened his jacket.

“He trusted you,” she had repeated, tugging gently at his lapel. “You will know what is best.”

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  • Photo Credit: Zoltan Tasi / Unsplash

Now he stood on the porch of Clarkham’s house, feeling resigned if not calm. Night birds sang in the trees lining the street, a sound that had always intrigued him for the way it carried a bit of daylight into the still darkness.

He couldn’t say precisely why he was there. Perhaps it was tribute to a good friend he had known for so short a time. Had Waltiri actually wanted him to follow the instructions? It was all so ambiguous.

He inserted the key in the lock.

To discover what is above or below.

He turned the key.

Music haunts the place now.

The door opened quietly.

Michael entered and shut the door tight behind him. The brass workings clicked.

Walking straight in the darkness was difficult. He brushed against a wall with his shoulder. The touch set off an unexpected bong, as if he were inside a giant bell. He didn’t know if he had crossed a room or made his way down a hall, but he bumped against another door, fumbled for the knob, and found it. The door opened easily and silently. To Michael’s left in the room beyond was another doorway leading into a smaller room. Moonlight spilled through French doors like milk on the bare wood floor. All the rooms were empty of furniture.

The French doors opened onto a bare brick patio and a desolate yard, with a brick wall beyond. The door handles felt like ice in his hands.

He exited from the rear of Clarkham’s house. A flagstone path curved around the outside to the side gate. When he had entered the front door there had been no moon, but now a sullen green orb rose over the silhouettes of the houses on the opposite side of the street. It didn’t cast much light. (And yet, the moonlight through the French doors had been bright...) The streetlights were also strangely dim, and yellowish-green in color.

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There were fewer trees than he remembered, and those leafless and skeletal. The air smelled antiseptic, electric and mildewy at once, as if it had been preserved and then had spoiled for lack of use. The sky closed in, pitch black and starless. Through the windows of the houses across the street came fitful brown glimmers, not at all like electric lights or television. More like dull reflections from dried blood.

He walked gingerly across the dried, patchy grass to the front door of the house on the left. As predicted in the instructions, the door had been left open a crack. Warm, welcoming light poured in a narrow shaft from within. He pushed the door open with a damp palm.

Entering, Michael saw a small table perched alertly on delicately curved legs on the polished wood floor of the hallway. A brass bowl on the table presented fruit: oranges, apples, something blue and shiny. Down the hall about eight feet and to the left opened a rounded archway to the living room.

He closed the front door. It made a muffled, pillowy sound.

A faint mildewy smell issued from the walls and floor and hung in transparent wisps through the hall. Michael approached the archway, nose wrinkled. The house was lighted as if somebody lived there, but the only sound he heard was that of his own footsteps.

In the living room, a lone, high-backed, velvet-upholstered rocking chair occupied the middle of a broad circular throw rug before the dark fireplace. The throw rug resembled a target of concentric circles of tan and black. The chair faced away from Michael and rocked slowly back and forth. He couldn’t see who, if anybody, sat in it. He had just realized he was not following the instructions when the chair stopped rocking. It held steady for an unbearably long time. Then it began to swivel counter-clockwise.

Suddenly, Michael didn’t want to see what sat in the chair. He ran down the hall, around a short bend and into an empty room.

“Do not stop to look at anything,” the note had said. He had hesitated, he told himself, not stopped; still, he felt the need to be more cautious. He made sure no one followed, then departed the house through the rear door and found himself on yet another brick patio. To his left rose a white trellis arch overgrown with wisteria. Fireflies danced in oleander bushes to each side. Beyond the patio, glowing paper lanterns hung motionless over a stretch of empty flower beds.

Michael was startled to see someone sitting behind a glass-topped wrought-iron table under the wisteria trellis. Except for the wan flicker of the paper lanterns, there was little illumination, but he could make out that the person at the table wore a long dress, pale and flounced, and a broad hat. The face was obscured by inky shadow.

Michael stared hard at the seated figure, fascinated. Was someone supposed to meet him, take him farther? The note had said nothing about a woman waiting. He tried to discern the face beneath the hat.

The figure rose slowly from the chair. The jerky quality of its movement, a loose awkwardness, made his flesh crawl. He backed up, stumbled down the porch steps into the garden, and twisted around to fall on his face. For a second or two he lay stunned and breathless. Then he looked over his shoulder.

The figure had left the table. It stood at the top of the steps. Even hidden by the dress, every limb bent in the wrong places. He still couldn’t see the face beneath the hat.

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  • Photo Credit: Irudayum / Flickr (CC)

The figure took the first step down from the patio, and Michael jumped to his feet. The second, and he ran across the garden to the black wrought-iron gate at the rear. The latch opened easily and he swung from the gatepost, halting in the alley to get his bearings. “To the left,” he said, his breath ragged. He heard footsteps behind, the sound of the latch. Was it the fifth or sixth gate to the left? The alley was too dark to allow him to re-read the note, but he could make out gates in the obscurity—gates in the walls on both sides. Trees loomed thick and black above the opposite wall, leaves hushed, dead still.

He counted as he ran...two, three, four, five gates. He stopped again, then passed to the sixth.

A lock blocked the iron latch. He knew instinctively he couldn’t just climb over—if he did, he would find nothing but darkness on the other side. He fumbled frantically for the key in his pocket, the only key he had been given.

The figure in the flounced dress had closed the distance between them to six or seven yards. It lurched slowly and deliberately toward him as if it had all the time in the world.

The key fit the lock, but just barely. He had to jerk it several times. A sigh behind him, long and dry, and he felt cold pressure on his shoulder, the rasp of something light and brittle brushing his jacket sleeve—

Michael flinched, crouched, pushed the gate open with his forearm, and fell through. He crawled and scrambled across broken dirt and withered stubble, fell again, gravel digging into the flesh of his cheek. No use fleeing. He closed his eyes and clutched the crumbling clods and twigs, waiting.

The gate clanged shut and the latch fell into place with a snick.

Several seconds passed before he even allowed himself to think he hadn’t been followed. The quality of the air had changed. He rolled over and looked at the stone wall. The figure should have been visible above the wall, or through the openwork of the gate, but it wasn’t.

He let his breath out all at once. He felt safe now—safe for the moment, at least.

“It worked,” he said, standing and brushing off his clothes. “It really worked!” Somehow, he wasn’t all that elated. A strange thing had just happened, and he had been badly frightened.

It couldn’t have taken Michael more than fifteen minutes to do everything in the instructions, yet dawn was a hazy orange in the east.

He had crossed over. But to where?

Want to keep reading? Discover the rest of Michael's adventure by downloading The Infinity Concerto today!

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Body photos: Nietjuh / Pixabay; Zoltan Tasi / Unsplash; Irudayum / Flickr (CC)