The physical component of this piece is a long thin booklet with a metallic silver cover. For this piece, one reads along in the printed manual as the audio plays. The text almost always corresponds, except in a few places where there’s a slippage between what’s printed and what’s spoken, and some hidden meaning shines through. The moments where the spoken words diverge from what is printed in the manual are represented <in these brackets>.
Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.
[Male narrator] Thank you for your purchase of ClearVoice for individual or business use!
[A jaunty, busy-sounding, slightly off-putting, Glenn Gould-ish piano riff plays in the background. The riff occasionally comes to a stop and a person plucks at the piano strings and then the riff starts up again.]
At your fingertips is a world of efficient, streamlined, secure communication like you’ve never experienced before. In today’s fast-paced world, you need to know your message is getting across. But how to compete with a never-ending stream of trivial distraction? The ClearVoice patented mind-to-mind communication protocol offers interference-proof access to your friends and colleagues when you need it most. Want someone’s attention? With ClearVoice, you’ve got it. To safely install the product, please follow along with our multimedia step-by-step instructions. The entire process will be complete by the time you finish this manual.
ClearVoice: cut through the babble.
A simple black and white line drawing, somewhat childlike and round, of four pairs of human hands resting on a flat, unremarkable surface, perhaps a tabletop. If we imagine a square table, there’s a person sitting on each side. The hands are folded as if in prayer. There’s a button placed at the center. The button looks like a hat with a flat, round brim.
Hi, I’m Doctor Simon. I’ll be guiding you through the upload process. It’s important that you keep reading along as you listen to the sound of my voice. Before we begin, let’s try a simple exercise in virtual interaction. When you hear the tone, I’d like you to tell me your name—but don’t say it out loud, just think it. [Chimes ring out and reverberate as if something deeply magical has just occurred.]
<Did you think it?>
While artificial interneural exchanges, such as the one we just had, may be perceptually indistinguishable from true telepathy, there is no real way for me to receive <intercept> your message across space and time... <yet>. ClearVoice is designed to remedy this problem.
Now we’ll briefly test your basic perceptual reflexes. You are going to see <hear> a bright light. No, you didn’t misread <mishear that>. You are going to see <hear> a bright light. [A high-pitched shimmering tone like a piece of glass glinting in sunlight crescendos.]
<Did you hear it?>
Once the ClearVoice procedure is complete, you will have a more flexible, less compartmentalized internal experience than what you’re used to. The more quickly you can acclimate to this idea, the more comfortable your transition will be.
[New woman speaks] My name is [ugly white noise like television fuzz redacts the woman’s name] and I work for [the corny sound of an X-ray gun shooting an alien from the 1960s television show again drowns the speaker out] Incorporated. They purchased the trial version of ClearVoice to address some workflow issues, and I thought it sounded interesting, so I volunteered! [Laughter] I am a Level-Two Floor Manager, which means I spend several hours a day touring our industrial warehouse on the [aggressive, fuzzy white noise] space station and taking really sensitive and precise measurements. The problem is, you always go in with a Quality Assurance Partner to corroborate your observations, but it’s [an interjection of Sonic Youth squall overshadows her next few words] impossible to talk while you’re on the floor because of the machinery, and the protective gear we wear means we can’t write notes or use sign language or anything, so you never [a cartoonish robot having a meltdown] really know what the other person is thinking. And then, when we’re done with our rounds, we have to spend a couple of hours in separate isolation booths for decontamination, and [a blast of radio static] you can’t use any kind of communication device in there. And then, after we leave the facilities, we’re supposed to file a joint report, but my Quality Assurance Partner, [the 1960’s X-ray gun effect returns], is based out of a station with a different time zone and day length [laughter], so it’s basically impossible to collaborate and we always end up just working on it separately. Anyway, at the end of the day, [an increasingly loud, scrambled sound one might expect to hear from a cartoonish UFO takes over] a lot of errors creep in because of all these communication issues. So I guess ClearVoice seems like a great solution!
There are two pairs of hands, in the same simple black and white simplistic style as before. Each hand holds a corner of a rectangle, seemingly flat, like a business card. The rectangle is blank. The perspective is slightly at an angle, and from above, as if someone is peering over the shoulder of one of the rectangle-holders.
Okay, now we’re going to try something a little more complex. When you hear the tone, think your self-identity code. A self-identity code is something you can use to confirm your own identity to yourself. For instance, say you traveled back in time and met yourself, and only had three seconds to telepathically communicate something that would let this other self know for sure that it was you and not a skilled impersonator or a hologram or simply a lookalike <insanity>, what message would you send to let yourself know it was really you? Think it now. [Chimes ring out, this time punctuated by the plucking of a distant guitar or perhaps the piano strings themselves.]
<Did you think it?>
Once you begin to receive inter-cranial messages, contemplating this phrase offers a way to confirm you are still present in your own mind <are you still present in your own mind?> This will alleviate the mild <wild> disorientation and potentially distracting sensations <debilitating pleasure> you may experience at hearing someone else’s voice in your head. Let me reassure you, there’s no need for any concern. Your post-procedure state will certainly be an improvement to the human default of internal <crippling> isolation. Once you’re able to communicate <commune> with others in this new way, you will no longer be inconvenienced <tormented> by the imprecision, misinterpretation, and inefficiency <distrust, paranoia, and loneliness> that so often impede our business and personal relationships. If you feel any lingering hesitation before we begin the process, repeat to yourself: I am isolated. I am alienated. I am utterly alone. <[whispers intimately, compassionately] You are isolated. You are alienated. You are utterly alone.> [Speaking again] Wouldn’t you like to change that?
[New man speaks.] When I heard that [scrambled white noise cuts in] was signing up, I thought it made sense for me to do it, too, since, you know, I’m her Quality Assurance Partner, and [blast of a jarring alarm] Incorporated needed a pair of volunteers. We’ve been working together for about... I wanna say, ten months? But I’ve never actually talked to her. I mean, [chuckle] our company picnics are literally in different orbits, so it’s not like we have much opportunity to hang out. Actually, I think I’ve only ever seen her out of the hazmat suit once. It was a few weeks ago. I was checking the launch bay safety cam to make sure no one was in there before I depressurized it. And normally [simple white noise, static] and I leave [the X-ray gun effect again] at different times, but that day, I flipped on the viewfinder and—there she was. On the screen. Waiting for her ride. And it was weird because, like I said, I’ve only ever seen her through billowing [a wobbly, flapping sound set against the mournful tone of far-off industrial machinery becomes increasingly loud then fades away] clouds of steam, in a bunch of gear, with a giant helmet on... but somehow I know right away... it’s her. [Talks quieter, tenderly] And she kind of pauses and turns to look at the camera—it’s a two-way feed—and I can tell that she knows it’s me too. And she kind of [a lovely and shimmering tone crescendos] ... half smiles. And I wave. Then her launch sequence completed and she got into her pod and left. You work with someone long enough, you sort of come to know them, even if you’ve never actually spoken to them, I guess.
[Contemporary, tasteful piano music plays throughout, slightly atonal but not unpleasantly so: one would expect to hear this in an art museum café. Someone plucks at the piano strings. Interspersed throughout is the occasional sound of the striking of a woodblock.]
[Male narrator] Western classical music: this hulking monolith of human achievement contains some of history’s most famous songs, from Beethoven’s Fifth to “The Blue Danube.” Conveniently, it has also implanted a sturdy synaptic framework into the mental apparatus of a large percentage of the world’s population. Chances are, if you were raised in a country whose natural or colonial history intersects with Western culture, when you hear this: [the music stops, someone strikes the woodblock, the speaker sings somewhat aggressively] Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti—you’d like to hear this: Do! [The woodblock, and then a bass note on the piano.] It’s inescapable.
[The music pauses, then starts up again.] Have you ever given your dog a pill? Perhaps you wrapped it in cheese or peanut butter, so that Fido didn’t even notice it going down? The ClearVoice install works the same way. We use a highly goal-directed, deceptively simple specimen of Western classical music to subliminally deliver a set of sophisticated commands directly to your synaptic structure. You won’t even feel your mind being rewired! So, as we begin the process, we invite you to sit back, relax, and let the music sweep you away.
From a side perspective, there’s a pair of hands, cupped, with some kind of unidentified mounded substance pouring through their fingers into another pair of cupped hands directly below. There’s an equal amount of the substance in each pair of hands, suggesting balance, harmony.
You’ve probably heard of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s music has a reputation for elegance, purity, and logic. It gives an impression of supreme refinement coupled with a certain distance from mundane concerns, which is why, in popular culture, titans of industry and technical geniuses <brilliant psychopaths and master manipulators> are often shown listening to Bach.
You are going to hear a recording of the first prelude from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” This prelude is renowned for the prism-like efficiency with which it expresses the central formal objective of classical music: to begin in a rooted place, to move away from this place, and then to return. Whether or not this piece is familiar to you, you will easily find yourself <you will not be able to resist> falling into its grooves. This will allow us to track and alter your brain waves as your mind is serenely floated <helplessly dragged> along a relentless harmonic path. We will take this path only halfway, however: at the moment when the prelude reaches maximum distance from its origin, the ClearVoice process will be complete.
In order for the procedure to work effectively in the deepest regions of your mind, the surface of your attention must remain with the music. Repeat after me:
There’s a music staff with a treble clef and three bass notes. Two of the notes are the same. The one in the middle is different, higher. Although I have taken piano lessons, clarinet, etc., it has been many years since these lessons, and I will not attempt to guess what notes these are. I just googled the notes, and they appear to be G-A-G. Beneath the staff is the word “Ah____”
[A woman sings three simple notes. The first and last note are the same, and the middle note is higher, like this: A-Ah-A]
Please continue to sing as the product is uploaded. And there’s no need to be self-conscious: remember, I can’t actually hear you. Yet. Let’s begin. [The woman repeats the three simple notes.]
Sing along with me please. A-Ah-A-Ah-A That’s it. Keep going. Good. Good. Don’t stop! [The lead woman sings the two simple notes, repetitively: A-Ah-A-Ah-A, as if leading a choir through a warm-up. Another voice clears their throat, then joins in, slightly hesitant. One by one, more voices join in, then a piano begins to play the prelude to “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”. A woman begins to “show off” by allowing her voice to rise up above the repetitive A-Ah-A-Ah’s. Soon another woman also suddenly goes from a remedial singer to operatic-level. A man joins in and harmonizes with the women.]
[Woman from testimonial] This feels amazing!
[Man from testimonial] How am I doing this?
[Dr. Simon] Keep singing! Good. Good. Halfway there.
[As the voices continue to harmonize, the song takes on a minor key, a much darker tone. It is difficult to tell how many people are singing. The voices sound farther away, yet more emphatic, creating a ghostly, haunting sound.]
Stay with me. Getting close. Keep going. Good. Good. Almost there now. Keep singing. Yes.
[The music begins to fade into the background. The lead woman returns to the repetition of A-Ah-A’s as the piano is suddenly abandoned. A final chord rings out.]
The process is complete. [The woman’s voice is multi-tracked and echoes. There’s a slightly sinister quality to the futuristic effect on her voice.] Welcome to ClearVoice.
[Man] Didn’t hurt a bit! I mean, that was definitely weird—I’ve never been able to carry a tune before so I don’t really know how all that worked. But at least I didn’t have to get brain surgery! I’m not really a classical music person, but I did recognize that song. I think I heard it in a commercial once... maybe for Time Warner. Or Allstate Insurance? Or... [the testimonial woman’s voice cuts in, fuzzy and obfuscated] T.D. Ameritrade?
[Man] Hello? What just happened?
[Woman, her voice echoing a little. There’s a layered effect, making it sound auto-tuned, staticky. Think Daft Punk.] Oh my god... Can you hear me?
[Woman] Can you hear me?
[Man] Yeah, yeah, I can hear you! In my head! Holy shit, this is so weird! Wait, hang on, let me try. Can—can you hear me? [His voice sounds softer, but also as if run through an autotune filter with reverb.]
[Woman] I think so? Say something else!
[Man, his voice echoing. It sounds mechanical and robotic.] Um, uh, testing one, two, three... Houston, we have a problem... Hello, hello, hello...
[Woman] Yes, I can hear you! I can hear you!
[Male narrator] Congratulations on a successful installation! You’re now ready to explore your new mental pathways and to begin your journey towards unparalleled expressive efficiency. Communication will never be the same again!
A hand and its shirt sleeve are rendered in the simple black and white style. The hand holds a compass without any other details on it besides the needle. The perspective is from the compass holder, looking down at this blank compass in hand.
While you should be able to quickly master basic intelligibility, other, more nuanced aspects of the product may feel strange at first. For example, the musical notes attached to your internal utterances. [Her voice echoes and takes on the effect described above.] These are designed to provide nonverbal communication cues, much like body language or facial expressions in ordinary communication. I recommend a few test sessions with a trusted friend or colleague. Before you learn how to control your thoughts, you run the risk of unintentionally exposing your deepest desires with this system, so it’s best to try it out in a low-stakes environment.
[Woman, her voice sounding layered, as if three people are speaking the same words. The layers harmonize with her, almost as if the voices are singing.] So... what did you think of my contributions to our last report?
[Man, his voice with the same effect] Um... I thought they were good!
[Woman] Oh, really?
[Man] Well, I thought your recommendation for how to realign the power converters was... interesting. [The layers of the man’s voice harmonizes in a minor key on the word “interesting.”]
[Woman] I think that’s the first time I’ve ever known what someone means when they have said something was “interesting.”
[Man] Okay, my turn. What do you think about... me?
[Woman] What do I think about you?
[Man] Sorry, I don’t know why I said that...
[Woman] No, it’s okay. This is the first conversation we’ve ever had and we’re having it inside our heads. I think it’s okay to go beyond chitchat.
[Man] It’s just... you’re all I can think about right now... sorry, that’s weird.
[Woman] No, it’s... Do you remember, a few months ago... we were circling around the plasma banks and you lost your footing?
[Man] Yeah, I remember...
[Woman] And I know we’re not supposed to be in physical contact on the floor, but I just instinctively [the vocal effect suddenly becomes striking and intense] grabbed you...
[Man] I remember...
[Woman] Afterwards, in the booth—even though I was alone, it was like I could still feel you, in my grasp...
[Man] I felt your handprint on my arm for days...
[Woman] I guess that’s what this reminds me of...
[Man] Me too. Me too.
[The tasteful contemporary piano music returns briefly.]
[Male narrator] Now that our product has been permanently installed, we’d like to inform you about a few minor side effects. [The music stops.] You may experience light vertigo [chimes]. You may experience intense euphoria [the chimes again]. You may lose track of where you end and others begin, and float away on a tide of oceanic feeling.
[Man] Should we try to write a joint report or something? [The man’s voice has the multi-layered, auto-tuned effect; it echoes throughout the conversation, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility.]
[Woman] What is a joint report? [The woman’s voice is similarly affected throughout the conversation.]
[Man] I don’t even remember [chuckles].
[Woman] I can’t even tell [intelligible mumble]. Is that crazy?
[Man] I can feel your handprint over [unintelligible].
[Woman] I feel like I suddenly have a thousand [unintelligible].
[Man] Too dark to see before, but now…[Woman] like I’m a thousand times more [unintelligible]… [Man] with brilliant light... [Woman] some other way... yeah, yeah... some other [unintelligible]... [Man] Exactly, I know exactly what you mean, everything you mean [unintelligible].
[The sound of ringing chimes, then an ominous piano chord is struck dramatically.]
[Male narrator, his voice echoing and sounding far away. Atonal piano chords and chimes play as he speaks.] Thank you once again for your purchase. You are now a part of us, as we are part of you, forever and ever inextricably linked. Feel free to distribute these materials, and please refer us to colleagues, friends, lovers, enemies, and strangers. Soon, all of humanity will resonate as one, in an infinitely blooming intersemiotic harmony.
ClearVoice: Melt into the babble. [Chimes]
Four hands are drawn in the simple black and white style. Four of the fingers of one hand (A) connect to the thumb of the other hand (B), as if merging into one. In this same way, the index finger of (B) connects to the index finger of (C). The pinkie of (B) connects to the index and middle finger of (D). There are no boundaries between the hands.
Don’t you see? [A bright, high-pitched sound like a beam of light.] The dissolving of the boundary between the self and the nonself is not a tool for improving daily life. It is a better life. Only when we eliminate individual point of view will the suffering caused by our myopia, our apathy, our intolerance finally cease. If you find yourself desperately clinging to the limitations and prejudice that once comprised your being, repeat to yourself: You are understood. You are fathomed. You are. <I understand you. I fathom you. I am you.>
Let’s try one more exercise. When you hear the tone, think something that exists deep inside you that you keep viciously hidden, some feeling or memory or tic that you know no one would ever understand, that would disgust and disappoint anyone who heard it and leave you forever shunned. Think! Now!
Did you think it?
[The prelude to Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” begins again. It’s a deceptively simple melody played with one hand which becomes increasingly complex and dark.]
Maybe you thought something. Maybe you even said something aloud. Maybe your mind went totally blank and you couldn’t come up with anything. Or maybe you tried to make your mind blank on purpose. It’s okay. I heard you.
[The man and woman’s voices begin speaking as “The Well-Tempered Clavier” continues in the background. The harmonic effect on the voices, and their occasional unintelligibility, combined with the piano slowly builds into a swirling, confusing, sinister, euphoric, ominous morass of sounds.]
[Woman] Once we’re all gone again… [Woman] Just outside the window… [Man] [unintelligible] … [Woman] I feel like we’re in a great big… [Man] [Unintelligible] [Woman laughs] [unintelligible] does that say something… [unintelligible] [Man] [Unintelligible] [Woman] move your head… [Man] take my hand. Take it take it take it— [The woman laughs a little, then inhales sharply, almost as if gasping. The voices and piano music cut off. Silence.]
Kate Soper is a Pulitzer Prize–nominated composer, performer, and writer, whose work explores the slippery continuums of expressivity, intelligibility, and sense. Upcoming projects include the premiere of her third opera, The Romance of the Rose; an album of works for voice, piano, and electronics; and HARK, a play for actors and a string quartet. She is a co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble.
Patrick Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s). He lives in Denver.
Woshibai is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Shanghai. Working entirely in monochrome, Woshibai’s illustrations are minimalistic yet focused. His clients include the New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Apple.