Friday, March 14, 2008

Laid bare in the deep midnight

I'm up far too late for a school night, alight with a fire I haven't felt in a very long time. Against my usual habit as a recovering insomniac, I was doing some late-night listening in preparation for tomorrow's lecture on Mahler's 3rd, with accompanying digressions into Klimt and, Unnamed Deity help me, a bit of Nietzsche. I'd intended to just brush up some ideas about the Midnight Song movement, I ended up going right through the last half of the symphony.

And I am broken by it. Shattered. Wrecked.

Some unseen force has been holding me back from working on my thesis. Inertia? Fear? Who knows? But struggling under the weight of teaching this massive topic, all the details, the amount of history nobody can hope to master in a single semester, and at the end of my degree no less, I think I'd lost sight of why I wanted to do it in the first place. But listening to the close of that radiant Adagio movement, I find myself brought full circle by the sheer humanity of Mahler's utterance, reminded why I wanted to be a composer in the first place: in the hope of being able to touch people the way he did, to someday make that kind of contact with a listener, be it someone known to me or not. Beyond the biographical minutiae, the politics surrounding Mahler's life and music, the analysis of his character and ample personal flaws, the raging egotism, behind all that there's a soul so great, so all-embracing, harboring a love of the world so vast that he couldn't contain it, had to let it out in such a glorious effusion. For me, such music stands as a gauntlet thrown down, a line drawn in the sand for all who dare participate in this art form, as if Mahler were saying, "I dare you, double dare you, triple dog dare you to give so much of yourself."

A century on, I'm not naïve enough to think that one can return to that language and hope to find it fresh. Much as I'm a fan of George Rochberg's music, the slow movement of the 3rd Quartet is a look back, not forward, and as such doesn't register with the same emotional force as Mahler's Adagio. And yet, I'm forced to wonder if, over the course of the last hundred years, we as composers have abdicated a significant part of our emotional palette to whatever technical and aesthetic ideologies grabbed our attention. Is it still possible to express oneself in such direct emotional terms, with utter sincerity, without sounding bombastic, nostalgic or merely empty? I hope so, because if I should ever manage to write something so monumentally touching as the end of Mahler's 3rd, I'd consider my life's work done, and done well.

And now, to bed.

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