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The Voynich Variations

Edoardo Albert is a writer and editor, born and based in London. He has one wife, two sons and he used to have three cats, before the feline incomprehension of traffic codes and old age rendered the household catless. The best reaction he ever had to his writing was when a friend was reduced to helpless, hysterical laughter after reading a short piece. Unfortunately, the piece in question was a lonely hearts ad. It was probably the bit about tickling a wolf's belly that did it (no, don't ask). He thinks his writing has improved since then, but he's yet to reproduce such a reaction.

Yes, it was an obsession. I can date its inception quite precisely: the evening of 15th May 2010, when my latest work was premiered by the Quadrivium Ensemble to critical incomprehension. This soon became, in the prose of those stunted creatures, bile. When even Mario Zucotta, the ensemble's leader, came to me and suggested certain changes to make the work more accessible, I realized that what I was doing was beyond even the most advanced musical intelligences. The only person who could appreciate my work was me. But the flowering of genius requires an audience outside itself. So, I withdrew.
That was when I became obsessed with the Voynich Manuscript. I'd been interested in it ever since I learned of this 16th-century text, composed in a script no one understood, interspersed with obscure drawings and diagrams. The author was unknown and, despite the attentions of the greatest cryptographers in history, its meaning had never been deciphered.
In disgust and defeat, many now claimed the manuscript to be nonsense, a parody of a cipher, nonsense screening nonsense.
But I was convinced it was real. In the weeks and months following my musical retirement--I note in passing that there were numerous inquiries as to my next work, all of which I ignored--I studied the manuscript, investigating the various theories about it and dismissing them as they became untenable. I woke up thinking about it, went to bed wrestling with it, and passed my days in intellectual combat against it. For, if there was one thing I had discovered, it was that the anonymous cryptographer of the Voynich Manuscript was a worthy opponent, possessing a mind subtle, and cunning, and deep. It was an honour to match myself against him (it was a man, I had no doubt of that; a woman could not have created its architectural structure); a greater honour to best him.
And, of course, I did.
The answer, as so often, came in the driftlands between wake and sleep, where I saw the strange characters of the script arrange themselves in an arc and... begin to play.
I woke, a gasp of exultation on my lips, a pen in my hand.
The manuscript was indeed a code, but one that concealed music. That was why it followed no linguistic semantic laws: it obeyed the laws of music instead.
With that insight, it was a matter of days for me to transcribe the manuscript and write down the score. Some of the instrumentation and orchestration was unclear, and much of the manuscript was merely noise masking its musical core, but the great bulk of it was obvious. Music has a logic of its own, a logic that I know better than any.
As I wrote down the music, I deliberately prevented myself from hearing it in my mind. I wanted to hear it as a whole, fresh, with no preconceived ideas. For this, modern-day composers have a great advantage: computers.
I programmed the score into my machine, switched off the phones, turned out the lights and sat down to listen to a music unheard for 600 years.
And the walls between the worlds opened.
"You took your time."
I confess, I was slightly taken aback. I turned, to see a man, dressed in the fashion of the 16th century, sitting at a desk, pen in hand, with spectacles perched on his nose and a nightcap on his head. He put down the pen and turned, creaking somewhat, to consult a grandfather clock. It told minutes, hours, days, months, years, and centuries.
"Hm." He stood up, putting down his pen. "I hope you do not have to wait as long." He took off the nightcap and laid it on the desk beside the pen. "A word of advice. Take less pride in your puzzle than I did; make it easier of solution, but not too easy, for only one may solve it if he is to become the gatekeeper." The man held out his hand.
I took it.
"Good fortune," he said.
"Who are you?"
"I was the gatekeeper." He nodded. "Now you are. Pardon me if I don't linger, but I have been engaged in this task for centuries. Now that you're here, I can depart." The gatekeeper opened one of the doors.
"Wait," I called. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Keep the gate, of course," he said, and closed the door behind him. As it shut, it disappeared.
Slightly breathless, I sat down at the desk. Doors, the gates into worlds, stretched in all directions as far as I could see. From some, I heard music.
I picked up the pen and began to write.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 17th, 2011

Author Comments

The Voynich manuscript is real. Scholars believe it was written in medieval times, most probably the 15th century, and it consists of 240 pages, written in a mysterious script, with illustrations that cover the gamut from herbal through astronomical to biological without casting any light on the manuscript's meaning. Codebreakers, including some of the specialists who broke German cyphers in the World Wars, have tried and failed to decipher the manuscript. The author's identity is also unknonwn. Now in the collection at Yale University, the Voynich manuscript remains one of the great mysteries of the world, and a salutary reminder that medieval man was no slouch intellectually.

- Edoardo Albert
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