by Anthony McColgan
Stravinsky’s Les Augures printaniers wasn’t as mad as he came off. It was more disappointment that made him protest to Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major BWV 1047 (First Movement) that they should scrub the whole meeting and head for home. Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major BWV 1047 (First Movement) insisted however they give Earth a chance to make up for its disappointing first impression, a motion she was backed up on by “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and “Chanson du Toréador” from Bizet’s Carmen.
These weren’t actually the names of The Diplomats from the planet Handel’s Suite in F major, but what they sang out when referring to themselves. As far as the think tank who were desperately trying to interpret what The Diplomats were saying could gather, their species didn’t have names. They communicated with slight hand motions and released pheromones to indicate who they were speaking to and tone. The hand motions were remarkably similar to American Sign Language and would have been a much less difficult language barrier to break through. But as it had been explained to President David Gibson, who was now sitting at a table with nine other world leaders across the stage from The Diplomats at the Royal Albert Hall, they hadn’t traveled all this way to talk with their hands.
“The truth of it is sir,” Gibson’s Chief of Staff had explained at a meeting in The Oval Office three days before, “is that they came here with a grave misunderstanding about us and now they’re very disappointed.”
President Gibson had sat at his desk as his Chief of Staff, Communications Director, Secretary of State, and NASA liaison attempted to explain to him what had gone wrong with the first contact and what their options were now. The Diplomats had agreed (as far as the think tank could decipher) to stay on Earth at Leeds College of Music as long as the college’s archives still had recordings to play them.
“Sir,” the NASA liaison stepped in, “we’ve been able to get some rough ideas about The Diplomats and their species using some visuals one of them provided us. They seem to have first learned about us when they intercepted the Voyager I satellite some fifty years ago. They siphoned through the information we had left on the satellite; some D.N.A. samples, sounds of nature, greetings in several different languages. They were mostly unimpressed or confused by it. But when they heard samples of the music that we had placed on the satellite, they became fascinated with us.”
The Diplomats, as they’d become known, had appeared a week ago. Not showing up on Earth’s sensors until they passed Mars, the nations of the world had had very little time to prepare for their arrival. A meeting of global powers was called together and, as it was predicted the craft would land on British soil, a gathering was devised and signals were sent to attract the visitors to a field twenty miles outside the city of Menston.
“You see sir,” the NASA liaison continued to explain, “along with Voyager I, several other probes have been sent into space from other countries and private organization over the years containing different samples of human culture and physiology. The Diplomats’ species have sought out these satellites and collected all the music from them.”
The ship had appeared in the early hours of the morning and heeded the intended landing zone. When The Diplomats had come out of the ship, dressed in what turned out to be protective environmental suits, British Prime Minister Charles Greene was the first to greet them. He approached carefully and welcomed them to Earth in peace. It was then, in what would be described later as a very disciplined harmony, The Diplomats began to sing an a-capella version of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
“Okay,” said Gibson at the Oval Office meeting, “so they’re music lovers. That doesn’t explain what happened at the landing, or why they now want to leave without talking to us.”
“Talking is the problem, Mr. President,” his Communications Director said. “The Diplomats seemed to have mistaken our music for our language.”
Gibson looked around at the group to see if anyone was going to elaborate on this.
“So there’s been a miscommunication,” said Gibson when no one spoke up. “If we can decipher all of this and get at least a tentative grip on their language, why can we not explain to them that our music is an art, and we have a different system for communicating.”
There was an uneasy silence in the room. Gibson had served as President long enough to know that it was the silence that came before someone was about to tell him he was completely wrong.
“This is where things become more difficult, sir,” his Chief of Staff explained. “From what we’ve been able to gather about the Diplomat’s species, their scientific and social accomplishments so far surpass ours that there is no real reason for them to speak to us. The only reason they have bothered to come here is they believe we have invented the most intricate and advanced language they have ever heard. If they find out that our music has nothing to do with how we communicate, they will mark us down as an unimportant species and possibly never come back.”
“Sir,” the NASA liaison spoke up. “It must be understood what an advantage an alliance with their species could mean for us. Once we were able to calm The Diplomats down at Leeds College, they presented us with an offering in order to show their peaceful intentions. Mr. President, the contents of this gift contains materials that may add another row to the periodic table of elements, equations that could change the laws of thermodynamics, and this is just their welcoming gift. If we fail to form some type of understanding with them we would be missing out on a chance for humanity to advance a thousand years in a decade.”
Gibson pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose in an attempt to fight off the headache this was giving him. He was Nobel Prize winning economist, whose legacy was supposed to be record breaking job numbers and a lowered national deficit. He did not wish to be remembered as a failure due to his lack of music appreciation.
“We do have one advantage sir,” said his Chief of Staff with shaky confidence. “While The Diplomats are annoyed with what they’ve perceived as us being uncordial, we think at least one of them believes the faux pas was on their end. Through some rough translations, we’ve convinced them to sit down for a meeting.”
The meeting was what brought Gibson to The Royal Albert Hall three days later. He sat alongside the leaders of Britain, China, Russia, France, Canada, Israel, India, Germany, and Japan at a long table opposite The Diplomats on the main stage. The remaining countries’ UN representatives sat in the audience. In the orchestra pit sat a hundred “translators”, the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
The idea had come from the rushed out think tank of linguists, anthropologists, diplomats, and futurists. The Diplomats would speak for themselves through the songs they had memorized. These songs would be interpreted for the world leaders who would then tell the think tank how they wished to respond. The think tank, in turn, would tell the conductor what piece to play. He would in turn conduct the L.P.O. It was hoped that such a grand display would charm The Diplomats into coming to terms.
The Diplomats began the proceedings, first by performing Vivaldi’s “Spring” from Four Seasons, which the think tank had guessed meant “We come in peace.” It was at the conclusion of this that the first hiccup occurred. Before the L.P.O. were able to respond in kind, “Chanson du Toréador” from Bizet’s Carmen suddenly began to sing a solo version of Tiahua’s Zhu Ying Yao Hong. As she performed, the think tank poured through their notes. After paring down what the rhythm, notes, and tempo seemed to indicate in other pieces, they sent a note to the teleprompters at the world leader’s tables that they were seventy percent sure that the song was an apology for a social mistake (and responding with Tiahua’s Guāngmíng Xíng should indicate that the apology was accepted).
It soon became obvious that time was going to play a large factor in this meeting. Fearing that only playing partial pieces may insult The Diplomats, the introductions for The Diplomats and world leaders (who were represented by their national anthems) took more than an hour to get through. This ended up being one of the more bearable lengths of the summit.
A terrible cycle began right after the introduction. The London Philharmonic would play Salieri’s Sinfonia Veneziana to offer hope of a long and fruitful alliance. The Diplomats would respond with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, saying that they feared our violence and war (Stravinsky’s Les Augures printaniers had been allowed to watch a television while at Leeds and, while he could not understand what the horrid noise coming out of the broadcast was, he had been to enough other planets to know war.) The London Philharmonic would respond in kind with Pachelbel’s Canon to say that peace was the ultimate goal of humanity, and so on in that fashion.
Before long the songs began to repeat themselves as subjects were revisited. Beethoven’s Für Elise every time someone wanted to bring up space travel, The Barber of Seville’s “Overture” when someone wanted to imply humor, Kraus’s Symphony in C whenever someone wanted to say “I see where you are coming from but…” with a rebuttal orchestration follow up. While The Diplomats’ environmental suits allowed them to go without food or sleep, the musicians began having to rotate after two hours and the world leaders after seven. The musicians were treated for exhaustion and nerves in The Albert Hall’s lobby, while the world leaders were given private dressing rooms. It was in one of these dressing rooms that President Gibson, while allowing his V.P. to take over his seat, spoke to his Chief of Staff.
“Do you have any idea how this is going?” Gibson asked with a tone of confusion he was only comfortable using in front of his Chief of Staff and his wife.
Just as his Chief of Staff was about to go into a speech about historic uncertainty and great leaders of the past rising to the challenge, they both stopped and listened to the sound coming from the stage. A harp solo piece was playing, and after the full bodied Classical and Baroque music the night had been dominated by, the relatively quiet sound stirred Gibson. He walked back out to the stage and his eyes followed the world leaders and The Diplomats to a harp player sitting in the back row of the pit playing a slow, somewhat sad version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. He inched his way over to the table and tapped his V.P. on the shoulder.
“What’s happening?” he asked in a hushed whisper.
“Sort of a Hail Mary,” said the V.P. pointing over to the French President. “He thought the classical stuff was coming off as too pompous, he wanted to try an Impressionist.”
Gibson looked back over to The Diplomats table, who sat in full concentration.
“What are we trying to say with this?” he asked. His V.P. pointed to the teleprompter at the end of the table, seemingly annoyed Gibson was interrupting his listening. The teleprompter had one sentence.
We feared we were alone, but we hoped we were not.
President Gibson stood behind his V.P. and allowed the piece to finish. When it did, The Diplomats turned to each other, but only Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major BWV 1047 (First Movement) signed. When she was done, all the Diplomats rose together and began to sing Part II of Handel’s Messiah.
The world leaders looked to each other, and without speaking, looked to the conductor and urged him to play. The London Philharmonic prepared, and when the reprise of the famous “Hallelujah” chorus began, the L.P.O. joined The Diplomats.
The entire event had been guesswork, of course. With no Rosetta Stone to translate what either side believed these songs were saying, it couldn’t be confirmed that the summit had ended in success. Yet, to be in the Royal Albert Hall and hear Handel’s Messiah being played by The London Philharmonic, accompanied by the first intelligent alien life to visit Earth, it was hard not to believe something monumental had been accomplished.
Anthony McColgan is a science fiction writer and English teacher based in Boston Massachusetts.