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Christopher Woods

What Music Can Mean

Where I am, it is late night. Looking out my window, I can see into an area of dark space partially illuminated by a streetlight. Living in a city as I do, I miss the stars, how great luminescent clusters of them seem to form hazy white clouds across the night sky. Where I am, in a city where it is never quite dark, only the brightest stars appear. The rest are still there, but they have become more a matter of memory than anything else.

I close my eyes and listen to the wind, how it blows the leaves on the tree outside my window. The limbs from the tree, a mimosa, scratch at the glass. Listening to this sound, I begin to wonder what that particular scratching rhythm would be like if the world should come to an end. I wonder what would happen then, if the wind would blow at all, and if it did, how it would sound with no one there to hear it, to listen for it.

And what would happen to music. Music is such a part of us, I canít imagine it going on without us. Music exists because we willed it so. Yes, there is music in nature, but I am thinking of the music created by humans. I am certain we could not get along very well without it. What is striking about our relationship with music, our dependence on it, is how varied our individual responses are to it. Music is perceived differently by each of us, dictated by the inner rules of our individual aural worlds.

For instance, we can agree how very much we both like a given song, but neither of us can be sure just what song it is that we are hearing. Title, lyric, rhythm, tone, and movement are solid things that are, for the most part, easily discussed and not often disputed. It is not the same with meaning. Is the meaning of my liking a song the same as yours, and, if it is, what are the chances that our two levels of individual appreciation will be precisely alike? If we should agree that we both dislike a particular piece, we can discuss our shared sentiments. But we can never be exactly sure why.

I thought about these things not long ago while re-reading an older book by Lewis Thomas called Late Night Thoughts On Listening To Mahlerís Ninth Symphony. This is a collection of essays on science and biology, with a decidedly philosophical tone, by a man who is both a writer and a doctor.

We come to read certain books in various ways. I originally picked up this book because I liked the music of Gustav Mahler. And I imagined, rightly as it turns out, that the author liked Mahler as well. It was the title essay that had the greatest impact on me. In the essay, Thomas says he can no longer listen to Mahlerís Ninth Symphony with the same oddly human comprehension of pleasure and melancholy as he did when he was younger.

While the symphony is a perceptive acknowledgment of death, it is also a celebration. Death is a tranquil ritual in the ultimate rite of passage, and Mahler has captured it. Always before, Thomas had heard the Ninth Symphony as a lone listener, hearing it subjectively in a private, even confessional frame of reference. Now, according to Thomas, that is no longer the case.

Now, when he listens to that particular symphony, it is with a universal ear. He hears death, of all things now alive. The difference in his two very different aural and intellectual interpretations, he asserts, is because of his personal sense of nuclear war. Our common fate, Thomas thinks, seems poised, ready to explode.

There is a disparity in this. Obviously Mahlerís Ninth has not changed, but Thomas concludes that his own perception has, with time and heightened awareness, with the sad knowledge that the world could be in danger of ending. This comes from living in a world that, no matter what, cannot quite shake the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki . His despair comes from private knowledge, but it encompasses us all.

This book is older, as I said. It does not mention global warming. Thomas fears nuclear annihilation, but he was writing during the Cold War. If he could add another chapter, he might also write about the threat of rogue nations and groups with access to nuclear warheads. Maybe the destruction from these newer threats would be more selective, destroying one people at a time, but as I also said, Mahlerís Ninth has not changed. We have.

If true despair comes, to one country or many, if it affects us all and there is no hope of it going away, it will be because our collective knowledge of the past has come to mean a form of prelude. Something else will happen, we might think, something even worse. It could happen, any day. It might happen, and so on. There is enough fear to go around. Each of us can hold a piece of it in our hands.

The old WWII generation, ďThe Greatest GenerationĒ it has been called, is leaving us. They saw that their lives were changing, passing into a new and dangerous dimension. Not knowing what to do about it, and sensing the fragility of time, they were ready to pass on the torch. My generation accepted it. We were raised to know that life was a series of changes, some good, some not, and a few nothing other than heinous. In the case of nuclear knowledge, the change was terrible. Since then new elements have been added to our knowledge.

The duty of my own generation, as it has been with each in the past, is to continue, in all kinds of weather and music. But we are different than those who came before. We have been marked by the nuclear knowledge. We have been hampered by what we know. It is in this way that life itself can hamper the living.

James Baldwin, the American author, wrote that his birthright was vast, connecting him to everything that lived, to everyone, forever. He was right. He spoke the truth. But he added, even more truthfully, that he could not claim his birthright without accepting the inheritance. He may have been speaking of skin color, but in a dark time the tint of oneís skin matters less than perhaps it once did.

Baldwin also said that he was what time, circumstance, and history had made of him. This can surely be said of us all. When I listen to Mahlerís Ninth, I feel a connection to everyone else. The symphony itself is almost a century old, and it has new meanings for each generation. The somber nature of the piece seems to describe a world that does not think enough of itself to want to continue. But it also describes hope. How can one listen to the final movement without hearing the desperate longing for one final fling at hope? Or hear the very human acceptance of such a thing as eternal silence?

When I listen to Mahlerís Ninth, I take a musical journey into the idea of death. My own life and eventual death can only be enriched by taking the journey. Ironically, Mahler did not live to hear the first performance of his symphony. Yet he knew that, like all art, music is an affirmation of life, no matter our condition.

©2006 by Christopher Woods

Christopher Woods is the author of a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky, and a collection of stage monologues for actors, Heart Speak. His play, Moonbirds, about doomed census takers in a desert country, was produced in New York by Personal Space Theatrics. His play, Interim, about souls in Purgatory, will be produced in England in the Spring. He lives in Houston and in Chappell Hill, Texas.

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