Music is life and, like it, is inextinguishable

Seattle Symphony on November 14, 2015                                            

It felt strange going out in the stormy darkness to take the bus downtown to see the symphony. I was broody from listening to Adele and The Weeknd all day, and it was my first time going out among people since I’d heard the news about Paris the night before. I felt no silver-lining solidarity with Paris. I just felt confirmation that things are shitty and getting worse. I felt grateful to not have kids, and that morning I wrote a short letter to leave on my chest of drawers in case I die (I’m still most worried about getting mowed down in a crosswalk by a Seattle driver). “Don’t think of my retirement savings as crappy sadness money,” I wrote, “Have a little fun. See the grandkids more often. Take one of them to Europe.” Europe. I haven’t put a French flag filter over my Facebook profile picture. That’s tourist stuff. Everyone keeps talking about rich, sanitized, dewy, romantic comedy Paris. No one’s thinking about years and years of car fires, I guess. And who am I to talk—I’m thousands of miles away, I’m white and cozy and on my way to the symphony. But being in a concert hall with hundreds of strangers brought Paris home. We don’t think anyone is going to try to kill us while we enjoy music. Of course not. And then you try to imagine. Maybe a bomb this time. Maybe guns.

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Richard Schumann (written around 1894) – 16 minutes long

This piece is light and funny—a good mental relief. It’s about a guy who pulled a series of escapades: riding a horse through a crowded market, interrupting a church service, and peeing off a tall building. The music is so expressive, so undeniably cartoonish. I laughed out loud when a violin described the shower of piss. It made me realize that music didn’t just precede animated cartoons, it anticipated them. This music was a sixteen minute cartoon. It was so cartoonish down to its very soul that it needed no pictures to be a cartoon. That flipped everything on its head. Music isn’t the soundtrack to animated movies. The pictures are the embellishment of musical expression.

Another visual realization: My enjoyment of watching the symphony while listening live is also why I shut down sometimes. There is all this activity on stage, but other than the conductor’s informational dance or a special guest soloist, there is not individual stagecraft. People are seated wearing black, working together as a piece of a whole. But they are not pieces of a whole, they are individual human beings. And the visual clutter of their bows held at different angles and their music stands at different heights, and their feet on the floor is a flood of information that I don’t know how to ignore or what to do with. I imagine the orchestra as a cuttlefish propelling itself through the water, a complicated organism of grace and beauty. Then someone cuts the thing open and finds these nested semi-circles of flesh, bone, metal and wood—sawing away together but separately. I can’t tell if it’s too messy or not messy enough.

Bruch Violin Concerto ­– 24 minutes long

Henning Kraggerud is a cute Norwegian born in 1973, playing a concerto written in 1864-1868, on a violin made in 1744. That is an old violin! It was made by someone named Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesu, and it is owned by a Norwegian bank because c’mon. Regular people can’t own those things.

Kraggerud and conductor Thomas Dausgaard danced together in a very sparkly and twinkly manner throughout the whole concerto, and the 24 minutes flew by. And after Kraggerud would say something particularly dazzling with his violin, the orchestra would come crashing in with a response and he would stand there in front of them with his violin lowered, smiling as if he could feel the sound flowing around his body on its way out to the audience. And most times the orchestra’s answer was a form of booming celebration, like they were saying “You are a BEAST, Henning Kraggerud, we are eating you with a fucking SPOON right now, bro!” But this one time, the response came in so soft and yet so quietly full that I didn’t even think it could have been that symphony on that stage in front of me producing the sound. It was like someone left a window open, and we could hear strains coming from another symphony in a concert hall two blocks away.

Clapping is half the fun: At the symphony you have to sit still and be very quiet and have adult command over things like adult ADD and theater knee. So when you have a chance to make noise, it is good to be as joyous and expressive as possible. Toddlers know that clapping is a worthwhile activity in its own right, and this is the time to embrace your inner toddler. Also, it’s good to yell something because it helps drag the symphony audience demographic back from the brink of total death’s door, stick-up-the-ass Pacific Northwestern patricianism.

Kraggerud Encore: very lovable, folky, stripped-down duet written by Kraggerud, played with Seattle Symphony principal cellist Efe Baltacigil (I think—I don’t know all their names and he had more hair in his picture on the web site which has shaken my confidence in ID-ing him). Kraggerud was a head taller than Baltacigil and during the waves of applause that followed their duet, he kept dragging Baltacigil up off his chair by the arm and side-hugging him and beaming down at him.

Ugh, Intermission: Intermission can be such a drag. Good if you have to pee, but otherwise just a bunch of slow motion jostling, social awkwardness, and lost momentum. I sat in my seat re-reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte.

Carl Nielsen’s Inextinguishable – 36 minutes long

There is an intrinsic menace to anything that is thirty-six minutes long. Episodes of Sex and the City were about 36 minutes long, but you could check your email or eat pizza during them. You could cough with abandon. And there were pretty outfits to look at. I was not tempted to duck out at intermission and disappear into the night, though. I was into the idea of Inextinguishable.

Inextinguishable was written about 100 years ago, in Europe. Carl Nielsen began it as World War I was beginning and the war wasn’t over yet when he completed it a couple years later. The piece has all this rumbling and roaring of battle, but also this sinewy wistfulness of nature and beauty, just snaking along through it. It encompasses hope, fear, and inner turmoil. The quote in the program from Nielsen was “Music is life and, like it, is inextinguishable.” If anything could be some sort of catharsis for Paris, Beirut, Syria, and Iraq, it should be this. War and disaster and terror, but also this idea that music is life. And life is inextinguishable.

Life may be inextinguishable but so are my distracting thoughts at the symphony. There’s so much happening on stage, so much competing information. So many talented people being excellent before my very eyes. So many strains of melody and harmony. So much movement. My thoughts spiral out to things like expression, art, words, music, color—and the mundane and the lofty get all gnarled together. I’m thinking about the economics of being a professional musician in this town, and I’m wondering if they develop physical problems from repetition and practice. Also: do they develop crushes on each other, sleep together, and then do things get complicated? I’m still admiring moments and passages, but it seems like I can only catch 5% of what is going on in the music as it barrels past, especially since I’m also thinking about sex and what I need at the grocery store. How can I ever get my arms around this giant music thing happening before me?

(The climax.) Near the end of Inextinguishable, a solid-looking man gets up out of his chair in the audience and walks up the steps onto the stage. Michael Crusoe has already been in the back of the orchestra beating on the timpani all night, but there’s another set of kettle drums and now for the ending, this chunky guy who suddenly appeared is going to play them too. That’s already arresting, two timpanists thundering away—but the rest of the orchestra has merged into one rhythmic, screaming wave of sound. It’s not an array of different stimuli anymore, it’s just one all-consuming effect. Everything is going to hell, but we still have this. Finally, finally I’m not thinking about a dozen things at once, I’m just swallowed up in the music.

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