Friday, June 17, 2011

Learning How to Listen

One thing leads to another ...

Coming as I do from a home in which classical music was always prominent, with both of my parents playing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Grieg on the solid upright piano in the living room, it's not surprising that I have grown into an avid collector and appreciator of such music. What's got me stumped is how it could possibly have taken me so long to get around to one of the most monumental composers of the last century and a half.

Granted, it takes time for musical tastes to mature. It was not until my teens that I started making my own selections of what to listen to and forming my own collection of recordings. As I recall I began with Gershwin, having got there through jazz, then moved on to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the Romantics being among the most accessible.

Then my interest in learning to play the recorder sent me on a musical odyssey through the middle ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. There I crashed head first into Johann Sebastian Bach and fell down on my knees, awestruck -- a condition that continues to this day.

Once so afflicted, a person is probably doomed to move on to all the other gods in this pantheon of human achievement. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Telemann, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Stravinsky, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bernstein ... all these and more came crowding around me, demanding to be heard. They all got their chance, and I was seldom disappointed. I even tried some things that are darn hard to like, such as the clinically atonal works of Schoenberg and Berg, which sort of feels like wandering in a surreal desert. And as a technology buff I collected examples of the new art of electronic music way back before modern synthesizers had been invented.

It wasn't until recently, while trying to round out my collection through eMusic, that I ran into a speed bump by the name of Dmitri Shostakovitch. I already owned the set of 24 preludes and fugues -- one in every possible key -- that the 20th century Russian had been the first to attempt since the time of good old Bach (who did it not once but twice). But, suddenly appalled that I knew nothing about his 15 symphonies, I set out to listen to them all.

I was puzzled to find how impenetrable they seemed. Words like ponderous, harsh, chaotic, directionless, and unmelodic came to mind. I remember thinking, "This sounds like something enormous is being hauled by a cast of thousands tugging on ropes into a giant public space -- like maybe Red Square in Moscow."

It took a few more months, but I finally found out what my problem was. I had skipped someone. Someone important. Someone whose work both anticipated and laid the groundwork for those who came after. Someone in whose work lay the key to understanding.

That someone was Gustav Mahler. My curiosity about him had been piqued by an upcoming performance of the New World Symphony with the redoubtable Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. I was pleased to find that all of his recent recordings of Mahler with the San Francisco Symphony were available at eMusic, so I grabbed them all and started to absorb them.

It's hard to describe what an unexpected pleasure this was. Imagine going through your whole life in ignorance of Beethoven, and then suddenly discovering what you'd been missing. I had no idea that at this stage of my life there were any more such pleasant surprises to be found, but here it was.

I loaded them all onto my phone and started listening to them one after the other as I made my way to and from work each day. They became like a single huge opus divided up into chapters and books, one continuous stream of invention. This is a good analogy, because Mahler's music is literary, a composition consisting of long sentences and paragraphs that take their time to fully explore each idea. And absorbing them all is like working your way through a multi-volume set of novels, such as Patric O'Brian's seafaring yarns or Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

Moody doesn't say half say it. These things wallow in mood. And there are wonderful recurring devices such as the dying crescendo -- kind of like saying "TA-DAAaaaa-ohhhh wait a minute I didn't mean to sound so positive about it ..." There is no excitement that can't be moderated, no sadness that may not turn triumphant, no exaltation that does not turn frenetic and threaten to self-destruct.

You can't help thinking of film music, because several generations of movie composers from Bernard Herman to John Williams have sat at Mahler's knee, learning from the master how to push the emotional buttons of their audiences on demand. But if you follow the rest of 20th century music you will also hear shades of Prokofiev, Aaron Copeland, even Bernstein ... and Dimitri Shostakovitch.

Fortified by my months-long immersion in pools of Mahler I ventured into Shostakovitch again, and this time found him readily accessible. Mahler had shown me how to listen and left me wanting more. The saga continued, as it has for centuries, as the thread was picked up by a new voice. Lead on.