Sia led Presa into her home until they reached a locked door with another pressure seal fitted to the frame.
“May I ask why you have so many atmospheric seals? From what I have read about Terran construction, that seems quite unusual.”
“Several reasons,” Sia said as she put in a passcode that Presa tried not to memorize just yet. “For this room in particular, several of my instruments are very sensitive to moisture and pressure changes. Keeping a hermetic seal allows me to ensure they are kept properly in tune and avoid damage - particularly for some of the older ones.”
That was interesting! Presa had been about to ask if the instruments could not be preserved and stabilized to protect them, and how old some of them were when the door opened with a soft hiss and a gentle gust of wind from the higher pressure atmosphere escaping.
As they entered, she found her attention captivated by the space. Some kind of sound dampening material lined the walls, but there was a broad window looking out on another small garden and the sparsely wooded field beyond and an old battered looking couch that looked exceptionally comfortable where one could sit and listen while still appreciating the view.
A set of cases (with more environmental seals!) held exquisitely varnished instruments made of different types of natural materials, with strands made of what appeared to be spun metals running from the base to the tip, and a separate case displayed several long wooden wands with fibers that were suspended beneath what must be a gripping surface.
Presa was so captivated by them, wondering what sort of sounds they might produce, that she didn’t even notice Sia opening her suit until she heard the thunk of the helmet being placed on a small table.
She turned to finally get a good look at this odd human, and felt a sudden tightness in her core that made her gasp softly in surprise.
Sia’s skin was a warm sepia tone that seemed almost impossibly smooth, yet reminded Presea a bit of her own tawny bark, with silky amber hair that seemed to naturally curl into conical shapes that made her think of ovulate pods that were nearly ready to drop from a branch and spread seeds in hope of new life.
Her eyes were brilliant shades of sapphire that had a sparkling sharpness to them, and as Sia straightened up after stepping out of the suit, she was dressed in a close fitting set of charcoal colored tights and top that spoke of a toned body and disciplined training.
“You are beautiful,” Presa spoke without thinking, her mind spinning a bit with everything she had just taken in.
Sia’s cheeks took on a slightly warmer tone as she finally let Presea see her smile, just as confident and tightly controlled as the rest of her had been.
“I find you rather lovely as well,” Sia admitted with a surprisingly soft shyness to her voice. “But that is not what I wanted to show you. Please, sit down.”
Presa settled herself, folding herself into a comfortable position as the well worn couch sagged and shaped itself to her form.
Sia walked with an oddly slow grace to the instrument case and ran her hand slowly along the enclosures until she settled on one with an interesting variation of lighter brown and darker red tones in the lacquered wood.
There was a soft beep as the door opened, and once she had drawn the instrument from its resting place with an almost reverent respect, she brought it to a small stand in the center of the room before closing the case and selecting a wand with the same careful deliberation.
“May I ask what your instrument is called?”
Sia nodded as she placed the wand on a hook that jutted out from the instrument stand, then removed a cloth from inside of another small table and draped it over her shoulder.
“This is a violin,” she explained as she placed the base of the instrument on the folded cloth, then held up the wand. “It’s played with a bow, like this.”
Before Presa could ask more questions, Sia raised the bow in a strange grip, some fingers tucked into themselves, the others mostly around the base of the bow, with one seeming to float over the metal fitting at the end without actually touching it.
The first notes that came from the violin had a rich, clear sound, but Presa could notice a slight dissonance as Sia performed what seemed to be a tonal flow.
Judging by the soft ‘tsch’ Sia made, she noticed it as well. She made minute adjustments to the tension of the strands, then performed another flow that filled the room with sound that was now perfectly in tune.
Presa had been about to say something when Sia brought the bow back up, her body suddenly taut with tension as she closed her eyes for just a moment and took a deep breath.
Presa found herself stilling in turn, anticipation filling her until she felt ready to burst even though she knew it had only been a momentary pause.
Sia exhaled, and in the same moment her bow began to fly across the strands, her fingers moving up and down the long neck of the violin, holding down the strands at certain times, vibrating them at different frequencies and producing a sort of music that was as captivating as it was utterly alien to Presa.
Affini music tended to lean towards different sorts of rhythms, many taken from their original homeworld or the natural patterns of the various colonies and core worlds that the composers had come from. Even sophont species like the Rinans had musical cultures that could be more or less traced back to natural roots, mimicking local fauna or defensive measures against predators.
This was nothing like Presa had ever heard, the bow bouncing and sliding up and down as Sia’s fingers seemed to blur with motion, each touch of fiber to strand creating distinctly exquisite tones back and forth in patterns that seemed to rise, fall, or sustain in ways that made little sense to her, yet communicated an incredible sort of energy and joy with each beat.
Sia’s eyes were nearly closed in concentration as she played, shoulders dipping and rising with each movement, her entire form committed to the act of creation.
Without even realizing it Presa found herself swaying in time with the song, her fronds and vines flowing as she let the music move her in ways she’d never considered before. It was like the best parts of flying, falling, and spreading yourself wide beneath a brilliant sunrise all at once. She could just make out the way each rising and falling cascade of sound formed elaborate variations on tonal flows, but it was so intriguingly different!
The bow was actually bouncing on the strands from the speed of Sia’s play instead of drawing across the metal, and only slowed in the final notes, when she drew it out into a series of deeper, fuller notes as her fingers pressed into the neck to create a stirring vibration that made Presa’s xylem flutter.
When the sound finally died away, Sia looked up at where Presa was sitting, then looked away.
“Could you stop swaying? I don’t need another metronome.”
Presa stopped herself with an embarrassed noise. “I don’t actually know what that is.”
Sia checked from the corner of her eye to ensure she’d stopped moving before she looked back properly. “Ah - it’s a device to help keep the beat during practice.” She gestured toward a small black device resting on the table beside her while she put the violin and bow back on the stand, then reached down to set a silver pendulum that rose from the device into motion, a soft rhythmic click-click-click marking the time as it traveled back and forth.
Resisting the urge to move with it, Presa nodded. “We have something similar. It uses a metered release of liquid against a membrane to produce the same kind of effect.”
Sia genuinely seemed interested in that, and it made Presa fall just a bit more for her. “I suppose every civilization that makes music would have something like it. Convergent evolution.”
Presa nodded. “If I may ask - what was the piece you played?”
“Caprice for Violin number five, by an old Terran composer named Niccolo Paganini,” Sia answered as she picked up the bow, adjusted the metal fitting at the base, then gave the violin a careful visual inspection before she returned both to their cases.
“Can you tell me…” Presa considered what she wanted to ask while Sia shut the enclosures, and hoped she would be using the right words. “I wondered what might have inspired her song?”
Sia chuckled softly as she walked back to where she had been standing, but Presa noticed a slight wince as the human rubbed her hands together. “Well, first, Paganini was a ‘him’, but I’m afraid it’s meaning is a bit vague.” She looked back at Presa, making eye contact with a slightly warmer smile. “Have you studied humans? Our languages, or our history?”
Presa felt herself warm with embarrassment. “Basics, I’m afraid. Your common language, recent history since our contact with your species, but not a great deal else. I want to learn more, though.”
To her surprise, Sia seemed pleased by the answer. “A caprice is a word that is borrowed from old French. It means a ‘whim’, basically. A random idea or fleeting thought with no purpose behind it.”
Presa frowned. “Such a complex song doesn’t seem like a fleeting thought to me.”
Sia chuckled, but before she continued she opened the table’s drawer and pulled out a small bottle that Presa realized must contain some form of Terran medicine, shaking a tablet into her hand and swallowing it dry.
“That seemed unpleasant,” Presa observed as mildly as she could.
Some of the warmth drained from Sia’s face. “I’m used to it,” she said flatly, then seemed to nudge herself back towards the more pleasant topic. “Human history - what I suppose you’d consider Terran history - is sometimes difficult to maintain. The farther you go back, you find missing bits and pieces. Sometimes because it was written in mediums that decayed over time or became unreadable, sometimes because of leaders or propagandists destroying records and sources which didn’t agree with their desired message. Either way, the deeper you go, the larger the holes."
Presa hummed thoughtfully as she considered that. “Our history is much more extensive, but I am familiar with some of what you are saying. Our preservationists and archives are thorough, but it gets a bit fuzzy after a hundred thousand years.”
She would have expected most sophonts to be awed by that length of time, but Sia just took it in with another nod. “In Paganini’s case, he lived and wrote several centuries before humanity’s earliest attempts at space flight. His music survived and endured, despite the gulf of knowledge and time.” Her eyes grew a bit distant as she looked out of the window, her expression almost wistful. “There are some who think he wrote each of his Caprices to demonstrate his superiority - a challenge to other performers to see who could emulate his skill and technique. Others believe he did it as a way to demonstrate how much the instrument was capable of in skilled hands. I prefer that interpretation.”
“Mm. I could see the first version as well, but it’s a romantic thought.” Presa smiled a bit wider as she gave Sia another appraising look. “It seems gardening isn’t your only hobby.”
Sia gave another half-shrug. “Our history shapes our music just as much as our passions and our trials. Even contemporary works are shaped by the events around the composer and performers.”
“Interesting!” Presa stood, and started to pace a bit without really thinking about it. “I had wondered where your musical traditions grew from. What a fascinating difference!”
Sia tilted her head curiously. “Where do you draw your inspiration from, then?”
Presa turned, and gestured to the window. “The variety and beauty that surrounds us in the universe. From blades of grass to stellar cradles, there is rhythm and unique beauty in them all, and we attempt to capture them in different ways.”
“I have to admit I never considered the Affini making music of their own until you said you were a composer.” Sia’s voice turned a bit wistful. “I wish I could hear some of your work.”
“Well…” Presa looked back with a grin before extending her arm, letting some of the intertwined vines and shoots shift and adjust, opening gaps in her bark and branches while closing others.
Sia sucked in a sharp breath. “Presa…”
She paused and looked back at Sia with confusion at the human’s clear alarm. “I gave you my word,” she stated. “All I’m doing is adjusting myself. It won’t be quite the same as a kesra, but the sound I can make will be similar.”
Presa wanted to smack herself. As educated as Sia seemed to be, she shouldn’t have assumed she would know about Affini instruments given her own ignorance of human ones.
“A traditional instrument that creates sound through the movement of air through different chambers. Legends say the first ones were shaped from permineralized branches and the remains of some of the larger types of fauna on our ancestral homeworld.”
Sia seemed to relax a bit. “Sounds similar to some of the instruments we call woodwinds. It seems a bit like a bassoon, or perhaps a flute.”
Presa smiled. Better. “I would enjoy learning more about those later.”
That settled, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the movement of air in her body, her vines filling and opening the impromptu chambers as needed. The song was one she’d started to compose after spending time observing the movements of grasses in the winds of her birth world, from the gentle sway of the blades and stems in growing seasons to the frenetic spray of pollen and seeds as they became fertile and germinated. Her favorite section was one where she manipulated the tones and the beats to imply the whirling, uncontrolled dance as the currents carried them to new ground, eventually tightening into the quick and percussive trill as they drilled into the soil with the hope of finding enough light and nourishment to take root and sprout.