Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Meeting With Mahler

Last night I went on a grant-funded trip to the San Francisco Symphony - something I couldn't have imagined myself doing a year ago, much less enjoying. This was the first time I'd ever been to a symphony or to a large concert hall, although I think I once might have been dragged to a orchestral performance when I was little. (In which I sat, bored and frustrated and fidgety. Nothing about the actual orchestra stands out in my mind, only that sense of interior confinement and angst.)

Needless to say, this time was different. It's now been almost eleven months since I got my cochlear implant (how does the time go so fast?), and the sense of curiosity and bravery that I now have about trying new sound-oriented events is, I think, one of the best outcomes of that journey. Walking into the symphony, I did not worry about what artistic impression I would grasp or how I would sit through it for an hour and a half. I did not worry about being excluded. I just went, feeling eager and admittedly a little bit proud to be able to experience it with everybody else. When the music started, I leaned forward and watched - and, more importantly, listened - for a span of time that seemed to fly by but also hang suspended in the eternal expansion of a moment.

I regret to say that what I heard, I lack the vocabulary to describe. The language of music lies beyond every form of language that I've learned to use. All I can say is that I liked it, was borne aloft by it, even, although I cannot say why. The symphony in San Francisco was playing Mahler's Symphony No. 6, and as the first movement started I felt the usual sensations that I feel when trying to settle into a piece of complex music. I twiddled my CI volume, trying to get it exactly right as the notes settled into a whisper and then swelled, almost knocking me back into my seat with their sudden energy.

Volume set, I listened. Or tried to. My mind, as usual, got fidgety. My gaze roved about. I studied the people sitting in front of me, looked at the architecture and the patterns on the ceiling. I tried to count how many symphony players there were, to see when their instruments were coming in and out. I thought of the most off-topic, improbable things. It wasn't that I was bored, or that the symphony failed to hold my attention. It was that, once again, I'm simply not used to surrendering my thoughts to listening. My mind clings too strongly to the visual and the imaginative. It is too used to amusing itself when the auditory information of the world goes whizzing by. Anything to do with sound still feels foreign.

But, finally, about an hour into the symphony, I felt those old habits starting to loosen their grip. (I shake my head that it took that long.) The mental fidgeting stopped, and I relaxed into the music. It struck me that I was being transported to the fringes of a different state of consciousness, or of thinking, which was the same state of consciousness that the conductor and all the players must have existed in. The symphony seemed to draw collective breaths before my eyes (or ears!), to flow from one section to the next like a giant living thing. It exhausted me to think of playing an instrument for as long as they did; I thought of the physical precision, the mental sharpness of timing each note to merge with the rest. Yet the players kept going, tirelessly, the conductor breathing energy into their efforts like a bellows. I did not want it to end. It seemed that it never would or could.

When I stood up to applaud like the rest, I only wished I'd been able to summarize what I'd heard. But the symphony had taught me more about music than I'd known walking in the door: I now could pick out when various instruments came in, or slightly anticipate the feeling that linked one section to the next. I'd learned to have my interest piqued by auditory surprises (such as when someone rang a drum that looked like a large sledgehammer and made me jump). Most of all, I realized how much I enjoyed the (for lack of a better word) organic feel of this kind of performance. Not only did I enjoy listening - I also enjoyed watching, soaking in the atmosphere, being there. On the way back from San Francisco, when the people I was with turned on rock music in the car, it just wasn't the same.