The Curmudgeon


Saturday, May 08, 2004

Planetary Survey No.8: Soul Musicians of Rempulus Nineteen

The Poggles of Rempulus XIX are small rotund creatures with two mouths each. One mouth, equipped with jaws, teeth, and strong muscles to operate them, is used for eating; the other leads via a long and flexible trachea, lined with an intricate array of folds and filters over which the Poggle has extremely sensitive muscular control, to the powerful lungs, and is used for breathing and, almost as important, for vocalising.

The Poggles believe that the soul resides in the voice, and that all the sounds made by an individual during his lifetime, from birth-yell to death-scream, are stages in the soul’s gradual escape from the body. Silence is a sin on Rempulus XIX, and writing has been unknown for many centuries; not through any form of forced censorship, but because every Poggle finds the implications of the act genuinely horrifying. Verbal communication without the use of sound means, after all, that the soul, or a part of it, can be mechanically transcribed and permanently preserved in a form which will leave it completely unchanged and unchanging, in other words frozen and dead, potentially for all eternity. This appalling concept is one which the Poggle mind can scarcely encompass, let alone bear to meditate upon.

A thousand years ago it was customary, prior to executions, for the criminal’s confession to be transcribed, before his own eyes, onto tablets of stone, in order that the part of his soul which had urged him to the crime should spend forever in that dreaded silence, and never escape. The transcribing was performed by members of a sect known as the Penitential Mutes, which consisted of those who had lost through accident, or been born without, their voices, and who were thus regarded as no more than bodies without souls, miserably walking the world in the pink cowls which on Rempulus XIX signify mourning, utterly without hope of redemption. They alone, among the whole race of the Poggles, possessed the frightful secret of orthography; and when the order died out some six hundred years ago, the secret perished with it.

Between the demise of the Mutes (which came about largely thanks to the good works of St Grolgulus the Laryngologist) and the advent about a century ago of electronic recordings, there emerged another peculiar sect, the so-called Repeaters or Immortalisers. They offered, for a fee, to learn by heart various mannerisms, intonation patterns, and idiosyncratic turns of phrase belonging to their customers, which they then guaranteed to repeat at certain intervals after the customer’s physical death, thus ensuring the continuation of his soul. How frequently, and over what period of time, these repetitions were carried out was a matter for negotiation, and depended mainly on the size of the fee involved; a Poggle of great wealth could conceivably hire several generations of Repeaters to keep his voice alive across two or three centuries. The fees tended to be rather beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen, since the taking over of someone else’s soul, with or without that individual’s consent, was a risky business. Indeed, under some statutes a Repeater could be punished by having his throats cut, with the result that a proper death-scream (considered vital to the soul’s escape if the body died young) became impossible, so that the soul was left trapped in the body and compelled to rot away with it.

Sacred above all else to the Poggles is, as may well be imagined, music. They have no use for instruments, regarding them as grotesque and perverse attempts to imitate the workings of the true soul. All Poggle music is produced with the voice (which has an astonishing range and subtlety thanks to the huge variety and flexibility of the filters within the windpipe); but usually does not involve the use of words. Lyrics are not unknown, but they are used only in solo performances by their own authors, since if anyone else sang them it would of course count as Repetition, which is almost as grievous an offence today as half a millennium ago.

The peak of Poggle culture is the choir. Choral singing on Rempulus XIX, though, is not the exclusive province of a small specialised group of singers assembled on specific occasions to perform in front of a silent audience, but a necessary social event in which every single individual participates at least once a day, and often far more. Indeed, an individual who participates less than twice a day on average is generally thought to be "song-starved", and recommended for psychiatric treatment.

It is as yet unknown what peculiar balance of conscious and unconscious forces lies behind this odd and haunting phenomenon; the Poggles themselves believe that it represents the urge of all souls for mutual communion. What appears to happen is that groups of Poggles, not necessarily intimates or even previously acquainted, begin simultaneously and spontaneously to sing. There is no pre-arranged score and no single Poggle who leads all the others; the notes emerge from anything between two and a thousand throats in perfect harmony. This can happen without warning at any time of day and in any location where Poggles exist. On several exceptional occasions, such songs have lasted whole weeks and involved the populations of entire cities; until quite recently it was thought that events of this magnitude were purely apocryphal, until Lolglot, second city of the Claftish land mass, proved the sceptics wrong a decade ago by remaining in song for six days on end and causing the earth to shake for miles around. At the peak of their recital, on the fourth evening, the citizens of Lolglot could be heard halfway round the planet, and the event is still commemorated by the whole race of Poggles on every anniversary of its occurrence.