Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Sound of Silence

The following is a copy of an email I wrote to a good friend of mine late at night on May 28, 1994.  I had just returned from a performance of the Mahler Ninth Symphony and I was in a state of total inspiration.  I sat down at my computer and just typed it out, sending it on its way at 2:15 am.  For many years it has been on my Bob Dylan Bibliography website and it is the page that I have pointed friends and clients to more than any others.  I decided that it should also be on this new blog, but thought it might benefit from some editing before I published it on the blog.  So tonight I read it over for the first time in quite a long time and decided not to edit it, other than a few punctuation changes.  Otherwise, I decided that I had pretty much said it all that night, and so I have simply reformatted it for this medium.  I hope you enjoy it.   Ron

The Sound of Silence

I just got back from the SF Symphony performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. It was a most amazing experience, in a most unexpected way. I'm writing this partly as my way of reliving and duplicating what occurred, and partly to keep myself from being stuck in the win of it for the rest of time.

One hour before the concert, as they often do, they had a lecture on the music by a local musician, conductor and teacher (Robert Hughes). Being a big fan of Mahler's music, I went to the lecture. It was very informative, as he described the various themes, tempos, orchestrations, and so on used by Mahler. Examples were given throughout, by playing short passages of the music on tape.

Just a little bit about the symphony itself. It consists of four movements. The outer two (1 & 4) are about 30 mins each. The inner two are about 15 mins each. I don't know whether you're at all familiar with Mahler, but he uses very complex orchestrations with every instrument having it's own voice. Solo passages come soaring out at various points from all sorts of different instruments.

The speaker made the point that Mahler gives the second violins their own voice, rather than merely having them give depth or support to the first violins. Because of this, he said the conductor (Herbert Blomstedt) had decided to use a placement of the performers that was becoming common in Europe for the Ninth.

Instead of having all the violins on the left of the conductor, with the 1st violins on the outside and the 2nd violins on the inside, he was placing the 1st violins in their usual position, but the second violins would be on the right side of the conductor. This would have the effect of separating the voices so they could be more easily heard. This moved the cellos to the center, where their sound could more easily radiate directly out at the audience. The violas were to be in their usual position to the right of center, but now just inside of the 2nd violins on the outside.

This did seem to have the intended effect, as the stereo separation of the 1st and 2nd violins was pronounced, and the cellos could be easily heard even in the most pianissimo passages. (By the way, my seat was in the exact center directly behind the conductor, but in the last row of the orchestra box seats at the very back of the hall).

The lecturer described the complexity of the long first movement, with many recorded examples. The program described it as "surely Mahler's greatest achievement in symphonic composition.... the high point of Mahler's own practice in the deep and subtle art of transition, of organic expansion, of continuous variation." It's tempo is basically semi-slow, but spilling over into allegro. And it is very very rich.

The short second movement is Mahler's rewrite of a then-popular dance by Johann Strauss. Mahler's version is much more expansive and leisurely. He uses three different tempos in the movement, but they are all faster and lighter than the first.

The third movement is music of violent urgency, which Mahler wanted performed "very defiantly." The tempo is fast. He describes the style as "Burleske." There are virtuosic displays by various instruments, an echo of an exuberant march, and jagged themes transformed into tender warm melodies. Finally the fierce music, returning at still greater speed and in more ferocious temper, brings the movement to its crashing (and I do mean crashing) cadence.

The final movement is like a mirror of the first in some ways. It is s-l-o-w, an Adagio. The lecturer made the point that even though the 1st and 4th movements are both 30 mins long, the 1st takes up something like 40 pages in the score. The 4th takes up only 16 pages. The notes are held a l-o-n-g time.

He made the point that it was actually very demanding on the audience. After a full hour of concentrated attention, the final movement presented a slowly moving, but richly textured hymn, heard from the many different voices of the orchestra. It would continue for the final 30 mins of the piece.

From the program again: "... disintegration begins. All instruments but the strings fall silent. Cellos sing a phrase which they can scarcely bear to let go. Then, after great stillness, the music seems to draw breath to begin again, even slower than before: Adagissimo, slow, and ppp to the end, Mahler warns... More and more, the music recedes, a kind of polyphony to the last, the cellos and second violins gently firm, the first violins and violas softly afloat. Grief gives way to peace, music and silence become one."

The lecturer ended by saying that as the various instruments gradually drop out, we would come to experience the most wonderful silence in the end.

My thought at the time was that it would be a very short-lived silence indeed, as the applause of the audience would surely come crashing in upon it, as it always does. In some cases, I have found it annoying that between movements of a work, the audience seems to go into fits of coughing and shuffling, as though they were children in church finally released from the warning glares of their parents. This has sometimes broken the mood of the piece for me, and has seemed like one advantage of recordings over live concerts.

So then the concert itself. The music was very much as described by the lecturer and the program notes. Everything seemed to be going along as expected. The various movements were as described. The audience did their usual number between movements. And then we came to the last movement.

It rolled along in its langourous way. Near the end, the brass dropped out for good. The percussionists had taken their seats behind the tympanis. The passages became quieter and quieter. Amazingly, so did the audience. A pin dropping would have echoed above the receding tones of the music. There was no coughing, no uncomfortable shuffling, no rustling of programs. Everyone was transfixed by the mood of the music. The cellos barely whispered their tones. The first violins quietly breathed their last. The second violins and violas floated out their pianissississimo strains.

And then it was over.

Only... it wasn't! The second violins and violas were the last. But when they played their final notes, they just barely raised their bows above the strings, not budging in any other way. The conductor became frozen, with his arms in the air, just as when he was conducting.

And he was still conducting! Only now he was conducting the silence! No one moved, the concert hall was completely enveloped in peace. With the conductor's arms still up, and the violin bows still poised above the strings, no one dared to applaud. If they were wrong and it was not the end, their clapping would be a rude interruption of the music. And I'm sure that was exactly what the conductor intended!

And so the silence continued in the most delicious and satisfying way, as the final coda, until finally the conductor lowered his arms. The audience literally gasped, as they remembered to begin breathing again. And then gentle applause began, gradually giving way to full applause.

The effect was literally electrifying!

There were many curtain calls, as the conductor had each of the many soloists, and each section of the orchestra stand for their applause. He brought the retiring flutist to the front of the podium for his applause. And finally it was over.

I walked out of the concert hall, and stood just outside the doors watching the crowd pour down the stairs toward the outer doors. I just stood there not wanting to leave, thunder-struck by what I had just experienced. I had never heard silence performed before!

I stood there for about 15 mins as the concert hall emptied out. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer and I approached a small woman who was standing near me. "Have you ever heard such beautiful silence before?" I asked. She beamed and began gushing about how wonderful it had been. She said she was waiting for her daughter, who was the concert master of the youth orchestra, and she was so glad her daughter had been there to experience the silence.

Somewhat relieved that it had not been just my imagination, we discussed how special it had been. How it had been deliberately created by the conductor.

I went down the stairs, and stood outside on the street for a while, again discussing the silence with some other people, not wanting to leave. Finally I walked around the outside of the concert hall toward the orchestra's entrance. A group of four or five of the performers came out. I asked a trombonist, "Just how long was that silence, anyway?" The group laughed. One of the women said she thought he (the conductor) had become stuck. Another commented that it was very unusual for an audience to remain that still, not just at the very end, but throughout the final movement. The trombonist estimated the final silence had been perhaps 10 sec (I was thinking maybe 7). I congratulated them, and we all went on our way.

I could think of nothing else on the long drive home. I realized that for the silence at the end, the audience had become performers along with the orchestra! We all helped to create that effect. And the differing sound quality at different seats caused by the acoustics of the hall no longer mattered. For the silence, all seats had exactly the same glorious sound.

The prophetic warning of the lecturer at the end of his talk was ringing in my ears.... "you will hear the most wonderful silence..."

I also thought about a letter he read from Mahler to Bruno Walter, about this work. He had said that through his music he was constantly finding new answers to all the questions that troubled him. But that with the final movement of the Ninth, there were no longer even any questions! (He completed the score in April of 1910. It was his last complete work. He died in May of the next year, with the 10th still unfinished).

It also reminded me of a Bob Dylan interview in March of 1985 in which he said: "Well, songs are just thoughts. For the moment they stop time. Songs are supposed to be heroic enough to give the illusion of stopping time, with just that thought."

And that's what we all did, we stopped time. All the turmoil, the constant jumble of thoughts, the goal seeking, motivation and it's problems; all of it, came to a stop in a giant now.

And then we gasped for air, and living resumed.

For me, these are the experiences that matter.




1 comment:

grahamR said...

Thanks for posting your blog. I found it when I typed 'the silence at the end of Mahler's Ninth' into a Google search.

I'm in my sixties and it was my first hearing of the work - on SBS, a free-to-air television station here in Australia, only a couple of nights ago. As the work unfolded I was particularly struck by the way the first and second movements just faded away. Then, whammo, the huge silence at the end.

The recording was of Claudio Abado conducting the Lucerne orchestra on the centenary of Mahler's death. In this performance there was also a huge silence (much longer than 10 seconds, something more like 30 to my recollection) that was, like in the performance you experienced, 'deliberately created by the conductor' in much the same way as yours.

And it was awesome.

And it was great to find your blog that described pretty well my own reaction to 'the most wonderful silence'.

My partner and I just sat there in our TV room for some time.

So a big thank you for sending your email and now posting it here.