Last Thursday night I went to the Symphony for the very first time. Going to the symphony has always been an ideal of mine. An unrealized ideal. Until this year. Along with some friends, I bought a subscription to this season’s symphony in The City. We bought the student package. And our seats are not in the back row of the balcony. Those poor saps sit directly behind us. 🙂

One of my all-time favorite movies is the (non-animated version of) The Little Prince. At one point, the Little Prince is on one of the planets and he admits to what he does not know to the overbearing man who runs that particular planet by saying, “I’m ignorant!” This is how I feel about music. And, like the Little Prince, I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m ignorant. I’ve never taken a ‘music appreciation’ class; I didn’t grow up listening to symphonies; and I never practiced (nor learned) piano despite twelve years of lessons.

So as I sat there on Thursday night, one row from the back wall, all I could do was experience the music. This, for someone immersed in a PhD program, is pure delight. I don’t have the language to think the music through. I don’t have a single tool in my box to take any piece of it apart. I don’t know enough to know if I’m being manipulated, charmed, or legitimately astounded. I’m ignorant. A musical simpleton. A blank slate. Naive. A dolt. And I loved it.

The first piece was a premier of a modern composition by Wolfgang Rihm called Verwandlung (Metamorphosis). It was nearly impenetrable. It followed not a single conventional rule of music. Rihm comments, “I felt instinctively that I had no other choice but to do what I really wanted, what stemmed from nothing but my subjectivity.” These words put me on alert–as an artist in other ways, I think such a beginning place leads to tremendous self-indulgence. This is fine, if one is creating for the sake of self-expression. But not all such creations need to be made public.

Even so, I opened myself to the experience of this composition, Metamorphosis. And in all my ignorance, I was moved by it. Truly.

As impressive as any part of the work itself was in the moments directly leading up to it when the conductor waited, for the most delicious amount of time, in utter silence. This, alone, I was captivated by. To hold silence with an entire crowd of people, gathered to hear music, in a room meant to conduct sound–it was inexpressibly breathtaking.

But then, the first notes opened out. They came together to give the distinctively uncomfortable feeling of feedback. Those strange harmonics merging into a nonsensical note. Beginning, then ending into nothingness. If there was any kind of motif in this composition, it was the discomfort of these notes joining up.

The composition was constantly beginning and ending, and breaking in between. Until, somewhere in the middle, a rattle began to gather. Gather. Cohere. The rattle itself unsettled because it was unintelligible–it fell on the ear like noise, nothing else. A mistake. But as it gathered and cohered, it began to be intelligible, but no less unsettling. Because I slowly realized it was the sound of a military drum. A march. And not long after it becomes intelligible, it swells terrifyingly close, then almost as quickly distances again. A perfect doppler effect created of troops marching close enough to rattle the living room windows. Images of the Prague Spring seemed to flood the space for me. I can only imagine invading troops through the images of movies.

In the midst of these drums, which came in close one more time, one of the percussion guys grabbed two pieces of plywood hinged together at one end, and slapped them together several times. It was a whimsy to the piece that was entirely visual. I loved it.

After this, the composition, well, de-composed again. It fell off into pieces, beginnings, false starts, endings, broken. The motif of feedback trembled back now and then. Until the same opening note(s) quivered again, and the piece ceased.

Later, as my friends and I pondered it, one of us asked why it would be called Metamorphosis–because nothing happened in it, the composition went no where. The question got me to wondering–if you engaged with the piece as though it started with the opening sounds, moved through a middle (whose point would have been the military drums), and ended with the closing sounds, then the piece, indeed, went absolutely no where. But what if the beginning were not the beginning? And the end, not the end? What if the beginning for this piece was the military drums? And the rest of the composition moved out from the center, like ripples do after a stone is dropped in a lake? Then the metamorphosis is the shifting of space through music that results despite the terror of invading soldiers. Then music, even broken music, becomes transformative of terror.

And now, as I write this, I glance down at the playbill from that night’s composition. And I discover this paragraph:

Yet for all the presence of traditional genres and instrumentation in his music, Rihm’s approach to composition eschews linearity and the classical concepts of beginning and end. Much of his work involves a fascination with juxtaposing fragmentary elements. He learned, too, from Debussy, the dynamic nature of form not as a pre-existing pattern but as something that must be invented ‘from scratch’ with each new piece. For Rihm, form is ‘the shape of change.’ Like the self, form must be constructed according to specific and unique circumstances.

Well. How ’bout that??? Not bad for a neophyte, huh? I still don’t know if the piece has any real artistic merit. I worry that I was taken by the nose and manipulated into thinking that because the piece was so impenetrable, surely it must have meant something. But I was glad for the ride into a world where I was not asked to be expert.

I know this entry is ridiculously long already, but I’ve been wanting to write about this stuff for three days now. So I want to add one more observation.

We moved into more acceptable territory for the remainder of the evening’s performance, with R. Strauss and Brahms rounding out the bill. And yet, because of the first piece, my ear was opened to hear the dissonance and occasional cacophony of both Strauss and Brahms (and both surprised me). And, because of the gorgeous silence which opened us out at the beginning, I felt the moments of silence which dappled through the evening to be every bit a part of the music as the notes themselves. Even the rustle of the pages as the musicians switched pieces between songs (and before the agreed-upon concluding applause) seemed to play a secret-laden role in the night’s performance.

It was just a lovely, magical experience.

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