Rock Gongs, Northern Province, South Africa
This book is currently out of print. I plan to revise it and bring it up to date soon. If you'd like to be notified of the new release date, please click here. Thank you for your interest!
Grounded in an ancient musical paradox, Natasha Mostert's thrilling second novel is a tour-de-force of mystery and violence.
The Other Side of Silence
A killer computer game. The most compelling music the world has ever known. An ancient riddle. And two brilliant men and the woman they both love, setting out on a forbidden quest that will lead the world to the edge of chaos.
It is called The Angels' Key - a wildly successful computer game that has taken the world by storm. Seduced by the eerie music generated by the game, fans play the game obsessively. There are those who worry about the way the music hypnotizes its listeners; others, that its addicts can become violent - but most are simply captivated by its beauty.
Behind the music from The Angels' Key are two exceptional young men: Jon Falconer, American computer genius and gifted mathematician, and his friend, the brilliant but troubled Englishman, Stephen Yale. Their goal is to create a perfect musical scale, and with the help of the enormous computing power the game's addicts bring when they play it, they are getting very close to success.
But at the heart of The Angels' Key lies one of the oldest and deadliest mysteries in the science of sound. As eager fans log onto the game, the riddle is slowly but surely starting to unlock...
As the sinister implications of The Angels' Key become evident, Jon desperately strives to terminate his invention but is thwarted in his efforts by Stephen who has his own reasons for wanting to keep the game alive. And caught in the middle is the woman they both desire and ultimately the only person who can stop a chilling prophecy from becoming a terrifying reality.
The day started out so well.
She woke up feeling clearheaded and calm. The silence was a miraculous blessing. She lay with her eyes shut and she could almost visualize the quiet: a beautiful glinting thing - silvery, insubstantial - stretching into every nook and cranny of the room, creeping into every nook and cranny of her mind.
She placed her feet into the slippers next to the bed and draped the thin robe over her shoulders. As she stood up, she glimpsed her moving form in the mirror on the dressing table. These days she usually avoided looking at herself: the wild-eyed woman staring back at her made her feel afraid. But perhaps today would be different. She looked into the eyes in the mirror. Yes, the face was serene.
It was still early. The air was cool and the sky not yet intensely blue. She slid the bolt from the back door and sat down on one of the shallow steps. Breathing deeply, she inhaled the smell of grass and growing things wet with dew. From here she could see all the way across the vast expanse of yellow veld to the thin black line of the road pointing south, snaking up a far hill and then disappearing from sight. It showed no sign of life: but then, it rarely did. It was five miles to the nearest neighbour; another ten to the nearest town.
Today, though, she was expecting a visitor. Tia was driving over from Johannesburg. She smiled at the thought. She had come to rely so much on these weekly visits from her daughter. When the pounding in her head became intolerable, the sounds around her toxic and magnified beyond all imagining, Tia's presence calmed her fears. She needed to feel Tia's small hand holding her own; to hear her say, 'Hang in there... We'll fight this together.' Poor Tia. How distressing it must be to watch your mother do battle with invisible demons.
But today would be a happy day. They'd have lunch together, maybe go for a walk. Sit outside on the verandah at nightfall and watch the moon rise slowly in a sky crazy with stars. And all would be quiet.
The phone rang. The silence shattered. For a moment she tensed, but then got to her feet quickly, killing the urgent, sharp ring of the phone by snatching the receiver from the stand.
She spoke carefully into the mouthpiece: 'Hello, Klio speaking.'
'Mum?' Tia's voice sounded hoarse. 'It's this bug. It's going around campus; everyone has it. I feel really ill... Actually,' she paused for a moment and the words came out in a rush, 'I don't think I'll be able to make it today.'
Klio slumped against the wall. But when she spoke she kept her voice light.
'That's OK, sweetheart. I'm having a really good day. And Maria will be over later to help me clean the house.'
'A good day?' The hesitation in Tia's voice was scarcely noticeable. But Klio knew her daughter. She could picture Tia's face at this moment. She would be concentrating intensely, trying to gauge every nuance of her mother's voice, her face completely still except for the tiny tick at the corner of one eyelid. It always acted up when Tia was troubled.
'Yes,' Klio said firmly. 'A good day. A very good day.'
'So, you're sure you'll be all right?'
'Absolutely. Not to worry.'
But Tia seemed unwilling to hang up. As they spoke for a few more minutes, Klio sensed her unease.
'I'm really OK, you know. And I promise I'll call you if I need to talk to you. You get some rest now. You sound terrible.'
'Yes.' Tia sniffed disconsolately. 'I feel terrible too.'
'Make yourself a hot toddy. Then go to bed.'
'OK. I love you, Mum.'
Klio was still smiling as she hung up the receiver. She felt a sudden rush of love for her daughter. She never ceased to marvel at the strength of the bond between them. She would not have thought it possible, all those years ago when she was carrying Tia. It had not been a happy pregnancy. Nausea plagued her for seven months on end, and worse than the physical discomfort was the sense of resentment: one moment she was free, her life uncluttered. The next moment she was a pod.
But then Tia was born. She had looked into the face of her red-haired daughter, placed her hand underneath the tiny, rickety neck. And kissing the soft blue-veined skin on her baby's forehead, she had lost her heart. Her daughter was a solemn-eyed child who grew up to become a quiet, reserved woman - but a woman capable of strength and unexpected warmth. Still, Klio worried about her. If only Tia had more confidence in herself, was able to break out of that shell of shyness, which sometimes made her seem aloof, stern almost.
She turned away from the telephone and walked into the kitchen, her slippers making a soft slurring noise as they brushed against the hem of her robe. Opening the kitchen cupboard, she took out a mug painted with bright yellow sunflowers. As she closed the door to the cupboard, she winced slightly as the hinges creaked. The sound was loud in that quiet room.
While she waited for the water to come to boil, she walked out into the garden. To her right was the long row of tall poplar trees, their tiny leaves coming alive with the slightest breath of air. She watched the tops of the trees as they swayed just a little and she squinted against the glare of the sun. With her eyes half-closed the trees seemed elongated, stretched into impossibly long smears of green.
She shook her head and rubbed her hand across her eyes. It was as she was starting to walk back to the house that she felt it. It came through the thin soles of her slippers: a pulse, like a heartbeat. She looked down. The earth underneath her feet was vibrating but the pulse was flawed and arrhythmic. And the silence in that quiet garden was no silence at all, but a hum like the ebb and flow of a giant spinning top.
'Nooo!' The cry tore from her breast, an ugly sound. She felt her lips stretch into a wide grimace. She placed her hands over her ears, but to no avail. There was a beating of wings inside her head and noisy invaders crashed through the deepest, most secret spaces of her mind. She felt nauseous, sick. She had to get back to the house, but where was it? She couldn't see the house because all around her were restless trees.
She started to run in the opposite direction, away from the trees and their hostile, whispering leaves. But the humming sound followed her and made the air seem alive to the touch. She ran, arms outstretched, into the yellow sea of waving grass. The white muslin gown, floating behind her, snagged on the tough stems and the tall grass cut her legs through the thin nightdress, drawing blood.
And as she ran, she knew she was hopelessly lost.
The inspiration for my suspense novel, The Other Side of Silence, came after I was introduced to the concept of the Pythagorean Comma and the problem of perfect tuning. It was a complete surprise to me to learn that it is impossible to tune a modern musical instrument with one hundred percent accuracy. I couldn't believe that the entire planet was filled with instruments that are all slightly off-key and that we've all become so 'earwashed' that we're simply accepting this situation without any further thought.
When I started doing research on this topic I discovered that there is something called the Pythagorean Comma, and that this odd-sounding phenomenon is the reason why no instrument is in perfect tune. I also discovered that ancient civilizations were already aware of the mathematical problem of the Pythagorean Comma and that many brilliant minds over the ages - Pythagoras and Johann Sebastian Bach amongst others - had grappled with this puzzle. No-one, however, has ever been able to come up with a perfect solution. The Pythagorean Comma therefore represents one of the oldest mysteries in the science of sound.
I thought a book about this very ancient riddle, if placed in a modern context, would make for a compelling story. And so I wrote The Other Side of Silence, a novel about four friends who set out on a quest: a quest to solve the mystery of perfect tuning. But what they don't realise is that this is a forbidden quest and that they are tampering with something ancient and very dangerous, which could well push the world to the edge of chaos...
Computers and Rock Gongs
In The Other Side of Silence I was interested in bringing together two disparate worlds. The one world is the high tech world - the world of the Internet, computers, hackers and 21st century physics. The other world is a more primitive world where mysticism and intuition still play a vital role. My hero is very much a man of the modern age: he is an American computer whizz, a mathematician and the creator of a cutting edge computer game. But as the book progresses he finds himself in great peril and is forced to look for an answer outside of 21st century technology. He finds this answer in Africa - an environment that is alien to him - but it is here where he discovers the power of Africa's legendary rock gongs. Rock gongs are bell-like stones that were used by neolithic man in ancient rituals and ceremonies. These stones were believed to have great healing power - a power so great, it could even prevent the advent of drought or war. I thought it would create an interesting juxtaposition to square off the power of the modern computer against the power of the prehistoric "computer": rock gongs, millions of years old, but imbued with an inexplicable, but usable force.
I wrote The Other Side of Silence as a tribute to the power of sound, and music in particular. Music has always been one of my passions. My mother is a teacher of voice and I grew up in a house where music was a constant joy. I have eclectic taste and a voracious appetite for all kinds of music. My life is richer because of music. To borrow a phrase by Thomas Carlyle: Music is well said to be the speech of angels.
The Other Side of Silence was a challenging book to write, but it ultimately provided me with an extremely rewarding writing experience. I certainly hope you will enjoy it and who knows? Maybe after reading The Other Side of Silence you will never listen to the world quite the same way again...
This is an expanded version of an article by Natasha Mostert, which first appeared in The Mail and Guardian, December 20, 2001
At the heart of The Other Side of Silence, lies a warning: sound, and music in particular, is a powerful force. If you abuse it, you do so at your peril.
Years ago I read a book by Mickey Hart, drummer for The Grateful Dead, called Drumming on the Edge of Magic. My knowledge of the band and their music was scanty and vaguely mixed in with what I knew of the potent mythology of Haight-Ashbury, the Summer of Love, Timothy Leary and psychedelic drugs. A different continent; a different generation. From where I sat these events seemed sloppily self-indulgent - even quaint. But I was in for a surprise. Hart's book blew my mind and one passage, in particular, rocked:
"I stood in the woods... my ear to the trunk of a tree...trying to push the edges of my sound envelope. I realized that everything must be making sound; the process of photosynthesis must be producing vibrations, if only we had sensitive enough ears. I began hearing the sacred in the music."
A world assembled with building blocks made up of sound. The words thrilled me, knocked me into awareness. I started reading about the power of sound and music; everything from the thoughts of philosopher-mathematicians like Pythagoras, who believed in a musical cosmos, to the theories of modern-day particle physicists who propose that atoms react as though they have resonance. Brilliant minds, cool ideas. They made me listen to the world in a different way. And what I've come to believe is this: Sound is not for the faint of heart. Music is staring at the sun. And maybe, just maybe, we are a little too much at ease. Perhaps the time has come to think consciously of what it means to live on Planet Sound.
We live in a world that is drenched in noise. Unless you dunk into a sensory deprivation tank or go down a very deep worked-out mine -- the kind they have in South Africa -- you will be unable to find any spot on earth where there is absolute quiet. Such a place no longer exists.
Even our oceans are polluted. As we test for global warming, we rig up giant underwater speakers which send out soundwaves that travel right around the globe. Air traffic pollute the skies and deep in space are satellites: an army of whispering spies. In our daily lives we are insects caught in a sticky web of noise. Around us the sounds of sorrow and laughter; the sounds of the dying and the living; ambulances wailing, police cars screaming, frenzied chatter, jackhammers throbbing, cellphones beeping, the incessant beat of music, pounding, pounding. Man's activities - his resonance patterns - are impacting on the whole of the planet. And now the earth itself is humming. Japanese geophysicists have identified 50 notes over two octaves that make up the earth's background hum: a constant low frequency noise.
Sound affects every one of us every single day but we appear sublimely oblivious to its power. We go to the movies and sit happily munching our popcorn, largely unaware of the background music even though for two or three hours it will cause our heartbeats to fluctuate and turn our adrenaline on and off like a tap. We turn up the speakers on our CD player and rarely consider that music can drive up our blood pressure, lead to a drop in body temperature, a decrease in the skin's conductivity, a change in mood. Parents fret about the headbanging sound of an AC/DC song, but all music has insidious power. Even, it seems, music as innocuous as Country and Western. Garth Brooks packing the kind of visceral punch of Eminem or Trent Reznor? The hatted one deserving a spot on the hit list of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center? The mind boggles. But some research suggest that country ballads, those 'tears in beers' songs, may increase the risk of suicide.
Sound can set in motion an avalanche. Soldiers have to break step when they cross a bridge. Loud sounds can put a person at higher risk of having a heart attack. Certain frequencies can kill off bacteria. Studies of plant life show that it can be affected adversely by a constant onslaught of sound. Noise from underwater sonar systems have caused whales to beach themselves and die.
Think what it was like on earth a thousand years ago. Imagine how quiet it must have been; how incredibly rare and precious music was. Now imagine that right this minute, sound waves are suddenly becoming tangible like long trails of fibre. Everyone unable to move. All of us choking, smothering - enmeshed in a dense, unforgiving tangle.
The casual way in which we treat sound stands in sharp contrast to the belief systems of ancient civilisations. In the mystery schools of Egypt, Rome, Tibet and India the knowledge of sound was a highly developed science based on the understanding that vibration lies at the heart of all matter and energy in the universe. Pythagoras reduced music to numbers and mathematical ratios and believed the very same ratios to be applicable to the universe and everything within it. This view of a musical cosmos was adopted by Plato and became the standard throughout the Mediterranean world. Sound was regarded as the very cornerstone of civilisation. Music, especially, was never to be at the disposal of the stupid or the wicked. Said Confucius: 'If you wish to know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad, examine the music it practises.' In the Shu King, the Book of Odes, it tells of the emperor regularly travelling within his kingdom to test musical instruments to ensure that they corresponded with the five perfect tones and with each other. If they did not, conflict and political instability was sure to follow.
Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees: 'The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.' And as we start our journey into the twenty-first century, we do indeed seem to find terror in silence. When we're by ourselves, what is the first thing we do? We switch on the CD player or the TV. Some people have radios in the shower. Bill Gates even have speakers inside his swimming pool. And music is the drug of choice. Everyone from the paper boy on his rounds to the surgeon in his theatre works to its beat.
Churches are empty but rock stadiums are full. In the last week in March, 592 million songs were downloaded from Napster - this after the site attempted to block copyrighted music. With earphones clamped to our heads and minds blissed out by Deftones, Massive Attack, Chopin or Bach, we hook onto a strand of sound a billion years long and we're given wings. Under the influence of Mozart, rats run through mazes faster and more accurately, Alzheimer sufferers function more normally and women giving birth find relief from pain. Yes, not all the music we listen to is Mozart. Some of the music we become addicted to speak of unrelenting alienation; of pain and anger and violence. Demon poetry. But poetry all the same.
But is there something in our genes which predispose us to become addicted to sound? Why is it that music speaks to us so? Scientists are now proposing that the human brain is pre-wired for sound. With PET scans and MRIs they seek to establish that music has biological foundations and that musical preferences are wired into the music centre of our temporal lobes since birth.
But maybe the answer is simply that music brings us close to what is sacred. There must be a reason why sound plays an important role in creation myths; why it is seen as the tool with which cosmos was created out of chaos. The Ancient Chinese believed the origin of the world to lie in an inaudible sacred sound. In the Upanishads it says the sound that is OM is the universe itself. And for Christians the beginning started with a Word. We even talk of the Big Bang - although as David Hykes, musician extraordinaire points out, this term is modelled on the 'noisy violence of our own culture.' Hykes prefers the concept 'Big Ring' for that moment when unknown forces brought the universe into being. Michael Hayes, in his remarkable book The Infinite Harmony, sees in the composition of the DNA molecule - the four nitrogenous bases, the triplet RNA codons, the 64 possible combinations of bases and the 22 signals at the amino-acid stage of development - a biochemical manifestation of the heptatonic musical scale. He concludes: 'As I looked deeper and deeper into the workings of the genetic code, I became convinced that God himself was a musician.'
Maybe it is simply a question that in the presence of music we find grace. As Tori Amos says: 'My fear is stronger than my faith but I walk.' Music will give you that strength. Or to borrow a phrase from Thomas Carlyle, dead these past one hundred and twenty years: 'Music is well said to be the speech of angels.'
In ancient times man was a fly walking across the piano keys of the universe. He left no noise in his wake. That has changed forever. Modern man with his myriad of activities is creating excessive sound. What the long-term impact will be on our environment and our mental health remains to be seen. But maybe the time is now to start listening to the world anew; to be a little less profligate when it comes to noise. Our fragile blue planet is spinning through space like a tumescent, pulsating drop of sound. Earth: pumped up and wired. Feverishly vibrating.
The Pythagorean Comma and the Mystery of Perfect Tuning
The riddle of the Pythagorean Comma is one of the oldest mysteries in the science of sound and forms the cornerstone of Natasha Mostert's suspense novel, The Other Side of Silence.
The problem of the Pythagorean Comma is a complex one and any discussion of this topic is usually highly esoteric. But it is a fascinating and thought-provoking phenomenon.
Music is one of mankind's passions. How ironic then that we should find ourselves living in a world, which is out of tune. Literally out of tune. It is impossible to tune any modern musical instrument to acoustic perfection. Even a piano tuner in laboratory conditions will be unable to tune a piano one hundred percent perfectly. The reason is buried in one of the oldest and most mysterious puzzles in the science of sound and one that modern man with all his cutting-edge expertise in acoustic technology is unable to solve.
Think of it, if you will. We are living on a planet filled with musical instruments that are all off-key. On a piano, for example, only the octaves are perfect. The fifths, fourths, thirds and so forth are not — they are 'tempered', 'adapted' — robbed of their purity. The reason lies in a strange-sounding phenomenon, The Pythagorean Comma: a mathematical blip, an imperfection in musical intervals, and the reason why musicians have no choice but to make use of equal temperament and a flawed musical scale.
True, the tempered scale is so close to being harmonious that we can live with it. Besides, we don't really know any better. We're not exposed to anything but imperfect music anyway, and have been since birth. Any-one with normal hearing would be able to recognise 'tempered' from 'pure' if asked to do so, (e.g. distinguish between a tempered fifth and a pure fifth), but as musical theorists like to say, our upbringing has left us sadly 'earwashed'.
Now imagine what it would be like if we were able to get rid of the Pythagorean Comma and produce a perfect musical scale. If we were to wake up one morning to a world where every instrument is an instrument that is tuned perfectly. It will be as though we've been looking at a beautiful picture that is just slightly blurred. And all of a sudden, the entire picture will slide into perfect focus. But this is unlikely to happen. Brilliant minds over the centuries had grappled with this problem to no avail. Pythagoras gave the world a scale based on perfect fifths that was acoustically flawless but did not allow for musical innovation, so it had to be abandoned. In the sixteenth century the Pythagorean scale was replaced with the system of just intonation, but this did not take care of the Comma problem either. The German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, came up with a compromise solution. His system of equal temperament — the tuning system that has become the norm — allows for modulation, but is acoustically flawed. Every solution that was dreamt up over the millennia has turned out to be flawed in some or other respect.
Who knows, maybe this is one mystery not meant to be solved. Maybe the ancient sages had it right. They believed that a broken musical scale is there to remind us of our fallen state of imperfection. Mortal music is flawed...and so is man. We should do well to remember it; we: easily tempted to hubris, curious, always over-reaching.
Natasha Mostert's thriller The Other Side of Silence poses the question what would happen if the mystery of the Pythagorean Comma was solved. If the Pythagorean Comma should be eliminated, the world will be in possession of a perfect musical scale. This could have cosmic implications. Perhaps the Comma is forbidden fruit. Perhaps man is not meant to ever find a solution to this problem.
But in The Other Side of Silence, four friends are setting out on a quest to solve the puzzle of perfect tuning, unaware that this could have cataclysmic consequences. They have discovered in the Pythagorean Comma the master key to the building blocks of the universe. If this key is ever turned, it could well push the world to the brink of chaos...