by Nathan Cornelius
I love listening to the music of Gustav Mahler for his colorful use of the orchestra and skillful use of counterpoint. At any given moment, there are usually more things going on than I can pay attention to at once, yet everything seems to cohere into a grand and monumental sound object. This was certainly the case at a recent performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony I attended. Indeed, spending an hour-and-a-half five rows back from a hundred-piece orchestra can be an overwhelming sensory experience. So it was strange that the most profound moment I experienced listening to the piece came when hardly anything was happening.
Unlike most symphonies, Mahler’s 9th ends not with a grand finale but with a lyrical, passionate, and expansive slow movement. (This movement is famously known as Mahler’s farewell to life, since the 9th was the last work he completed, but that’s another story…) Sentimental epithets aside, the music does carry a certain sense of unfulfilled longing, and each time it builds to a climax, it abruptly drops away to a single note just at the moment one would expect it to resolve. These “anticlimactic” notes are played softly, sustained by one of the strings, in contrast to the lush orchestration Mahler uses elsewhere in the piece. At the last major climax, about two-thirds of the way through the movement, the texture once again thins to a single note, but this time it is a high C-flat, played fortissimo by all of the violins, and held for more than two measures.
To play a note so loud and long, the violins must use the whole length of the bow several times, as Mahler indicates in the score. They generally also try to stagger their changes of bow direction to keep the note from sounding like several short notes in a row. Furthermore, with this much pressure on the bow, the bow change creates a brief crunching, scuffing noise as the hairs grind against the string. This, of course, happens anytime a violinist plays loudly, but we are normally not consciously aware of it, simply perceiving it as a component of “the sound of a violin playing loudly.”
As the intense C-flat stretched on and on, I became increasingly aware of this chorus of bow noises as one violinist after another reversed direction. Surprisingly, the note itself seemed to recede from my perception as I concentrated more and more on the noises. Instead of the note being foreground and the noise being background, the sound flipped inside-out so that the noise was foreground and the note background. By the end, I could almost imagine myself surrounded by a deep silence, broken only by the chorus of little scuffs, even though I knew I was in fact listening to twenty-odd violinists sawing away at full blast. The only other listening experience I’ve had anything like it is listening to the combination tones that arise from an intense sound of rapidly oscillating pitch in a resonant hall, such as a soprano singing a high note, a clarinet playing a rapid tremolo, or (most remarkably) a marimba sustaining closely spaced chords.
This curious experience suggested to me several principles about musical listening. First, music conveys information to us by the very act of changing or evolving over time. If a sound were completely static, we would cease to notice it after a while. Our consciousness quickly gravitates toward any new stimulus and thus away from an ongoing, unchanging stimulus. When we listen to a new piece, everything seems unfamiliar and thus clamors for our concentration. If the piece contains too much musical information, the effect can be overwhelming on the listener. However, once we become used to the sounds we are hearing, we begin to notice more subtle variations or changes within them and soon forget how bold and brash they seemed before. Thus, I was only able to pay attention to the bow changes when the note C-flat had sounded for so long that it ceased to register as a new stimulus to my hearing.
Second, careful listening makes you aware of components of the sound you don’t normally notice, and careful composers can help listeners become aware of components of the sound they don’t normally notice. This can be as radical as, in my case, listening to the production noise while ignoring the subsequent note, executing a sort of figure-ground reversal, but it can be much more subtle as well. In keeping with the previous principle, composers must also be careful not to include so many musical events in their work that listeners are never able to attend to all the incoming stimuli being thrown at them and thus never attain this level of hearing. Sometimes a long note—or a long silence—can work wonders to help the ear process what it has just heard and focus its concentration on what comes next.
Finally, it takes a long time to reach this state of awareness. With the vast array of stimuli around us, it is hard to devote our attention solely to what we’re experiencing in the present moment. Even when we do listen, it is usually not at this intimate level of detail, and it’s not possible to simply flip a switch and instantly become attuned to the nuances of a sound. Instead, we have to gradually soak deeper into the sound and let our inner ears open wider, like a fern unfurling its fronds. Indeed, I spent much of the first movement of the Mahler distracted by something that had happened on the way to the concert. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this magical moment struck me only after more than an hour of concentrating on the music. I think this is also why, when the final strains of music faded away and the audience waited for an incredibly drawn-out half-minute before anyone dared applaud, the silence seemed the sweetest sound I’d heard all day.