It's been a weekend, kids. A weekend driven by caffeine and McFood and dog breath and adrenaline. In short, I was out of town at a dog show.
Now before you guys shut down or reopen your bookmarks list to go somewhere else, let it be known that I'm not going to talk about it. At least not today. It was a memorable time but...not right now. You see, I'm in pain. Too many hours standing on concrete floors mixed with too many hours in the car and a good-sized dollop of support-free motel room bed combined to make my L3 and L4 vertebrae decide that there's no need for that pesky bit of squishy cartilage in the way, they by gosh by gum need to meet! My back, friends and neighbors, is killing me. Pinched nerve. Muy pain.
So, I'm not going to gripe about a whole day off work I took to recover and catch up from the weekend that's been shot to hell by my poor health. I'm not going to lament the fact that I'm hurting so bad that I could scream aloud and would if it'd make my back feel any better. Heck, I'd eat a live rat ass-first without mustard if I thought it'd help. No, I'm going to apply some more Tiger Balm, resettle the pillow stuffed in the curve of my spine betwixt me and the chair and I'm going to tell you about classical music.
Back in the day a Russian composer by the name of Modest Mussorgsky wrote a fairly simple piece of piano music he called "Pictures At An Exhibition." It's subtitle is "In Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann" and it's fast becoming one of my top three favourite pieces of classical music*. Long story short, Mussorgsky lost a dear friend of his at the age of 39; Viktor Hoffmann, an architect and artist. To pay hommage to his lost beloved friend Mussorgsky wrote ten pieces of piano music that described his walking through an exhibition of his friend Hartmann's works. Ten pieces of music that can rip my heart out and send it soaring into the heavens on it's notes.
Now, the piece originally was written for solo piano, and as such it's a spare, haunting work. You can FEEL Mussorgsky walking through the exhibition hall through the piece of music that links the vignettes- "Promenade." At times it's jaunty, at times slow, and toward the end of the music it actually becomes part of the 'pictures' in a sort of grand, exquisite celebration. You can see the tone of each painting, can sense the reaction. Being classical music it's been reworked many times, but specifically there's a variation that Maurice Ravel (yes, THAT Ravel, he of Bolero) wrote for full orchestra in 1922 that, while not complete to the original is still utterly astounding.
Being stuck at home with no hope of venturing outside for fear of ending up curled up in a painful ball on the ground I turned on NPR and started surfing blogs, playing catch-up. Performance Today was on, and Fred Child introduced "Pictures" and I perked right up and hobbled myself into the living room.
(A brief aside, please bear with me. It actually does have something to do with the subject and not much to do with the painkillers I'm on.)
Critical Listening. When I was selling home theater systems and mid- to high-end audio systems (in that price range they're not 'stereos' anymore) my boss taught me about critical listening. That's when you have the audio setup just right and you sit in the sweet spot and you really LISTEN. If the recording is well-engineered and the artists are particular about their recording, in short if it's Done Right a CD or an LP can sound awfully like real live music, which is the whole point of recorded music. He taught me that good speakers and good recordings and good speaker wires and a good CD player can all combine to put Jewel about six feet in front of you, playing her guitar and singing in that sweet, clear voice of hers. It can array Dire Straits around your living room, each performer seeming to appear in his own 'space' in the sound field and stick Mark Knopfler right in front of you. It can turn Track 1 of Mike Oldfield's landmark album "Tubular Bells" into the most hypnotizing twenty-three minute trip you can have without heavily controlled pharmaceuticals or a sharp blow to the back of your head.
So, I know how to listen, and I know how to let go, let the music wash over me and drag me out to sea without a single struggle, there to toss me or rock me to sleep or do whatever the water wants to do with me. I like it like that.
This morning found me, hunched over to one side and shuffling hurridly to the couch, to the sweet spot. I closed my eyes, turned the volume up, and through all the hissing and popping and creaking of public radio and FM broadcast I heard the clear bright horns, the mournful sigh of violins in their woman's voices and even the quiet rushed rustle of pages of music being turned. I was carried utterly away.
I could feel...hell, I WAS Mussorgsky, walking through this massive, grandiose art museum. I was there, standing in front of "The Great Gates of Kiev." I walked some more and was looking with delighted curiousity at "Gnomus." I laughed to see the unhatched chicks dance, their little legs sticking out of their shells. I shied from the horrific sight of the Baba Yaga's hut, and I watched with somber reflection the ox-drawn cart in the street. I could SEE the art, could see Mussorgsky himself seeing them, as though I stood just behind him, as though I could see the scenes themselves played out for me.
I don't know that there is a piece of music in existence that tells such a story in such clear terms to a listener. There's no studious reflection, no searching up critics with dozens of years of musicology behind them to explain to me what I'm hearing: I can SEE it, as clearly as if my eyes were open and I were trying to elbow Modest out of the way so I could get a closer look at Catacombae, wanting to peer urgently into the empty eyesockets of the softly-glowing skulls therein and see reflected my own mortality staring back.
I wept this morning listening to that music, listening to Sir Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic**. I know the pain has done a lot to bring my emotions up and my barriers low, but I know too that such a skilled composer with such feeling in him for his friend can reach out through his music, through the span of one hundred and twenty five years and make me ache the way he was when he first put notes on parchment.
* One of the others is Beethoven's Piano Sonata #14, "Moonlight." If you're curious about "Pictures..." you can download several variations, both partial and complete by various artists for free at ClassicalCat.net, my all-time favourite site for finding free performances of classical music for download.
** You can listen to this performance at the PT website for a week - just follow the archives to March 3rd's first hour.