From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Just Do It Over (2)—Mahler's Ninth Cellphony

[a] Symphonic RF
Everyone has heard of the Ninth Symphony, right? For over an hour, it teems with energy, and even the adagio is muscular and roomy. And that is before the symphony explodes into choral audacity with the Ode to Joy. My, my. It is so riveting that concerts all over the world have it on the program. In Japan, it is downright de rigueur to sing it (the audience booming along with the choir) at major events, and especially in the month of December.

Well, the other night in New York's Avery Fisher Hall, a cellphone rang (and rang and rang) during the last movement of the Ninth. A distinctive marimba tone cascaded from the front of the audience. If you know "the Ninth," you might ask yourself what was the big deal—other than acute rudeness that is beyond the pale and irritates everyone? Who could have heard it over all of those choral excitations?
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[b] The Ninth RF
No, no. It was not that Ninth Symphony. We are not talking about Beethoven here (well, yes, I guess I was, in order to enjoy my little two-paragraph game-playing). 

No, the New York Philharmonic was playing one of the most exquisite final movements in all of symphonic music—the end of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Mahler's Ninth is held together by brilliant threads of harmony, diaphony, polyphony, and even the most exquisite of delicate mini-soliloquies (yes, this is personal, musical emotional-talk—I am not "speaking symphony" here). Audiences hush when they listen, leaning forward, luxuriating in the very subtlety of it all. I hold my breath even when I am home listening to the CD on the couch with the cats. This Ninth Symphony is not your grand-Beethoven's Ninth. Just listen to a bit of the final movement. 

Now that's adagio. Imagine, if you will, the incessant chirping of the following tone as you try to listen. Check it out at about 4:00, if you can, and then contrast the chime below. 

[c] Rodin's Mahler RF
Subtle, graceful, and even ethereal as Mahler's sensitive ending is, the IPhone can crush it in a moment, distracting even the most tolerant listener in the audience. People started looking around, reaching into their pockets to make sure that their devices were off. It continued...and continued. Here is what the New York Times reported on Wednesday and editorialized on Thursday.

And this is where it gets really interesting. The conductor stopped the symphony in mid-movement. He stopped. He put down his baton and stopped. Chopin, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov...that's audacious. The culprit finally recognized his role in the cacophony (another story for the end of this post), and turned off the phone, soaking in the jeers (shouted and glared) of audience, players, and conductor. 

And then they did it over.

Yup, they started the fourth movement again, and plied its delicate threads for the better part of a half-hour. All was (eventually) right with the world. Rather than pound through the distraction—as conductor Alan Gilbert noted, this would be preposterous with Mahler's delicate Ninth—he stopped (almost unheard of), corrected the "error," and just did it over.

[d] Conduct RF
What a concept—starting over and getting it right. It works...some of the time. This series of posts will consider when it doesn't work, too (Chinese calligraphy, in particular). It's also an interesting hypothetical question as to whether a conductor would stop at the end of the other (louder) Ninth Symphony. To what extent is personal pique involved? To what extent is it a product of the particular set of historical contingencies at work (Mahler's adagio, the phone mixing with its quietude, the conductor's personality, and so forth)?

History is fun; culture is even funner.

For me, the contingent merging of social and individual reactions is the most interesting part of the story. There is also an historiographical and political lesson packed into this story. Vilification is (almost) never as simple as it sounds. Take a read of the follow-up article in the New York Times. I almost (...almost) started to feel sorry for the guy.

We may look for him again on Round and Square under the topic Annals of Ostracism.
[e] Turnoff RF

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