A Sonic Adventure

Conrad Schnitzler, experimental musician, is stuck inside his music computer and only his buddy Cthulhu can save him!

Let’s have some fun adventures with music! These pieces are part of me figuring out how to design an RPG I’m calling Oscillator all about interdimensional experimental musicians.

The question in Oscillator is: what if you got to hang out with your favorite artists, and you’re all as cool las you feel when you’re in creative flow? It’s a question that allows us a lot of freedom to be silly. We’re all feeling a lot of pain and we very seriously need to feel hope, to laugh, and to enjoy things for being beautiful. I want these stories and the game they’re intended to inspire to inspire all those feelings.

Kaitlyn’s headphones were on, the attached mic floating in front of her lips waiting for the slightest vibration in the air, her eyes closed as she listened to the feedback from the machine in front of her. It face was a stark white, dotted with controls and receptacles, laced with brightly colored cables between those receptacles, the whole elaborate machine held gently by arms of the same red wood of the walls of the room. She spoke a sound into the mic before her and it reverberated, changed and was changed by other signals that flowed from and through the machine. Cascaded and fragmented, then flowed together as a sequenced pattern built.

Afternoon light splashed across the room through the huge windows, dappling her hands as she adjusted sliders and knobs, listened to the results, and thoughtfully plugged in another cable, connecting one module to another to put them in communication.

The timbre shifted and she raised an eyebrow, reached out to change a parameter, but the afternoon light of the outside changed and the shadows moved across the dials and knobs, the studio losing its color, the machine before her losing the clarity of the white, the warmth of the wood, the colors of the blinking, coruscating, pulsing lights losing their crystalline quality until they were yellowed and pulsed in a dull sequence together. Her eyes narrowed: this was not the side slideways she had expected. Concern crossed her brow as she looked out the window. No recognition showed in her eyes. And the machine before her went silent, its lights sputtered and failed.

The warm afternoon sun flickered into the light of harsh, flickering fluorescents, one of them flickering irregularly. The lush greenery that had given her studio life was now replaced with a gray carpeted floor, stained with long-since spilled coffee. The fluorescent flickered. Instead of a distant horizon were walls no more than two steps away, covered with a pebbled, sound-absorbent material. Pinned to one of the walls was a piece of printer paper printed in a festive, cursive font “PUT THINGS BACK WHERE YOU FOUND THEM. —CAROL”

Kaitlyn’s mouth fell open and twisted in horror. She recoiled, tried to power on her synthesizer. But no lights came on, no mysterious sounds bubbled forth.

Behind her, a voice spoke. She wheeled and saw the man standing there, his balding pate recently reseeded with hair plugs, his sleeves rolled up and shirt tucked into his khakis. He was saying, “Hi, I’m Steve, your manager. Welcome to DëëX. Welcome to your new office. We hope your time here will be productive in our creation of the Mean Tone.” The overhead fluorescent flickered. “HR will show you how to register your breaks with our office management software. Your workstation is here.” He handed her a musical keyboard, four feet long, dark grey, with a small LCD screen and incomprehensible, screen printed membrane buttons. “Do not change the presets.”

Stunned, and now holding a ten pound keyboard, she had nothing to say before Steve turned and walked out the gap in the soft wall of the cubicle that her studio had become. There was no sign of the machine that she had been playing, that always brought her such joy and freedom, whose signal had been intercepted in her travels, had brought her here, but, absent, could not carry her away.

The fluorescent light flickered.


The sounds issuing from your machine dip and shudder, a new timbre, like discovering a new corner to look around. The morning light glances around the studio, bouncing off the white of sound baffles and the bits of painted brick, casting shadows new to you, new ways of understanding the sounds.

You thought you heard something, a vague familiarity, and you set out seeking that feeling again, questing across the sonic landscape until, yes, there it is. A five-step sequence, evolving around a theme. You know what it sounds like. Who it sounds like. You take the sustain and decay out of the envelopes, shorten the attack, and it comes clearly.

Before you, assembling five little pieces at a time, is a woman, her lined face placid and beautiful. She wears a black turtleneck and a cryptic smile. Her hooded eyes appraise you quickly. Before her, held on a table of glass is a metal suitcase, wires and lights bubbling up out of it, along with that five step sequence, harmonizing and contrasting with yours.

“I am SO glad I’ve found you!” She enthuses.

“Me?” You know this face: she is the Diva of the Diode. It is she who taught you how to leap from, around, and into the universe, to tune your mind to the realities neighboring the one you were aware of, the one that once you thought was the world. But you studied her techniques, learned from her art how to explore where things are different, and how to tune your mind to exist in them.

She smiles warmly, though the concern does not leave the corners of her eyes. “We can get some tea later and I can explain, but I’m here because I really need your help now. My friend Kaitlyn and I were going to build an ocea together but she never arrived.”

The sounds of your machine continue, timbres contrasting and harmonizing and evolving with those coming from the Diva’s own suitcase of circuits.

“I, “ you start, not knowing how to proceed. “Ah, she got lost between possibilities?”

“No,” says the Diva, “She knows how to find her way between possibilities.” She look up, thinking. “I think she fell into a singularity of possibility: a probability. I don’t like to say bad things about people, “ she pauses, obviously having a hard time not saying something bad about someone, “…but the greatest probability is the singularity that calls itself DëëX. It captures art, makes it the same as other art. And it has Kaitlyn.”

You nod. “I look forward to working together.”


You assemble your rack. A wave table sampler, a sequencer, several additive voices to build harmonics, and comb filters to extract them. You braid patch cables into your hair, pull the rack onto your shoulders like a baby carrier, and you’re ready.

You share a hit from the vaporizer, and you play.

Together, you build a sound. Scraps of voice, confetti of sounds of strings. Frogs chirp and almost-a-bird sings as it passes you by. The world shifts, and you wend your way through the edges of possibilities.

In the distance, you see a resonance, a footprint, a fingerprint, a shift of time and the birds become confetti, the frogs drops of rain. The Diva points to it and you slide a fader, resolving into the wooden studio. Large windows invite the afternoon sun. To the right of the window you see a wall covered with synthesizer.

The Diva approaches the mass of signal modules and, her delicate hands behind her back, she leans forward to read the patch cords and the settings on the machine.

By your feet at the foot of a chair lie a pair of headphones, as though they’d been carelessly dropped.

The Diva says, still looking at the wall of cables and knobs, “Someone sabotaged this patch. It should produce odd-numbered Euclidean rhythms, but it’s only making 4/4 now.”

You scowl as you carefully put your ear to the headphone. Boom, bap, boom boom bap, you hear the crinkling beat. And the notes, in a major scale, a simple circle of fifths, a space where an emotion would go if it had one.

You hand the headphones to the Diva. She takes them and tentitively moves them closer to her ears. She nods.

“It is the Mean Tone,” she nods again, more grimly, looking in your eyes. “We must rescue her.”

She unplugs the headphones and puts a splitter in its place. Hands you one side of the splitter and takes the other end herself, plugging it into her open briefcase of sounds.

You plug it into your wavetable and feed it your own voice, then find the rhythm with an inharmonic of similar sines thumping in and out of phase with each other, and before you, you see a glass door with a vertical steel handle on your side and a push bar on the other. On the handle, there is an engraved sign reading PUSH”.

The Diva exchanges a look with you and together, you reach for the door and pull it open.


The carpet inside is a low-pile taupe, somehow clashing with the putty of the walls and the beige of the receptionist’s desk. Over a loudspeaker comes a crinkly, bandpassed circle of fifths, a rhythmically and harmonically impoverished recitation of boom bap, boom boom bap. Behind the desk sits a woman of difficult-to-discern age; dressed in a faintly stylish ecru suit, her face has young features, yet those features are too tired to for youth to make an impression on her voice as she speaks into the corded headset. “Please listen carefully,” she is saying into the tiny microphone, “as our menu options have changed.

“For the managerial department, press one.” She notices you and holds up a finger to you to wait a moment. The Diva folds her hands politely over the braids of wires writhing out of her brightly-colored suitcase synth. “For the department of management, press two. For…” Satisfied the person on the other end has hung up, she reaches forward and presses a key on the MIDI keyboard in front of her, ending the call.

“How can I help you,” she asserts in a tone strongly implying that she does not want to help you.

“Hi! Thank you! We’re looking for my friend Kaitlyn, maybe you can help us?” asks the Diva.

The receptionist turns to her keyboard and taps a few notes in, leaning forward to look at the green screen above the keyboard. “I’m sorry, no Katelynn works here.”

“No,” says the Diva, “It’s spelled ‘K a i t l y n’”.

The receptionist does not break eye contact with the Diva while she taps a few more keys, not even glancing at the screen. “I’m sorry,” responds the receptionist. “No Kaitelin works here.”

“No,” replies the Diva, with no change in her pleasant smile, “Kaitlyn”.

The receptionist’s Mona Lisa smile parts and says, “Thank you for visiting. If you have any further questions, please leave.”

You lean over to the Diva’s ear and whisper. “She’s not going to help.”

The Diva whispers back, “I’m buying you time to do something.”

You realize that you’ve been tapping your foot to the vapid rhythm coming through the speakers. Really, more of a simple beat, than a rhythm. You turn as though gazing about in boredom and see a printed canvas covered in splashes of taupe, putty, fawn, and a gaudy au lait. Beside it is a glass box built into the wall, painted with the words “BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY”, and beside that, a phone on the wall. Analog, touch tone. An RJ-9 jack. As the Diva’s patience begins to exceed that of the receptionist who continues to misspell Kaitlyn’s name in increasingly inventive ways, you calmly walk to the phone, unplug the jack from the handset and plug it into the rack slung across your shoulder. It provides a dial tone. 

The Diva is trying to stand between you and the receptionist to block her view of you, but you hear an officious, if tired, note of alarm. The receptionist stands abruptly with the sigh of an ergonomic chair that begins somewhere under her skirt. She wheels to the side faster than the Diva can block her and she sees you. “Hey!” she shouts, “You’re not authorized! I’m calling security!” She says into her headset, “Security! There are artists!”

Scrambling for a creative idea, you modulate and feed back the dial tone, merging it into the wavetable with your vibe and the Diva’s jam, and the music of the loudspeaker changes, altering to even temperament and bringing uncomfortable dissonance even as new, alien harmonic ratios whistle and mutter in the music. The 4/4 boom bap becomes a 5/4 beat that trips and catches itself. “Stop that!” Shouts the receptionist, wheeling from behind her desk, her torso stacked on top of a single pneumatic piston surrounded by five wheels. You add a beat divider and the 5/4 plays over a 7/4. You’re tapping your foot again.

Bursting from the stairwell gush a cluster of four armored security guards,  their heads helmeted, faces protected by plexiglass shields and sunglasses, ears protected by monitor headphones, and each armed with a tactically-slung keytar in stark matte black. They raise and aim squarely at you, not even noticing the diminutive frame of the Diva standing at the reception desk. The guard in the front booms, “DEMODULATE THE SIGNAL. NOW.”

But before you can find a response to their call, Kaitlyn emerges from the stairwell behind them, the cumbersome digital keyboard slung over he shoulder like a duffel bag with a long, coiled cord connecting it to a pair of beige computer speakers mounted to her shoulders. The guards wheel about in surprise. “RETURN TO YOUR DESK! DO NOT ALTER YOUR PRESETS!” they bark. One of the guards has jostled the receptionist, who pirouettes helplessly down the hall, her arms windmilling to regain her balance.

Kaitlyn presses her fingers to the keys, eliciting an arpeggio that no one would have made on purpose; inharmonics and harmonics clash and slide, and you hear a story you’ve never heard before, and the guards’ compressor/limiters respond automatically by turning their faceplates a protective black. The frail grilles vibrate off the front of the computer speakers, followed by their fragile paper cones, which dangle uselessly. But they have done their jobs. Even where you are standing, you can hear the guards’ headphones, filling their ears with the countersignal: Hotel California.

“Get me out of here!” shouts Kaitlyn to the two of you, vaulting over the now abandoned receptionist’s desk.

The Diva calmly takes the coiled snake of output cable from Kaitlyn’s purloined synthesizer and plugs it into her own. “I don’t have headphones!”  Kaitlyn exclaims.

You look about, seeing again “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS”, and you do, finding inside a pair of beige headphones. Through them pipes the same Hotel California. But not for long. You yank the cable from the wall and it comes free just as the first guard’s face plate clears and he begins scrambling for his keytar lying where he had dropped it.

You throw Kaitlyn the cans and she clamps them over her ears while the Diva plugs them into her mixer. The guard raises the keytar inches beside Kaitlyn’s head, but now the three of you are synched together and the world is siding slideways, probabilities falling aside for possibilities again, and the three of you collapse in a heap onto the floor of your studio, a thick rug on top of the hardwood floor to dampen echoes and provide a good place to lie down and listen. The wall of modules, happily blinking their lights and quietly conversing with each other. The computers happily singing their months-long generative dance together. The windows welcoming the setting sun.

You all catch your breath for a moment, lying there. The Diva begins to laugh, and Kaitlyn joins her.

Eventually you stand. You make some tea and you all enjoy it, listening to each others’ and your own breaths. You find the hookah vape and pass around the hose.

The dusk turns to dark and the three of you stay stoned, drink tea, and build a vast and complex ocean of sound together. When the dark turns grey again, first the Diva, then Kaitlyn, side slideways into the other possibilities, their own homes, their own studios. You sleep on the rug while the track uploads so both your followers can hear it.

Modular systems are a function of industrial society. But do people of The Fifth World still know how to agree to standards? With their acute interest in efficiency, I think they might have carried that lesson forward!

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