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Music Box

Long ago, I was enthralled with soundscapes on tape. They were stories I loved, read by actors, and they painted a lush picture in my mind every time I listened.

While writing Zōsan and Tamaishi, I always knew I would write music to go along with them.

For a few weeks, Eliot requested to listen to a particular piece every night, falling asleep with it playing on repeat. I sensed he had a connection to it that I wanted to preserve. It was a written for the character Tayoki, a sparse piece played on a Japanese koto, but played in such as way that it echoes both Asian and Celtic sensibilities.

I’ve come to realize that part of my vision is create a tangible legacy: artifacts Eliot and Marcel can hold and remember. So I set out to create hardbound books and boxes for them. I plan on burning the audiobooks to millennial discs, which is my best shot at data longevity.

But it occurred to me: we have music boxes forty years old that still play. One is from Christine’s childhood that plays Happy Birthday, with a small wooden train and a place for a small wooden number. Another music box plays a tune I can’t name but two little figures twirl and dance around as the box spins. And of course, we have the Fisher price record player, although this one takes AA batteries an no longer actually reads the plastic records like a music box should.

Happy Dance!

So while I can do what I can do preserve all these things while I’m still here, I couldn’t shake the idea of making a custom music box — because I want to make things that my great grandchildren read, hear and experience. A music box, though archaic is made of metal and is an artifact that would survive generations. But… how to do it?

This dream would lead me down a number of paths. I thought about doing it myself but I have little skill in metal, nor do I really have the time to pursue it. I contacted Sankyo in Japan since their site suggested they might make a music box with a new tune, but declined, saying they could not ship anything outside of Japan. A company out in Hollywood claimed to do so but never got back to me after the first email. There were digital options but these never were satisfying. Batteries wear out and might become unavailable, and it would defeat the purpose, which was to make this something that would be playable for generations.

Ultimately I found an artist in Vermont, Jonathan Herz, who is still creating these musical time capsules of old. His best work is astounding: mechanisms that can play for minutes, subtly shifting their oversized cylinders to a different section of the piece through meticulous and immaculate mechanical movement. They are never something I’ll be able to afford. But one thing he was able to do was modify an existing music box movement.

That seemed like it would make this possible.

I was able to find one at a woodworking store online. It was a genuine Sankyo 30-note movement that played Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. I took it as a sign that this was meant to be, because that particular piece happens to be one of my favorites. So I jumped in.

The process took several months. I had to reduce the original piece that lasted over a minute and a half down to thirty seconds. I was able to piece together some of the best parts into one arrangement. I sent it as a MIDI file to Jonathan. He had a wonderful suggestion to add a bass line to the piece which really enhances the second half.

When it was complete and silently arrived at my door I was overjoyed. It had really happened: a piece of my music, carefully inscribed on this tiny metal cylinder, singing its twinkling song to me.

I hope this is something that Eliot and Marcel will keep to remember me. Eliot in particular will probably be whisked away to distant memories of his dad, falling asleep peacefully saying “I love you Daddy.”, as I am transported when I listen to my music box that plays Swan Lake, remembering a time from long ago. All from a little wind up box.