Mar 3, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

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, 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.


meno said...

Do you get any good drugs for your back? It's still not worth it, but it might help a little.

Irrelephant said...

Didn't do the doctor thing, this has been ongoing for a long time. I do have some Percocet left over from my surgery way back when that I'll use tonight. Honestly I'd make a rotten drug abuser--I dislike and distrust most meds but I need some recouperative sleep tonite.

Jean said...

That was fabulous!
The overwhelming emotion was... was... FEELABLE.
I truly wish I could write like you do.

and, I truly wish your back stops hurting right now! poor man.

Eric Shonkwiler said...

Have had similar feelings about music, lately. I haven't gotten into classical like I should, something about needing to hear and understand someone singing, I think. Wonderful descriptions. A pleasure to read.

Irrelephant said...

Jean, I have no doubt you could, you've got tremendous talent. Reading back on this one I see how disjointed it is, caused by me not being able to focus properly for long, but then too that lack of focus let me just...pour it all out. No holding back, no self-censorship. I think that's a big part of it--simply not holding back. Tap into that raw current that runs in your mind and let the devil take the hindmost.

Failing that you can always arrange some way to hurt your back and write then, but, and trust me on this one, use that option as the LAST resort. *g*

Eric, I'm honestly not into opera or much vocal classical music, tho the occasional piece in French or German can move me as strongly as just the music. I've often found vocals too distracting, but we all find our way in, right? I'm glad you enjoyed the post. It was...cathartic...for me, especially through the pain.

Nancy Dancehall said...

I absolutely love the way you write about music. I felt like I was sitting there on the couch listening to it too. 'Pictures' is a good one for synesthesia.

I'm sorry to hear about your back (L3 and L4...lots of back injuries there). Take that Percocet and get some rest.

Clowncar said...

That is a wonderfully written description. All I've heard is the goofy Emerson Lake and Palmer version. I promise to hunt down the real one.

As for your assertion that no piece of music tells such a clear story to a listener, I disagree. What about "The Farmer In the Dell?" Clear story, simply told. And the haunting ambiguity of the ending. Because, ultimately, the cheese really does stand alone.

Vulgar Wizard said...

Well, hello Eric Shonkwiler *growl* . . . looks like a Kenny Chesney profile there, hope that's not an insult.

Alright, I'll move on to THIS blog . . . I think that I know what some of the underlying feelings were regarding weeping, but I digress.

Gordo said...

Music is an incredible drug to the body and soul. I had the great fortune to have a father who played in the local symphony and taught high school music. Our house was full of it as a kid. We got to hear the symphony more times than I can count and I'm convinced that my brother and I are much better adults for it.

Now, as to premium speaker cables: beware of snake oil. James Randi offered his million dollar prize to anyone who could prove that Pear's Anjou cables (&7250 for 12 feet) are better than Monster's. Of course, Monster's may not actually be any better than coat hangers, either. ;-)

Mona Buonanotte said...

Mozart leaves me weak in the knees. And slightly damp.

Hope you get some good drugs, man, I think I have some old Vicodin you can have....

Irrelephant said...

Thank you, Nancy. *s* Writing about music seems to me to be like dancing about football...almost impossible. I'm glad I could do it justice.

Clowncar, I saw that listed in the wiki article, but haven't heard it. From the sound of your tone I think I'll skip it. *lol* As for The Farmer In The Dell, you really are on to something there, aren't you? Not sure WHAT you're on, but you're on it all right..

VW, you're a goof and you know it. *g*

Gordo, you are very lucky to have had that exposure. Mine had to come through the radio, but I'm still loving it. As for the cables, well, I went to the same level as Monster but could go no farther. Nice fat copper speaker wires, shielded cabling and that's it, end of story for me. I'm not THAT much of a critical listener to be able to tell the difference, but the day I can afford to buy a pair of Krell monoblock amps I'll give you a holler. *G*

Heh! Mona, I'm wondering what DOESN'T turn your crank, dear! As for the meds...whoo. No, you keep those. Read the next entry and you'll see why they scare me even more now.

Roight, back to bed.