Silas was the son of a watchmaker, but although he dutifully followed his father’s craft, he dreamed of becoming a musician instead. By day he toiled in the workshop, greasing gears, replacing springs and calibrating the minute mechanisms of the brass pocket watches that his father sold for a hefty sum. His skill with the watches was unparalleled, but he found no joy in it. In the evenings he played music. One month he’d practise the trumpet, the next it was the violin, then the clarinet, then the piano. At night he memorised scales and studied the great composers.
Silas’s father indulged his hobby and listened wistfully to many impromptu recitals when the working day was done. So it came as no surprise when Silas announced his intention to audition for the Duke of Lukenberg’s Orchestra, which comprised the finest musicians in the city.
“Just don’t be too disappointed if they don’t respond how you expect,” he said. “Who knows how music sounds to someone else’s ears?”
Silas was used to receiving such abstruse advice from his father, so he paid it little mind.
The audition took place in the grandest concert hall in the city: a vast room with tiered rows of seats reaching up to a painted roof, illuminated by modern electric lights. The conductor, impresario and principal violinist sat stiffly in the front row, waiting while Silas shuffled onto the stage.
“In your own time,” said the conductor, tapping the floor with his foot.
Silas brought the clarinet to his lips and started playing a difficult piece that he’d practised long and hard. Eight bars into the music, the principal violinist leaned across and whispered to the conductor, who waved at Silas.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “I think we’ve heard enough. Good day to you.”
Silas disassembled his clarinet and hurried off stage, crestfallen and embarrassed. He paused for a moment in the wings and caught some of his judges’ conversation.
“What was his name? Silas?”
“If only it were Silence.”
“Silence would’ve been easier on our ears!” Their laughter echoed in Silas’s ears long after he left the concert hall.
Over the next few weeks, he devoted himself to the workshop and avoided music altogether. A letter soon came bearing the Duke’s blue wax seal. It confirmed that his application had been unsuccessful and that he would not be eligible to audition for the orchestra again for five years.
Silas fell into a deep depression, his confidence shattered. The worst thing was that he didn’t know what he’d done wrong. Which parts of his technique needed improvement? What mistakes had he made?
One day he came across a remarkable instrument in a dusty second-hand shop: a self-playing piano. You fed a long roll of paper with many holes into the top and cranked a handle on the side. He was so enchanted that he used all the money he’d saved to buy the piano and bring it back to his father’s workshop. He took it to pieces and studied every component in detail.
He soon wondered whether any other instruments could be redesigned to play themselves. For months, he experimented. Though most of his attempts failed, he learned a great deal, and his ambition grew with his skill. He began sketching plans for a vast, interconnected machine that would be capable of replicating the sounds of an entire orchestra. The machinery would be housed within an enormous wooden box the size of a church organ. It would be driven by gears and springs and steam and contain an array of pipes, piano strings, drums, bellows and even a bell.
As Silas began construction, he was forced to relocate his rapidly expanding project to a crumbling, disused music hall on the edge of town. Word of his unusual project spread across the city. People started dropping by to watch the strange machine take shape. Some even offered to help. Soon a dozen craftspeople were working on various components, following Silas’s specifications.
Five years after he bought the self-playing piano, the machine was finally ready. Anticipation reached fever pitch. Newspapers hailed the first performance of the “Auto-Orchestra” and tickets changed hands for exorbitant prices. People filled every inch of the old music hall. The three grandees from the Duke’s orchestra were once again in the front row.
Silas had programmed the machine meticulously, using a more complex version of the perforated paper from the self-playing piano, but he was still very nervous. When the time came he walked onto the stage, bowed to the audience, pulled a lever and watched the machine come to life. Music filled the hall. It worked just as Silas had planned. But within a few seconds the music was drowned out by the noise coming from the audience. People were shouting and plugging their fingers into their ears and scrambling for the exits.
“What a dreadful din!”
“Is this a practical joke?”
Some ranted angrily, others snorted with laughter. Once again, Silas didn’t know what had gone wrong. What did they hear, that he couldn’t? He’d studied music all his life, yet what to him sounded beautiful was a discordant din to everyone else.
As the last audience members departed, Silas sat down and rested his chin on his chest, defeated.
The watchmaker found his apprentice slumped in a chair in the middle of the empty hall, still as a statue. Settling down beside him, he flipped the brass switch on the nape of his neck and set to work with his tools. Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d been wise to create this clockwork boy who dreamed of scales and symphonies. Would the music machine the boy had made one day have dreams of its own, and build instruments in its own image?
And so on, and on, into infinity.
Jack Curran lives and writes in Oxford, in the UK.