From Clio Em‘s ‘LACE’ EP this is “Sarabande”, a meditative piece that incorporates fascinating musical statements within a well-poised set. It is one of four meditations on a steampunk world of musical mechanics.
As she releases the EP ‘Lace’, Clio Em also treats us to one of her sci-fi stories:
Today she is drinking mint tea.
She hasn’t had mint tea in a good two years. Long enough to miss it. The botanists always get to the mint plants first. For research. She’s seen the results of that research in the salons of the moneyed, when she passed unseen through rooms and retrieved books as the scent of mint arrogantly infused the swirls of heated water and made her head spin with envy.
It makes very little sense, this scarcity of mint. The planet feeds itself. Food grows. It isn’t difficult to grow mint. The aroma arrests her attention and pulls it away from this critical line of thought.
Green leaves float like a forest from another world. She squeezes lime directly from a diminutive and elegant green fruit into the water, then stirs, watching as water and juice combine in an aurora of near-nothing pale green. To amuse herself she leans over and peers into the glass from the side.
Someone peers back at her through the glass. She starts.
Oh, it’s you!
Of course it’s me. Who else would peer at you like that?
No one, I suppose. What are you doing here? I thought you were out of town.
I was, yes. He nods affirmation but does not elucidate further.
Do you like the seat I found?
In the window? Yes. You can look out onto the port.
Indeed they can; the airships are coming in. So many now. Smaller and sturdier than even the ones last year; they cope better with the winds. No more delays.
Do you like this view? She asks.
I like the view of you, he answers. Is that mint tea?
Yes. Would you like some?
No, I wouldn’t take that away from you.
You can only add to my happiness if you have some.
Is there honey?
There is honey. Another swirl joins the galaxy of leaves and lime and water, cooling now. New formations. They take turns sipping, watching the giant honeybees that are the airships. To and fro in the strengthening winds. The cold drafts are kept at bay by the lake of mint tea on their little island.
Story © 2015 Clio Em.
Why is putting pen to paper so difficult?
She’s read so many words on paper in the last two years. Perhaps that is why. It is a sort of ritual for her. And now she has an entire book filled with blank pages.
She doesn’t write with pen on paper, though. She always uses pencil, but today pencil will not do. With the utmost care, she tears a page from the notebook.
She begins. The awkwardness of this writing implement, so much more clumsy and unwieldy than what she is used to, slows her down.
She read something in one of the books the other day. How in one of the languages unknown to her, the word for spirit and the word for paper are very similar.
Sometimes she feels this entire place is inhabited by spirits. Spirits driving the airships, raising them up, dictating their fate. More and more angry, it seems, or at least capricious. Often merciful, though definitely ice or air spirits. Cold. Maybe from space, creatures that have not been discovered yet and move among us, learning and absorbing and affecting in small subtle ways.
She misses him, but it would not do to build up her life around him completely. He is in town and has not been to see her yet. Is he waiting for something? She is not sure. It would not do to call too often, but it would definitely do to write.
She cares about him.
She wants to write him this letter but no more words flow out of the pen onto the paper. It is terrifying to think that once the words are there, the spirit inside the paper will grow and take on a life of its own. This spirit will convey to him the words she wrote down, but perhaps something will be lost in translation. Perhaps he will not understand.
She must write it down.
She writes it down. Still, something is not quite right.
She sketches an airship for him.
There. Now the spirit in the paper is smiling.
She seals up the letter, dresses warmly, and drops it in a post box. On the way home she sees the cafe near the port is still open. A sign dangles tantalizingly. It seems a new shipment of herbs was brought in today. Tea, and lots of it, awaits.
The spirit in the paper is laughing from inside the post box. She walks into the cafe and closes the door behind her, shutting out its tinkling cries of glee.
Story & soundscape © 2015-2019 Clio Em.
TALES FROM NEW CANADA: “Science Fiction”
BY Clio Em
I’m an engineer. My main diet should be engines, but I live on books. And every day after I finish my tasks in the lab at New Canada Engines, I go book-hunting.
Books are printed on paper on New Canada, so it is not as difficult to gather a collection as on some of the other colony worlds, or even on Earth. The library here in New Toronto is immensely well-stocked and has provided me with inspiration. The local culture values books, and especially recently I’ve been noticing a proliferation of tiny bookshops popping up, selling everything from Austen to Zalania.
I am taking the long way home from the glider station one day – regretting my decision with each step against the crystal eruptions of snow suspended in a freezing wind – suspended until they hit my face, that is – when I spot a flash of dark fur in a shop window. A lucky flash of fur, indeed: a cat has squeezed its way between the windowpane and what looks to be a genuine paper edition of a score of the Fire Opera, a work by my favourite New Canada composer, Lauretta.
Of course I step into the shop. How could I not? Immediately, the furball pounces on my feet and attacks my shoelaces. I laugh. An woman about my age – late twenties in New Canada years, early thirties in Earth time – emerges from the back, carrying a mountain of books. Her unruly red hair is tied back nonchalantly and her dress is green with a full skirt. Not the fashion at the moment, but she pulls it off wonderfully.
“The cat’s not for sale,” she says with mock sternness.
I presume this is the shop owner. She seems to adore green – there is green trim along the bookcases and the window display and green lettering denoting various categories of books – music, colony planets, Earth, New Canada, and an odd little corner with different, bolder lettering. Science Fiction. That particular bookcase’s bottom shelf is devoid of books and is instead filled with green cushions. Perhaps to enhance the comfort of the little beast that is currently attacking my shoe?
“Actually, I was more interested in that score in your window…” The cat is insistent and bats at my leg. I bend down to pat him and he begins purring like a little engine. He might be louder than some of the engines in the lab at work.
“My cat seems to like you.”
“My name’s Asimov,” I reply, with uncharacteristic impulsiveness. I never strike up conversations with strangers, not even friendly shop owners. Usually I’m quite introverted. Usually. But now something compels me. I notice that the shop owner’s eyes are brilliant and laughing and full of sharp intelligence; that her hair creates a bright cloud of unruly red curls.
“Ah, a Historical Earth name,” she says, a smile pulling at her lips. Mine’s Corinne. “But Asimov is a last name. What’s your first name?”
“That’s my first name,” I reply ruefully. “My parents are from Earth but I don’t think they know how names work.” She fights to suppress a giggle.
“Ah,” she finally says, calming her features back to bland politeness. Why would this silly thing amuse her? She walks over and picks up the cat. In her arms he becomes completely docile. “Never been to Earth.”
“Oh, neither have I!” I exclaim, a little too loudly. “My parents never cared much for naming convention, or convention of any kind. The genre this author wrote in escapes me.” I close my mouth before I can ramble any more.
“Isaac Asimov wrote science fiction,” she provides, and gestures vaguely at the boldly lettered shelf to her side. “His narratives may seem quaint and outdated today but imagine reading that stuff in the context of his time. We didn’t have interstellar travel yet. We had just the one planet, too! The essence of some of his stories really cuts to the heart of the colony world experience.”
“I’m embarrassed that I know next to nothing about him,” I reply. A silence grows between us. I can hear the ticking of a clock. She saves me.
“Maybe you’re more of an opera lover.” I nod in agreement. “We have a reading desk in the back,” she tells me brightly. I want to take her up on it but hesitate a little too long. “And free coffee, and Asimov the cat to keep you company.”
“Your cat has the same name I do?” I must sound very dismayed. She laughs, this time out loud.
“I’m afraid so,” she replies.
“Won’t I bother you?” I ask.
“Do you see many other customers?” She counters. The shop is empty, save for us and the cat. “I’m still new to this bookshop game. I think I need to reorganize and make the display more appealing.”
“It was very appealing to me.”
“I know, but I’m pretty sure you’re one of a kind.” I grin, then realize it’s a very wide grin. Foolishly wide. Why not stay, though? I make myself at home at the desk. The feline Asimov stretches out on the smooth wooden surface, occasionally lying down on top of the Fire Opera. I good-naturedly push him off and he returns insistently. I keep turning the pages, marvelling at Lauretta’s beautiful notation. The bookshop’s clock strikes Evening Mark. No, not possible. I must get going.
“I think I’ll buy this opera score,” I say to her as I pass the counter on the way out.
“It’s yours without charge,” she replies, eyes twinkling.
“I… I can’t…”
“Accept it? Oh, you can, but only if you agree to my conditions.”
“There’s a performance of the Fire Opera at the theatre in two days. Buy the tickets, and I’ll consider it a fair trade. They cost the same as the book.”
“I love … I love opera!” I manage awkwardly.
“Thought you might, given that you spent an exceedingly long time looking at an opera score just now,” she says. We exchange contact card codes, laughing. A contact card code never made me laugh before.
As I leave the shop I take a look back and see Corinne putting a new book into the display case. The cat named Asimov sits under it in the window, watching me as I walk away into the snow.
I step out onto a stage made of stars and sweep my skirt around me as I take a seat on the bench prepared in the centre. In reality, it is a panel of plexi showing the expanse of space below; we are still midway on the trip between Earth and New Canada. Surrounding me are New Canada pine trees, little lights floating between them. The audience is seated around the circular panel, creating the effect of a floating amphitheatre.
The stars swirl beneath as I play my first notes. Bow touching strings, first the lowest, an open string, a long, resonant tone. Then the next, a run, a leap, notes strung together like so many stars.
New Canada needs more musicians. At least so they told me – and lured me onto this beautiful spaceship with promises of contracts and performances and tours. The first tour is to take place in all the cities of the planet, and my first concert is taking place enroute, before I have even stepped onto the ground of my new home. The recent building boom has brought about a fascinating renaissance in historical Earth architecture, and I imagine that the acoustics will be beautiful, especially with the addition of sound relays.
It was the last world to be settled, but the people of New Canada are apparently thirsty for historical music. They especially want to hear Baroque works, coupled with new compositions, sometimes superimposed. I can hear in my mind how Bach and Handel and Purcell will sound here, on this ship, and in the beautiful conservatory gardens on the planet below. And how other composers will sound. How my own pieces will sound – I write for my viola often, though I seldom share these works. But I believe that on New Canada, I will begin performing my preludes and etudes and sarabandes.
In the first row, or rather the closest cluster of seats, I notice a woman watching in rapt attention. I try to pay her no mind, but it is difficult – I realize she is Lady Anne, a prominent engineer for New Canada Engines – the company that made this spaceship.
I have always been slightly afflicted with stage fright – switching to the vertical viola was the only thing that really helped. Back when I used to play the viola in the traditional manner on the arm, I would shake. But sitting on stage grounds me and helps me keep my thoughts together.
Stage fright is beginning now, its icy fingers working their way toward my veins, cooling them, inducing shivers. Shocking, this strange return of fright, after I thought it was long gone. But space travel affects everyone differently. Perhaps I traveled so fast on this spaceship, I caught up to my fear and must now vanquish it.
Lady Anne’s attention ceases to unnerve me. I imagine how a spaceship engineer must feel when testing an engine. In many ways, it must be very much like a musical performance. The acoustics of an engine must be perfect. And like I carry a melody and emotion, engines must carry a ship.
I think of the planet I have chosen to make my home on, without ever having seen it, having felt its air or tasted its water or walked through one of its gardens.
But if it is anything like this star garden on this spaceship, I believe I will be happy.
The viola is a marvelous instrument, one that sings precisely in a range where people speak. Many say this of the cello, and it’s true too, of course. But a viola brings out different resonant frequencies, ones that, to me, are more in tune with certain emotions. I can carry a heartbeat on a string. And I do, trying to attune my playing so that this musical beating heart is at a comfortable and warm speed. Bach. Handel. Purcell. And then, my own music.
I hear every nuance of my composition resound in my mind before I play a note. and then I can confirm my predictions as the sound is reflected back to me. This spaceship’s acoustics are indeed stellar.
I play the last phrase of the first partita I ever wrote, letting the air consume the final vibrations and overtake it with silence. Space expands.
I am home.
I design dreams.
It was not a job I was assigned, but I decided to undertake it anyway. When I was taken for the program that brought me here from Earth, I had a very different view of what I would be doing. I found out quickly that I would be working every day with a hurting population. Many people on New Canada had engineered genes. This had allowed them to work for years in risky conditions, but not all those risks had been known, and now many were ill. Gene engineering is banned here now, and no wonder. It was a nightmare the planet will need a long time to wake up from.
I arrived on New Canada only a short time ago. It’s been a difficult adjustment, but one person has been making it easier for me. She has always listened when I was homesick; has always offered advice on how to settle into life here on New Canada. She has taken me to see the breathtaking sights on my new planet. In return, I’ve been helping this particular dreamer dream. And what I’ve been doing is introducing her to a dreamscape based on my own home.
She wakes up in a snowy landscape, the wind hitting her face in full force – or so she believes. She is still thinking in New Canadian terms – the landscape here is harsher, more unforgiving. She first sees the trees as New Canada pines, but she soon realizes that something is different about the way the sunlight strikes the needles, about the way they grow, about the atmosphere’s effect on our perception of colour. The brightness of the sunlight and the snow blowing off the distant peaks, not quite the same as what she is used to. She is experiencing the Rocky Mountains on Earth.
As she dreams on, her thoughts parse out sensations more effectively. The wind becomes more gentle, the whispering in the trees becomes milder, more of a whistling echo. As she wanders through the dreamscape, it begins changing again, now some sort of intentional shift – from the expanse of skies over sharply drawn peaks and a glittering, half-frozen lake, to a grayer vision – a landscape from her own New Canada. She walks toward a small cluster of trees. The air is bracing. She feels it more sharply on her skin in this dream than she ever has in her waking hours.
At least, so she tells me. Earth and New Canada, meeting in one beautiful landscape.
She has never been to Earth. And to be honest, I didn’t design the program to show her both worlds. Her own thoughts have been modifying her perceptions. In fact, I had wanted to show her what it meant to me to be under the sky in the mountains on Earth, to feel that wind, to hear it, to be among those trees. But she draws so much meaning from this blending of our two planets. I have never told her that I didn’t design it that way. She is an engineer, and her mind sparks with creative energy. I believe that this is why she constructs constantly, even while dreaming.
I must admit that I thought of one particular mountain valley in New Canada with an uncanny similarity to one on Earth when I designed this particular dream program. Since the New Canadian valley is her favourite place to hike, I’m not surprised that her mind is interpreting the signals this way.
“I dreamed of the two planets last night,” she tells me one morning as she arrives for one of our sessions.
“You mean you used the program at home?”
“No. I dreamed of it on my own.” I am intensely curious and sit on the edge of my desk.
“Tell me,” I prompt.
“You were there.” She hesitates, sits down in an armchair, gets up again. “You were walking over from Earth to New Canada, and we met in our spot in the New Rockies.”
“The one among the trees?”
“That very one,” She sighs. “Where else? Emile, I know we haven’t talked about it…” she trails off.
“I think I know what you mean,” I reply gently.
Her hand reaches, but stops just shy of mine.
“Shall we go there together on our next free day?” I ask.
She nods. I would like to take her hand, to take her in my arms. The time will come, when we have both understood each other’s planets, when we have found ways to navigate how we feel about the other.
I can already hear the wind whispering in the trees.
Story © 2019 Clio Em. Image © 2018 Hali Rey.
Check out the New Canada “universe” here: http://clio-em.com/gravity-wing
I’m being driven to the Engine Industry Ball in a carriage so ornate it looks like decoration, not transporation. This ride was not my idea; I was picked up as the clock struck Evening Mark. The clock inside the carriage. It is as ornate as the carriage exterior, and rather more ornate than my simple rose gown. The colour to wear this season, I’d been told.
New Canada is beautiful but it intimidates me. I just arrived onplanet last month for a yearlong residency at the New Canada Arts Centre. My mentor here, Isabel, originally comes from the Terran Canada like myself. I am already overwhelmed with my musical tasks, but I know that Isabel managed to accomplish a tremendous amount here in a little over a year – not only artistically, but also taking part in an incredibly complex set of legal proceedings, foiling a nefarious sabotage plot – and finding a life partner. She’s now the director of the New Toronto Art School. Incredible. I am barely treading water keeping up with my repertoire.
I wonder why Cecilia, New Canada’s star violist and dear friend to Isabel, didn’t come pick me up herself but sent only her carriage. I ask the driver, who says I should wait for a message. Mysterious – and annoying. Then my contact card chimes and her message comes through. Sudden illness, meaning she had to cancel. I feel a sharp pang of disappointment. She has found a violist to take her place, so my performance will go ahead.
Isabel introduced me to Cecilia the day I arrived. I have no idea how the two of them are such great friends. The violist is eccentric and a lot more dramatic than my rather reasonable mentor, but both have offered me guidance and ready friendship. I gather that it is usually harder to make friends on socially restrained New Canada, but I suppose neither Isabel nor Cecilia are typical New Canadians.
I envy Cecilia her ability to communicate with her audience when she is onstage. Compared to hers, my playing is reserved. She promised that she would design a very effective exercise for me to allow me to break out of my shell. “It’ll be a shock and come when you least expect it, Fiona, but it will let your musicality shine,” she’d said.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to that before tonight’s performance. I will be terrified without her up there with me.
I try to reason my nerves away. I am an experienced guitarist and have memorized the program. I just haven’t performed it on this planet yet, nor with this duo partner. Who’s this mysterious new violist, anyway? Whoever it is, they had better be quick-thinking; we won’t even have time to rehearse beforehand.
I am surprised that Isabel’s Partner, Serge, is the one waiting for me when my carriage arrives. He co-runs a company called New Canada Engines – this planet’s most important corporation. I’d thought he would be too busy tonight to socialize much with me, but he seems to take his Partnerly duties toward Isabel seriously.
“Fiona!” He calls, waving me over.
“Hi Serge,” I say, gamely attempting a cheerful and fearless tone. “Cecilia said my new violist would be here to meet me, but you seem to have beat him to it.”
“Actually…” Serge grins. I notice that he is holding a viola case.
“You?!” is all I can manage. He laughs. Isabel had mentioned he played the viola. Beautifully, she’d said. She told me the story of how they fell in love. His viola playing had had a lot to do with it, apparently. But how objective is her assessment? I have my doubts.
“Cecilia only told me that it’s time to try the performance exercise she was telling you about,” he says.
“She mentioned an exercise, yes…” A realization hits me. “She’s not really ill, is she?”
“She’s been known to do things like this before,” he replies, a smile quirking his lips. “When she and Isabel worked together last year….”
“Well, I hope you’ve been practicing daily for Isabel,” I retort, cutting him off. “I don’t know how you play but at least you give a lot of speeches and won’t get stage fright.” I sound too annoyed. “Sorry,” I add mitigatingly.
“Look, I know I’m in a different line of work, and we all know Cecilia is the better performer,” he says. “But this is part of the exercise, I think. I’m definitely not what you’d expect in a duo partner.”
“Definitely not,” I say, trying hard not to sound rude. I hope he can hold his own on that stage; I’ve met too many rich hobbyists who considered themselves artists and were actually dilettantes. But the exercise design here is brilliant and it’s forcing me to be flexible. As mad as I am at Cecilia, I also see exactly why she did this to me.
We take our places and tune. So far, so good. My resolve intensifies. I play the opening chords. When Cecilia and I rehearsed, she was always the one leading, but now I have to assert myself. It turns out that I can do this quite well. Even more surprisingly, Serge plays with an appealing musicality. Not as techically perfect as Cecilia, but he is definitely a competent performer. I briefly wonder why he plays so well, or when he has time to practice if he’s busy co-running an engine company, but push all that out of my mind as I focus and pour everything of myself into the piece.
Cecilia is in the front row, dressed in red. So is Isabel, also dressed in red, but a darker shade. The two of them are whispering and laughing. Cecilia’s own Partner, Brigitte, joins them and begins laughing too. Her own gown is a deep magenta. They stand out in a sea of fasionable rose-coloured gowns and applaud enthusiastically at the end of every piece. I realize that their enthusiam is not only for Serge, whom they know so well, but also for me. They can see my musicality reshaping itself up here on this stage, and I can tell they are proud of us both.
This performance is both wonderful and absurd. I am at a ball, making music on a new planet, and I have been tricked into playing more expressively than I ever have before. The audience seems to be enjoying the performance immensely. And for the first time since I landed on New Canada, I feel truly, completely at ease.
The ornate clock in the hall strikes Midnight Mark.
Serge and I play on. And now Cecilia joins us onstage, improvising counterpoints to our melodies.
The ball continues.
Story © 2019 Clio Em. Image © 2018 Hali Rey.