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Ways of listening to a symphony

Jasmine Liu (’20) hears the San Francisco Symphony perform Mahler’s Sixth Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall pictured above (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jasmine Liu '20 heard the San Francisco Symphony perform Mahler's Sixth Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I avidly read all textual material at art galleries, museums and concerts, a didactic habit my parents drilled into me when I was young. As a result, I had already surveyed the San Francisco Symphony’s program notes on Mahler’s Sixth online before I arrived at Davies Symphony Hall. I held a few fast facts about this particular piece in the palm of my hand, each of which I had managed to memorize before I made my trip to the city. Mahler was at the happiest point in his life when he composed the Sixth Symphony. Despite being at the height of his contentment, he would soon be struck by three tragedies: the death of his daughter, the discovery of his heart disease and his dismissal from the Vienna State Opera. And according to the notes I had chowed down, this symphony represents his uncanny power of prophecy, integrating in the last movement “three hammer blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” As I was ushered to my seat, reading the same program notes a second time in hard copy, I found myself caught. As the concertmaster led the orchestra in tuning their instruments, it began gnawing at me that my propensity to not just read a text but exhaustively understand and internalize it was somehow getting in the way of my concert experience before it had even begun.

I chafed at my own compulsion to consume content at this particular concert when I started to sense a disconnect between the music and the text — the art and the frame — a disconnect that actively impeded on my ability to feel free in my enjoyment of the symphony. Politics, podcasts, startup pitches, news, conversations — if they’re broken, we’re told the problem can be fixed by good storytelling. Despite the accord granted to storytelling, there are few things that can be fully explained by the narrative form, let alone one singular story. Even when hegemonic narratives threaten to conquer the airwaves, the ruling logic is to advocate for counterbalancing them with more (alternative) narratives. 

Classical music presents itself as anomalous in a world dense with stories. Much of classical music, including symphonies like those of Mahler’s, cannot be well or fully described in narrative form, for the simple fact that there is no language involved. Unlike many other musical performances, most classical music concerts go by without a single word uttered from conductors or performers on stage. Even visual art, which can exist without language, can frequently feel more readable and hence graspable than the ethereality of music. Despite its innate resistance to narration, classical music is constantly threatened by the storytelling craze, teetering on the precarious brink of homogenization into the media landscape. Composer biographies, podcasts, TV specials, radio broadcasts and of course, program writing — all of these have proliferated as musicologists scamper to proffer solutions to the problem of classical music. 

What would it mean to resist the narrative form altogether, eschewing our craving for storyline and plot, refraining from the need to evaluate events real or imagined in ways that “make sense”? And in this case, what would it mean to do so in the context of classical music? It’s ironic writing about this topic from the standpoint of a music reviewer; the pressure to generate text about an experience that persists in escaping any attempt at description is part of what drives the proclivity toward storytelling in the first place. The appeal of superimposing storybook narratives onto pieces in the classical music repertoire is an understandable strategy for attracting new audiences, as the coterie of classical music aficionados balds in age and size. Indeed, the sparse research that exists on this topic indicates that providing historical information and verbal explanations of musical pieces at concerts helps a great deal in making newcomers feel welcome. Rather than proving that “understanding” a piece of classical music is the only way to experience it, however, these results simply demonstrate that we don’t know how to engage with the world around us in any different way.

Another recent experience I had, though far removed from concert-going, gestured toward a similar dilemma, one that concerns what avenues we have left if we temporarily, intentionally, take a leave from verbal or written explanation. A few Saturdays ago, I found myself in an unassuming Buddhist contemplation room in Berkeley, located in a retail complex otherwise populated by cheap Asian restaurants and test prep agencies. Although I’ve been a voracious consumer of loose-leaf Chinese teas all my life, it was my first time at a meditative tea-tasting session. As the tea master placed different varieties before us, attuning us to the aromatic subtleties, she chuckled to offer us a disclaimer. Often, she said, tea-tasters would read off tea labels and struggle to match the descriptions to their own sensory experience. “Where are the ‘notes of bergamot citrus’?” “I can’t find the ‘savory sage’!” “Can you distinguish the pineapple from the apple?” Just pay attention to what you detect, she reassured us. We often find ourselves so caught up in what we should feel or should understand that we peremptorily close ourselves off from events that have the potential to take us aback, for one reason or another. 

Admittedly, some pieces are better predisposed to tell stories than others. For example, oratorios, performed by an orchestra, choir and soloists, are set to librettos that illustrate biblical narratives. But in the overwhelming majority of instrumental pieces, the narratives on offer are contrived while assuming a tone of finality, forcing musical pieces into molds that simply don’t fit. Anyone engaged in the exercise of connecting the three hammer blows in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony to three unfortunate events that had yet to occur in his life when he composed the piece adopts an authority that would only be appropriate for God (the mere fact that different commentators have highlighted different tragedies that beset Mahler at the end of his life reveals the heavy hand of interpretation). Countless times now, I’ve observed fellow audience members struggle in their efforts to line up what they’ve read with what they hear, complementing the tea-tasters’ frustrations that were recounted to me in Berkeley. In a three-part series in “The Atlantic,” Benjamin Carlson goes so far as to suggest that, “the postmodern mind has a genius for stripping things… from their context. It’s time Bach… came in for his turn.” Rather than “stripping” music of its “context,” however, I’m only proposing that we be open to neglected modes of sensation, whether it is seeing, listening, “feeling touched” or something else that  struggles to be put into words. 

Nevertheless, I am well aware that the “radical freedom” of sensation is a false one. While attempting to conjure up a visual accompaniment to the slow movement of Mahler’s Sixth, for instance, I couldn’t stop myself from summoning hackneyed pastoral scenes. Meanderingly melodic in its use of strings and littered with the contributions of harps and cowbells, the second-to-last movement felt evocative of a Constable painting in moving picture. Listening to orchestral music in the 21st century often means that unwelcome, trite cinematic sequences will come to mind, not because they are necessarily natural companions to the music, but because we are all habituated with very particular associations of images and sound. But that is still not a reason to give up on trying to locate something surprising or authentic. Gilles Deleuze argues in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation that the eponymous 20th century British painter is singular in his command of non-representational painting, destroying cliché and shocking the viewer with the “violence of sensation.” While Deleuze highlights the artist’s role in breaking with artistic platitude, it remains the case that how we frame our art can encourage, for better or worse, the mediation of sensation. Letting go of our attachment to stories, if even just for a few moments, can suggest a liberating reframing of classical music.

In the San Francisco Symphony performance of Mahler’s Sixth last Friday, what arrived with complete clarity and alarm was the famous hammer blow, denoted in the score simply as Hammerschlag (German for “hammer blow”). Despite it being a defining element of the Sixth that, as I mentioned earlier, I’d read about in various sources, I did not anticipate the materiality, physicality and theatricality of the blow. Mahler prescribed for the piece a percussive instrument that could make a sound that was “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).” In contrast to many other performances viewable online, the SF Symphony elected in this concert to hang the unwieldy instrument beneath the choir stalls stage right (as opposed to inconspicuously among the thicket of percussion instruments in the back of the orchestra). Midway through the last movement, a single percussionist walked across the aisle into seating that had been emptied out (presumably specially for this piece), advanced to the instrument, swung back the large, wooden hammer, and struck with the force of his entire body. This choice in staging rendered the hammer blow optically intense and ominous, with the percussionist appearing as a phantom executioner. He remained in his position until the second blow, producing an air of foreboding and apprehension, one that resonated well with Mahler’s supposed conviction in the artist’s “power to intuit, even experience, events before they occur,” without being able to “escape the pain of such foreknowledge.” In this case, literally “seeing Mahler’s Sixth” was indispensable to feeling the coming of the “tragic,” an adjective that has become a nickname for the piece. Despite all the preparation I had done, I knew that I did not need any of it to be conveyed the feeling of dread and portent pregnant in the performance.

Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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